Not Just Another Bright Idea by Martin Sims
So you've finally worked on your fretless playing long enough that you think you might be ready to take it on stage with you tonight. Of course your trusty fretted sits at attention in a nearby guitar stand for support. Just in case.
It really looks like you just might be able to pull it off tonight though. Tons of hours of rehearsal, and just to be sure you've bought one of the fretless basses that has a thin line of white going through the neck as
position markers for the notes.
You call them Ďtraining wheelsí, but they work. Fretless is a beautiful instrument, but it can be unforgiving. A sixteenth of an inch out and the whole band sounds like their drunk.
The lights go down, the audience hushes and you hear the drummer counting inÖYouíve checked out your starting position so you are fine and ready to go.
And this is the point where it all falls apart.
What you did not take into account where those three 500 watt red lights pointed directly at you and your bass. You look down and all you can see is the smooth unbroken neck of a fretless. Beautiful and absolutely foreign country. The lines have disappeared. And it is at this time that you realize that not only do you have no idea where you are on the fretboard, you also have no idea as to where to go. You do know you want to go home and lie under your bed. Needless to say the fretted is in your hands in about 15 seconds and you are earning dirty and puzzled looks from your band buddies.
So ends your foray into fretless bass playing. Or does it have to be?
The story mentioned above has happened to all of us that have ventured into the wonderful world of fretless. I have even had difficulties on some stages with a fretted bass when the follow spot is roasting your head and you have more lights aimed at you than a bank robber. You canít see a thing and all you want is a glass of water or your mommy.
It took someone like Martin Sims, owner of SIMs LED in England to come up with a solution for this all too common problem. And he has done it in such a way that he not only solves the problem, he manages to make an artistic statement at the same time. A perfect balance between function and form.
Martin Sims: The reason we started the business was that we had been rehearsing in a band and we had been doing kinda okay. I had built a bass, my own, and I didnít want place markers on the neck. I wanted those little brass edge markers.
We had been rehearsing and were getting kinda good. We got a new guitarist at the time, a young guy, he was around 16 at the time, and he was the singer too. He was absolutely incredible! Because of this guy we soon got some larger gigs. 250 to 300 seaters.
Of course with that came the lighting rigs. So we were at the first larger gig and the spot light came across the stage and cast a shadow across the bass guitar. I was playing completely blind. Iím not the type of player that needs those markers every five minutes of the day, but at the key changes or the start of the songs I do. The frets were glinting off as well.
So thatís when I went to a bass center and said, ďWell, what can we do?í. They came up with some wacky suggestions, globs of paint, stickers, globs of Tippex and other weird and wonderful things, but none of what they came up with was what I wanted.
I saw a Warwick there and noticed that it had a switch on it. So I flipped the switch and of course the Ledís came on. That was it.
GB: Now I know you have to guard trade secrets so you canít be going into telling how you do this or you will have 9 other people doing it by the end of this sentence!
Martin: Well obviously I am not a magician or anything like that, itís basically a case that when I first went to those bass people they said, ďYeah we can do it for you, but weíre gonna have to take the fingerboard off!Ē
I was really tempted to do that but I had the neck just how I wanted it. The feel of it and everything else, so I realized I didnít want to have that done. I thought naively that they would have a little box up there with LEDís in it and they would just give you this box and away you would go. That of course wasnít the case!
So eventually I devised a way of doing it that has been refined and re-refined over the years. We do a lot of stuff which is brand new. We might get a Yamaha brand new from their Custom Shop. These things are completely immaculate. They look like they have been vacuum packed.
So we had to go in there, do the work and send it back so it looks as if it had never been touched. Certain amounts of the process which are reasonably straight forward, a person could take off our basses, break it down and figure out about 30 % of what we do. The other 60 to 70% , the little tricks, the little shortcuts, the things that we that are learning as part of the learning curve. It was a hell of a learning curve! I canít think of how many times I thought, this just isnít gonna happen!
Every time we would beat a problem another one would crop up.
GB: You and I both know that a large part of selling a product or an idea is getting the prospect, the potential customer, to emoteÖto get them excited and thinking with their feelings. All decisions to buy are ultimately made from the position of emotions. These Luminescent markers are stunning. The web site literally leaps out at you. I even find myself sold. Are the actual necks as luminescent as the photos on the website portray?
I find they are better. The worst thing is trying to photograph them on print, printing onto white paper, so the brightest you can get is only white. With a screen it helps a certain amount but when you hold one live, thatís the biggest impact. The impact never comes across as high as it is live, especially with the magnifiers, they add a certain sparkle to it.
GB: So the claim is that these lenses emit up to 96% of the light put into them. For all intents and purposes, no filter in the way at all of the light source.
Martin: They are made of a completely clear material, but we didnít want people to be able to see through into the actual LED hole. So what we did was devise a lens that had lots of little ring curves underneath. You canít see in but it allows the light out. I wanted something to look a little more finished than just putting an LED in there and shaving off the top.
GB: Am I correct in saying that you are also able to put a pearl or a brass surround around the LED?
Thereís many different choices. The standard installation is a Pearl Inlay using a normal Fender sized dot, which we have made out of our own material. We go from 3/16th for Warwicks to the 3/8th for the Music Man and everything else.
For the Magnifiers, because of the expense of tooling, weíve only got two sizes. We have the 3/16th and the 7 millimeter which is just over a quarter inch round.
GB: Now you have been at this for around 5 to 7 years, correct?
Martin: Yeah, we started seriously in `94.
GB: This is a growing business that is doing well?
Martin: Yeah, we have grown every single year. People talk about niche markets but this is one hell of a niche market here!
GB: So in actuality, this upgrade is not really for the person who owns a 3 or 4 hundred dollar bass. This is more for the artist that has ventured into the high end or boutique bass. People that are willing to invest in a bit of uniqueness and in turn own that bass for a long time.
Martin: Our whole process is about providing someone with something special that they canít get off the rack. The whole reason for this is that it is special. It must remain special in order for it to remain a viable product. If someone where to start knocking them out in $100 basses, then forget it.
GB: And imagine the level of workmanship!
Martin: Our whole system is built around people who know what they want, aimed at those kinds of people. People that donít care that much wonít want to spend any money.
Because itís such a hands-on thing, such a labour intensive thing, itís not a cheap thing.
I am not ashamed of our prices. We get emails from people saying ďBoy, these things are expensive, when can you bring your prices down?Ē. I sort of wonder what it is that they were expecting to pay. All I do is email them back and say, ďBoy, these things are fantastic!Ē
The thing is here that every guitar is done here on a strictly custom basis. There is no room for screw-ups. You are given a guitar that is already laquered. There is so little room to make any error.
GB: You actually have it so that people can have a laser version of their signature placed on the bass?
Martin: Weíve got our own laser cutter now, so people can fax us or email us a signature or any artwork at all and then we scan that artwork here and the laser will cut it out. With a signature we engrave with the laser and fill that with a black polyester, so what you have is a pearl block with what would look like black writing on it, but it is actually filled with polyester. And then when you turn them on, the polyester is opaque so you canít see through it. You see the surrounding and the signature.
GB: Do you find yourselves being very aware of where science is going with this technology?
Sure, see LEDís are now becoming more powerful, they are even talking about using LEDís for car headlights. Because of their reliability, their ultra-bright versions and huge LED clusters. The main things that manufacturers want to use them for because they are so reliable, is for car dashboards.
I find Iíve gotta keep ahead of anything that is happening in any of the custom markets. One market that is really good is the custom car market, because people tend to use a lot of fancy stuff with the modern type of custom car. With the sound systems they are also putting in some really nice lighting systems. That kind of stuff all sparks off ideas for me. We have to be continuely thinking up new ideas. We canít just sit back on our laurels and just do the LED stuff. Thatís why we have ventured into the lasers stuff too. We are now doing a lot of headstock logos too.
GB: Youíve also got laser cartridges built into the headstock!
We started doing that with Billy Sheehan, weíve done a couple before for a band in England, weíd already started adding them to drums sticks so it was a natural thing to put them into the headstock. Weíve also got some new stuff that we are developing like laser strings. Thereís loads of stuff ahead.
GB: So up to 2/3rds of your customers opt for both the top and the side markers.
Martin: Itís one of the those things where youíre in for a penny, in for a pound. Iíve always had this expressionÖif youíre gonna be a bear, be a grizzly! The whole thing with showmanship and Rock `n Roll as it stands now is that people have progressed with the sounds and the PAís onstage, well now it seems that the lighting and the whole stage presence thing, the whole show or theatre of whatís going on is becoming more and more apparent with lasers.
GB: You have people like Steve Vai, John Paul Jones, Billy Sheehan, TM Stevens and Flea, are these endorsers?
Well no, not reallyÖI always feel that an endorsee is a guy thatís obliged to use it because you gave him stuff. These guys are customers. We donít give anything away, we donít give anything away at all. Everybody who has our LEDs, they are paid for. Now I am not saying that it is always paid for by the particular player, but them or the company that produces their guitars pays for it.
Itís one of those things that I have always foundÖif people want it. Then they will have it. So every one that has had it has paid for it. Itís more people that actually use our stuff.
When you get started, you stand alone. Youíre stuffs gotta stand on its own merit. I had to start a business where there was no business. We had to make a business up. We had to build the desire for our product. We had to build a complete genre in what we were doing. Okay, Alembic was doing some LED work, they were doing a very very small amount, but I actually started a business of selling LEDís.
GB: Does the customer have the freedom to come to you with an idea and ask you to design something for them?
Martin: Thatís one of our main features. If you look at the Specialists Design section on our site, youíll see a whole host of peoples names, dolphins, cats eyes, serpents eyes. At the moment I am doing a crown inlay on a JD (Warrior) thatís all lit up for a Mark King fan. So really the whole reason for the laser cutter is so that we can cut anything.
GB: So one of the strongest selling points from a cosmetic point of view is that when this stuff is on board and in the off position you would never know it was there or that all that work had been done.
Martin: We havenít removed any frets, any nuts or the fingerboard, there no connection between the LEDs and the sound of the bass at all. Itís gonna feel the same and itís gonna look the same.
Then you flick the switchÖand bang!
GB: So it appears to me that you are not only looking at it from the functional point of view, as to how it can be done. You are also looking at it with a mind on how can I work with the owner of this boutique bass and only add to the value of the instrument.?
Martin: When we started people were concerned as to whether their instrument would lose value if they had this done. Thatís why we worked so hard at getting our name out there. If Roger Sadowsky works on a bass, he works on the basses of people like Marcus Millers, and things like that. That bass is now worth more.
And it is now the same with us. Because we worked hard at getting the reputation and the name and by doing the basses of all the famous players. Now it has almost an official badge. Now when I see a bass advertised in England, it wonít say itís got LEDs, it sayís it has SIMs. Mark (King) always says heís had his bass Sim(med). I heard that on the radio and on television and it sounds great.
Now we have a system here where people can send us the neck only. If they have a bolt-on they can just ship it to us and we do the work. They save up to 40% because we donít have to spend the time and the manpower taking the neck off the guitar.
GB: Now you recently announced something you call ďNeck in a BoxĒ, is this a complete home kit? They can do all that needs to be done themselves.
Martin: Yup, we just supply them with a neck. Itís not a Fender neck, but it is a standard Jazz type. Itís a good quality neck with a duel action truss rod and a rosewood or a maple board. It comes with it own wiring loom and with an on/off switch attached.
GB: So what you have is a business that has no current competition, a product that is shockingly attractive, is pricey enough to make it add to the value of an instrument and to make it worth your while, but with lessor versions of the invention for more modest budgets. On top of it all you have a job that you love?
Martin: Now the hard part is finding time to put in some time for R & D, going to some shows and all the other distractions that go along with running a business and STILL making some time for Research & Development! Sometimes that will be helped by one of the more well known players saying, ďLook I really really want such and suchĒ, and youíve got to think like mad on how the hell youíre gonna give him this.
GB: Are you looking for luthiers and manufacturers to come to you as well as they players?
Martin: Oh yeah, 50% of our business in the States is by other manufacturers. We do work for Warrior. For Lakland. Curbow, ZON and Warwick.
Even companies like Warwick which would do their own LEDS, now we do so much work for Warwick. They know that they can just send us a finished product, it can have the frets in and everything else, they just take it off the shelve, no stop in production, send it to us, we fit the LEDís, we supply the guarantee, and we can send it back 'Ďjob done'í And they still make money on it. Itís a no-lose situation.
GB: And like you said about 10 minutes ago, now they have a Warwick that has been SIMímed.
Martin: We started out here saying that itís important to build a desirability. So many good ideas out there never see the light of day, because the guys an inventor, but heís not a salesman. Itís one thing to know you have shed loads of a good product but you also have to know how to go out there a make a sale. You have to be a Jack of all Trades or your best ideas fall by the wayside.
You can contact Martin at SIMíS LED at the URL shown below: