Global Bass Online October 2001
Synergy Custom Basses
by Andy Long
Problem - you have reached the stage in your bass-playing quest where you're just not getting the results you want from your instrument and you really feel that the only way you're going to get what you want is by getting yourself a custom-built instrument. Trouble is that custom jobs are big bucks and you can't really afford it. What do you do?
There are a lot of guys out there who might get the idea of building one themselves, then they look into it and realise how far beyond them such a project would be. In Kevin Hartle's case he was undaunted, he had both the skills and the patience to build his own instrument. So he did! Since that time he has developed his own bass company, Synergy Custom Basses. The bass he built ended up as the Synergy prototype bass no.1 and it wasn't long before he had no. 2 under his belt to boot. He brought both of them down for me to play with, but more of that later.
"I sort of had this idea in my head that if I had a quality instrument it would encourage me to spend some quality time learning to be a better bassist" He laughed, as we chatted over some tea. "That hasn't actually happened yet because since building the first bass I've spent more time building more basses than actually playing the one that I built, it only tends to get played at weekends at the moment. The other reason was that I've spent most of my life studying since I left school in further education and that came to an end a couple of years ago. I was left twiddling my thumbs thinking should I spend the evenings in front of the TV turning into a potato or should I be doing something more constructive with my time. So it seemed a good idea to make something that I would enjoy making, that would be a challenge, would be of value to me and something that I'd enjoy using."
Looking at and playing this bass it is almost impossible to imagine that Kevin had never built a bass before. So I asked him how he did it, where did he start from? What were his reference points?
"I think the important thing if you want to spend some money on building an instrument is that you don't learn by your mistakes, you let somebody else make the mistakes first," Kevin explained, "so rather than discovering how to build an instrument myself I did some reading up on it first. I bought a book, which was particularly helpful, by Melvin Hiscock, which goes through the construction of guitars and basses. Geometrically there are certain things with instruments that have to be right, if you get them wrong they're just not going to play at all. Everyone's aware of fret spacing but there are other angles, the angle of the headstock, whether you have an angle for the neck or not and lots of other considerations"
The first two basses are very different instruments when building the first, Kevin was looking for bright, modern sound,the Seymour Duncan Basslines ASB2 pickups were selected for their punchy high-end sound and the ebony fretboard adds to the brightness. I let Kevin explain some of the differences incorporated into bass no.2.
"Well I was relatively happy with the first bass but it didn't do everything that I wanted it to do. As I say one of the reasons that I built it was to encourage me to learn to play more and the finish on the first bass is oiled and waxed which is quite a soft finish and it's easy to damage the bass. I wanted something that I could learn to slap on as well so I decided that a wider string spacing and more spacing underneath the strings would be useful at the neck as well, so there's no neck angle at all on the second bass, which gives you a nice big spacing underneath the strings to get your fingers under and the bridge has a 19mm string spacing which means you can be less accurate with your thumb when you're trying to slap the strings without catching the others."
The next step for Kevin was to go from building basses for himself to building them for other people. Enter a friend and neighbour, Tim Childe who saw the future possibilities.
"We're friends from way back and I live just a few doors away and so we obviously both have the interest in basses," Tim leaps enthusiastically into the conversation, "so obviously if a friend suddenly starts making a bass I was straight round to have a look and become a manufacturer's groupie. Quickly realising the potential of what was obviously going to be a good instrument when it was finished I also started persuading him to make me one, as I also couldn't afford to go for the expensive bass I was after"
So Tim's bass, another five-string, would be the third and the plans for a custom bass shop began to evolve. Tim put together a website detailing the basses already built and, after kicking a few names around, Synergy Custom Basses was born.
Kevin and Tim took the first two basses to a small gathering of bassists in the South of England called 'Deep To Deep' and immediately took an order for a fretless six-string which is now finished and will be going to live in Singapore, with it's owner obviously.
So already the business is coming in, but Kevin doesn't want this to grow into a large venture.
"It's probably always going to be a small business, I don't really see it growing above ten to twelve basses a year. I'm not really interested in mass production techniques, it's custom basses to individual requirements which takes time."
The question of price came up next, obviously custom instruments are not cheap,but I was pleasantly surprised when Kevin said :
"Initially it's going to be starting at a thousand pounds and upwards."
Beat that all you custom guys out there!
"We'd be interested in knowing what sort of sound you're looking for, what sort of basses you already like to play, is there a bass out there that has a sound that you particularly like," he continued. "Through selection of pickups, electronics, hardware and timber we can develop the sound to a fashion that you prefer."
'Nuff chat, let's plug these babies in!
Synergy Bass prototype No. 1
The first thing that strikes you as you look at this bass is the beauty of it's construction. The shape is an original design and yet it's sleek, elegant lines betray a whole host of classic influences. The exaggerated curve of the lower horn means that the bass sits naturally on the thigh when playing in a sitting position and the deep cutaway afforded to both horns adds to the dynamic visual effect whilst giving the player easy access to all 24 frets. I have, in recent years, become a fan of the natural look and the quilted maple top of this bass has an inherent beauty, it would have been a crime to do anything to it other than polish it. Meanwhile the black hardware and walnut splices add an edge of definition to a fine-looking instrument.
The controls on the bass are laid out in a simple three-over-two format. The top three are bass, mid and treble and the bottom two are master volume and blend. All pretty straightforward really. The bass, mid, treble and blend are all centre-detented for easy player reference and the master volume has a pull-on slap contour option.
The string spacing is narrow on this bass and the neck is quite slender, making it an ideal instrument for chording and soloing. It would suit a Fender Jazz player very well, although I think the spacing is a shade narrower on the Synergy. Meanwhile back in the real bassist's world the question is 'does it groove?'. Well, yeah it does. The Seymour Duncan Basslines active electronics and ASB2 pick-ups give this bass a warm, deep character with a contemporary edge, you've also got a broad range of tonal control so I think this is a very versatile instrument which most bassists would find a joy to play. It sounds like a cliche but it really is difficult to believe that this is the first instrument Kevin has ever built.
Any criticisms? Well the slap contour option didn't really do a lot for me to be and, as Kevin himself admits, if you want to play slap you're going to want wider spacing and a big old gap under them strings to get your chubby little fingers into. Check out the second model for some of these options.
Made In : Great Britain
Synergy Bass prototype No. 2
Chalk and cheese. This second Synergy bass is just about as different from the first as you could wish for. It looks different, it feels different and by golly it plays different. Of course the one thing that hasn't change is the quality of workmanship, this is another top-notch instrument.
The translucent red stain finish is protected by umpteen layers of lacquer, giving the bass a durable finish that even the most dedicated slapper is going to have a hard time damaging. The shape of the bass again features a long top horn with a deep cutaway, but this one has a cute little stubby bottom horn and an offset bum reminiscent of a Jazz. The headstock too is a completely different shape, although it retains the three over two design. Contrast in this case is added by the use of chrome hardware and a light, birds eye maple fretboard balanced against the darker body and black pickups.
The controls have been given a smiley layout and as before these are, from left to right, master volume, treble, mid, bass and blend although in this case only the blend is centre-detented. The master volume has a pull-out bass boost option and boy does it ever boost the bass! Pull this baby out and the rest of the band can look out, solo with it and they can go for pizza!
As Kevin said, he designed this one with slap in mind, hence the string spacing is wider, although at 19mm at the bridge it hardly qualified to be a surfboard and some might like it to be wider still, I found it fine though. You could bash that thumb against any single string with no fear of striking it's neighbour unintentionally. Also the gap between the strings and body is approximately 15mm so even the clumsiest bricklayer can comfortably get his fingers under there for a spot of popping. The sound of this bass is also much more suited to slap players. The Gotoh soapbars combined with Kevin's custom electronics make this a mean funk bass with a snappy top end and a growl down below. Each note has a bell-like clarity of it's own, there is no muddiness here.
Personally I found the neck quite a bit too fat for me, but that's just a question of what you're used to, also I preferred the natural finish of the first model but again that's all a matter of taste isn't it?
Made In : Great Britain
contact through website www.synergycustom.co.uk
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