A local Fort Collins, CO-based luthier, Michael Bashkin jokes about how he and Peter Henriksen came to know each other, only while both were away at the same distant guitar shows: “just two Colorado people getting together outside of Colorado, and only outside of Colorado.” Michael’s an incredibly talented luthier, scientist, artist – and hey, bass player, too! Read on to learn more about his process.
The acoustic instruments you make feature incredibly beautiful and ornate inlay, engrafts, and all manner of tasteful yet exceptional decoration, on top of the exquisite build quality. Do you have a favorite part of the process when you’re building one?
Yes. I like doing headstock overlays – it’s purely decorative; it has really no structure or function, other than just the visual appeal, and making that part of the guitar is almost a little bit like painting for me. I get to pick out colors and textures and do design work. It’s really different from the rest of the guitar, because I don’t have to worry about the acoustics of the headstock overlay. So that’s a nice change of pace for me, and it’s just nothing other than purely creative.
You use multi-scale fretting on some of your instruments. Are there any unique challenges for acoustic guitars in employing a fanned fret system?
There are some structural changes, more than challenges. I alter the angle of the bracing to accommodate the bridge, so that the bracing reflects the angled position. And in order to do that I offset the center of the X-brace and I might change the splay of it off the center of the top. That’s probably the biggest thing. There are some other quirks about the neck, besides just the angle of the frets; you have to angle the headstock so that it comes off the nut at an even angle, for example. But I’ve been doing multi-scales for over 20 years, so I’m just used to the process now. I often use a 25.75” to 25” scale; that’s a popular one for my clients. I also do 26” to 25.4”. I find that these scale lengths are physically transparent and they play just like a regular guitar, while having the intended acoustic effect that I want out of a multi-scale.
In your opinion, what’s the ideal medium for translating an acoustic instrument’s output to a large audience: mic, pickup, or combination – and what type of either?
Good question. In a perfect world, I’d say it’s a pair of really good condenser microphones in the right placement for that particular guitar. On the other hand, we don’t live in a perfect world, so it’s probably a mixture of mic and an internal pickup system. In some respects, the more ways you can capture the instrument, the more lattitude you have in terms of interpreting that signal. Almost unavoidably, any time you change a mechanical signal into an electrical one and then back into a mechanical one, you’re going to lose something in the process. But it kind of gets down to how much do you really need to faithfully reproduce the sound of the guitar. What you want, ultimately, is something that is musically useful and works.
In your mind, what are the top two or three attributes an amplifier can offer for the instruments you make?
I’m going to totally contradict myself here, but I would say one is the ability to faithfully reproduce the tone that the pickup or mic is providing as much as possible, and then the second one is to give you the ability to color the tone in the way that you want, whether it’s to try to get back to the original acoustical sound of the instrument, or to color it electronically to make something that musically works.
If you’re a player yourself, what kind of music do you most enjoy playing, and what would people be surprised to learn you enjoy listening to?
I play some. I’ve been playing guitar for about 40 years, but please don’t confuse that with any level of expertise! I’m really a very average and frustrated guitar player. And actually, since you asked, I’ve picked up a new instrument that’s very closely related; I’ve started playing bass guitar. I love the fact that at this point it’s just totally about fun and I’m not pre-judging myself. I’m just learning, just having fun with it! I love the register that bass produces and I’m really enjoying it. So playing bass is my new thing, but 6 string guitars are my vocation, I’d say.
The music I most enjoy playing is probably in the Motown-style, funk, slash punk genres. I just want to have fun with it and make music; I’m not so much into the technical aspects of it. I would never consider myself to be an aspiring prog rock bassist. In terms of what I listen to, it’s all over the map, but I’d say the only surprising part would be that I’m definitely more of a rock n’ roll and blues guy, more of a fan of electric guitar players than acoustic ones – just because that’s the music I grew up listening to and still listen to today.
How did your relationship with Henriksen amplifiers begin?
Kind of ironically, Peter Henriksen and I only live about 50 miles from each other, and it seems like for years, the only time we would see each other was when we were thousands of miles from home at various guitar shows and the NAMM show, so it kind of became a joke; we’d never see each other unless we were out of state. So that’s kind of how it started: just two Colorado people getting together outside of Colorado, and only outside of Colorado.
If you could assemble a dream roundtable of living and deceased luthiers or musicians, who would you choose the company of?
Tough question, long list! Off the top of my head I’d have to say BB King would have a seat at the table, Les Paul, Jimi Hendrix, Trey Anastasio, Michael Hedges, and Tommy Emmanuel. In terms of luthiers, since it’s wide open, I’d have to go with Stradivari, CF Martin, and I’ll put my two original mentors at the table, Ervin Somogyi and Harry Fleishman.