Monday, November 18, 2013

Shawn May of May Custom Basses

In the basement of 312 S. Ashley, in Ann Arbor, is the dusty, slightly cluttered workshop of Shawn May of May Custom Basses. You might describe the shop as "lived in".  To me, it looks like a guitar bomb exploded.  My favorite kind of place! There are basses here and there, all at different stages of completion, as well as pieces and parts waiting to be used for the various projects. Several wood working machines fill the room.  Wood blanks are stored on a rack in the corner. Figured wood veneers are leaning against a table in the front of the room. Twelve Foot Ninja is playing on the sound system.

Fred Robinson's May SC5 (single cut 5-string)
When I arrived, Shawn was fine tuning Fred Robinson's (aka Detroit Bass Player Freddy Rodriguez) single cut 5 string.  A beautiful bass!  A tweak here a little filing there. Freddy plays the bass. Shawn tweaks a little more. Freddy plays for a few minutes while Shawn heads outside for a break.  Back to tweaking then playing...  There it is! Ready to go.  Freddy smiles as he says goodbye. Another happy customer!  

Shawn moves directly onto the next project. He tells me  the next customer will be there soon. He jokes and says "I need to make it look like I'm doing something". Watching him work, I can tell Shawn isn't one to sit idle in the shop.

Shawn is now carefully sanding a nice flame maple body that belongs to only the third bolt on bass he has been asked to build. He says it's the first bolt on bass to have the LED side markers.  He never stopped working as long as I was there.

This is the bass Shawn was working on, during the interview.

*You'll have to pardon my amateur attempt at interviewing.  This is my first face to face.  I didn't write out any questions, so I'm 'winging it'.

DBP:  What got you started, as a luthier?

SM: I wish I had a more involved story.  It started with a book. When I was in school, my step-mom would go to the library. She was an avid reader, and when she went to the library, she would be there for hours, so I'd have to find something to keep myself busy. I found the music section of the library. I'm poking through and I found this book titled "Make Your Own Electric Guitar". I had been playing about a year or so, but I was really into reading Bass Player Magazine.  I was up on all the builders and being 17, I really couldn't afford anything and there's this book about making your own electric guitar or bass. You know, I'll try it and see what happens. I've always been more on the artistic side doing hands on kind of stuff, so I started building this bass. My buddy had a table saw and basically just enough stuff to start it.  It was kind of slow progressing, because I didn't really know what I was doing.  That's when I lost interest for a while. There was a lot of other things going on with high school and I started working... But the interest was always there. I kept pursuing it and pursuing it and I was about 22 or so when I got my first one together.  It turned out a lot better than I expected.  That gave me more confidence to try another one and all of a sudden I get a phone call "hey, I heard you're making basses".  Wow!  You want to pay me to attempt to make you an instrument?! Cool! And that's it.  Here I am 36 instruments later.  That's not a lot, but it's a good amount.

DBP: Give me an idea of your build process.

SM:  After the woods are selected by the customer, all the wood has to be cut and glued together.  I have templates for the bodies.  They're all cut out by hand. Nothing is machined. I can't stress that enough.  Not that I have any issue with anyone [using machines to cut their instruments]. If that's their thing, that's their thing. Some people use CNCs (Computer Numeric Control [Computer controlled milling machines]). In time, when my back gives out (chuckle), you know I'll probably end up using a CNC, but until then, this is the creation for me. Like right now, my legs are killing me (Shawn is kneeling on the shop floor), I'm half way done sanding this, my arms are going to be 'noodley'. But this is what I like. It's like therapy.  I can just shut everything out and focus on what I'm doing, listen to some music... Next thing you know, it's done! 

*There is a brief break in the interview when customer Michael St. Antoine arrives. It is Michael's bass Shawn has been sanding as we were talking.  A testament to the quality of May basses, this is Michael's second May bass. 

Michael St. Antoine's new bass with the stain applied.

DBP:  Talk about your bass, Michael. What do you like about about May basses?

MSA: I'd say the main thing is the feel. You could spend $10,000.00 for a 'custom' off the shelf, but I like how this guy just knows how they should feel. The sound is up to you, though.

*Note: Shawn is not only a builder, but he's a player with some major label success. 

SM:  I don't really play much anymore. I'm usually building.  I'll always own an instrument, but I don't even own one of my custom basses, because I'm always making them for other people. (Shawn does have a fretless May Bass in process for himself.  He works on it if there is time.)

DBP: Let's talk about choosing the wood.  Is it a customer choice? Do you choose?  Do you have recommendations for specific woods? Do you think wood affects the tone a lot or do the strings and the pickups matter more? 

SM:  It all depends on the person.  I start by asking “what does the customer want?”. Are you looking for a certain look? Are you looking for a certain sound? If they don't know, I can make suggestions based on the type of music they're into or...

I believe there's more coming from the electronics than from the wood, but the wood is your foundation and it's going to generate tone, however, now-a-days with all the different options in electronics, you can manipulate that tone to just about anything, anymore. I've had people order and they want a light colored or a dark colored bass.  That's pretty generic, considering how many hundreds of species of wood there are.  It's a matter of narrowing it down from there. I've also had people say "hey, do your thing. Surprise me!" You know, not like that's any pressure or anything.

DBP: That lets you be creative, though. I've seen some of your basses I think are incredibly beautiful. One you just finished with gold hardware I recently spoke to you about, is probably my favorite so far. (pictured below)

SM:  It's funny.  Every one I'm working on or have just finished is my favorite.

DBP: Bolt on or neck through?  What's your preference and why?

SM: All of the above. Neck through, as a builder, is typically easier for me.  I don't really have any set options.  Some builders that are more established have set measurements. "This is our neck width. If you don't like it, too bad." Because I build these [basses] to extreme custom order, we can change spacing and everything.  I just have to make a template every time, for each instrument, other than the body.  If anybody wants a narrow spaced five string or a wide spaced six string or whatever, I make a new template. So, for me, neck through is easier.  I also like the unhindered access to the upper frets, but sometimes there's a "tone thing" with a bolt on. Maybe it goes back to the Fender thing.  The Jazz Bass, for me, I can pick up a Jazz Bass and it just feels "right".

DBP:  Describe the "tone thing" you just mentioned. Is it punchier? What is it? I recognize it, but I'm not sure how to describe it.

SM: Maybe it's an aggressive type thing. It's like being slapped in the face versus being punched in the face, if that makes any sense.

DBP: Which one would the bolt on be?

Shawn playing his '77 Jazz Bass at a rare show

SM:  That would be the punch. Or if you’re talking about my '77 Jazz, that would be a swift kick instead of a punch. That thing's a beast.

DBP: Talking about your '77 Jazz.  I've had it on my shoulder and it's heavy.

SM:  It probably hurt!

DBP: Do you think weight matters? Some people equate weight with sustain. What's your opinion?

SM: Dense material has a tendency to sustain more. With some woods, the tone can get 'swallowed up'. For me, I actually prefer a little heavier instrument. It just feels more solid to me. Not saying light means cheap. But there's a security for me with a heavier instrument.  This is coming from a guy that has a 12 pound Jazz Bass.  I also had a Warwick and a Tobias that weighed 12 pounds. Yeah me, the 130 pound guy (laughter). 

DBP: Every May bass I've held feels like a feather compared to those. 

SM:  My basses are typically smaller than your average Fender or...

Bassist William Pope and Shawn May
DBP:  Who owns your basses that we might know?

SM: Reg Canty! Fred Robinson, Guy Warren, the dude from Alien Ant Farm, and I just sent one to Australia for a rock band over there called Karnivool[link].  I think William Pope has one.  Oh wait...  No he doesn't! 

DBP: I just had a vision of a AAA flame maple with an orange stain and great big mother of pearl Popestar inlays!

SM: with some sort of crushed velour or something... (laughter) It says "mannnnn...."  (more laughter [we love you Pope!])

DBP:  How many basses do you have in queue?

SM: Last time I counted, 11. For most builders that doesn't sound like a lot, but considering I have a full time job, that's next year for me. A year worth of work.

DBP:  I realize it could vary greatly based on the options chosen for each bass, but about how long on average does it take you to finish a bass?

SM: I'd say 8 to 12 months to the customer.  That doesn't mean it actually takes that long to build each bass.  I'm usually working in batches, so I'll do four or five t a time. How long it actually takes to make them, I couldn't tell you.  I never really kept track. I don't want to spend time logging how many hours.  I want to spend my time on the work. One of these days I'll have to figure it all out to find out if it's worthwhile to do this. As long as I'm not losing money, it's worthwhile. 30 years from now, I hope to be the Vinnie Fodera of Michigan! I admire that he is still hands on.  He's not handling paperwork. He's building basses.

Left to right:  The legendary Chuck Rainey, bassist Doug Johns and Shawn May

DBP:  Is there something you might like to say that you haven't said in any other interview, or anything you think is important to mention?

SM: Whether it be food or music or instruments or whatever... Preference is a huge word for me. If we're talking about building an instrument for someone, their preference might be a color,  a style or weight. I hear people trash bands, sometimes. Not everyone likes the same thing. I had a conversation recently.  We were talking about companies that make, basically, Jazz Basses, but they're $5000.00. I'm a Jazz Bass guy, for sure, but paying $5000.00 for a Jazz Bass is not my thing.  Am I going to say "that guy's dumb for buying that."? No. It's just preference. That's it. That's my philosophy, right there.  You see my bass and you don't like it.  You've got an issue with it.  Okay. That's fine. I'm not trying to say I make the best basses you'll ever play. It might not be for you. It's all preference.  That's huge with me.

DBP:  I'd like to thank Shawn for taking some time to talk to Detroit Bass Players!

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  1. Thanks Craig for the article on Shawn. His basses and style is unique in each build. Cant wait to have my own one day...