Floppy, weak, unresponsive. These words easily come to mind when describing the low B string of most 5 string basses. With the aid of innovative methods, Sheldon Dingwall, Canadian builder extraordinaire, triumphed where others have failed: Building 5 string without compromises. Bass Players United caught up with Sheldon, and his craft.
BPU:What motivated you to begin building instruments?
SD:I’m hardwired as a do-it-yourself type. When I’m passionate about something, it’s not long before I’m dreaming of ways to improve it. Guitars have always been my first love but I’ve also designed drums, mountain bike parts, skateboards and even medical equipment (for when I broke my leg skateboarding). Except for the skateboards and guitars, the rest were one-off/prototypes. I’d been interested in body shapes for a long time but the first “luthiery” I attempted was designing and building a couple of different locking tremolos. I’d heard of Floyd Rose but they weren’t available in Canada so I figured I’ll make one myself. I still benefit from the lessons learned with those early bridge designs.
BPU:Was there any formal training or has your path been experimental?
SD:My formal training is as close to zero as you can get. It’s a little ironic that I haven’t had an art class since I was 11, yet design a large part of what I do. What I lack in training I make up for in persistence. I put a lot of time into drawing and redrawing parts. Our Super J headstock took close to 100 revisions to get to the point where I felt it had the same emotional familiarity as the original but brought something new and fresh. I’m currently re-drawing and refining every part of every model we make. It’s a big job.
In high school I was more of a physics nerd/slacker. Woodworking and metalworking didn’t interest me back then. I wish they would have. I did take 4 years of electronics in high school. I can’t imagine building electric guitars without this grounding in the basics – no pun intended. I learned woodworking, metal working and finishing later when my uncle Alf Wilson took me under his wing as an apprentice. His shop was filled with band saws made from plumbing pipe, router tables made from old engine blocks, all kinds of re-purposed stuff. It was man-cave heaven!
Another huge influence was/is Glenn McDougall of Fury Guitar. Fury was the first electric guitar manufacturer in Canada. His shop was located a mile or so from where I grew up. He’s a true genius and naturally gifted at manufacturing. He’s mentored me for years. I will never be his equal in terms of tooling and manufacturing but I’ve benefited incredibly from his influence.
BPU:You are a guitar player by heart. How did you get started building bass guitars?
SD:Every guitar I sold resulted in a call from a bass player looking for a 5-string bass. They were all looking for a great sounding and feeling B. As I’d interview them it became clear that traditional approaches weren’t working. I’d been around pianos all my life so knew how a proper B should sound. The problem as I saw it was how to add significant scale length to a bass without messing up the ergonomics. One day I opened up a Guitar Player magazine and saw a guitar Steve Klein (my #1 luthier hero) built for Michael Hedges (my #1 guitar player hero) using the Novax Fanned-fret system. It was a lighting-bolt moment that lit the path for me to take with basses.
A month or two later I bumped into Ralph Novak at a luthier’s convention. We hit it off and made an agreement that I would develop basses using his system. I want to underline Ralph’s contribution here. It’s true fanned-frets had been used several hundred years ago but had long since been forgotten. Ralph was the one who developed them in modern times. He spent the time working out the problems, investing in the patent process, marketing the concept etc. He’s a genius.
BPU:What modern methods do you use in your work? Are you using computer aided design, or CNC machines?
It’s hard for me to think of CAD and CNC as modern. CNC machines were used in guitar manufacture a decade before I started my career. But yes we’ve been using CAD since the early ‘90s and CNC since 2001. I have built a lot of guitars using pencil drawings and manual machines and I’ve designed and built a lot of guitars with CAD and CNC. I respect the former and prefer the latter. CNC machines, at least the affordable ones, are not the labor saving devices most people think they are. The learning curve is STEEP and LONG. They limit you in some areas of design but they free you as well. There’s a huge difference between smaller hobbyist machines and the industrial ones. We’re transitioning to an industrial CNC mill and it’s wonderful. The accuracy and quality of parts we can make on this machine are outstanding. One thing CNC haters don’t understand is that in the end, 90% of instrument building is still handwork whether you use a CNC or a pin router. The difference is with a solid, capable machine, high quality drawings and intelligent use of tooling and fixtures my guys will spend less time correcting for the limitations of our equipment and more time finessing the beauty, feel and performance of the instruments.
BPU:The fanned frets are probably what stands out the most of your basses at first sight. Can you explain us what is behind that concept?
SD:What people see are fanned-frets, what’s actually going on though is multiple scales on a single instrument. Multiple scales have been used in pianos and harps forever. Pianos and harps cover a wide frequency range yet have a very similar timbre on each note. They wouldn’t be able to achieve this without using multiple scales – longer for the bass strings and shorter for the trebles. In order to bring the benefits of multiple scale lengths to a fretted instrument we need to angle the bridge and nut away from each other to make the bass side scale longer. With the nut and bridge at an opposite angle the frets fall into a “fan” pattern between the two.
We’ve pretty much been labeled as THE B-string guys. Once you’ve heard our 37” B live it’s not hard to understand why. There are other subtler benefits to using multi-scales. You can get the string tensions to be more equal at the same time as making the tone of the strings more equal. On single scale instruments you usually sacrifice one for the other.
BPU:Can you tell us about the different models offered by Dingwall Guitars?
SD:We have 6 models of basses – some with 2 or 3 sub models plus we have two models of guitars. They are priced from about $1300 to over $15,000. The top-level instruments get the rarest, most beautiful woods, the most labor-intensive finishes and treatments. Every model gets top quality professional level components. As a working musician I experienced the stress of equipment failure. Let me tell you it never happens across the street from a repair shop during business hours LOL. It’s important to me that no matter what level of bass you buy from us, it’s not going to let you down at a gig.
BPU:What can you tell us about the different woods use for your basses?
SD:For structural woods we use plain and simple maple, alder, swamp ash, northern ash, walnut and mahogany. Where we’ve blazed our own trail is how we make use of different densities of wood. Traditional approaches have been to mix body densities from front to back trying to balance the tone produced by the strings as a group. Fanned-frets have influenced our thinking so that we look at the needs of the bass strings as being different than the treble strings. To this end we place the bass side core wood in its stiffest orientation to maximize sustain and clarity of the low strings. We do the opposite for the treble side core wood, placing it in its most flexible orientation to maximize resonance and damp the unruly highs as best as possible. We take that a step further with the higher-end models by either selecting higher density pieces for the bass side and lower density for the treble or even further by combining two species – one for bass, one for treble.
The really fancy, figured woods typically don’t sound very good or have any structural integrity so they are for aesthetics only. Never underestimate aesthetics. Everyone talks about tone but if the instrument isn’t attractive, few will ever know how good it sounds because few will ever pick it up and try it.
Another area where we place a lot of attention is how we select our woods for stability. We are located in an area with a relatively extreme climate. 40 degrees below and 15% relative humidity in the winter, 30+ degrees C and 75% plus RH in the summer. We are uniquely aware of the affects of temperature and humidity on instruments. We constantly hear back from our customers about how stable our necks are. Proof of that is our neck warranty rate is less than one half of one percent.
BPU:How many instruments do you build a year and what is the estimated time of completion of each one?
SD:We build approximately 1 per day in Canada and about half as many of the Combustion models which are half built in China. We are quoting 6 months on orders right now. The lead time ebbs and flows with the economy. Right now things for us are heating up.
BPU:What is the most rewarding thing about your work?
SD:I really enjoy the guys on my team. They are crazy talented and a lot of fun to be around. I really like our customers. They are almost like a brotherhood where they all get along and support each other. Lastly the job is endlessly challenging. There are very few days where I’m not using 100% of my abilities.
BPU:For someone interested in pursuing luthiery, what would you recommend for advice?
SD:Well it really depends on where you’re located and what the cost of living is. All artists need space and time to hone their craft before they can start making a living at it. This takes years no matter how talented you are. My best advice would be to set yourself up in a career or industry that pays well and leaves you with enough free time to build in your spare time and on your own schedule. You’ll be able to buy better tools and hopefully get to enjoy the process more without the burden of trying to run a business based in the arts.