My discussion with Jason DeSalvo of Fodera Guitars continues as he talks about joining the company, the realities of business, the quest for tone, and the art of selecting tonewoods for custom bass guitars.
You began your association with Fodera as a customer, right? When did you join Fodera as a partner and what was that process like?
I started as a customer when I bought my first Fodera in 2007. I played my first Fodera in 2005. A guy I knew had one. I wasn’t great friends with him, but I knew him well enough that I was like, “I’m interested in getting a Fodera. They’re a lot of money. I want to spend some time with one before I commit. Can I come over to your house and play yours for a bit?” He said, “Absolutely.” He had to go out, so he left me alone in his studio with his Fodera. It was a Monarch 4 String and I was absolutely smitten with the instrument. I knew I had to get one. I had a very specific spec that I wanted and it took me a while. I’d never even thought about having a custom bass built. By September or October of 2007, I found a Fodera that had the exact specs I wanted, which is really rare because they hadn’t built that many of them.
I had been playing a Victor Bailey Jazz Bass and I liked that wood combination — the Mahogany body, Koa top, and Indian Rosewood fingerboard. A dealer happened to have a Monarch in stock with exactly that set of woods, so I bought it. And at that time I was playing with really low action. I don’t play with exceedingly low action anymore, but I used to play really low. When the bass came, each of the slots on the nut was a little bit high for me. So I called the dealer and said, “Look, I’ve been doing my own tech work on my basses since I was 15, but I’m not taking a nut file to a $6000 guitar. What do I do?” He said, “You know, it’s funny, you’re in New Jersey and Foderas are made in Brooklyn.” I didn’t even know at that time that Foderas were made in Brooklyn! He told me, “The instruments are made right across the river in Brooklyn, probably only about 30 minutes from you. Why don’t I set up an appointment for you with them, so you can go and have the setup corrected?”
I didn’t sleep a lot the night before because I was so nervous about going to demo a bass in front of people that build these instruments. Joey and Vinny put me at ease within the first 30 seconds of being there. They were so gracious, loving, caring and they treated me exactly like they would’ve treated Victor Wooten, Anthony Jackson, or Janek Gwizdala. They stopped everything they were doing. They asked about the bass. What did I like? What didn’t I like? What would I do differently? And I was like, “You guys are asking me this?! Me?!” They were just lovely and we became friends really quickly. I started going to the shop every couple of weeks in the beginning. I’d go in on a Wednesday night and bring a bottle of wine, because I have a great wine cellar and we all love good wine. Around 4:30 or 5:00 when they were done with work for the day, we’d kick back, have a little wine, play a little music, and talk about music and business. I was at a place then in my professional life where I had time to do some new things, so I asked them whether I could write a book about Fodera. It took me about 3 months to convince Vinny I was trustworthy — that I wasn’t going to betray him or any of his secrets, or anything like that. I really felt Fodera was worthy of having a book written about them. So I started visiting one day a week. All this took place from roughly May 2008 – April 2009.
At some point, from being there once a week and watching, it became obvious that what Fodera was doing was really important. I got a chance to interview all of Fodera’s big players and they all kept using the words “Stradivarius of the Bass” or “Changed my life” or “Helped me unlock the tone that I’ve heard in my head for years.” It became important to me too. But it was also obvious that Joey and Vinny had almost no time to focus on the business. The business was under-capitalized, seriously under-resourced from a personnel standpoint, and frankly in danger of failing.
My impression as an outsider versus what I saw the first time I showed up there was like night and day. I always thought Fodera was like a well-oiled machine with plenty of staff. I had visited places like Sadowsky, Alembic, and I’d even been to Ken Smith. Fodera was a complete contrast. Basically it was three, sometimes four guys, with one female receptionist who spoke barely any English. The shop was so cluttered that you could barely walk around and there was no production schedule. Everything was COD, so every time wood came or parts came, you had to run and get the checkbook. It was so underfunded and Joey and Vinny were impossibly overworked. They had a 39 month wait for instruments. One customer waited 6 years. The business was in really deep trouble. As an entrepreneur and as a successful business person, watching this broke my heart.
One day Vinny opened up to me. By this time we were good friends. This was maybe March of 2009. He came over and said, “If there’s ever anything that we’re doing that doesn’t make sense from a business standpoint, let me know.” I had known him for well over a year, maybe a year and a half, and I just kind of giggled and laughed. I said, “Vinny, it would take much less time to tell you what you’re doing right with the business than to tell you what you’re doing wrong. Outside of making the greatest bass guitars on the planet, you’re really not doing any of the basic things you want to do in a business to make sure it’s going to be around 20 years from now. Speaking of that, what’s your succession plan?” … What’s that? … “You can’t keep building these things forever. What’s going to happen to Fodera?” To which Vinny responded, “Actually, I’ve never really thought of it. I’d always just assumed I’d live forever.” We laughed, and it was late in the day so we opened a bottle of wine and I said, “If you don’t take steps now to get people hired and trained to replace you and Joey, Fodera will cease to exist in 5 or 10 years, maybe 20 — but certainly not something where my kids can get a Fodera, or your kids can get a Fodera — and that’s a tragedy.” Out of that conversation came a whole bunch more conversations. Over about a 9 month period we successfully negotiated a way for us to become partners and allow me and several people that had worked with me for many years to become a part of the business.
How would you define your role at Fodera?
I would define it kind of like being the quarterback. By that I mean, planning, figuring out strategically — with a lot of input from everyone on the team — what are our strengths, where can we go, what should we do? Then, based on that, how do we fund it all? How do we make sure that we can grow but not lose our exclusivity or our quality? What’s the right scale of the business? What’s the right product mix for the business? So a lot of the decisions we made early on were out of that process. We started the Standard line to replace the NYC’s because we felt strongly about having complete control over building every aspect of the instrument. We couldn’t do that with the NYC’s because they were partially manufactured in Japan. We put together a methodology for scheduling production and over a three year period we went from a 39 month wait with almost no communication to a 12 month wait where people pretty much get their instrument within a week or two of when we promised. Again, this was just basic blocking and tackling as it relates to doing business. We focused on everything from paying down debt to refinancing the business; negotiating different terms with the suppliers, not necessarily terms for better pricing, but terms for quality standards and delivery timing. You know, a lot of times we didn’t have parts in stock, either because Fodera couldn’t pay or the suppliers didn’t really have any sense of urgency. So there were a thousand little things that we had to fix over the first couple of years.
There are still a thousand more things to be done, but the business is now on very solid footing and is sustainable. 2011 and 2012 are probably the first two back-to-back profitable years in the company’s history. So that’s my role. The business functions, along with the strategic planning, report back to me. Early on in my first year, I would even get my hands dirty by sanding and helping out with things that I could do. I still order much of the wood and I am still involved with the wood selection for most of the basses. I definitely have a hand in making the basses, but not actually carving the wood and shaping them. I just don’t have those skills and at this point in time, it would be ridiculous to try and develop them when we have so many outstanding people with that ability.
But you do have a good ear for tonewoods, and for putting the right combinations together. You have so much great tonewood at the shop, and you have customers all over the world… how do you go about selecting the right combinations for people that you may never meet?
That’s one of the hardest things that we do. It’s very easy when someone comes into the shop with a bass and says, “I like the way this sounds. Can you make it sound like that?” or “This is the bass I’ve been playing for 5 years and this is what I like about it. This is what I don’t like.” That’s a gimme.
Let me backtrack a little bit. I’m the new guy on the block, but I’m now doing a lot of that work with customers. And the interesting thing is, I’ve always been extremely observant, ever since I was a little boy. When I was a little boy, my mom — who was going for her masters in art — used to sit me in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a room full of paintings, and in order to keep me occupied she’d say, “Tell me which is the best painting in this room and why.” And she’d make me look at every painting. It’d take me 15-20 minutes to walk around and look at them. I was fascinated by aesthetic detail. I think I was 4 or 5 at the time. Amazingly, I would actually walk around the room and look at each painting, and I would take out a little piece of paper and pretend to be taking notes because I wasn’t terrible fluent in the English language at that point, at least when it came to writing. But I’ve always, from a very young age, been able to look at things, to hear things, in a very detailed manner. And I’m used to that. I was trained. I was in the wine trade for a period of time, so I tasted critically. In that situation you have to be able to taste and turn your senses into written words so that you can understand what you taste and make comparisons. We might sit down with a hundred wines and we would have to decide which ones we were going to buy and why. The process of turning my sensory experiences into words, categorizing them, ranking them, and thinking about quality as one related to another is something I’ve been doing my whole life. I never had a skill, necessarily, in terms of specific woods and how they sound, but I’ve played bass since 1980 and I knew what different basses sounded like because I’d owned them over the years. So when I first started researching the book, Vinny picked out a piece of Mahogany, a piece of Ash, a piece of Maple, a piece of Ebony — and with my eyes closed he’d make me tap them and listen to them. He’d say, “Forget about what they look like, what do they sound like to you?” And it just came easy to me. It was very natural. I was able to tap the wood, hear what it sounded like and remember it. Then I could create mosaics in my head like, “If I put this together with that it will sound like this, and if I put these together it will sound like that.” By talking with Joey and Vinny who’ve been doing this successfully for 30 years, and through owning and regularly playing 13 Monarchs with varying woods, pickup configurations, etc….I built for myself a tone library. So when people start describing a certain tone, I can relate to it because I’ve played it and I’ve heard it.
We all know what an orange tastes like. If I put an orange in your mouth with your eyes closed, you’d know it was an orange. It’s the same with the mosaic of wood that we work with, creating tone. If you’ve heard them enough and you see the way they go together, it becomes fairly easy. The much harder part is to draw out of the customer what tone they want. Like they say, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” to us an MP3 is worth a thousand words. What we typically ask people to do is to send us tracks that either they’ve tracked where they like the way their bass sounds or of their favorite players. Kind of like, “If my bass could sound like this I’d be the happiest man/woman in the world.” Once we hear a tone, it’s much easier. What’s much harder is when someone says, “I want a really warm, fat sound.” Well, what I call “warm and fat” could be “tubby and diffuse” to you. Or my “articulate and percussive” could be your “overly hi-fi and sterile.” Getting the language out of the equation, when you can, really helps.
Think about someone putting the color red in front of you. You’ve been conditioned to call that red. And so, if you want to paint the wall slightly darker red you can say, “slightly darker” and people know what you mean. But color, taste, and smell are things that we’re much more used to describing as human beings than tone. Once you do it regularly, it’s the same set of skills. But when we work with people around the world we ask them, “What are you playing now? What woods are on the bass? What pickups do you use? Who made the bass? What does it sound like to you? What’s good about it? What don’t you like about it? Who are your favorite players?” You’d be amazed, sometimes you get someone who writes to you and says, “I want a bass that sounds like Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller, Anthony Jackson, and Family Man Barrett.” I’m not joking. You sit and scratch your head and think, these people don’t sound anything like one another, and then you have to ask questions. What is it about their sound that makes you gravitate towards these players? And maybe they’ll answer, “All of them have a really rich tone.” Ok, do you realize that they all have a rich tone, but in different ways? You start that dialogue and you get them to understand that you can’t build them a bass that sounds like all of those players at once. What do YOU want to sound like?
So, it’s a process. It can take us one email to spec a bass and other times… we had a customer, we just finished his bass, his first document to me was 14 pages and then we had about 250 emails back and forth. That’s been the hardest bass I’ve had to spec since I’ve been here. Now that’s an extreme, but the reality is that’s what it took for that customer to feel comfortable that they were explaining things in a detailed enough way that I was hearing them.
Was it the communication process, the specifics of the bass, or something else that made the process so lengthy?
No, this was going to be a big spend for him, as all Foderas are. He is a pro player in Europe, and he wanted some fancy inlays and some very exotic woods, so we’re talking about a $17,000-$18,000 instrument. He just wanted to be sure that it was perfect. So, I mean, everything from which tonewoods we selected, to the top wood, to the inlays, all of those were… well, the inlays were 15 emails back and forth. “What if we move this a little this direction? What if we use mother of pearl instead of abalone? What if it’s this big? What if it’s that big?” It was quite a process. But you know, some of our customers are very detail oriented and that’s completely cool.
Others know exactly what they want. They call and say, “Yeah, I want a mahogany body, Indian Rosewood fingerboard, EMG P/J pickups, 24 fret, 34 inch scale, and mother of pearl dot inlays. When can I have it?” I’m like, ok. So it really varies.
Again, going back to what makes Fodera different, meeting the customer on their own terms is a vital thing that we do. Joey, Vinny and I don’t have any preconceived notion about what is the right mix of ingredients. We don’t mind whether it’s 33, 34, 35, 36 inch scale; 4, 5, or 6 string; 16.5 mm, 17.5 mm, 19 mm string spacing; whether the fingerboard wood is Ebony, Indian Rosewood, Brazilian Rosewood, Pau Ferro, Birdseye Maple, Madagascar Kingwood; whether the body wood is any one of the body woods we use. The bottom line is, all of those exist as tools to give a customer something that they want. And I think that is what makes us very different. Deliberately so, there isn’t a specific Fodera sound, or a Fodera mix of ingredients — at least outside of the Standard line. When we create the Standards we’re allowed to be make decisions and say that this is a good, well-rounded instrument. In the case of the Monarch 4 and Emperor 5 Standards, this mix is going to work for a very high proportion of people in a very high proportion of situations where you would realistically use the instrument. Also, it can be built at a price point that we can make a living, but not so high that people can’t afford it. We get to make all the decisions about those. Everything else, we literally take out a clean sheet of paper when we start talking to somebody and build what they want. And that’s a very different ethos.
If you missed it, Part 1 of the interview can be found here. And stay tuned for the third and final installment which will be posted soon!
Check out Fodera.com for more information and a look at their latest creations.