Luthier Interviews: Kevin Brubaker

This is the second in our a series of luthier interviews here at Dinosaur Rock Guitar. Operating out of a 2000 sq. ft. space in a building located in Reisterstown, Maryland, Kevin Brubaker of Brubaker Guitars, has been producing exotic guitars and basses since 1990.

All Brubaker instruments start as rough slabs of wood and are painstakingly machined by hand, using templates and pin routers. Brubaker's guitars are known for extreme finishes that use book matched fancy woods over the entire face of the instrument including the fingerboard to create an overall artistic theme. He built his business slowly and steadily the by word of mouth.

10/03/05 Interview conducted by Jeb Baynum.

 

DRG: Here we are in Kevin Brubaker's guitar shop in Reisterstown, MD. Lets start by asking: how did you get started in building guitars and basses?

Brubaker: I got started way back in high school. I wanted to build my own stuff and I always had a mechanical background. Tinkering. Always working on things. That's how it all came together when I started playing bass. (When I started) I only ever owned two basses — a Vantage bass, and I think a Kramer, but at that point, I just started taking instruments and repainting them. Cause back in the metal days, you had to have a cool instrument, and it had to look cool. So it pretty much started with paint work. After that, I started making bodies. I also took the Vantage and the Kramer, and I hacked them up, and repainted the bodies, and from that point, it just kind of snowballed. And I just kind of caught the bug (for guitar building).

DRG: Did you ever have a job other than playing music or making instruments?

Brubaker: Well, that where the mechanical side and the tinkering side of me kind of came together. I did some construction work. I owned my own remodeling business. I did about 20 years of those kinds of things. When I worked for the construction company, I used to — on their time — bring my bodies and stuff in to use their routers and tools to make instruments. I still got all my construction work done, of course, but I would use their tools, because I at that point, I could afford tools like that. So I made stuff, and I used it on gigs. I played professionally since I was 21. And I would get excited by making something and then taking it out on a gig and using it. And as it progressed, I talked to other local players to see how they felt about the instruments (I was building). To get their feedback and see if I was headed in the right direction. And after about ten years of that, I finally started building instruments to see if I could sell them. And once I actually sold one, I got even more hooked! And I also think the Paul Reed Smith story inspired me to make it a business

DRG: Yeah, and for those who don't know, that's a local Maryland success story. Starting out of the garage . . .

Brubaker: I think a lot of guys were inspired by that. Making something out of nothing and turning it into a huge business. It's a big deal.

DRG: So you started with basses. Why didn't you start with guitars?

Brubaker: Well about 13 years ago, I got involved with some partners that helped me take my business to a higher level. And I felt at that point, we needed to make guitars as well as basses, because I didn't want to get labeled as just one or the other. And that happens a lot in this industry. Whatever it is, whether it's pickups or amplifiers— once you get labeled, you're often doomed in other areas. So I figured that bass and guitar are similar instruments, but different animals. And there are a lot more guitarists out there than bass players. And though bass is my passion, to this day, I make as many guitars as I make basses. So we're doing something right on the guitar end, obviously.

DRG: But you don't have any formal training in making guitars do you.

Brubaker: Nope. I'm entirely self taught. Trial and error.

DRG: And hasn't that resulted in a lot of innovative things because you're thinking outside of the box and doing things other people haven't done before?.

Brubaker: Absolutely. But one thing that I've always done was to read on the subject, and I read all the magazines that talked about guitar construction, and I respect all the builders who were profiled, and I paid attention to all their opinions on woods and neck joints, and those kinds of things. But at the same time, I think a bit differently, and I wanted to be unique with what everything that I do. And when I used to read articles that stated this is the best way or that is the best way, it's just in my nature to say no, that's not really the way it is, and I would try to prove it wrong. And it would piss me off that everybody just sort of followed suit (without ever questioning it.) Someone would say this is the best way to do something, and the next thing you know, everyone was doing that. That always pushed me to try different things.

DRG: Such as?

Brubaker: Well, one of the main things that I've done since I started was to change the neck joint. The neck joint on my instruments is not a neck-through, a set neck, a bolt on, or a glue-in neck. It's kind of a combination of everything. I call it the neck-through bolt-on, because it goes deep into the body. And I felt strongly about that early on, because I felt that design it would give me a unique quality about the instrument from a construction standpoint. It something to set me apart (from other builders), and that's what we all try to do. So that's one of the things that I've done that I'm kind of known for — the neck joint.

DRG: It's sort of a hybrid between having a bolt-on and a solid, one piece neck. What are the advantages of having a bolt-on vs something else?

Brubaker: Well they say the bolt-on necks produce more of a growl in the instrument — at least on bass. For guitar, you get a bit more pronounced midrange areas. For neck-through, most builders will tell you that that approach gives you more sustain. There's so many theories and opinions on this subject, I try not to get trapped into any of those. Construction is a big part. A bolt-on neck can sound really crappy, or really good. It comes down to how well it was routed and how tight it is. I think the bolt-on neck was conceived by Fender and was done for production reasons so you can produce bodies and necks separately. A set neck is a different thing. A set neck is glued in right before it's finished. But a neck that's actually part of the body is very hard to produce, and that's why these instruments tend to cost more. But in my opinion, all of these designs have their own characteristics that give the instrument its own voice so that it speaks. And that's why Brubaker neck joints give the instrument its own, unique voice and character. Which is a selling point as well.

DRG: Ok. Let's talk a bit about woods. I know some customers want you to use specific wood types, but in general, when you're selecting woods for guitars, what are you looking for in wood types and body weights?

Brubaker: Well, there are a lot of alternative woods that guitar companies are going to probably have to start using, because the woods that are traditionally popular — like alder and mahogany — are becoming more and more scarce. Ash is a real abundant, but a lot of guitars are made of alder and mahogany because they're great tonewoods. I try to stick to that because if you you stray to far from that, you're not going to sell a lot of instruments. If you're too wild, or too crazy with your design or your woods, you're going to find a limited market of people. So I use a lot of mahogany. It sounds great. It's time-tested. It's a great tonewood for guitars. For bass, it's a little to warm, in my opinion. But it all depends on the piece of wood. Mahogany — just like any wood — can vary in hardness. Sometimes you'll get a softer piece of wood that'll produce a warmer, rounder tone. Sometimes a harder piece will provide — in my opinion — a bit more clarity to the instrument. So I use a lot of mahogany, but I also use a wood that looks like mahogany called Spanish cedar. I've put together a couple of Spanish cedar guitars, and their roughly the same weight as mahogany, but a little bit harder wood than mahogany, and I got some feedback from customers who've been saying how great and clear the tone is. So that was just a little gamble I took on a different wood. Actually, the wood company I deal with just happened to be out of mahogany, so I tried the Spanish cedar, and it worked. But I've tried a lot of woods. On guitars I've used mainly mahogany, but I've also used alder, korina, black limba, ash, and they all have their own characteristics. But if the guitar is made well, and the mechanics are solid, with the neck joint, it's gonna sound great. They're gonna have their own tonal characteristics, and the pickups and everything else dictate where that guitar is going tonally.

DRG: But based on the wood for the Dinosaur Rock Guitar style of heavy guitar tone — Gary Moore's tone comes to mind . . .

Brubaker: Gary Moore plays Les Pauls.

DRG: He played Strats and superstrats too.

Brubaker: I know, I know, but that heavy mahogany body, man . . .

DRG: So you think that for that heavier guitar tone . . .

Brubaker: That chunkier tone — the thickness. Those Les Pauls I've seen him playing. You get a good solid piece of mahogany, and you can get some serious Gary Moore tone there.

DRG: Can you talk about the weight of the wood, because a lot of people feel the lighter the guitar, the better.

Brubaker: Well, everything has to fall into place. (A guitar) has to have the right weight. It has to play good. It has to sound good. It has to look good. And weight is a big factor. I've put together guitars out of a lightweight wood called catalpa — (a wood similar to Alder) that probably no one has heard of. And it's a great sounding wood. It's lightweight. Very resonant. It's not too light, but it's kind of right in the zone, and that's what we look for to satisfy the customer. There are actually customers who want a heavier, rock solid instrument. I had one guy tell me he didn't feel like he played a good gig because the guitar was too light. He'd been a Les Paul guy and the weight wasn't right for him. I know that sounds very strange.

DRG: Well it's still a pretty subjective thing, depending on who you're talking to. A lot of people feel a lighter body provides more bass.

Brubaker: Yeah, there really is no right answer. But as I said before — and I tell my customers this: construction plays a huge part (in the sound of the guitar). If the mechanics are working well; the neck joint is tight, the frets are tight, if every part of that guitar is tight, you're going to get a different tone that a guitar that's constructed poorly. (With a guitar that's mechanically sound) You're going to have a rock solid tone. Woods are a big deal too, but that all depends on the customer.

DRG: So why do bass players want these super heavy basses if a lighter body produces more bass.

Brubaker: Well they don't necessarily want super heavy bodies. Like with guitars, you want the weight to fall right in a specific range. And for bass, what you want is definition. A harder wood produces more definition than a lighter weight wood. It's true of both guitars and basses, but it's especially true of (and important it) basses. I've built some mahogany bodied basses and they're very warm, but the do have definition, because construction dictates how the instrument is going to speak. But the harder the wood on basses — specifically in the neck joint area, is going to make the sound tighter. And bass players have to have that definition to cut through the guitars. And the same general principles hold true for guitar. You want warmth, but you also want definition But certain woods that work well for guitar, such as mahogany,. don't necessarily work as well for bass in my opinion. Woods like maple and ash work great for bass. They work for guitar too, but it depends on what the player wants. If you want warmth, you need to seek out the softer woods. If you want more definition, it comes from the harder woods.

DRG: How about fingerboards? Rosewood vs maple and so on.

Brubaker: I agree with the prevailing opinion that the darker fingerboard woods produce a darker tone, and the lighter woods produce a brighter tone. Maple yields a bright tone. As a bass player, I like maple fingerboards. I like the snap it produces. It responds very well. Ebony is a very hard and tight sound. Rosewood kind of falls between the two. The Brazilian rosewood holds a mystique, but it's not my thing, personally. I don't think it makes the guitar sound sound so sweet, etc. I think it's the total construction. But again, as a builder, you better stick to these time-tested woods if you want to sell instruments.

DRG: Let's talk a bit about fretwork. How do you do your fretwork?

Brubaker: Well, we really do everything from scratch. Necks, fingerboards bodies everything is done from raw chunks of wood (as opposed to pre made necks and board blanks). The necks are shaped, the fingerboards are radiused. Once that's done, we put them on a little jig — some specialty machines we've made — which is something probably everyone in this industry — small or large — has done because you can't buy them. Everyone has different scale lengths. Mine is 25 1/8th. So I made a 25 1/8, 24 fret slotting saw. There's 24 blades that all spin at one time. So we put it on this little jig and run it through and it cuts all the slots to the proper depth. Once that's done, we take the same fretwire everyone else uses, cut it (into frets) and superglue them in, and press them in.

DRG: So it's all done by hand?

Brubaker: Yes. It's all very labor intensive, of course

DRG: As far as playability is concerned, can you discuss the difference between small frets vs jumbo frets as they relate to playability.

Brubaker: It seems like the rock guys generally like the jumbo frets. But every time I start making generalizations it that way, somebody throws me (an exception). The fretwire is a personal thing. On most of the instruments that I build, I use a medium jumbo fretwire on guitars and a jumbo fretwire on bass. But on guitars I build custom, there are guys who hone right in on that and have to have smaller fretwire. They still play rock, and it doesn't matter. I don't get it sometimes, but the underlying premise is that jumbo fretwire is better for rock, and for the rockers.

DRG: And the thinner frets are for who? Country players, jazz guys?

Brubaker: I guess, but I can't pinpoint it. I've made several hundred guitars and have had several hundred customers, and everybody's different. What do you like?

DRG: I don't know. I don't know what to put on there.

Brubaker: I think I put medium jumbos on your guitar. They're kind of tall. It's a lot of fret. The fret does dictate your sound a little bit. It plays a part in your sound.

DRG: So the bigger the fret equates to what?

Brubaker: Well, if you put in a bigger taller fret, your fretboard is gonna last a little longer. And you're adding more metal to your fingerboard. You're gonna get a little more meat in your tone, I guess. And it is pretty rare for guys to request thin fret wire if they're playing classic rock.

DRG: What's your take on the Buzz Feiten tuning system?

Brubaker: I can't really say because I've never tried it or used it. From what I understand, it make guitars play in tune, and makes your intonation points better. But I've never had any complaints (with the even temperament system). I like trying new things, and at some point maybe I'll look into it, but I haven't had any call for it yet.

DRG: Let's talk about the pickups you use. I consider it a very hot, very lively, very powerful configuration.

Brubaker: A lot of players like that combination of the (Seymour Duncan) 59 and the JB. It's a good combination. It's versatile. But again, it's a personal thing. People who are building a custom guitar, nine times out of ten, they'll know what pickups they want. If they need me to steer them, I tend to steer them toward the 59 and the JB.

DRG: And you're using a coil splitter in a lot of cases too, which gives the guitar a real hot single coil sound.

Brubaker: That twang.

DRG: Yeah, for me that's one of the reasons to have a guitar like this. To get a lot of versatility out of one guitar rather than hauling a lot of guitars on a gig for specific tones, you can have a guitar that does a lot more.

Let's talk a bit about the tremolo system you use on your guitars, because it's really cool, and a lot of people don't want to deal with locking trems anymore. What you're putting on your guitars isn't a locking system, but you can still beat the hell out of it — either up or down — and the guitar stays in tune. It's really a great whammy system. Give us a little insight into that.

Brubaker: That's another case of trying to do something original. It came from having that neck joint that I use. The neck goes so far into the body — almost all the way to the bridge pickup. So when I started thinking about a tremolo, I couldn't put the springs where they'd normally go on a guitar with a standard tremolo. So to adapt to make a tremolo fit the guitars I'm making, we had to use a rear mounted spring tension system. But I knew there was a system out there called the Point Classic system, and that's what I use to this day. To my knowledge, no one else is using this system — at least not on a large scale. And what plays a big part in the guitar staying in tune is the the fulcrum system that it pivots on. Instead of pivoting on a knife edge system, like on a standard trem, this has more of a ball and socket kind of thing where the trem actually pivots on very sharp points. They're very hardened steel points, and I trust them. They stay in tune. And the whole system adds something to the sound. I can't really pinpoint exactly what it is, but it does. You've used the system, what do you like about it?

DRG: Well, I find the locking trems too cumbersome. My hand doesn't sit on it right. And I'm not very mechanical, so I don't like having to mess around with it. And like with the PRS tremolos, it only has so much range of motion in it. You can't do the real extreme dives and such. With this system you can.

Let's discuss something else that really subjective, I like a very responsive guitar. For example, I like a guitar that easily produces harmonics at different places along the neck. That's one things people rave about on your guitars. How do you get such good harmonic response?

Brubaker: Once again, it's in the construction itself. The scale length I use (251/8th") is within the right zone. Fender is 25.5" PRS is 25," Gibson is 24.75". And the construction dictates the way the strings vibrate and how the harmonics vibrate. Pickup placement has a lot to do with getting the harmonics. Without going into a lot of detail, you definitely want them in the right spot.

DRG: What about nut material?

Brubaker: Graphtech makes a great nut, and that's what I use. It's a hard material. It's a self lubricating nut for trems and everything. Honestly, I haven't really deviated from that much, so I'm no expert on that.

DRG: Well then, lets talk about finishes, because that's one thing that really stands out on your instruments. You do something that I'd never seen before by extending the body finish to the fingerboard on certain models, using spalted maple and such. Please explain what spalted maple is and why you use it.

Brubaker: Spalted maple is just a highly figured wood that's basically rotting as it's growing. That doesn't mean it's rotting out. If it is rotting out, you can't use it. But the spalting can be caused by bacteria in the wood, something an insect has left behind, water getting into the wood. But it produces this very cool streaking. And one reason I got into using it is that fingerboard inlay work isn't really my (strength). I'm really much better at construction, paintjobs, and finishes. I found a great source for the spalted wood, so I thought wouldn't it be cool to extend a theme all the way up the fingerboard like a piece of art. It's very tricky to do and hard to work with, but in the end, it looks VERY cool and people really dig it!

DRG: Well one guy who uses your instruments that the DRG folks would know is Rev Jones from the Michael Schenker Group.

Brubaker: He has three of my basses. Rev's a cool guy. And he didn't want anything really fancy. Just a basic bass with a passive setup. Which is kind of odd, because most bassists love active electronics. Yeah, Rev is also a Fender endorser, and he wanted me to build him a neck for his Fender bass, because he didn't like their fretless stuff. But once he played my basses, he just fell in love with them, so instead of building him a neck—which I didn't want to do — he just ended up with three Brubaker basses.

DRG: Tell me about the active electronics module in your basses.

Brubaker: Bass players love active electronics. In fact, I think Rev Jones is the only bassist I've ever built a passive setup for. There's so many manufactures making preamps with tonal variations in the midrange and the bass frequencies. Midrange is a big deal on bass. You've gotta be able to cut through when you're playing with guitarists. Active electronics help you do that by boosting your signal across all your frequencies. And what we've done here is to come up with a solution to accommodate several different preamps. This is because I constantly have customers who always want to try the next new preamp that comes out. And there are several on the market. So what we did was to create one module that fits in the bass, and a second module for the preamp that fits into the first module, and pops in and out with the push of a button. So the customer can have as many preamps as he wants in that one particular bass, instead of having to have a lot of basses with different electronics in each. And I know other companies have tried similar things, but with ours, you don't even know it's there. It's great from a production standpoint. It's great from a gigging standpoint, if you want to take extra preamp modules on a gig for versatility or as a backup if something goes wrong with one. Or a studio bassist could have five different preamps in a bag to use on a session. So it's a cool concept and we're moving forward with that, and though most guitarists don't want active electronics, some do, so we'll eventually make it available for guitar

DRG: You're getting a patent on it and it's gonna turn the whole industry on its ass.

Brubaker: That would be wonderful. Hopefully it'll make me rich!

We at the Dinosaur Rock Guitar would like to thank Kevin Brubaker for taking the time to answer our questions. Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved.