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How many bass players do you know?…. How many people do you know who build custom bass guitars? And, how many bass players do you know who play AND build bass guitars? I’d venture to say, not many… Enter, Greg Olson, a man who not only heavily contributes to the Seattle music scene playing bass in multiple bands, but also handcrafts and plays his custom built Olympic Basses, with extreme passion and precision.
How long have you been playing bass and what was it about the instrument that drew you to it?
I’ve been playing for about 14 years. I started on guitar, then quickly moved to bass. It seemed like a more powerful instrument; able to hit harder and deeper than the guitar.
Who are your biggest influences, categorically?: favorite bass player(s); custom bass companies you admire most; favorite bands….
My favorite players are ones that use the bass as a conduit for their own individual voice, as opposed to holding fast to the traditions of the instrument being one purely of a supportive role. There is a lot of potential in the bass, and I love seeing a player who is melodically and rhythmically adventurous. Players like Les Claypool, Norwood Fisher, Justin Chancellor, Ben Shepherd, and Flea hit that spot for me. Ironically, one of my favorite bands currently is Animals as Leaders, a band with no bass player…
The same elements I seek out in players are ones I look for in builders as well. I admire luthiers that think outside the box, or ones that have a definitive and unique style. My inspiration for building came from Carl Thompson. He has a signature aesthetic that I fell in love with. The first few instruments of mine were stylistically derived from his work. Several other luthiers I follow are Rick Toone, Jens Ritter and Sheldon Dingwall. They’re all doing some incredible work.
You come up with really interesting bass lines in all the bands I’ve heard you play with. What’s your approach when contributing as a backing element to a singer/songwriter, and how do you escape the boredom and easy approach of just riding on root notes of that genre while still making your bass lines fit tastefully?
I like to keep it interesting by taking on multiple roles simultaneously; assuming the responsibility of a rhythm guitar player and a drummer. The bass can be a lead, low end, and rhythm instrument all in one. I like to play chords and use harmonics quite a bit to fill out a piece harmonically. Also, the use of rhythms that compliment and accentuate the main themes while simultaneously countering them to fill space is a tool I employ quite often. For example, I’ll be plucking the root notes of a chord with my thumb, matching the bass drum, while picking out harmonics on the higher strings to a rhythm that fills the spaces in between. Just those two voices playing against one another gives the illusion of a fuller band, which has helped fill out the sound of the various two and three piece bands I’ve played in.
How long have you been building custom bass guitars?
I made my first bass 5 years ago. It was a six string fretless specifically for learning Primus songs.
Has your current full-time job building autoharps had any influence in your approach to creating shapes and designs for your basses?
The area it has influenced the most has been on my attitude towards building in general. Playing an autoharp is as simple as it gets, but building them is a very complicated and labor intensive process. It has made me look at instruments differently altogether. I now know the huge amount of work required to make professional grade products. My job has really sharpened my attention to detail. Instruments are tools for making music, and a tool must be made with precision, comfort in feel, and longevity in mind to be effective.
In addition to the instruments themselves, it has shown me the massive amount of work it takes to run an independent business. Our operation is run by four people, so we all have a ton of different jobs and responsibilities around the shop.
Was there one, or several, areas when you first started building your basses that were really hard to master?
The fret work, definitely. It is incredibly tedious work. Both ends of each fret need to feel like they aren’t even there, and they must be level. My goal is to make a fretted bass feel and play like a fretless. A single sharp fret end can sour your entire experience, and a buzzing fret will do the same. There are no ‘alright’ or ‘passable’ fret jobs. It either feels right or it doesn’t, and an instrument HAS to feel right for a player to commit to it.
Another difficult, yet very valuable, skill to hone was template making. With the ability to make my own routing templates I can use any brand of pickups and any sized neck with any string spacing that a customer wants without having to commission the work out to an external company.
What do you see for the future of Olympic Basses?; Do you want to keep it boutique or scale it up into a full operation, something along the lines of our neighbors in Puyallup at Warmoth Guitars?
I think Warmoth is an amazing business. They have put heavily customizable instruments within reach of those who don’t have the tools to make one themselves. That being said, there is something more attractive to me personally about running my own small scale operation with my own designs. My goal for the future is to expand and increase production while retaining my current level of involvement in making the instruments.
Do you have any words of wisdom, thoughts, passing comments, secrets, or favorite non-music hobbies, you’d like to share with the readers of Audio Assemble?
My words of wisdom would be to follow your passion. Develop your passion into a skill and work every day to sharpen it. Stay tenacious and never let your drive lose momentum. Hard work and vision is everything.