Build-A-Bass Event at Ithaca College Revitalizes the Tradition of Bass Making

By Erika Walsh, June 22, 2017

Build-A-Bass Event Revitalizes the Tradition of Bass Making

What does it take to build not just one, but three, double basses over the course of one week? “No sleeping, no food breaks,” says Dustin Williams, an organizer of the International Society of Bassists’ Build-A-Bass event. “We’re here from 8 a.m. to midnight, every day.”

Last week, as part of the 2017 ISB convention, 45 bass makers — also known as luthiers — gathered in the Dillingham Center Scene Shop at Ithaca College, maneuvering past woodchips and power tools to strive towards this ambitious goal.

At the 2015 convention in Fort Collins, Colorado, Williams and Paul Hart, another event organizer, met their first groundbreaking goal when they assembled 42 luthiers to complete an entire double bass, and half of an additional bass, in one week — it takes at least three months for a bass maker to complete one on their own. But the group pulled it off. Hart says it’s the quickest he’d ever seen one completed. “I think we set a world record,” he said.

Associate Professor of Performance Studies Nicholas Walker serves as the president of ISB and helped bring the convention to campus, which brought in about 1,500 people from 33 countries. Walker believes that Ithaca College’s roots as a music conservatory continue to influence the campus, making Ithaca the perfect location for this event to take place.

“The mission of ISB is to inspire, educate, and connect,” said Walker. “The mission of the Ithaca College School of Music is to transform the human condition through the art and practice of music. These ideas are very much linked.”

Events like this also put a contemporary spin on an ancient art. Luthiers have been around for thousands of years, and Williams says that in the past, the tradition of building instruments encouraged secrecy and protectiveness over ideas. “Twenty years ago this would have been inconceivable,” said Williams. “Within the last 15 years, bass makers have begun communicating with each other, sharing our tricks and what we know.”

For Williams, this new tradition of collaboration is one of the most rewarding aspects of the process. “There’s a lot of sharing ideas,” he said, “People from Italy, Brazil, Australia, all corners of the world are here working together. This is certainly something you don’t see every day.”

The event encourages mutual appreciation and communication not only between bass makers, but also between musicians and luthiers. “It’s really nice when musicians come up and they’re awe-inspired by how we make the instruments,” said Williams. “In turn, we’re inspired by them because they take these instruments and play them.”

The bass makers ended up completing two and a half professional-quality double basses by the end of the week. One of the basses was raffled off at the convention and the other, varnished after the event, was donated to Kiefer Fuller, a rising senior at Ithaca College.