Bass maker to the stars tells his story, from early customers Will Lee and Marcus Miller right up to today!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
April 22, 2013
Roger Sadowsky is one of the most highly respected instrument manufacturers in the world. Sadowsky instruments have been played by guitarists Jim Hall, John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny, Lee Ritenour, Earl Klugh and dozens of others. The list of bassists who play Sadowsky includes everyone from Marcus Miller, Roscoe Beck, Oskar Cartaya, and Jason Newsted to Michael Rhodes, Darryl Jones, Verdine White, Will Lee, Rickey Minor and many others. Sadowsky Guitars, based in New York, was founded in 1979.
FBPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing?
RS: I grew up in the ’50s with a Dad that listened to Sinatra, Nat King Cole and even Josh White. My mother mostly listened to Broadway musicals. I took piano lessons for four years until my teacher told me I was wasting my parents’ money!
FBPO: It almost seems like you fell into your present career by accident. Weren’t your original career aspirations pretty far removed from the music world?
RS: I was half way to a PhD in psychobiology, studying animal behavior. It was 1972 and Nixon was cutting all the funding to the sciences and a future in science and academia did not look very promising then.
FBPO: Can you identify a defining moment, a turning point that brought about this dramatic change in career paths?
RS: I began to play guitar in the spring of my junior year in college. I was learning to fingerpick and playing Gordon Lightfoot and Paul Simon tunes. During graduate school, I got in with a group of professional folk musicians and admired all of their vintage Martin guitars. I got obsessed with the guitar and had this romantic notion that if I could learn to build them, I could escape from the rat race, live in the country and musicians would beat a path to my door. After a year of writing to guitar makers all over the world with no success, I finally got a job with Augie LoPrinzi, who was building acoustic guitars in New Jersey.
FBPO: I don’t think the list of instruments you played while growing included a bass. How did you end up being the go-to guy for so many bass players?
RS: I started building my own electric guitars in 1979 and basses in 1982. When I began my business in 1979, I was primarily doing repairs and restorations for all the top studio players in NYC. All the top bass guys were coming to my shop…Will Lee, Marcus Miller, Neil Jason, Francisco Centeno, John Miller, Sal Cuevas, John Patitucci, Zev Katz, Russell George, etc. I was also at the forefront of active tone circuits, which appealed much more to bassists than guitarists.
FBPO: Would you say the “seal of approval” you received from Marcus Miller and Will Lee served as the catalyst for launching your career as a luthier/bass maker, since they were among your first customers?
RS: I owe a great debt of gratitude to Marcus and Will for helping me gain recognition. They really gave me instant credibility.
FBPO: What distinguishes the Sadowsky line from other instruments, particularly your basses?
RS: First of all was my commitment to staying small and wanting to sell direct to the player, rather than to music stores. I really like to deal direct with the player and see the process through, from design to completion. I think my background in acoustic instruments helped me build a lightweight, acoustically resonant instrument. And my background in shielding and hum cancelling technology produced instruments that were significantly quieter than many others on the market. Of course, I have always had a reputation for being “picky” and a stickler for quality, regarding both materials and workmanship.
Another factor is the fact that I located myself where the best players are and always looked to their feedback to discover what works and what doesn’t work in the real world. For example, in 1982, there were two listings for bass in the 802 Musicians Union directory: “Acoustic Bass” and “Fender Bass.” At that time, all electric basses were considered Fender basses. There was very little acceptance in the studios and among engineers for anything other than a Fender. So that is why my instruments are so Fender-inspired. It was the only way to get players to feel comfortable bringing them to the studio.
FBPO: A lot of people might not be aware that you make more than guitars and basses. What other products do you offer?
RS: In addition to my solid body basses and guitars, I also have a line of archtop jazz guitars and my MetroLine of basses, which are made by my crew in Japan and are sold through dealers worldwide. I have a line of accessories, which include by Preamp/DI Pedal, several preamp kits for retrofitting into other basses, a line of polish and cleaners and my Sadowsky Strings. We have an ecommerce store on my website that sells of all my accessories. And finally, after a 20-year hiatus, I am beginning to build flat-top acoustic guitars again.
FBPO: What about the future? What lies ahead for Roger Sadowsky and for Sadowsky Guitars?
RS: For the future, my goals are to just keep it going. I have ten employees to support and I have no plans to retire. There is nothing else I want to do than make instruments. Golf, Florida … those things just don’t speak to me.
FBPO: What would you be if your career hadn’t taken the path that it did?
RS: If I did not become a guitar maker, I would have probably stayed in school and would be teaching at a college somewhere. Otherwise, I would have been a chef or a photographer, perhaps.