THE LOW END
A Vintage Man of Modern Means
A few months ago, I had an L-series Jazz Bass
for some repair work. The bass was somewhat
modified, but tastefully and professionally done.
The owner explained that Roger Sadowsky had
done the mods about 25 years ago. As if his ears
were burning, I received an email literally the
next day from Roger about some content in my
then-current article. This was the first time I ever
corresponded with Roger, and a few months
later we sat down for this interview.
So were guys buying off-the-rack Fenders
and bringing them in for modification?
Actually, the objective was to find the best Pre-CBS bass out there. For the most part, they
were L-series J-Basses. Back then they were
under $800 and were considered a used bass.
This was before the vintage craze kicked in.
So what were the modifications being
done back in the day?
Once the vintage craze hit and old basses
became valuable, it no longer made sense
for me to mod these instruments, especially
when my work would actually devalue them.
That’s when I realized I could incorporate all
of my improvements into a new instrument.
Let’s say it’s 1960, and we go into Mr.
Peabody’s WABAC Machine. Leo Fender
asks, “Roger, what can I do better or
different?” What are your thoughts?
How did you get your start as a luthier
and custom builder?
My first “real job” was working for Augie
[Augustino] LoPrinzi repairing and building
acoustics from 1972–1974. Head Racquet
Sports had bought LoPrinzi, and the fit was not
right anymore. I then went to Medley Music in
Philadelphia, where I ran the repair department
for five years. Then I went out on my own.
How did this magical association with
basses start? Sadowsky items appear to be
Fender-inspired. Was this by design?
Believe it or not, I’m not a bass player; actually,
I’m a fingerpicker. I started playing out in the
late 60s and early 70s. Thirty years ago in New
York if you were a working bass player, you
played a Fender. The union book had two listings, one for acoustic bass the other for Fender
bass. Engineers and soundmen had the console
set for a Precision or a Jazz. They were not
going to readjust the board for anything else,
especially on a 40-minute jingle session.
First, the bass had to play fantastic, so I re-trued the fretboard and installed new frets, a
new nut, etc. Then a heavier bridge, shielding
and preamp were installed. Keep in mind this
was before there was a heavy devaluation on
doing stuff like this. For under $1500, the pro
player could have a world-class instrument.
Back in the early eighties, other than
Alembic and Music Man, no one was using
a preamp. How did you develop the con-
nection with preamp usage?
Alembic was the pioneer; they were the first.
In 1977, I was at a Gibson repair seminar and
I met Ron Armstrong of Stars Guitars. He
turned me onto their preamp and how to use
it. I used the Stars preamp, and when they
discontinued it, Ron recommended I use the
Bartolini TCT, which I used for the next eight
years. Then in 1990 I produced my own circuit.
What were some of the more memorable
basses you worked on?
Let me just say Leo had these basses correct
right off the bat, but they are built to a price
point. I made a few tweaks to improve the
design: easy truss rod access with the spoke
wheel, for example, and increasing the string
spacing from 19mm to 20mm, so the string
goes over the pole. I increased the fretboard
radius from 7-1/2 to 12 inches, increased the
thickness of the headstock and placed graphite strips in the necks, not for stability but for
reduction of dead spots. I use chambered bodies for weight reduction and increased resonance, and of course, active electronics, hum-cancelling pickups and electrostatic shielding.
These are some of the design improvements.
I have to ask why you made the
I have found that mass on the headstock
improves tone and eliminates or lessens dead
spots. In fact, I have found that lightweight
tuners will make dead spots worse.
Roger and me at the time of the interview
One of the earlier notable
basses I worked on was for a
player named Tony Conniff. It
was an early, Olympic White
P-Bass—that was the first bass
on which I installed the Stars pre-amp. That bass was incredible!
Another bass was from a young
player named Marcus Miller. He
received the full treatment, and
as we say, the rest is history.
So how or why does one make
the transition from a hot-rod
luthier to an iconic brand?
Why do you think that basses of this type
have gained such popularity?
The old stuff has become too valuable to tour
with, and they’re irreplaceable.
The Lowdown Wrap-up
I would like to thank Roger for his
hospitality. Please check out sadowsky.com.
Until next time, drop the gig bag and
bring the cannolis!
Kevin Borden has been a bass player since 1975, and is
currently President of Goodguysguitars.com.
Feel free to call him KeBo.
He can be reached at