Custom Bass Builder Jesse Blue O'Neal

Jesse Blue O'Neal of Ergo Instruments - Chattanooga, TN

An Interview with Mark Rowe

Very few instrument builders will tackle the complexities involved with 12-string and 15-string basses. Custom guitar builder Jesse Blue O'Neal is up to the challenge! After working for a high-end bass factory in the South, Jesse now runs his own company, Ergo Instruments, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.


So Jesse, please tell us a little about yourself.  How did you happen to get involved with designing and building guitars?
I started drawing up guitars when I was about nine years old, and doing repair work when I was twelve. It was the '80s so putting Floyd Roses in Strats and scalloped fretboards were among the first things I learned to do. I just wasn't afraid to take a router to somebody's axe. Dad is a carpenter so I just figured that it wouldn't be much different and I had access to tools.

When did you become interested in the 12-string bass?
I started toying with the idea of a 12-string after becoming a King's X disciple. They're still one of my favorites: Faith, Hope, Love has 'full rock power'. But I hated the narrow string spacing on the Hamer 12's, about the only ones available at the time. I then went to work at a 'boutique' bass factory, and pushed to make a 12-string the way I wanted to. So on my own time I did all the design work, and everything (we ended up having to redo the bass with a wooden bridge because the hardware just wasn't available) twice, but I was really happy with the end result.

The first 12-String Bass that Jesse built

Is this is your first 12-string bass? I'm curious about the headstock and why the tuning machines are arranged 7 on one side of the headstock and 5 on the other, rather than being the standard 6 on each side. I presume it's because they fit better given the shape of the headstock.
Yes, that's the one. It was really just because I'm not into tradition, so I typically will move stuff around as long as it doesn't hurt anything. In fact, if you can tell in the pics of the guitars I sent you (see below), the tuning keys are reversed, and the string goes over the top of the posts, but because the 'treble' strings are on the bass side and vice versa, the direction you turn the button stays the same... But yeah, that's the beast... Five piece purpleheart / wenge neck, walnut wings, with zebra top. Bartolini pickups, and macassar ebony bridge and fingerboard.

It went to the '97 LA NAMM show where I met one of my best buddies in the whole world- Jauqo III-X. He immediately took to the new 12-string, and had the bright idea for a 15-string with a course of high C strings. To show how brave he is, he also specified that it be a fretless!!! Now, as far as I know, that's the first 15-string ever. Really, if there was one before, Jauqo and I had no idea- this all came from him. Jauqo happens to like super-ultra-thin necks, so this bass (and all that have been made for him since) presented a series of design obstacles. The neck we made on that first bass still has the thinnest neck of any I've ever done - .625" thick! Obviously it had to have a custom truss rod made for it. The good news is that Jauqo also uses the lightest strings of anybody I know. I think the E string on one of his basses is like an .084" gauge... that's lighter than Mark King!

I'm amazed at how thin the neck is! How well is it handling the string tension? I presume that with lighter gauge strings the tension isn't nearly so severe.
As far as I know the 15 is doing fine, again, it's a nine piece neck, Ebony fingerboard, and really light strings. Also, the truss rod is something I made using 5/32" carbon steel stock. Typical truss rods use softer steel and 3/16" stock, making the route shallower by a significant bit.

Jauqo also had the first 9-string bass I've ever made. He has a great risk taking spirit that has really allowed me to explore my own limits (and walk right past them) as a builder, so I'm proud to have such a good working relationship with him.

Do you have certain woods that you prefer to use or does that vary with each instrument?
If I were making a 12 or 15-string, I tend to prefer multi-lam purpleheart, maple, or wenge as they're quite dense and stable, after that, I don't have any preferences for wood use. I just don't like to use tops on bodies anymore... especially figured ones as I prefer the more 'open' sound, and I tend to do a lot of carving that I can't do on thin tops. Also particularly quilted figures tend to move around a lot.

 

Regi Wooten with an 8-string upright bass, 6-string and 4-string versions,
and Gregory Bruce Campbell in action

Your Upright basses are cool! On the 8-string that Regi is playing, how is it strung?
I'm now in my own shop building Electric Upright basses. Included here is a pic of a coursed 8-string upright for Regi Wooten. Reg's bass is strung eE, aA, dD, gG.

 

Regi Wooten with an Ergo 10-String Bass

The 10-string bass you made for Regi is cool too. Can you give us more specifics about it? I know that Regi is best known as a guitarist, but I presume "The Teacher" is a pretty fair bassist too judging by the way his brother Victor Wooten turned out!
In fact, Reg tells me he gets as many gigs playing bass as he does on guitar. That makes sense considering there are four times as many guitarists as bassists in the world. And because Vic is 'famous', the name Wooten probably causes people to think 'bass', I don't know. His ten string is strung from quad low E (below the B on a 5-string) up to the Db a step and a half down from the high E of a guitar... and I can't play the damn thing.

9-String "Half 12-String" Guitar

I really like your designs! Very unorthodox. On the red Ergo guitar, it looks like the E, A and D are doubled and in octaves with the three high strings 'normal'. Correct?
Yes, the red guitar is 'half of a twelve string' as you described.

I'll still take on a guitar project as long as it's something weird, or at least something that nobody's seen before. Really a good many of those projects come from somebody who has talked to Jauqo about it in the first place!

Some of Jesse's 6-string and 7-string guitars

Do you play an instrument?
I play a 4-string, and when I want the coursed sound, I use a DigiTech Whammy pedal... Sorry, I know it's cheating, but in a bar, nobody notices either way.

Is the 4-string bass you are holding one that you made?
Of course it's a bass I made. In fact, it's to the point now that I can't play another bass. I've just gotten so much into the feel of this one that it's become too awkward.

Thanks Jesse! And good luck on your future projects!
Thanks again!
Jesse Blue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published January 1, 2004