Tony Leicht of October Guitars

An Interview with Philip Snyder

12-string basses have come a long way since the first one was created back in 1978. Over the years new ideas and technologies have been applied to broaden the parameters of what a 12-string bass can be. We've witnessed all types of electronic possibilities ranging from very basic, traditional pickups and wiring to the incredibly elaborate Quad system. Other innovations have included a variety of body styles and construction methods. October Guitars has added neck-through construction to the list.

We took some time to talk with Tony so we could find out more about these innovative 12-string basses and how they came into being.

Tell me a little about your company and how you got into building guitars and basses.
October is basically a small custom shop. We started off doing basic setups, refinishing jobs, broken headstocks, etc. and over the years worked up to manufacturing. I got into building back in the early '80s, hanging out in a buddy's woodshop. We turned out some ugly stuff, most of it unplayable, but it was a great learning experience.

The October Guitars new shop is located in the historic Savage Mill in Savage, Maryland

You've been playing 12-string basses for many years. How did you become interested in them? What was your first introduction to the 12-string bass?
I can pinpoint the exact moment! I was listening to "Need Your Love" on Live at Budokan by Cheap Trick.  There's that lead section where Nielsen and Zander are playing in unison, and you hear Tom's bass thundering out those two notes behind it. I remember hearing that and thinking "What is THAT? A horn section... no... a keyboard... no...", and when I found out it was a 12-string bass, that was it. I started getting into 12s after that. So I guess it was Tom Petersson / Cheap Trick that got me into the 12s. Pretty much like everyone else.

When did you build your first 12-string bass? What was it like?
The first one I did was actually a conversion. I had an old Vantage set neck bass that I converted into an 8-string. That was a fairly simple operation. A few months after that, I went further and made it a 12-string. That took some work! I had to add more mass to the headstock and drill into the bridge. Afterwards it was extremely neck heavy so I did the old Alembic trick and routed a big hole under the bridge and put a big chunk of brass in there to offset the weight.

Your basses use a neck-through-body design. What factors led you to that result in designing your new basses?
All the Hamer basses I've owned over the years never lasted for me. Nothing against the Hamers, they're fantastic instruments. Maybe I was just hard on them or something but the necks would never hold up. They would either warp, twist, crack at the neck joint, etc. So one day I figured the only way these things were going to handle all that tension in the long run was to make them neck-thru. I've seen companies put in two truss rods, graphite rods, etc., but that just takes mass out of the neck. I'm very surprised someone hasn't done neck-thru sooner to be honest, it's a practical solution. If the neck is the center part of the body, then the tension is distributed along the entire piece of wood. It doesn't put a strain on the set neck joint. I also use 5-piece opposing grain neck-thru necks, so those things aren't moving! The import line has a 3-piece opposing grain neck-thru.

What were some of your prototype 12s like? Did you begin with the neck-through design or did that come later?
There were actually only two prototypes before they became the normal run. I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do so there wasn't a lot of trial-and-error. I knew I wanted a neck-thru and I wanted to fix the neck-heavy issue that's so prevalent with 12s. The first prototype had a neck-thru neck with a "standard" neck width, patterned after an old USA Hamer 12; after talking with my brother who plays 12s all the time he suggested to make the neck wider than "normal". That way it would be easier to do chording and make it easier for players who like to use their fingers as opposed to a pick. It has a very distinctive feel. I'm pretty happy with it.

Have you considered adding different body styles to your line of 12s? If so, what can we look forward to?
Oh yeah, there will definitely be some different body styles. We have a model called the Rage that will be available in a 12. And being a custom shop first and foremost, we'll make anything you want into a 12. How about a Randy Rhoads harpoon head 12? Additionally, we're an authorized Buzz Feiten shop and I want to try to do the Buzz Feiten system on a 12. With all those strings that's a LOT of room for off intonation.

The trend lately has been for 12-string bassists to favor passive electronics in their 12s. Have you considered creating a model that has no active electronics?
I understand that active electronics aren't for everyone but I think they're necessary in a 12-string bass. The reason being is that normal production line bass speakers carry a certain frequency range. Some are a greater range than others but for the most part they all produce a frequency range that is considered the acceptable range for a bass guitar. They are not made to cover the intense range of frequencies put out by a 12-string bass. (Note to reader: Invent specialty 12-string bass speaker, get rich, date supermodel.) I've yet to meet a 12-string bass player that doesn't have some sort of EQ in their rig. The reason being that they need to tweak the EQ to get all those frequencies heard. If you use passive pickups in a 12 and combine that with an on-board preamp you'll still get the organic sound of a passive pickup, but be able to boost / cut certain frequencies to get an overall good reproduction of the unplugged bass though a bass rig.

I'm not a big fan of active pickups but I definitely support the passive pickup / active preamp combination for 12-string basses. I think that's the only way to get a true representation of their unique tone, unless you run a 3-amp rig like Tom Petersson or a stereo rig like Billy Sheehan.

John Gallagher, bassist for Raven, gets crazy with a guitar at the new October shop.

What types of wood are you currently using in your 12s? Have you experimented with different tone woods in building 12-strings? 
We're currently using mahogany for the neck-thru and a heavier maple for the body wings. This is how we defeated the neck-heavy problems associated with 12-string basses. Our 12s are very well balanced. The maple / mahogany combination is a time-tested combination, and I personally think it's the best as far as a warm, solid tone with clarity and punch. Usually it's the other way around: maple neck, mahogany body. In the custom shop we've done guitars and basses out of a lot of exotics, like cocobolo for instance, which is a heavy, dense wood in the rosewood family. That gives a very deep, resonating sound. It almost sounds like you're playing an electric viola. With the USA 12-string basses, they come in a lot of transparent finishes so for the 5-piece neck we'll use 3-piece mahogany, but sandwich two pieces of an exotic like wenge or zebrawood in there for a 5-piece neck. It adds a little more rigidity, and it looks nice in a transparent finish.

What are your favorite tone woods and why?
See the above maple / mahogany combo. It's just screams "rock & roll" to me!

How would you best describe the ultimate 12-string bass sound? What tonal elements were you shooting for when designing the October 12s?
I would describe the ultimate 12-string bass sound as being able to hear exactly what you hear when the bass is unplugged, just around 80 decibels. In these days of processors and modeling amps, people tend to forget that the basis of your sound is the guitar itself: The wood, hardware and construction of the instrument. If your 12 sounds good unplugged, you'll get a good foundation for a great amplified tone. If it sounds flat, you've got some work ahead of you. That's what I was shooting for with the October 12: It had to sound great unplugged. That's why we use brass nuts on them. It adds a tremendous amount of clarity, and combined with the tonewoods and neck-thru design you can feel the whole damn bass resonating. It's pretty cool.

Another neck-through October guitar is born!

You're currently offering import and USA-made versions of the October 12-string basses. Can you describe the similarities and differences between the two models?
I really wanted to put out a nice quality import, not just a cheap model to make a quick buck. I've been poor this long, what's a little longer? The whole point of an import line was to make them more affordable so the imports vary in few ways than the USA models. The imports have a 3-piece neck-thru design, brass nut, two October soapbar pickups with an active on-board preamp. The preamp is an active bass and treble knob, a volume, and a blend knob. They come in solid colors, flame and quilted maple tops in a veneer, and rosewood fretboards.

The USA models are 5-piece neck-thru design made from hand selected mahogany and Western Hard Rock maple (I select it myself) kiln dried at 7%, brass nut, and two Seymour Duncan Phase II soapbar pickups with an on-board preamp. The preamp is active treble, bass and midrange knobs, blend knob and volume. They come in solid colors, full " thick flame and quilted maple tops, and ebony fretboards with abalone dots.

Can your customers special-order basses to their specs? Are there any unusual custom 12s that you've built for customers?
Absolutely! The Custom Shop stuff is what I really like to do. You can special order anything from us. The standard USA models can be upgraded to custom shop status where you can pretty much call your own shots on body design, woods, electronics, inlays, etc.

If you were building a 12-string bass for yourself and money was no object, what would you build? 
Hmmm, I think I would make something completely out of really wild exotic woods with an oil finish. Exotic woods, especially rare woods like Curly Koa are extremely expensive. I love the look of natural woods. I hate to see them painted over sometimes!

What type of rig do you prefer with a 12? Do you have a favorite amp that you test instruments with at your shop?
Surprisingly, I really like the new Behringer BX300T heads. They work on a parametric system and have an Ultrabass switch that boosts the lower frequencies so I can dial in the higher frequencies with the Shape knob. It's very impressive, especially for the price.

Tony cuts loose after hours

The 12-string bass market has really blown wide open in the last few years with the sudden influx of import 12s available at a fraction of what 12-strings used to cost. How do you intend to keep your domestic models competitive with your import models?
I think there are always going to be low cost import instruments out there because they cater to the beginners who either really don't know what they're looking for or get better and move on to something else. So longevity isn't an issue for those instruments. I mean, we all know what's going to happen to a bolt-on 12-string bass neck over time.

The crowd I'm making the imports for are guys who've been playing awhile and know a quality instrument when they play it, but at the same time may have a family and other responsibilities that keeps them from dishing out $1500 plus for a more "popular" instrument. Our imports are going for the same price as some of the more popular imports, but we make ours better. Those other imports go from a ship to a music store.  Ours come to our shop, where we go over them completely. We dress the frets and do all the neck (action and intonation) adjusting by hand right here. And, if one doesn't meet up to our standards it has a quick and painless meeting with Mr. Bandsaw. So in a nutshell, we're making a better mousetrap for the same price as all the other mousetraps. Eventually word of mouth will take over. As far as our domestic line, they're all hand made.

What do you see in the future for October Guitars 12-string basses? Are you recruiting any bassists to endorse your 12s?
I'm really hoping to expand the Custom Shop more to where we can put out some great, innovative instruments. It's a good feeling to create something out of nothing and that's what you do in a Custom Shop environment.

As far as endorsements, we've just sent a 12-string bass out to Monty Colvin, who I'm sure many of your readers know. We're pretty excited about that!

Thanks Tony for taking the time to answer our questions about your company and 12-string basses!

Be sure to check out the October Guitars website

Scott Leicht (Tony's brother) with Tom Petersson's Hamer B12A













Published May 1, 2005