Sounds great! But the design…
It was year 2000. My first Musikmesse as an exhibitor. I bunked at my German colleague Magnus Krempel’s home near Frankfurt, and so did this certain tall bass player from Germany. He was demoing at Musikmesse, and we ended up sharing a car to the show and back every day. We had good laughs on the rides, and during those days we became good friends.
I didn’t make basses at the time at all, so there was no “business tension” of any kind – which was very relaxing. The bass player’s name was Markus Setzer, and I also got to know his lovely wife Sabine Reimer, as they had a vocal / bass duo, and we enjoyed each others company a lot every year as we met at Musikmesse.
A Ruokangas bass? Not yet!
Eventually, a few years later, Markus asked me if I could make him a bass. I refused, cause I didn’t have the time to expand in this way at the time. I was intrigued of the idea though – and not least because I knew that one of our specialities – thermally aged tonewood – could help us in making an exceptional bass if it was built the right way. But anyways, time went by, and maybe Markus had forgotten about the whole thing, I don’t know.
Then in 2006 I showed up at Musikmesse with a bass prototype. I didn’t put it to our exhibition stand, but instead I handed it over to Markus for testing and to hear his opinion.
The design sucks!
Some weeks after the show he called me up and said that the bass does some things that a bolt-on bass shouldn’t do. He was very enthusiastic about the sound – and then he went on and blurted out that some of my design elements sucked big time… Ha!
Years go by…
I told him that it would be fun to continue develop this but most likely I won’t have the time anytime soon. So again a few years went by, until I hired my third luthier who happened to also be a bass player – and we continued to develop the bass further.
The birth of the Steam bass
As it often goes, pieces started to fall into their places in a miraculous way. As it turned out, Markus was still very interested in my bass project, that I had named Steam. I’ve had that name stored for a long time for my first bass model – it comes from the analogy of steam engine locomotives – the rhythm and power of those gigantic machines. The bass name bears also a nod to Peter Gabriel, one of my favorite singers of all time. Remember that song… with Tony Levin on bass..?
So we proceeded with Markus, and tweaked the shape, started looking for the perfect bridge, tuners and other bits and pieces. One of the key questions was the pickups.
Transparency in sound
I had worked with Harry Häussel for a long time, but Markus had no previous experience of Harry’s pickups. We started talking about what we want – and soon realized that both Markus and I look at the instrument in a very similar way. We want it to be musical, transparent and as richly responsive as humanly possible.
The same thinking goes to pickups – except that in good J-style bass pickups there are certain frequencies that need to be boosted, and others that are better to be diminished a little. I found out that Markus had thought about this very much – more than most musicians I’ve ever met.
Why don’t you push the EQ button, Harry?
Markus had a clear idea how the frequency response must be like, and so we went to talk to Harry about it. Harry’s response was something I had expected. He said: “Well, there’s no EQ button in passive pickups. It’s only thin copper wire and magnets! But – I have a hunch how we could maybe achieve this sound. Let me make you some prototypes!”.
This is it!
And so Harry did. I can’t recall how many stages of prototyping we went through with Markus and Harry, but the bottom line was that on every round we got closer to the target. And eventually the day came when Markus said the words: “This is it”. No need for more prototypes. And so we had the “official” Steam Custom pickups in our hands!
We don’t have very much photos saved of the build process of this bass, but I wanted to share this story with you anyways, cause it describes so well how things sometimes develop in such unexpected, yet unyielding way, if you just let them to..!