Jason Burns hates Guitar Center.
Now, plenty of career musicians will happily trash retail music stores and their Wal-Mart-ized supply of overpriced and underwhelming instruments. But Burns isn't some bitter bluesman on a bar stool – he's the owner and lead builder at Blast Cult, an elite brand that makes upright basses for everyone from Willie Nelson to Cirque du Soleil. For Burns and his team, it's all about quality, quantity be damned.
“With the staff we have, 20 instruments maxes us out on a busy month, so we can keep the quality control right,” Burns says. “In those big-box stores, you have people fingering up these $200 guitars, and then [the stores] want to send them back to you because they're scratched … even five years from now, we'll only be able to make so many, so it's a little more special.”
Keeping their products special is more than a job to the Blast Cult bunch. The company logo describes their work as a “Sonic Religion,” making these luthiers (a fancy word for instrument-makers) clergy as much as craftsmen.
Building each upright bass is a four- to six-week process, and it all happens in Blast Cult's headquarters in Orange, tucked away in a nondescript office park a short distance from Anaheim Stadium. Every piece of each instrument is made by hand, from the first cut of wood to the last layer of eye-popping custom paint.
Launched from the ashes of Burns' previous shingle, King Doublebass, Blast Cult instruments are designed to stand up to the daily trials of working musicians. Each piece comes with the lessons learned over more than 20 years of trial and error, as Burns tried to keep his own instruments in one piece on the road. Upright basses are tricky – heat and humidity can cause glued wood joints to separate or warp, and bumps and bruises from touring can eventually tear a bass apart. “I used to spend nights after shows in my hotel room, gluing pieces back together,” the Louisiana native says.
The body of Blast Cult's signature 'One4Five' double bass is made from five-ply laminated maple and held together with Gorilla Glue, a foaming goo usually found in Home Depot, not an instrument workshop.
"It's a little nontraditional,” Burns says with a chuckle, "but if you're playing in a real warm climate, and you're going north for your next show, a 20 or 30 degree difference won't make your bass snap apart. [Traditional] glue will break apart in the heat, but with Gorilla Glue, the wood is more likely to break before the glue joints do.”
Blast Cult's instruments provide an antidote to upright breakdowns, especially for players outside of the jazz or classical world. Rockabilly, psychobilly and any other “billy” bassists can thrash away at their instrument without fearing for its life.
“You'll see guys out there slinging [bas[basses]und, dragging them across the stage, standing on them,” Burns said. “It's still a musical instrument, we don't design them as stepstools or ladders, but we want them to hold up.”
Capturing the range of the upright bass sound, especially for the slap players, is the gospel that sanctifies Blast Cult.
“No one wants to carry an upright, and all the gear that comes with it, just to get on stage and sound like an electric bass,” Burns says. “They want the sound.”
To that end, Burns and his sonic monks developed the Monolux pickups; an adjustable piezoelectric pickup encased in hardwood and designed to fight an amplified upright's worst enemy–feedback.
“Different rooms are going to sound different, since you're basically playing a giant speaker. If you get in front of a monitor, or too close to a microphone, certain frequencies are going to feed back,” Burns explained. “[The[The Monolux]s you dial out the frequencies that cause any craziness.”
The build-it-right-from-the-ground-up mentality has led to experiments in Blast Cult electric guitars and basses, and even effects pedals. Burns even managed to combine the two great loves of any rockabilly fan – music and Murray's pomade, the orange can of hair wax no greaser can live without.
“I'm not a guitar player, but I love guitar pedals. My original idea was to make a little delay, and stick it in a Murray's can,” Burns said. After some time in the lab, Blast Cult emerged with a “secret recipe” delay pedal based on their own circuit design, all housed under that famous tin lid.
“The pedal comes with a real can of Murray's and a comb,” Burns said. “The whole idea was to make something for rockabilly guys – this will make you sound cool, and it will make you look cool.”
The rabid commitment to sounding cool – let's face it, musicians always look cool, that's easy – has put Blast Cult basses in the hands of upright players around the world, creating a prestige among pro musicians that can go unnoticed by the average Guitar Center axe-groper.
“We're not out to give people a bass and say, 'Let us endorse you!'” Burns said. “There's not a lot of glory in this job, but there's a lot of self-satisfaction. When you finish an instrument with your own hands, that's pretty cool.”