Sometimes musicians make the best builders. Starting with his love for playing the guitar, Andy Rothstein expanded his knowledge to include the technical aspects and artistry of guitar mechanics and design. He is now building instruments that can hold their own against the toughest competition. Andy's hands-on approach has resulted in the Buzz Feiten tuning system being incorporated into the 12-string bass for the first time, as well as a new electronics configuration. Thanks for talking with us Andy!
I'm going to throw you a little curve to start. Who is Andy Rothstein?
That is a tough one! Well, I recently turned 40 and if I haven’t figured it out I guess I never will. I think the opening line of my bio on my website says it all: “I am a guitarist. I have been so for 25 years.”
You were in the band Mary’s Magnet with Tony Senatore, and also played on Tony’s “Holyland” album. Are you still an active player? Had you and Tony collaborated on any instruments before the Andromeda?
Yes, I am still an active player. Although I don’t keep the same gigging pace I did when I was younger, I am always playing and writing. In fact, I am in the process of completing a solo CD and I’m honored to have some very accomplished players on the record including my Andromeda partner Tony Senatore (bass), Vinnie Zummo (guitar), Steve Jankowsky (trumpet), Tom Timko (sax), and Lou Petto (drums). I also perform with a country artist named “LINK.” Andromeda is the first instrument Tony and I have collaborated on.
How long have you been building guitars? Was it an easy transition going from player to builder?
I wouldn’t say easy but it just seemed like a natural transition. I actually view building as an extension of my musicianship. I think being a player makes me a better builder, and being a builder makes me a better player. I remember back in 1992 bringing some of my gear to a top-notch guy who is now a rather famous builder and I asked him, “How did you learn all this stuff?” He said he did a lot of reading and taught himself. Well, that encounter inspired me to teach myself as well. So gradually, from about 1992 to 1998, I taught myself how to perform all sorts of repairs; from the most basic procedures like pickup installation and setups to more advanced repairs like fret work, fretless conversions and Buzz Feiten retrofits. I'm entirely self-taught. I spent many hours reading, researching, working on junk guitars, developing and honing my skills and tooling up.
I eventually got to the point where I could take just about any guitar and transform it into a very playable instrument. The next thing I knew, all my friends and local players started bringing their guitars and basses to me and spreading the word! The next logical step was working on my own instrument designs. This led to the official start of Rothstein Guitars.
For me, building is really about the music above all else. I feel that I can relate well to the pro players and understand their needs because I am in fact a pro caliber player, too. When I create and implement a new design, I aim to solve issues that have always plagued me as a player.
Before the Andromeda bass, had you ever built a 12-string bass before?
Andromeda is my first 12-string bass. It is really Tony’s “Brain Child” and he came to me with the idea. He had such a clear vision in his mind that I decided to collaborate with him on the project. It had the “main ingredient” that is always most important to me. Tony’s vision was driven purely and entirely by his musicianship and not ego. He is a pioneer who plays the 12-string like nobody else before in that he sounds remarkably “orchestral” with his approach. He had some very specific ideas to improve the instrument and they all made perfect sense.
Are there any special situations that must be taken into account when building a 12?
I think one main thing is the incredible tension that 12 strings place on a neck. For that reason we used quarter-sawn maple (which is very strong), as well as a double truss rod system. It is actually very easy to adjust the truss rod on this bass, and very small adjustments go a long way. The next big factor was getting just the right amount of neck angle for a great setup with low action. And a third issue was how to design the electronics to switch between mono and stereo modes, which we accomplished with a mono / stereo mini-switch.
Do you have any favorite woods with which you prefer to work?
I prefer any wood that doesn’t require grain filling (laughs). No seriously, I love the tone of both Mahogany and Northern Swamp Ash especially for a bass. Both provide excellent sustain and resonance, but I find Mahogany generally to be a bit warmer and Ash a bit brighter.
What do you think are the most important considerations for building a really good sounding bass guitar?
I think the end result should always be an instrument with excellent sustain and clarity, coupled with smooth playability up and down the neck. Aside from that, a very important consideration is to clarify the player’s expectations and goals. Will it be used primarily on the road or in the studio? What are the player’s thoughts about active circuitry and having to change a battery? What kind of tone is he / she looking for and what kind of music does he / she play? What is the primary amp the bass will be played through? For example, if the player has a rather dark sounding rig, often a brighter sounding wood makes for a nice contrast, and the reverse is true as well.
You were the first to include the patented Buzz Feiten tuning system in a 12-string bass. Was this a difficult thing to do? Why do you think it hasn’t been done before?
Difficult? No. Why it hasn’t been done before? I have absolutely no idea. I suggested it to Tony because it made perfect sense to me and he agreed that it would be worth a shot. Tony sometimes plays the 12-string with some kind of pedal tone (low D or E) with some kind of chordal melodies on top, and the Feiten system really helps sweeten up the intonation.
What are your views on active versus passive electronics?
I am generally of the opinion that you will achieve the most “organic” tone with passive pickups. Overall, I find it preferable to let the synergistic combination of wood, bridge, pickups and “playing” provide all the character and overtones needed. That being said, everything has a place and that is true for active circuitry too. If the active circuit isn’t being used to compensate for a lack of tone or musicianship, then it can be a useful color. Although the Andromeda is entirely passive, I will mention that Rothstein Guitars has just started to offer a very compact active mid-boost for guitars called “Fat Tuesday” that produces a very substantial sound.
The Andromeda electronics are complex. How tough was it to figure out the wiring in a 12-string bass?
The wiring isn’t really difficult, it just took a bit of effort to find the most intuitive configuration for stereo operation. We decided to have two modes: Stereo and Mono. In stereo mode, each pickup gets an independent volume, output jack and varitone which can be sent to two different amps simultaneously. In mono mode, the entire system gets routed to a single output jack. Another cool part of the Andromeda is the use of two varitone controls, instead of standard tone controls. The varitone provide some very cool fixed tonal filters. Each varitone has six positions, one of which is a true bypass. I aimed to voice each varitone for the two very different pickups (ceramic bridge and alnico neck). Both pickups were hand wound by Kent Armstrong. I would also like to point out that the control cavity is completely shielded with high grade copper foil so the Andromeda is dead quiet.
Tell us what goes into the design of a new instrument. Do you use a computer and CAD software?
We design the shapes using graphics software, and then give that to our subcontractor to be cut using CNC machines. All the circuits are laid out using software as well as you can see with all the wiring diagrams posted on the website.
You do a great deal of custom work. Do custom instrument buyers usually know what they want when they walk through your door or is there some ‘hand holding’ involved?
Most customers have a good idea as to what they want. Part of the process, which I enjoy, is to help clarify these goals. I’ll always ask questions about what kind of music they play, the amps they use, are they going to be gigging / touring with the instrument, recording, what do they feel is lacking in their current instruments, etc...
What are your favorite finishes? What is the most unusual finish you’ve used? Are there any new building materials coming along that look to be particularly promising?
I am a big fan of translucent dyed finishes. I would say the most unusual finish I’ve applied was a translucent black burst on a Strat. As far as building materials / supplies, I must say that Stewmac (Stewart MacDonald) is always coming out with amazing toys for luthiers!
What do you think is your best work? Where do you see yourself in five years? And is there anything specific for which you would like to be remembered?
I would have to say my best work is the Andromeda 12-string since it is the most unique instrument I have worked on. In five years I would like to improve and grow as a builder, player and person. I would like to be remembered for being a man of principles.
When you aren’t playing or building guitars, what do you like to do for fun?
I’m a bit of a sports fan. I enjoy going to NY Mets and NY Giants games, and playing sports with my 4-year old son.
Finally, if you could be any kind of food, what would you be, and why?
How about a big bowl of linguine with white clam sauce. The real question isn’t why, but rather “Why not?”
Editor’s note: This interview was originally published on December 4, 2005.