Sheldon Dingwall – Fanning The Flames with Sheldon Dingwall
For Dingwall Guitars, building instruments is the most fascinating and fulfilling experience imaginable. It is the meeting place between the technical world of physics and engineering and the emotional world of soul and passion. Instruments from centuries ago are today still cherished, passed on from generation to generation. We believe that the instruments we build will share the same legacy. Because of this, we build every instrument with passion and reverence.
It’s just been a long journey of taking one step at a time. I often feel like it’s taken WAY too long to get to where we are now, but there’s a depth of experience that makes this season of business more solid than if it would have happened earlier in my career.
AI – Hello Sheldon, Thanks so much for taking some time out from your very busy tasks to talk with me and the readers here at The Daily Funk Club. Your instruments are unique, innovative, incredibly well crafted and very popular. Please if you will, let’s start at your beginnings in music, design and the love of both, and your early interest in instruments. What was your early life like? and what inspirations set you in motion on the path to become the acclaimed instrument builder you are today.
SD – Thanks for all you do to support the bass community Andy.
I grew up in a musical family. My mother taught piano lessons from our home. I personally started lessons at 4 or 5 years old. Before that I used to open tune a baritone ukulele and strum away on it. It drove my sister’s nuts because they’d have to re-tune it to play from the instruction book. Standard tuning made no sense to me at the time so I’d tune it open every chance I had. When it came to piano, I wasn’t given a choice, I had to study it. After a few years, my parents let me take drum and guitar lessons. I started teaching drums when I was 15 and guitar a little later on. I was in and out of bands for most of my teens and twenties. I never gelled with anyone on a writing level. My vision was heavy funk rock. Back then that combination was just weird. I guess I was just born too early.
My home town Saskatoon was the birthplace of the Canadian electric guitar industry. Glenn McDougall started Fury Guitar in 1962. As a kid I was aware of him and his company. So, just knowing of Glenn meant starting my guitar company was possible. So many times we give up before starting something because we assume it can’t be done or would be too difficult.
My art career ended in grade 6. I didn’t want to join the band but I had so much musical experience by then that they pulled me out of art class to play in the band. I haven’t had an art class since. Everything I’ve learned about design since has been self-taught. I had zero interest in wood or metalworking when in school so I didn’t take them other than the mandatory introductory classes. Wood and metal didn’t get interesting until I started building guitars.
When I was 20, I wanted a Floyd Rose but they weren’t available in Canada. I couldn’t even find a photo of one detailed enough to understand how they worked. So I designed my own and borrowed my uncle’s workshop to make it. The design was clunky but it worked. The thrill of making my own functioning guitar part was pretty cool – I was hooked. My next project was to build three guitars. My uncle mentored me in woodworking, metalworking and finishing. I took the bridge and guitars that I’d built out on the road and toured with them for 3 years. I carried a full tool kit with me and did lot’s of modifications on them using my hotel bed as a work bench.
After touring, I came back to Saskatoon to start a guitar neck manufacturing business. A local music store needed a repair person. After I’d done a few successful repairs, they offered me free space to set up shop. Necks led to bodies which led to full builds which led to basses which led to the pursuit of fanned-frets to improve the B-string on a 5-string bass.
AI – I’ve been enjoying my Dingwall bass big time!, it is unlike anything else I have, and I have many, the bass has quickly made it’s way to the front of pack in terms of my primary gigging choice. Your instrument’s feature several unique design factors that set them apart and offer a different playing experience. Let’s talk about fanned frets first, what led you to incorporating this, the benefits it brings to performance, and also the challenges of introducing such a bold design into the market place.
SD – I’m really glad to hear you’re enjoying your NG2. Fanned-frets are just a way to accommodate longer bass strings and shorter trebles on the same bass. If you look at a grand piano, you’ll see this is not a new concept. A fanned-fret bass is like a small slice of a grand piano. So when I was getting multiple requests for custom 5-string basses back in the early 1990s, I naturally turned to piano design for a solution to the problematic B-string. Piano builders figured this out centuries ago. The solution to the floppy B-string had been sitting there waiting on someone to apply it ever since.
Using fanned-frets and carefully selected strings accomplishes 3 things. 1. It increases the tension on the low strings, which evens out the tension across all of the strings. This means you can attack every string exactly the same way. You don’t have to change your technique depending on which string you’re playing. This frees you up to focus on expressing your music instead of accommodating your bass idiocrasies. 2. It evens the timbre across the strings. Meaning each string will have much more similar tone characteristics. Once the movement of the strings is picked up by the pickups, there is no way to separate out the individual strings to eq them individually. In our experience, it’s much better to use physics and proven technology from the piano side to pre-eq the tone of the strings so that you are only using eq adjustments to enhance your tone instead of using it to correct for un-evenness. 3. Extending the lower string scales allows the string to produce 1st, 2nd, etc harmonics that are more in tune with the fundamental. In other words, the string is more in tune with itself. The harmonics will always modulate slightly sharper than the fundamental but the less they do, the more in tune the bass will sound, the better the intonation and the more transparent the tone. Everything just works better and easier when you clean up the upper harmonics.
AI – Your electronics are primarily your own, they are not designed by a separate manufacturer and used in your basses like many brands do. The Dingwall pickups sound fantastic. Will you please share a bit about this part of both the design strategy and goals, and the production process?
SD – Well, we didn’t start out to get into the string, hardware and pickup business but when we started there weren’t any strings, bridges or pickups available for fanned-fret basses. We had to be resourceful. In the case of pickups, Bill and Pat Bartolini helped us out a lot in the first few years. We spec’d a reverse split coil design from them. It was a completely gut decision to go with the split coils but that’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. To me they are the sweet spot between single coils and humbuckers.
By 2000 we needed to make a change and my good friend and mentor Glenn McDougall from Fury Guitar offered to help us design our own pickups and manufacturing systems. We had to learn how to manufacture the bobbins and wind the coils of course, but the hardest part was learning to make shells that looked professional and didn’t cost a fortune. Tone-wise we didn’t benchmark other brands, we just listened to the pickups and kept winding until we found something that brought out the tone we wanted to hear from our basses. With the exception of the P-tone, we still follow the same methods today to develop our pickups. We’re simply looking for a tone that will fit well in the mix, not a tone that will sound like “famous brand X or Y”.
AI – My final question has two parts if you don’t mind. I’m so excited to see your success, and compliment you for the company framework you have established via very high quality standards, ability to provide excellent public relations and great product information to players. What is on the horizon? is there anything you and your team are cooking up that will bring you all continued challenges, and also the players something exciting to look forward to?
SD – Thanks very much. It’s just been a long journey of taking one step at a time. I often feel like it’s taken WAY too long to get to where we are now, but there’s a depth of experience that makes this season of business more solid than if it would have happened earlier in my career. The company is better run than ever. Business decisions are better than ever. The team is the best its ever been.
As far as challenges go, they are never in short supply. LOL Everyone in the shop works to the highest level of their ability. When you are running that close to your max, you always find ways to improve or new problems to solve. We’ve always been highly competitive but we only compete with ourselves. We’re obsessed with being better today than we were yesterday. We continually challenge ourselves to raise the bar. There are so many areas we want to improve on and do better, from customer service to new model designs to updating our methods and tooling. The list is endless. The new D-bird has really caught on. It’s a challenging bass to build but it’s very rewarding to play. We’ll be working on a 5-string version, as well as an offshore version. The 6-string NG2 prototype was very well received when it debuted at the 2017 London Bass Guitar Show. A few more tweaks and it will be production ready.
AI – Thanks again for taking the time Sheldon, I know all well you are a very busy man. I love to know about people, and what makes them tic. I have a number of other interests besides my insatiable appetite and love for playing bass. What do you do for kicks when you’re not building some of the most spectacular instruments in the world? family? read any good books lately? speed demon car guy? etchings? yoga? LOL!
SD – I’ve got 3 incredible children, Christiana, Evangelina and Thomas. I have no idea how I got so lucky with them. All three are smart, funny and a joy to be around. I’m really blessed.
I live a pretty lop-sided life though. Most of my energy (maybe too much) gets focused on basses and the business. Doing what you love can be a double-edged sword. It’s hard to keep from burning out when your mind is active 24/7 with business.
I love cars and motorcycles. In next few years I’m going to set aside some time to pursue them as a hobby. I’ve designed and manufactured longboards, designed and machined mountain bike parts. I’d love to pursue both of these areas as a side business but like the bass world they are filled with hard-core enthusiasts. You need to be 100% committed in terms of time and resources if you want to hang in those industries so they will remain at the hobby level for me.
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