Jeff Ament can have whatever bass guitar he wants. And for more than 20 years, the Pearl Jam bassist has amassed a collection of vintage, new, and custom-made instruments. He likes them heavy and a bit larger than most
Laura Musselman Jeff Ament used a prototype of his signature bass at the PJ20 festival in Wisconsin.
Mike Lull knows this well. Most of Ament's basses have gone through Mike Lull Custom Guitars. In his modest shop in a nondescript row of storefronts in Bellevue--featuring a gold record for Pearl Jam's Backspacer in the entryway--Lull builds, repairs, and "sets up" guitars and basses. For his part, Ament has commissioned Lull to custom-build at least 20 basses.
A couple of years ago, Lull handed Ament a bass that stopped him cold. No member of Pearl Jam had ever endorsed an instrument before, but Ament told Lull he wanted this to be a Jeff Ament signature bass. Using the model as a prototype, Ament and Lull went to work together, tweaking the instrument. Lull says Ament was involved in every step of the process, even redesigning the logo himself.
"To say that [Ament's] been intimately involved in this whole thing is an understatement," Lull says.
"Mike has built the best new bass I've ever played," Ament said in an e-mail. "The only rule is, in representing the band, that we back anything with our name on it 100 percent. This bass isn't a mass-produced, big-company, made-in-China/Mexico instrument. Mike makes each bass right here in the NW. Over 20 years of collaborating, designing, and building basses has gone into my model."
Despite the instrument's lofty sticker price tag ($5,300, though retailers can discount up to 25 percent), Lull doesn't expect the Ament bass to make him rich, and noted that the Pearl Jam bassist isn't getting any money in the deal (though the contract allows for negotiation if sales were to explode). Ament is, however, putting a pair of basses up for auction next year, with proceeds benefiting 826 Seattle. Lull doesn't anticipate he'll sell more than five JAXT4s (the bass' model number) in a year. He's already making upward of 300 hard-body guitars and basses annually, and doesn't have the capacity to build more unless he were to bring in an apprentice.
Lull's been working on instruments in the Northwest since the late '70s. In the '80s, he started his own shop--around the time that Kelly Curtis, a former tour manager for Heart, started to manage some new bands around town, including Mother Love Bone. Curtis brought Ament and guitarist Stone Gossard into the shop and told Lull to take care of them. All the band's guitars, Lull says, were hanging in his shop ready to be taken on tour the day frontman Andrew Wood died. When Gossard, Ament, and Curtis moved on to Pearl Jam, so did Lull, who become something of a go-to guy for optimizing instruments for the studio (members of Death Cab for Cutie, Alice in Chains, and others have employed him) and, eventually, creating world-class guitars and basses of his own.
Despite peddling a product that costs more than most paychecks ($2,500 to $5,000 per instrument), Lull works side-by-side with his colleagues in his shop, dressed as a factory worker with a golden ear. He understands that most players aren't going to be able to afford one of his custom pieces, which is why 70 percent of his shop's work is fixing and improving instruments that others have made. Of these, Lull says a Mexican-made Fender Stratocaster (at a few hundred bucks, it's considerably cheaper than both its U.S.-born brother, which can be had for under a grand, and Lull's wares) is a good option for players looking for a solid workhorse guitar. In fact, Lull is happy to admit he shapes his guitars after the iconic Fender and Gibson designs.
Evan Sheeley--owner of the internationally recognized specialty shop Bass Northwest in Pioneer Square and former bassist for the influential Northwest rock band TKO--is another player who could play any bass he wants. For the past four years, he's been playing Lull's. "[I'd] match 'em against anything in the world," he says.
Though the Ament signature bass doesn't technically go on sale until January, Sheeley has already sold a Lull bass modeled after an Ament favorite to a customer in Australia. Once he heard about it, he had to have one, quite literally: He plays in rearviewmirror, a Pearl Jam cover band Down Under.