Tobias Guitars, The California years 1983-1992

by Bob Lee

In Dec. 1981 I was approached by Becky Hicks at Musicians Institute about a possible gig that was developing in a counseling room down the hall. I had just graduated the previous September and was working for the School as a night manager. I went into the counseling room to find one Steve Fisher auditioning Bass players from the school with an eye toward one of them working for his company, Ovation, to introduce some new bass strings that were coated in teflon. I sat down and played some unaccompanied bass and got the gig. He gave me a few of the new string sets and I agreed to show up at the Anaheim Convention Center that next month for the N.A.M.M. (National Association of Music Merchants) show. My thoughts about this were that I was quite impressed with the idea of working this prestigious gig (product demonstrator) for a well known company. It did not matter too much that I really wasn't that impressed with the product I was supposed to be demonstrating.

When I got to the show they also had a bass for me to play. It was a reincarnation of a short lived design that Ovation had introduced a year (or so) before. It had a unusual shape and it did not play slap style very well (there was a bar between the pickups and extending to the neck joint, that made it difficult to thumb the bass and that was the rage of 1982. If you could slap, then you were really a bass player). I certainly don't mean to slam the Ovation company and the people at Kaman as they have made many contributions to the musical instrument field, including the wonderful acoustic electric bass guitar. The teflon coated strings and this particular bass were not that great in my humble opinion. Playing alone was one of the things I started doing after a year at BIT (Bass Institute of Technology). I started to really think about composition while I was a student there. The natural instrument for me to compose with was the bass, so I would play ideas. A lot of the early music I would later compose was done on the instrument in this manner.

On I believe the second day of the show a rather large fellow was standing in the crowd of people who were there watching me clown around on the bass. After I stopped he approached me to tell me he had a line of basses that he wanted me to see. I walked over to his booth and there were these basses that had (as physical features) everything I had wanted in a bass. They had 24 frets that were clear of the body at the lower bout. The woods used were beautiful. I fell in love with a medium scale bass that he had there which later became my first Tobias Bass. The man was Michael Tobias. The bass had a Koa body and Koa and Wenge neck. I called it Mamma (The long scale Spector bass I came to California with was Daddy). As soon as I had gotten to the Tobias Booth a fellow named Ron Armstrong (who was Mike's X partner from a Company named Sierra Guitars) asked me to leave in a rather abrupt manner. I almost started to leave without saying anything further but at the last second, I spoke to Mike Tobias and related what had just happened. He persuaded me to stay and try out the basses he had on display. They were quite extraordinary and aside from my duties at the Ovation booth I spent a fair amount of time with this big bearded fellow whom I must say I liked from the first time I met him. He was like me, only white. We both were portly, we both had beards (I had worn my beard since 1967 when I discovered I had no chin to speak of).

After the show Mike was to return to San Francisco where he had been living for the past year. He had moved there from Florida where he had a successful guitar shop known as "The Guitar Shop" in Orlando, Florida. That is where Tobias Guitars was actually born in 1978. He stayed in touch as he would come down to L.A. regularly to try to get local music stores to carry his basses. Much of that effort was in vain in the early years.

I remember about 6 months before the 1983 NAMM show Mike Tobias moved to Santa Ana, California, about 45 miles south of Los Angeles. That year he started working part time in Red Rhodes Royal Amplifier Service at 1623 Cahuenga Blvd... in Hollywood. He was to replace Red's previous guitar repairman taking care of the guitar repair (something the venerable Mr. Rhodes knew little about) while Red took care of the amplifier repairs. As the NAMM show neared, Michael asked me to help him out assembling basses (and guitars) for the 1983 show. The problem was he couldn't take care of the front of the store (Red didn't show up until 3PM), Work on the stuff for the shop, and get ready for the show with his own basses & guitars. I had a background in electronics and had always worked on my own instruments. I put a pre-amp in a bass I had in 1970 or so, and had figured how to set up a bass so that it would play better. I got through BIT doing that for money on the side. It was amazing to me that there were guys who were students of the bass who couldn't even set their instrument up or intonate it. For me it was a necessity to be able to fix/adjust my own instrument. I remember being reluctant about taking the job in the first place because I was not a professional guitar repairman. On top of that I was horrified at the notion that I was going to drill the first holes in a new instrument. With my background in electronics I knew if a circuit failed you could replace the faulty component and make it work again, just like new. With a piece of wood I had no idea of how to fix it if I drilled a hole in the wrong place. This terrified me. Mike was so supportive when I told him this, at first he would actually drill the holes and only then would I assemble the instrument. This must have gone on for the first 2 or 3 basses. After that I got the hang of it. I got into doing some of the repairs too, mostly setups and string changes at first, later I would do all the electronic work on the Guitars and basses that came in for repair. Later I got into circuit design. Repair work was crucial to our survival in the early years.

Finally after a really hectic last week before the 1983 NAMM show we readied all the instruments that we were taking to the convention. I sat in the booth and played Bass and Mike handled the dealers & customers. I got to talk to quite a few bass players about the bass. As far as I can remember we always attracted a large number of players at the NAMM shows. Being a bass player (Michael is a fine Guitarist) gave me an edge in talking about what the players wanted to know. That show in January 1983 was an important one for Tobias Guitars. We sold all the instruments that we had taken to the show and took orders for more instruments. Not a lot mind you, the first year I was with the company we sold 17 basses that whole year. As Mike's reputation grew so did demand for his Basses. And so did the amount of repair work we did. Players like Wilton Felder would have work done at the shop.

One of the guitars that we took to the 1983 Winter NAMM show (in L.A.) came to be known as the "Bowling Ball" finish guitar.

One of the early problems with finishing the instruments was that Mike would paint the body (holding the guitar by the neck) first then, by holding the body by the pickup cavities he would paint the neck. Occasionally he would touch a surface that had already had finish freshly applied to it and have to start over again (sand down that coat after it dried or wipe it off with solvent if the paint was still wet enough). This as especially true if the instrument was to have been a solid color. Mike had a rag with some solvent on it and he intended to wipe this particular blue guitar down with, due to touching it while it was still wet. About that time the phone rang and Mike sat the rag down on the guitar. When he returned the thinner had eaten through the color and started to show the white primer under the blue color in spots which resembled the marbled look of a bowling ball. I remember Mike asking me if this looked OK. I thought it looked exceptional so he finished the whole instrument that way and had a picture taken of it to appear in our catalog. When we took that instrument to the show. Most of the instrument makers in our circle of acquaintances thought that this was the greatest thing since sliced bread. They were actually raving about it and inquiring as to if Mike had a patent on this process. It was nuts. The Number of Orders for Basses we took at that show made it apparent that we might have a winning product. Mike's Basses were always more successful than the guitars but the guitars were to stay in the catalog for at least another 4 years.

We went to the 1983 Summer NAMM show in Chicago. On that trip we had the distinct pleasure of meeting two gentlemen who will always be great friends. They are David Service and Hassan Khan. David was bassist for the Dells at the time and I actually met Hassan at BIT when he was a student there. These two guys came and saw me and Mike up to our earlobes in basses to set up for the show and they just dug in a helped a great deal. They introduced us to Chicago Pizza (Yum) and most of the Bass Players in Chicago. After the show they helped us pack up and get everything shipped. Those two came to every California show after that Until 1992, paying there own way, just being there to help us out. We went to Chicago in `86 & `89 and they put us up at their homes on those occasions. We had a great time and Tobias Guitars reputation grew.

One day Mike asked me if I thought that doing a Guitar player giveaway was a good Idea and further doing it with a 5 string bass (in 1983/84 this was a fairly bold idea). Very few companies were on the 5 string bass bandwagon at this time. It amounted to a full page ad in the magazine that cost as much as the (then) retail price of the instrument. I thought it was a good Idea and we built the bass which was won by a Wisconsin preacher . That Bass was a Zebra and Wenge body Signature with a Wenge neck and marks the beginning of the modern Tobias 5 string basses (Mike had made a few in Florida). The Signature Bass of this era had an omega cutout at the butt end of the instrument which was later discontinued.

In 1984 the day after I came back from a trip to Europe, someone broke into Red Rhodes Royal Amplifier through a barred back window. At that time several of Mikes Basses were stolen and a few Guitars. The next day Red informed Mike that the insurance (for which Mike had paid) had been allowed to lapse because Red hadn't paid the premium. Out of anger Mike swung a piece of wood and hit the dumpster out in back of Red's shop narrowly missing Red's crimson locks. It was time to move on. I was told by the people in the print shop next door to Red's that the camera shop across the street owned a storefront and they were looking to rent it. The Camera shop owner was Lloyd Berman. I told Mike about it and he went over to see Lloyd. Lloyd is this nice old Jewish gentleman. It seemed like he had everything he ever owned in 1614 cahuenga Blvd...

I remember the first time seeing 1614 Cahuenga Blvd.. in Hollywood. It was filled from the floor to the ceiling with stuff Lloyd had collected since the late 40's, early 50's. Lloyd was a pilot during WWII and had crashed or been shot down. When the war was over he came to California and along with a buddy had managed to buy some bomb sights and other (now) surplus stuff from the military and made a profit reselling this stuff. He started renting Camera equipment to the independent film producers and actually produced some movies. During that time he acquired several storefronts on Cahuenga and was about to make one of them the new home of Tobias Guitars.

In order to make the store front suitable for our needs we put up walls because when Lloyd got all his stuff out (or rather most of it toward the back of the building) there was one big room. We found stuff from all kinds of movies in that place. several things of special interest to me were communicators from Star Trek TV show in the early days also some prop cameras from Psycho (the Alfred Hitchcock film). These were props that were actually used in movies and TV shows. I was impressed! After we built the walls we put carpeting on them and then we built benches to do repair work and assembly work on the Basses.

All the time we were at Red's on the West side of Cahuenga Blvd.. we thought that it was a fairly quiet street. Although there was one occasion when I was on my way home and passed by a door in the alley behind Red's. The door was partially open and I saw a guy smoking a joint and he was obviously very happy. The door swung open further and I could see a Hooker (who had come to be known as Piano Legs, because they were....) servicing this guy right in the doorway. I ran back to the shop hardly able to relate what I had just seen. I can remember Mike was quite amused by my shock.

When we moved to the East side of the street we could really see what had been going on at a biker bar right next door and over head in the upstairs in a Hotel that was run by this (East) Indian couple. Over the course of time we noticed naked ladies upstairs dancing in the window, the top of a naked lady the bottom of which was busy making love to some guy. All we could see was her from the waist up coming (Literally and Figuratively) over the top of the headboard of the bed which faced the window. Another time this girl was using a stretch device to exercise her arms and she got one of her breasts caught in the spring. We couldn't hear her but she was obviously screaming for her boyfriend to come get her from being attached to this device. It got so that we faced our work benches toward the big storefront window so we wouldn't miss anything. I say WE to include now the third member of Tobias Guitars. Paul Dinos was his name. He was a guitar player that Mike had known from down south. He had joined us just as the move was taking place. The majority of our time was still being spent on repairs, but that was to soon change.

Musicians Institute (Bass Institute of Technology) in Hollywood was one half block north and several blocks west of the shop. While there as a student, I had influenced several players to buy Spector Basses like the one I brought from N.J. as they were literally unheard of in California in 1980. I was naturally excited to show off this new Tobias bass that I was playing and actually helping to manufacture, so off to the school with bass in hand, I went. After a short while players (students) routinely stopped by the shop to ask questions and eventually a lot of them purchased Tobias Basses. The Bass caught on with the faculty as well.

Tim Bogert was one of our early supporters. He was about to make the change from 4 string bass to the new 5 string and eventually to the 6 string. I believe we made the first Classic model 6 string for Tim. Jeff Berlin was another player that depend on Mike's talent, to fix his Fender Jazz bass. We made a neck to replace the original when it twisted. This was one of a very few Fender style bass necks that Mike ever made. Jeff Berlin was really attached to that Fender Bass. Later it would be stolen and thankfully returned after a while as I think he probably would not have wanted to play without his trusty J-bass (Roddy Piper) by his side. He did purchase a Tobias in later years, but I'll bet it never saw as much action as the ole Fender. Alexis Skjlarevski is the creator of the popular video, the Slap Bass Program and a classmate of mine at BIT. He was also one of the bassist who bought a Spector Bass as a result mine. He eventually got a Tobias 5 string. I consider Alexis a great Bassist and a friend.

In the early 80's Stuart Spector's basses became very popular for a while and by early 1985 it was Tobias Guitars turn for a moment in the sun. We were starting to get international recognition in the Musical Instrument Manufacturing community. It was nothing to get calls from Germany, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, France, England, Iceland, South America, any place you could think of was ordering Tobias Basses. We had grown considerably by then.

In Late 1984 Kevin Almieda came to work for the company. Kevin is a highly skilled craftsman and great bass player. He came to Ca... to go to BIT. Kevin had done inlay work for Mike since the 1623 Cahuenga days while still in school. and soon after graduation he was working for Tobias carving necks and doing a lot of the woodwork along with Mike who did most of the finishing. Kevin did not care for L.A. living and moved to San Luis Obispo, where he became production manager for Music Man (Ernie Ball), in 1986 or so. Makoto Onishi and Robert Mc Donald (who both went to Roberto Vinn School of Guitar making) came to Tobias shortly after Kevin left. BMac and Mak had worked for Performance guitar in Hollywood (a retail and custom shop) and we would do some trading there. BMac essentially took over most of the duties that Kevin had done, and Mak(oto) did all of the finishing and the remainder of the woodwork. Mak was the finisher for Performance Guitar. Mak is this quiet yet very intense Japanese- American man who loves his Ford Mustangs. I think a lot about him. As Tobias grew Mike was forced to become more of a business man rather than just building the instruments. Because of the excellence of these two craftsmen production of our instruments was refined to a level that would be hard to calculate in their absence. Bob Mc Donald carved most all of the necks from 1987 until 1992. During this period I honed my skills at talking to prospective customers and our increasing number of Dealers World wide and building and refining together with the help of Bill Bartolini, the electronics package that was installed in our bass. Because of my increasing duties in this and other areas a full time assembler was hired. He was Richard "Obe" Oblinger. Obe was a likable fellow and he stayed with the company for almost 2 years. He was important to me because he spelled the direction of things to come. Expansion....

As the instruments took off Mike Tobias could not run the business and still attend to his tasks in the back (workshop). Another refugee from BIT again came to our rescue. Her name was Holly Montgomery. Holly hails from Kentucky and is a very fine bass player. She had skills in accounting and running a front office. Holly had to deal with ordering materials (except wood), All billing and accounting, and most importantly scheduling all the orders that would come in over the phone or that we would bring back after trade shows. In 1985-86 our back orders totalled 500 instruments! The job Holly did during those years was the basis for my computer program that would later automate & handle those tasks. Holly did it without a computer.

In 1988 or so, there was a fire at the Camera shop next door and it threatened Tobias Guitars also as both buildings had a common wall. I will always remember how the fire fighters from the Hollywood fire station helped save us from disaster. They came in and covered everything (machines, tools, wood supplies) and began spraying water on the fire as it came through the wall from the camera shop. I remember thinking "was this how it was all going to end?". We did sustain some water damage but we survived. I remember on a hot July day soon after that, Mike went down to the fire station and treated all the firemen to ice cream. The thing that I remember about this time is the feeling of our need to grow even more to meet the demand for our basses. We soon hired more people. There were a couple of folks along the way who did not work out but most did and stayed until the end of production in California when the company moved to Nashville in 1992.

At one time there were 7 of us working at 1614 Cahuenga. You could hardly move in the shop without bumping into another employee. There was Bob Daniel who was from the Chicago area. He is a great personality and a pretty good guitar player. He was our sander, and if you don't know the guitar building business, being the sander (Sandy) well, lets say it certainly was not the most high profile job at the shop. I know, I did some sanding in the early days. We would joke to Michael that he should name his first son Sandy. It was a very important job though, If the sander did not get it right, then all the work done before and after would be threatened. At Tobias a whole instrument could be scraped or sent back to have all the finish removed down to bare wood (a difficult process) if any tool marks or scratches showed up. Most of our basses were natural finish and even most of the colors were translucent (see through), so you would still see the wood's features. Bob D. was always serious about the job but he was not very serious about much else. He is a very funny individual. He could always make me laugh. At one point Gil Chavez took over a lot of Michael's building duties in the Burbank location till Jan. 1992. Gil started with the company while we were still on Cahuenga Ave. Gil did a lot of the wood work after Mike started working more in the office than in the shop. His job was to cut the wood from the raw stock and mill it to be glued into laminates for the neck and body billets, cut out rough shapes of the neck and body. The next step was gluing the neck and body together, routing all of the channels, cavities, and the final perimeter and roundovers. Essentially he was responsible for turning boards of lumber into something resembling a bass. The neck and body still had much work to be done at this point but, it looked like a bass. Gil trained Rob Timmons who replaced him in early 1992. Gil switched over from prodution to tooling, product developement, & prototype work from Jan. 1992 till his layoff in late april 1992. Rob Timmon and Sean Davis both went on to work in the Fernandes custom shop after the close of the Burbank facitily.

Rawn Randall was an interesting character. He had worked for Ken Smith Basses in NY and bought a Tobias bass while still working for Ken. They had a disagreement (probably nothing to do with him buying a Tobias :-)) and Rawn left Ken's company soon to be working for us as our new string distributor (I had always received request for our strings {GHS} from the beginning). Between Rawn and myself, we (separately) interested Mike in getting into the string business. Later on the company developed other accessories (Gig Bags, Straps, T-shirts). Rawn moved to L.A. in Dec. 1990 to manage the sales of Tobias Strings and accessories. Rawn stayed with the company until 1993.

Makoto Onishi left Tobias in 1990 to become the Luthier at the Ibanez Custom shop in North Hollywood to be replaced at Tobias by Chris Cumpston. Chris came into a big responsibility position at a real bad time in the industry.

In 1990 the AQMD (Air Quality Management District) in southern California made changes in the law regarding what material you could use (along with new methods) to spray paint almost any/everything. For the Guitar Making industry in California it meant that we could no longer use the same compound to finish our instruments and finishing procedures had to be modified. The Paint Industry scrambled to come up with an alternative that would meet AQMD's new restrictive criteria. Scramble is a good word to describe this period of time. The paint industry would send us a compound that would not work on our products and we would have to send it back. After a while we had to change vendors (more than once). All the while Chris hung tough and was not intimidated (outwardly) by being the new guy just in time for the roof to fall in. In late 1990 we hired an additional assembler named Scott Uchida. I was on my way completely out of production and into the front office. I was talking to our dealers, distributors and customers full time now and handling Artist Relations. Soon I would also handle the task of orders, scheduling and invoicing.

We developed a relationship with Jimmy Haslip as a endorsee in about 1986. He had met Mike Tobias earlier, but had not used our basses prior to this time. Jimmy had a session to do in L.A. and his equipment was in N.Y. It was recommended that I call Jimmy by Simeon Pillich through Mark Brown (2 other Tobias Owners) to make a bass available to for this session. We had no program to do such things at Tobias at the time, so I let him use my personal instrument for the session and he was very pleased and eventually came over as one of our most important Endorsees. In 1987 we made a fretless bass (Red Basic 5 string) that I feel was important, along with the addition of William Kennedy on Drums, in the already evolving sound of the Yellow Jackets. Prior to this bass Jimmy had used a fretted bass for the mostly Pop oriented sound of this well known group. When he changed to the Fretless it seemed to coincide with the metamorphosis of the band into a adult contemporary Jazz/New Age Powerhouse with Jimmy playing lead along with the Sax or Keyboards a lot of the time. Other Endorsees we had during this period included Gary Willis, Chris Squire, Jerry Watts Jr., Max Bennett, and Keith Jones. On the Gospel side, there was Freddy "boom boom" Flewellen, and Andrew Gouche. I am sure that I am not mentioning all the endorsees of that period and I apologize to those I have left out. Because of Andrew & Freddy, we had a rather large and loyal number of gospel players that used Tobias basses. There was a revolution in Gospel music which used more contemporary sounds, which in turn caused youth to become involved with church.

The Players were always a big part of the reputation that Tobias Guitars was building. I would always talk to someone inquiring about our basses who wanted to get the sound that Jimmy Haslip, Tim Bogert, or some other endorser got. In response to the ever growing need for the company to expand, Tobias was sold to CMI, the parent company of the Gibson Guitar corporation in 1990. Gibson is a household name in the guitar industry and I am sure that nothing but good things will happen for Tobias. By 1991 I was in charge of all production data systems (orders, schedules, invoicing & shipping) as well as Artist relations and some R and D on the new products were introducing (the Killer "B", Standard basses etc.). I was relieved of my duties at Tobias in April 1992 pending CMI's moving the operation to Nashville, Tennessee to consolidate their operations. Because of their large global operation they are producing instruments that will put a Tobias bass in the hands of many players that previously thought it impossible to own. I wish them luck and I thank Mike Tobias for a wonderful 9 year experience. Mike Tobias, by the way, is living near Woodstock, NY and has started a design and consulting firm for the musical instrument industry and yes, he is building a new line of MTD basses . We see each other at trade shows and talk frequently.

These are excerpts from an upcoming book/article about Tobias Basses
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