Bellevue's Mike Lull keeps guitar stars shining
He might be one of the greatest bass builders in the business because he's so much like one. Low-key, but strong. At the center of things, yet in the background.
FACE IT. You're done for.
It's less than an hour before Blake Shelton takes the stage at Seattle's KeyArena, and there's no way you're getting backstage to see his bass player, Rob Byus. Your phone doesn't work in here, and when you go outside and get reception, Byus isn't answering.
Then a roadie walks by, notices the name on the file folder you're carrying, and stops.
"You working with Mike Lull?"
The name is all it takes to be brought straight to Byus, who says he has something to show you, and leads you under the stage. Above you, opener Justin Moore is kicking up a country-style storm. Lights flash, drums thunder, and you feel like you're following Byus through a dark forest of cables and cabinets, where he has stashed a certain treasure that only he knows how to find.
When he does, it is a Moment. Byus plucks his Mike Lull five-string jazz bass from a rack of guitars offstage and throws the strap over his head. The crowd, the noise, the peering eyes fall out of focus while Byus cradles his custom-built baby back into the light to show it off.
"He's got some knack," Byus says of Lull. "I don't know how he does it, and I don't want to know. When you find a guy like that, it's the greatest thing ever."
MIKE LULL might be one of the greatest bass builders in the business because he's so much like one. Low-key, but strong. At the center of things, yet in the background. The guy who knows just what's needed and makes it happen, without ever acting like it's a big deal, no matter whose signed photo or gold record is on the wall of his Bellevue shop.
"It could all go away tomorrow," Lull said one recent morning. "This could all be a fleeting moment."
Ah, but that's just it; it's not fleeting at all. In fact, Lull has been hunching over bodies and headstocks and frets for 35 years, along the way making a name for himself in the business and attracting an A-list of satisfied customers such as Peter Frampton, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, Heart's Ann Wilson, Cheap Trick's Tom Petersson, Nirvana, Wilco and Randy Jackson of "American Idol."
Those gold records on the wall? Candlebox, Badfinger. Alice in Chains and Queensryche.
Yet, until just recently, Mike Lull's was a place only guitar geeks knew about. A place where Wilson could walk in, pick up a guitar and play without being bothered. Pearl Jam's longtime equipment tech, George Webb, makes regular visits. And every once in a while, a car pulls up, releasing a frantic roadie who has raced over from a soundcheck in Seattle, looking for a last-minute miracle — and getting one from Lull.
Now, Lull is finally coming out of the workshop shadows and into a spotlight all his own.
It started last August, when he made a bit of musical history: Pearl Jam's Ament had commissioned him to create a signature bass guitar called the JAXT4, and Lull, after two years of prototyping, delivered.
It was the first time a member of the band had put his name on anything but an album.
And it was the first time Lull's name had gone beyond special thanks in an album's liner notes. The collaboration with Ament peeled back the professional privacy Lull has maintained inside his unassuming storefront, tucked amid the carpet outlets, tile stores and auto-repair shops that serve as Bellevue's back lot.
Webb, who's in charge of maintaining Pearl Jam's arsenal of guitars, says of Lull, "He's that good. One of the best in the country."
MUSIC HAS been Mike Lull's passion practically his whole life. Born in Eugene, Ore., in 1954, he moved to Bellevue when he was 5. He grew up listening to "everything": The Beatles, the Stones, The Who, Yes. Stevie Wonder. Anything by Lowell George and Little Feat.
Lull started playing guitar — the bass, in particular — in ninth grade.
"It was the coolest thing in my life at the time," he says, "and I was really drawn to the low end and the support role that the bass played. It gave the music power."
He started playing guitar that same year with a group of friends, "trying to bash out songs and learn how to play. It was a mess, but we had a great time."
He made his first guitar in ninth-grade shop class from parts he bought from a neighbor who had run over his son's bass.
"The neck and the electronics and the parts were still intact," Lull says with a shrug. "It wasn't great, but it got the job done.
"Once I did that, I was bitten by the idea that I could make this stuff."
By his second year at Newport High School, Lull was repairing his friends' guitars, and then got a job in a music store. He spent more time repairing guitars for resale than selling them on the floor. The owner didn't like that, and Lull started looking for an out.
In 1976, he and a friend scraped together $100 worth of tools and rented the back corner of Brothers Four Music, where International Jewelers is now in downtown Bellevue.
After graduating, he went to Central Washington State, but left after a year, telling his parents he wanted to be a musician. They weren't happy.
His father, Bill, came to see him play only once, at the Embers Tavern in West Seattle when Lull was 19.
"He just couldn't understand," Lull said of his father, who died 16 years ago. "The closest thing my parents got to musicians was turning on the phonograph and listening to Harry Belafonte." (That has since changed; his mother, Marie, regularly attends Lull's performances with his current bands, The Mike Lull Acoustic Trio, and the Neon Lips.)
In 1976, Lull moved to Guitar Works, where he started building a reputation for his repair work.
But then, in 1983, Guitar Works and its owners "blew apart." So Lull worked in other music stores to raise the money to reopen Guitar Works as its sole proprietor. One of the stores was Kennelly Keys in Redmond, where a woman named Julie Hubbard was assistant store manager. They met, were married a year later, and now have four sons, ages 22, 19, 14 and 12.
"We just knew," is how Lull puts it.
Lull reopened Guitar Works with his name tacked on top, and over the next few years, continued to do repair work for new — and increasingly famous — customers.
Pearl Jam had already been bringing its guitars to Lull for a few years when, in 1994, Ament asked him to build a copy of the Fender Jazz bass — one with a graphite neck that wouldn't move when the temperature changed, like wood does, creating tuning issues.
Lull made sure the frets were even and the pickups — which allow the guitar to interface with an amplifier — sounded like a vintage bass. Ament found it easier to play, too.
Around that same time, Heart's Ann Wilson approached Lull. The band's side project, the Lovemongers, was headed for the road, and she needed a bass.
Wilson already owned a 1968 Hoffner Beatle bass, which everyone wanted after Paul McCartney played his on "The Ed Sullivan Show." But Wilson needed something else, something harder to find.
"Mike doesn't just work with the best bass players," Wilson explains. "He will take a singer and make sure that I had the best instrument that I could for my ability . . . I appreciate his candor a lot."
Both Wilson and Lull recall the day she came into the shop and spotted a blue bass that Lull had made for himself.
"It's not for sale," he told her, but "he put it on an amp, let me play it . . . " Wilson says. "And it was mine."
You can't buy it, Lull told her again. He had only played it once.
"I want it," Wilson said, and whipped out her credit card.
Lull couldn't refuse her.
"It's really a piece of art," she says, "a beautiful blue-lagoon-colored swamp ash, and it's got the most amazing sound."
It seemed time, three years ago, for Lull not only to repair guitars, but to make something of his own, for everyone to play.
So began the Mike Lull T-bass: His reincarnation of the Gibson Thunderbird bass, which was revered for its heavy, '70s rock sound.
Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick deeply loved his Gibson. But it was a fickle thing: The headstock would break like a saltine, it didn't balance well. And replacements were hard to find.
Lull's version is more stable, and the sound is consistent.
Better yet, Lull can customize the instrument — putting the pickups in a different place, reversing the headstock. Even the color.
"See-through white with all gold hardware," Petersson says, like a kid who's just painted his room black.
Earlier this year, Lull brought a couple of T-basses to John Stirratt of Wilco, when the band played the Paramount Theatre.
"I'm a fan of musicians," Lull says. "I like the whole process of tone and sound. The band is "creating a mood behind Jeff Tweedy. They're making it their own. Are they playing what's on the album or going somewhere else?"
Lull also likes sending his basses off with people such as Hugh McDonald of Bon Jovi and Mike Merritt, who plays in Conan O'Brien's show band. Merritt has a candy-apple-red bass with a white Mike Lull logo on the headstock.
National exposure, that.
LULL IS IN his shop, leaning over his bench like a surgeon while a classic-rock station plays The Eagles' "Already Gone." Before him, a 1928 Martin guitar sits under the light; the wear, like the creases in an old man's face, is worked in and well-earned.
But the Martin has a potentially fatal flaw: a cracked bridge. Lull had already assessed the guitar's structural integrity. What now?
He could glue it and clamp it back together, or try to replace the bridge. But that's tricky; the bridge is a stress point, and Lull can't tell how old the glue is. One false move and the whole thing could split.
"You're judging each instrument and making the best educated decision," Lull says.
He walks over to the case — it's original — and takes another moment.
"The fact that this guitar has been together that long . . ."
He'll figure it out. Lull is known for this sort of thing. He can fix whatever the road puts on or takes out of an instrument.
Musicians are always scouring online sites for vintage guitars and other finds. Then they bring them to Lull to do whatever is needed.
"He knows the point we're willing to take a vintage instrument without completely defacing or devaluing it," says Webb, the Pearl Jam tech.
Then there are those guitar emergencies.
Dick Foley of the Brothers Four dropped a Martin and brought it to Lull in pieces.
Lull once answered the phone to hear a British accent: It was Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues. They were playing Marymoor Park that night, and he needed a repair on his Gibson ES-335. Bring it over, Lull told him, and then did the repair in time for the show.
One day in 1981, a roadie for Rush came in with a Richenbacher double-neck bass/guitar belonging to Geddy Lee. When Lull returned the bass to the Edgewater Hotel, Lee walked in with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist.
"He opens it, and it's cash — lots of it," Lull says, adding that before credit cards had no limits, touring band members had to carry their own money. "They don't take your check in Japan," Lull says.
He had brought along his 1959 Fender bass in hopes that Lee would sign it. Lee plugged it in and played it through his stadium rig "and it was unbelievable," Lull remembers.
"Great bass," Lee said, offering to buy it. Lull declined (he'd just been paid $700), but later sold it to Ament.
Lull is one of the few luthiers on the West Coast with a PLEK machine — a German-made, computerized wonder that eliminates the endless filing and sandpapering that Lull used to do to get the frets perfectly spaced and just the right height.
"More accuracy means better playing," Lull says.
There's accuracy, and then there's precision. The way Lull can translate a musician's dream-weaving descriptions of sound and style, and pin them to the neck and body of a bass.
But that has meant low production. In the past 16 years, Lull has made just 2,000 of his signature basses, which sell for about $3,000 each. In 2011, Lull built 300 instruments, while his overseas competitors produced about 4,000.
Part of that is Lull's devotion to the craft. "When I started building instruments," he says, "I had to learn to let go because they were all children to me."
But the other parts have to do with time and shop management.
"Mike could have been way bigger," says Paul Schuster, who Lull hired as his general manager two years ago. "There wasn't a goal or a plan."
With Schuster in the shop, production has doubled, and Lull can do what he loves best.
ABOUT THE TIME Jeff Ament was coming up on 20 years with Pearl Jam, he hatched an idea. How about commissioning an instrument that would become his signature bass and mark his anniversary?
Ament's main basses have mostly been custom-made, styled after Fender Jazz or Precision-style basses. His collaboration with Lull would be a significant departure.
Modeled instead after the Gibson Thunderbird bass, the JAXT4 would have the best of everything: A thinner body, but a 20 percent larger circumference that feels more solid against Ament's body. And it would have four colors that Ament would choose.
Once Lull handed over the first one, "it was a little bit of a moment" for Ament, Webb says, a time to reflect on all the work he's done as an artist and a musician.
The bass also marked a certain symmetry between the creative roads Pearl Jam and Lull had traveled.
"All of it," says Webb, "culminated at the same time."
It's too big of a thought for a man who is most comfortable in his little shop.
"We're not doing nuclear physics," Lull says with humility. Still, "this is the greatest gig in the world."
Nicole Brodeur is a Seattle Times staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific NW staff photographer.