A Mackncheeze Music Artist Focus Featuring Marco Cortes. Marco Cortes has developed a unique take on building bass guitars guitars that sound as incredible as they feel.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Mackncheeze: Who is Marco Cortes?
Marco: ( Laughs ) Somebody crazy ( More Laughter ).
Why was Jesus a carpenter? When God had the ark of the covenant built, He made it from wood, covered with gold. I believe wood represents mankind and gold represents God’s purity covering mankind.
Why did He do that; wood covered with gold? Jesus was a carpenter. He is the gold that covers us.
I tell people, misery is a good teacher; you learn things you can’t imagine.
I come from a very rural part of Brazil. There wasn’t a lot of money. I started to make instruments because I was playing in my church.
Mackncheeze: How old were you when you started?
Marco: Fourteen. I started to play guitar. The church I played at had one really bad bass . I would take it home and bring it back before service. I tried to buy a bass with credit but didn’t have enough income. I decided I wanted to make my own.
I could not afford the instrument so out of necessity I started building basses. At that time all the good instruments were coming from other countries. Good instruments were the equivalent of buying a decent car. I had no tools, it was crazy, but I had a drill. I drew out the body on a piece of wood and then drilled out the body like a stamp. I would use a file to file out the shape.
I said to myself, “If Fender can build a bass, why not me? I’m a man just like he is? Why not?” My friends told me I was crazy, “You’re never going to make a bass better than Fender.”
So I started building one; I had no information. At that time there was no internet. I tried to figure it out.
The first basic idea is to have a truss rod. Because I had no information I had to figure out how to do things.
As a musician, if you don’t have information about music in the world, you still have the heart of a musician. You create your own music, you develop your own style.
By the time I was able to collect information on how others were doing it I had established my own style.
Hendrix played left handed on a right handed guitar. He had his own style. He had the drive to be a player; he had to figure out how to do it. A player can play exactly like another.
I used to make my pickups in Brazil. I did not have good materials. I had to push myself to make something good. I had a lot of wood but no magnets or wire.
I had to work with materials that were inferior in quality, coming up with results that worked, finding my own way to do it. By the time I moved to the USA I had established my techniques and now had materials available. With quality materials I could apply my own style.
In Brazil, I did not have tools. I had to learn to make my own tools; everything form scratch, even down to paints and lacquers.
Mackncheeze: You made your own lacquers? My Lord!
I started living in West Seattle. I could not find a job because my English wasn’t good.
Mackncheeze: How is you’re Portuguese? You’re Portuguese Good?
Marco: So, so ( Laughs ).
I ended up working construction. Very heavy outdoor work. One day one of my co-workers asked why I was so happy.
Let me explain: in Brazil work is much harder, much heavier. Here, work is much lighter. Misery is a good teacher.
Bass is a weird instrument. Bass is an instrument working with other voices in music. Look at music as a graphic. You have the four voices of basic theory. The primary job of the bass is to play the root. In a trio bass has much more freedom, but in a four piece, you have to content yourself not to overplay.
Music is about the moment.
Mackncheeze: What is it that drives you?
Marco: Being a Luthier; it’s a little crazy. For an example: you’re a drummer, what motivates you? You spend an hour after a show tearing down gear, there’s no money in that, but it’s the passion and love, that’s why you do it. Its not logical.
Building an instrument is the same because it is difficult business wise. I’m not going get rich off of this.
Working with the musicians I do, some of the ones I endorse, this is very good. Whats good is because they are real players. They are in love with what they do.
As a successful musician, to make money, generally you have to play music that other people like. It’s the same for me. First I made instruments for me. That’s where I started. Now I make instruments for others and end up tweaking the process as I go along.
Mackncheeze: What are some of your struggles?
Marco: Being a luthier is hard because being a luthier is not very different from being a musician. It’s how I divide what I’m doing for myself and what I’m doing for my clients. Basically it becomes what people can pay me. I have to down grade some guitars in order to make them approachable. The instruments I make for myself are too good.
Playing music is very complex and most people do not understand what a musician does. That’s one thing I tell my customers; they don’t understand what I do. We sell ourselves, our time, our skins, to do our job. That’s part of life. It’s part of the struggle between art and the real world. I make instruments for what people are asking for.
But every bass I make is for me. It’s hard to find the balance. That’s the difficult thing, because I want to do more.
Part of the challenge is that most amps on the market are made to work with Fenders. That’s part of the standard. I had to downgrade the quality of my pickups to adapt to the Fender standard. I can’t be too creative. But still, this is fun.
Mackncheeze: What has been the most exciting thing in your life?
Marco: Watching good musicians who play my instruments, who enjoy my work. It’s like enjoying cooking, making food for someone, food that they enjoy. They understand why you did it. It’s like serving the best wine in the world.
I kept getting better and better and better. I probably had built about fifty basses before I got it. At that point, I figured it was something I could do. People started to ask, “Could you make one for me?”
The instruments are a very complex. People have no idea because they think it is normal wood working. The basses are almost alive. Every bass is different. The one thing is-they basically communicate with the musician, the sound of the instrument, musicians feel the instrument, they kind of interface while playing. They just play different.
Mackncheeze: What are your sources of wood?
Marco: I try to be as local as possible. I have tried hundreds of different woods; woods from Brazil. Musicians are very traditional. Most guitars are expected to be made from ash or alder. I use a lot of alder. I don’t like to use ash a lot.
Leo Fender is a genius because he found a way to make a good guitar a less expensive way, what Henry Ford was to cars. Fender made a production line. He chose ash because it was easy to work.
Sometimes I use pine. For fretless basses pine sounds good. I haven’t yet made a fretted bass with pine. Pine is pretty knotty so we have a lot of waste. But it sounds good.
I have used Douglas fir and it works well. One of my favorite woods is cedar. It sounds really good.
When I moved to the United States I started working construction. I had no money but making instruments was still my hobby. I had some extra Douglas fir beams and I cut those and made some guitars. They sounded amazing.
People buy things with their eyes.
I judge a piece of wood by its feel. Musicians taste the instrument like people taste food. People don’t understand why we are so absolutely in to that because that can’t feel what we feel. We taste the sound with our ears and with our hands we feel the touch of the instrument. There is dimensionality to it.
It’s hard for me to understand a luthier who doesn’t play. I ask people, would you ask a blind guy to paint your house?
Mackncheeze: What do you want to tell people?
Marco: It’s about our relationships. Every customer becomes a friend. I make instruments but I collect friends.
Mackncheeze: This has been great. Thank you, Marco.
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