Bellevue’s bass man
BY KEEGAN PROSSER
Part repair facility, part showroom you’ll find a healthy dose of all things music at Mike Lull Custom Guitars & Guitar Works: walls lined with platinum records and candy-colored bass guitars, a scattering of gig bags and guitar strings, a side table lost beneath a stack of music zines.
Home is where the heart is
Housed in a modest strip mall just east of Downtown Bellevue, this shop has served the needs of Northwest-based musicians for more than 35 years. From one day to the next, musicians of all levels funnel through the unassuming doors, bringing with them instruments in need of some tender love and care. It’s organized chaos at its best – and a clear sign the shop is bustling.
At the heart of the operation is luthier Mike Lull.
An Eastsider through and through, Lull moved to Bellevue’s Woodridge Hill neighborhood with his parents in 1959 at age 5. A product of the pop-rock revolution, Lull got his first taste for bass guitar listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones during his time at Newport High School.
“I wanted to play bass,” Lull says. “[Standard] guitar for some reason, didn’t really impress me. It was the low notes that really got me.”
His parents, who viewed pop music as a passing fad, didn’t share the sentiment. When Lull didn’t have the money to buy his own bass, he thought up another plan: he’d use the parts from his friend’s Japanese-made, hollow-body bass, and build his own.
“I just wanted it to work. And it did. Everything worked.”
Throughout high school and college Lull dove head first into the repair and building of bass guitars. When his instruments didn’t sound the same as the ones he heard recorded, Lull would ask advice of employees at local music stores. What he couldn’t find out from them, he figured out himself. For the next few years, Lull worked on friends’ instruments and as a bass technician and salesman at Bandstand East in Bellevue. In 1975, Lull left Bandstand to open his own shop.
“At the same time we were opening our doors, I was doing work for this little band from Canada called Heart.”
The rest, you might say, is history.
Known for building instruments that are not only ergonomic, lightweight and great playing, Lull hand builds and tests every instrument that leaves his shop – a standard that has made his products among the best in the industry. His specialty is 4- and 5-string bass guitars, and 6-string electric guitars, which he has been building for the past 15 years. He’s also known for his exceptional repairs, restorations, modifications and upgrades.
“[Nirvana] used to drive up here in a ‘65 Buick station wagon that was just beat to a pulp. And they’d have all this crap, and I mean crap, in the back of this car that Kurt [Cobain] had busted up. And they’d just say, ‘Put it together however you can – staples, super glue, chewing gum – we don’t care. Just put it together because he’s just going to turn around and break it again.’”
Lull has since worked with artists including Randy Jackson, Ann and Nancy Wilson (Heart), Nick Harmer (Death Cab For Cutie) and Nate Mendel (Foo Fighters). Most recently, Lull collaborated with Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament to release the Jeff Ament JAXT4 Signature Model Bass Guitar – a first for the openly endorsement-shy band.
“[Ament] basically came to us saying he wanted to do a signature bass,” Lull says. “Which for Pearl Jam – they don’t do that for anything. It’s really a coup for us.”
George Webb, stage manager and bass technician for Pearl Jam, says the bassist’s endorsement came about after Lull sent Ament a prototype modeled after the classic Gibson Thunderbird.
“Jeff liked [the prototype] because Mike had solved some of the issues – balance problems, weight issues [characteristic of the original],” Webb says.
Webb says that it’s surprising how much work goes into making new guitars playable. But Lull’s instruments are ready to go from the moment you take them out of the box.
Others seem to agree.
“Mike builds, in my opinion, some of the finest bass instruments in the entire world,” says Evan Sheeley, Lull’s longtime friend and owner of Seattle’s Bass Northwest, the only outside retailer of Lull’s products in Washington. “He has reached that level of perfection and detail that not too many people get.”
This standard has proven to be a major selling point of the Lull brand.
The suggested retail price for Lull’s instruments ranges between $2900-$5500. However, some specialty instruments can cost more.
“Because I build every single one, I don’t want to outpace myself,” Lull says. “[Traditionally] somebody comes up with a great concept, a great product, and it catches on. And the first thing they do is send it overseas to be [mass produced] – and the quality goes down.”
While there are instruments similar to Lull’s made overseas, he says they tend to not be the same quality. Unlike his competitors, Lull refuses to offer cheaper models of his instruments made outside of the U.S.
The bass man
A musician himself, Lull has been playing bass since high school. And while he gave up his dreams of becoming a rock star long ago, Lull continues to gig with three local bands on the Eastside.
“That’s one of the things that’s actually been one of my strong suits,” Lull says. “I know how a bass is supposed to play. I have also owned hundreds of vintage instruments over the years and know how they are supposed to sound. And feel. And so, my instruments play like a really nice, broken-in, well-adjusted instrument.”
Another thing that sets Lull’s work apart is his accuracy – something he attributes to his use of the PLEK machine. The computerized machine optimizes the instruments by leveling the frets to within .001 of an inch. If the strings are too high the guitar is difficult to play. If they are too low, they buzz. The PLEK corrects this, making the instrument easier to play and better sounding.
Lull invested in the $165,000 PLEK machine – the only of it’s kind west of Chicago and north of San Francisco – five years ago.
As far as business on the Eastside goes, Lull says it is booming.
“It’s completely taken off by word of mouth and the quality of our work,” he says.
Even before big companies like Microsoft, Nintendo and T-Mobile arrived, Lull saw the Eastside as a great place to set up shop. It’s also where his roots are. In addition to being his place of work, Bellevue is where Lull, his wife of 25 years, Julie, and their sons, reside.
Another thing that has helped Lull’s reputation is that, if something hasn’t worked, he will do everything in his power to make it right. Lull says the art of being a repair person is learning how to fix your mistakes so they aren’t mistakes anymore. He says he sleeps well at night because he knows he runs his shop in a very ethical fashion.
“I don’t screw people and they don’t screw me.”
He also attributes the shop’s success to his exceptional crew: luthiers Tom Albert and Jeff Hoppe, who’ve worked with Lull for 20 and three years, respectively, and general manager Paul Schuster.
A savvy businessman, Schuster’s managerial duties have included taking the Lull brand to the next level. In the three years he has worked as Lull’s manager, the shop has increased production by more than two-fold. Lull expects they’ll build 400 instruments this year.
“[Schuster] is absolutely incredible at what he does,” Lull says. “He’s a great marketer, a great general manager – and he completed the crew.”
Schuster says he’s just lucky he shares the same passion for business that he does for music.
Lull says he picks very carefully as far as employees go, because it’s a family. The credo of the shop is that the work has to look the same, and as such, Lull has to really trust the abilities of his crew.
“I have my little techniques that I’ve shown them,” Lull says. “If I see something that doesn’t look like I’ve done it, it doesn’t go out.”
As the business continues to grow, Lull is working on expanding his shop. He’s already secured the space adjacent to his current location, and is in the process of expanding the workshop and adding two practice rooms for his wife to teach music lessons.
And while the time management aspect of things can get crazy at times, Lull says it’s just part of the job.
“Since I was 19 years old, I’ve always worked 6 1/2 days a week. Hard work is nothing new to me.”