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Spotlight: Hearing his own string theory

BY TOMMY MORGAN JR. | APRIL 21, 2010 7:30 AM

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For up to 10 hours a day, nearly every day of the week, Chris Threlkeld-Wiegand is in his garage.

The 47-year-old isn’t looking for that elusive tennis racket or fiddling with an old auto. (Even if he were, those things wouldn’t fit in the garage, which is full of tools, workbenches, and wood.)

Threlkeld-Wiegand is a luthier — a maker of stringed instruments — and runs the Heartland String Bass Shop in his Iowa City home. He specializes in double basses.

Each bass he creates takes two months of detailed work. Threlkeld-Wiegand makes each piece of wood himself in the garage-turned-workshop, from the maple back, sides, and neck to the spruce tops.

“For me, it’s just more rewarding,” he said as he worked on his latest creation. “Every day, I come out, and something is different, something has progressed.”

The price for two months of Threlkeld-Wiegand’s work to create a handmade bass from start to finish? Roughly $26,000. He said modern luthiers (there were more than 3,600 members worldwide in the Guild of American Luthiers in 2007) may charge as much as $45,000.

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The lower price tag certainly doesn’t reflect on the quality of the luthier’s work. Orchestra members all throughout the country have purchased the man’s basses, and members of both Barbara Streisand and Billy Joel’s bands have played Threlkeld-Wiegand’s instruments. One of his basses even received a Certificate of Tone from the International Society of Bassists, meaning it was considered to possess “concert quality, exceptional tone, and ease of play,” according to the group’s website.

“Everything I’ve dealt with him on, it’s been really good working with him,” said Joe Meinecke, who met Threlkeld-Wiegand when he began remodeling his house.

The Davenport native first became interested in music as a child. His parents and siblings were all musical people, he said, and his interest in bass started when he first watched The Aristocats, an animated Disney film featuring a cat that plays a double bass. Threlkeld-Wiegand would eventually graduate from the UI with a degree in string-bass performance.

Then, while living in Austin, Texas, playing in bands and working at a guitar shop, one of Threlkeld-Wiegand’s cats knocked over his bass, breaking the neck. He traveled to Albuquerque, N.M., to get the bass repaired and ended up working at the shop himself, learning how to make the instruments.

“I was in Albuquerque for five years, repairing and restoring, and basically just kind of did my first one,” Threlkeld-Wiegand said as he filed down the nut of what will be his 14th bass. “I learned everything I knew about making [them] on the first one.”

Years later, he sees his basses as beings in their own right and often dedicates each one. The bass he recently finished is dedicated to an aunt who died in February. When Threlkeld-Wiegand completes a bass, he or a friend usually plays it to test its sound, though the luthier says the sound can often change as the bass ages.

“You never know really what they’re going to sound like,” Threlkeld-Wiegand said. “They actually grow up. Sometimes, I get to hear them after a year or so, and they sound a lot different. They mature.”

And Threlkeld-Wiegand isn’t sticking only to making basses. He said he plans to expand his shop to include mandolins and arch-top guitars, and he will work with Meinecke and Ben Upchurch to make the new instruments.

“We have a good time working for him,” Upchurch said. “He’s excited about what’s going on.”

Though Threlkeld-Wiegand said he does still enjoys playing, he prefers making the instruments to making music.

“Playing is great in its own way, but it’s kind of fleeting,” he said.

“This should hopefully be around for a couple hundred years.”

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