AC Guitars is a classic example of a hard working, one-man operation, who builds high quality bass guitars in the small town of Moffat, nestled in the heart of Southern Scotland since 2006.
Whilst there are machines in the well-fitted out dusty workshop, it’s practical most of the way for owner Alan Cringean, skilfully working with the finest tonewoods and endless hours labouring with hand tools.
What in Alan’s mindset identifies a totally hand-built bass?
“Handmade is very difficult to define”, says Alan, “I see some well known players saying their instruments are hand-made when they have clearly been constructed with the aid of CNC machines, the opposite of course, is hand tools only. My definition is that all processes are guided by my hand, be it a piece of sandpaper or a router. I do however, make use of a CNC machine via my friend and fellow guitar builder Haydn Williams as some actions within the build are easier and quicker by using one.
My wooden pickup covers for example, which are available on any of my models including the Finn Classic 4, Recurve 5 and Recurve 6, I could spend all day making by hand, but it’s more cost effective if I get them done by Haydn, then the customer doesn’t have to pay for all that skill.
So I am pragmatic about the work. The only thing that annoys me is stating an instrument is handmade when it’s been CNC’d to within an inch of its life.”
We all know and it goes without saying that an immense amount of skill and expertise is required to produce bass instruments of this quality, but Alan didn’t attend the familiar college of furniture making or guitar lutherie course, as he explains,
“I’m totally self-taught, learning the art of bass making from books and a lot of mistakes. I had no tools other than the usual suspects that most people have lying around, hand planes and chisels for example. The only previous woodworking experience I had was hanging cigarette machines on walls, when I ran a vending company with my dad back in the 90’s. Then in 2000, I became really ill with an auto immune condition. One of the main symptoms was chronic fatigue and the side effects left me quite weak, my role was quite physical so I was unable to continue. We decided to lease the majority of the company and I was assigned to lighter duties.
Eventually my health improved after treatment but I was bored to say the least as I didn’t have enough work to keep me busy, so I decided to take my interest in music more seriously. As a youngster I started on clarinet, bassoon and various other reed instruments, dabbling in programming with guitar and keyboards and sound recording, but primarily, I was bass player.
I had two high-end basses but I had a hankering for a Telecaster, so straight out of the blue, I decided to build one. It was a Tele Thinline which had a nice sound and played pretty well and, from a distance looked like a Thinline. I was happy with it for about a week, it was the first instrument I’d built, but I thought I could do better, and it’s been downhill since then!” Alan laughs.
“When I build a bass guitar with a variety of tonewoods, I look at the whole structure, not each wood in isolation. For me, the main ingredient is the neck.
I build stiff necks with a multi-laminate construction and carbon reinforcement. I like to then use a softer wood for the body, capped with a hardtop. It’s all about a solid construction reducing flexibility within the structure, the more rigid the structure the faster the string attack, and less string damping. This produces a more modern sounding bass to my ear.
Conversely, if you wanted more of a vintage sound, go for a softer structure which increases the damping, so the speed of the string attack is reduced, this sounds more old-school to me, which can be modified further with a choice of pickups and hardware. So it is possible to manipulate the sound to a degree using wood choices and this is how I generally approach it.
Empirically, it seems to broadly work within the very inconsistent nature of the basic materials I use. When you bear in mind that a species specification has +20% to -20% tolerance, a board can be 40% different from one end to the other, so making any kind of guaranteed outcome is pretty difficult.
I have also found this to be a good way to work with the increasing number of shorter scale basses I am being asked to build. The reduced flexing of the structure helps with perceived string tension which by the nature of the shorter scale is less than the normal 34” scale. But with careful wood selection and construction, along with the new generation of strings, short scale basses are now an excellent option for many players.”
As we know, apart from the visual concept, the tonal characteristics of exotic tonewoods, are of course all part of the sonic equation, it’s in this department that Alan also airs his personal opinions.
“Ah yes, tonewoods for me, is like a can of worms wrapped in barbed wire on a fire. I seldom, if ever, get involved in tonewood discussions beyond generalisations, as it’s such a subjective area.
To be clear, does the wood used effect the sound of a bass guitar? Yes it does.
Can you take wood A add a bit of wood B with a section of wood C and guarantee a specific tonally outcome once it is all together? No, not in my opinion. You can probably get within the ballpark, but anything more precise I personally would not be prepared to commit to specifically through the woods alone.
I have my favourite tonewoods to work with, the likes of black limba and black walnut both work well with hand tools and with machines. Visually, there are just too many to choose from and of course there’s the customer preference as well. The ART (acrylic resin treated) timbers can be spectacular, whilst Claro walnut, Tasmanian blackwood and eucalyptus, are naturally beautiful and look fantastic. Like every builder, I’m constantly surprised with the beauty and charm in wood and I am always looking for that next undiscovered asset.
I source wood from all over and anywhere that’s legal. My main supplier is Larry Davis, I have worked with him pretty much since day one so I have a good relationship. I can order wood without having to see it, as I know it’ll be top quality. All the AI (Acrylic Impregnated) and ART (Acrylic Resin Treated) woods I use come from Larry.”
Are solid colours favourable with your customers, or just natural woods that are striking on the eye without the bling approach?
“Most of my work is commissioned so I build what people ask for. They will come to me for various reasons but I am sure one is because of the woods I use and in the combinations I utilize with them. I spend a great deal of time finding woods that look great and a vast majority of my work is a clear coat on natural woods.
It is possible to go overboard with fancy woods, I believe you can have too many on one bass. It can be overpowering to the point where it stops looking great and looks a bit of a mess. This is of course a matter of taste and I have built basses that I thought were over the top but once finished they worked really well. This opens your eyes to combinations that I would have otherwise written off. At the end of the day you are choosing a bass that you like and to be honest, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. If asked, I will forward an opinion on what I think works or doesn’t work, but I don’t make the decisions that is the customers remit.”
Wood shavings, glues, planes and tonewoods aside, Alan also has his own principles when it comes down to the hardware and electronics, as he explains,
“I don’t build P and J copies, they are simply of no interest to me. I have never owned any of the classic basses and have never wanted to. My designs are unusual which to a degree gets them noticed. I also decided from day one that I didn’t want to build custom basses with hardware that anyone could pick off the shelf.
I use my own ACG 4, 5 and 6 string bridge which I designed and is custom made for me by Hipshot. These bridges are standard on all ACG Custom/Über Basses, and like the ACG Custom headpiece for my headless basses, (also with a black anodized finish) is machined from a single billet of high quality aluminium.
My pickups are built for me by Aaron Armstrong and offered as single coil or humbucker units with a wide range of individual frequency options. I also install the ACG multi-coil MC series pickups designed by Aaron, myself and John East, which are available exclusively in our Über Spec basses. John also designed and built a range of preamps I use which feature Dual Low-Pass Filters and push/pull passive/active options.
I build every instrument to the best of my ability using the best materials I can find. I am always looking to move things forward be it in the construction of the bass itself, the playability or the sound, I see every instrument as an opportunity to improve, even if by a tiny amount.
I believe working closely with some of the finest designers and engineers contribute to a first class bass guitar. I also have my own bass strings custom wound for me by Newtone Strings, hard cases from Hiscox and high quality gig bags from Fusion. At the end of the day, my name is on the headstock so it’s important to me that that means something to me and the person buying the bass.
When you call AC Guitars there’s only me that’ll answer the phone and me that answers the mail, so you can always be sure that you are dealing with the guy that is building your instrument.”
For more information about AC Guitars visit: