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As a student at Colorado State University in 2004, bassist and Les Claypool fan Anthony Olinger taught himself many Primus songs between classes and work. But when he found himself having trouble getting “John the Fisherman” just right with his 5-string Peavey, Olinger started looking for a short-scale, 4-string bass. Not being able to find anything for less than $2,000 and paying his way through college, he quickly came to the realization that he couldn’t afford to buy one. When he found a music professor that was willing to give him an elective credit for building his dream bass, the budding luthier decided to make the instrument he needed.
Usually late at night after work and homework, Olinger built his first bass between the kitchen of his apartment and and building part-time, he launched Xylem Handmade Basses and Guitars in 2007 and set up shop in Durango, Colorado.
Citing Claypool as his inspiration to begin playing bass, it makes perfect sense that Carl Thompson—who has built several basses for Claypool—provided the inspiration a shop above a local event center. When he completed the bass—and graduated with a degree in zoology two weeks later—he decided to build instruments for a living. After a few years working in a music store ration for Olinger to actually start building them. Today, Olinger credits his personal drive and ability to constantly improve his instruments as what sets him apart. “By handmaking everything, I’m not chained to a set of jigs or molds, so I can improve the design of every single instrument I make,” says Olinger. “I’m always looking for new and better building methods, and ways to make my instruments easier to play, lighter, better sounding, easier to adjust, and more affordable.”
Olinger is particularly proud of the comfort and playability of his instruments, noting the standard action at the 12th fret is 0.04" on his guitars and 0.06" for the basses. He also maintains that his instruments are more lightweight than many manufactured instruments, and that his basses often weigh less than a number of production guitars on the market. “More than anything, I want each and every owner of a Xylem instrument to feel like it is the best instrument they have ever played,” he says.
The Shishido’s poplar core has a spalted-maple top with mahogany accents, while the neck is constructed from quartersawn mahogany and topped with a bocate fretboard. Weighing in at just over 6 1/2 pounds, this lightweight bass features Hipshot Ultralite tuners, a Hipshot TransTone bridge, and is loaded up with Basslines pickups by Seymour Duncan with an SRB-1 for the neck and a SJB-3 for the bridge.
The Aurelia’s flamed-maple top is adorned with a bloodwood center stripe and accented with black walnut, while the guitar’s maple neck is topped with a bois de rose fretboard that’s decorated with abalone markers for both the frets and sides. Utilizing Hipshot tuners and a Hipshot Baby Grand bridge for hardware appointments, the Aurelia is outfi tted with a Seymour Duncan SH-2 neck humbucker and a TB-5 bridge humbucker—each with independent tone and volume controls.
The 5-string Borysthenis bass is outfi tted with active Bartolini BC5CBC humbuckers that are covered with ebony and paired with a Bartolini HR4.7 preamp. The highly figured top of the black-limba body is bookmatched macassar ebony, accompanied by bocote and walnut accents. Also utilizing Hipshot for hardware appointments, the Borysthenis is outfitted with Ultralite tuners and a Triple Lock Down bridge.
The uniquely shaped body of the 7-string Cephisso is constructed of black limba and is paired with a neck fashioned from quartersawn, 150-year-old black walnut. The ebony fretboard is adorned with mother-of pearl fret markers, black limba binding, and Jescar gold-alloy frets. For electronics, the Cephisso features Seymour Duncan AHB-1 Blackouts, a kill switch, and a locking Neutrik output jack.
The Sanjuro is a 36"-scale, 6-string bass with an elaborate dual-scroll body that’s topped with book-matched bloodwood. Weighing in at 9 pounds, the Sanjuro is wired up with a pair of passive V2JLH linear humbuckers from Villex. Hardware appointments for this distinctive bass include Hipshot Ultralite tuners and Hipshot’s A Style aluminum bridge.
With a body constructed of jatoba (aka Brazilian cherry) and cocobolo, the Vera is paired with a rock-maple neck, which also utilizes cocobolo for its shim. A bone nut rests atop the ebony fretboard, which is decorated with maple side-markers and ebony binding. The Vera’s Seymour Duncan SH-2 in the neck and TB-59 in the bridge are wired to a master volume, master tone, and a 3-way switch.
Pricing and Availability
Olinger builds a baker’s dozen of instruments per year—with approximately two basses for every guitar—and soon plans to double production by improving on his construction process. Xylem instruments start at $1,500 and are available both direct and from select dealers that can be found on the company’s website. At press time, the approximate waiting period for a custom instrument from order to delivery is one year. While Xylem instruments are currently custom order only, Olinger is in the process of developing a pair of standard models.