Rudy Pensa
Pensa Custom 

New York, NY

Years Building: 27
Wait Time:
In stock (up to 6 months for spec built)
Price Range:
Starting in low $3000 range
(212) 391-1699

A few weeks ago I was invited up to Rudy Pensa’s private loft-style office. On two conference room tables lay the makings of a book on great archtops and their history. The book will retail for what some generic guitars cost. Anything Rudy creates is masterful. Whether it’s a book or a bass, it is made with the same love and passion. The story behind the product was told to me by everyone involved with its making: Rudy himself told me the history, Dean Moody and Jaxon Dillon-Fish explained the marketing and retail aspects, and Phil Rivlin, Makoto Noguchi and Ulrich Salazar discussed lutherie and construction.

I know Rudy Pensa as an aficionado of archtop guitars. How did the whole bass thing get started?

RP: Actually, my first love is the Fender bass. As a kid, I was a bass player. I played for many, many years. I always wanted to put my stamp on something like this.

What is it that gives the Pensa bass that Pensa vibe?

RP: You need to talk to my guys. They are the true artists behind the product. I know I just wanted the best traditional J- or P-style that you could buy. I provided my input and they just ran with it.

[The following responses are from the lutherie, sales and marketing staff.]

The vintage-inspired product line has been around a very long time. What is the key to its success?

First, of a lot of the credit must go back to the original designers and builders back in the John Suhr, Mas Hino days. We’ve been building basses since about 1982. Yes, we have had some tweaks and some minor changes, but the product is essentially the same.

What are the staples of the product line?

We build a ‘60s-inspired P-style bass that is active. We build a ‘60s-inspired J-style line that is really our signature bass. We have the 4- and 5-string models with the 5-string available in a traditional 34" scale and a modern 35" scale. The J-bass controls are Vol/Vol/Ttreble Boost and Cut/Bass Boost. The first Volume pot is push-pull for active or passive, and the second Volume pot is push-pull for series or parallel.

Are your components sourced or manufactured in-house?

The preamp is proprietary and made in-house. The hardware is all Hipshot. The Hipshot components are just a great fit, and luckily they’re an easy source to work with and stock is available.

Have you had trouble with suppliers?

It’s not that we have ever had trouble with suppliers. Another brand we use for our bridges comes from a small source, and unfortunately they have been back-ordered due to health issues.

Every Pensa bass always seems to have the perfect body. The necks seem to be very traditional. Do you do your own woodwork?

In New York City it would be nearly impossible to cost effectively cut your own wood. Everything is made in the US to our spec and is sent to us ready for prep. We prep the bodies for finish and fit. We install all frets, inlays, binding and overlays in-house. Our finish work is also done outside to our specifications. All the big things and the series of important little things are done here, other than the wood cutting and finishing. Finishing permits are difficult to obtain in NYC too.

What are some of the drawbacks of making custom basses?

We can build anything you could imagine. We also know what works and what does not. For bolt-on basses, ash or alder bodies with maple necks with rosewood, ebony or maple boards are a sure thing. It’s a tried and true formula. Going exotic, for example, with a mahogany neck and koa body could yield a great result, or it could yield a less than good result. We offer advice, but sometimes… you know how that goes.

Pensa J4

In the show room you have everything from a traditional sunburst finish to heavy metallic to chrome-illusion finishes, and they all look great. What type of finish products do you use?

Pretty much it’s all thin poly finishes. The new stuff sounds great and holds up well. We do offer nitro as an option.
What do you think is the x-factor in the product’s success?

In a word, synergy. It’s all the little things, the quality components, the fret jobs, the assembly and setup, the preamp that is still the original design. Each bass has a definite footprint, but no two are exactly alike. We don’t have a catalog; we try to make our product stand out, make it interesting.

How is price point determined?

We are very “anti-scientist.” It’s pure cost vs. markup. There are no price studies, nothing like that. We just build a no-compromise product and try to make a little on each bass.

Who is your target audience?

Our target is the working musician: Richard Bona, Christian McBride, Al Carty, Victor Bailey, Reggie Parker all use Pensa basses. The guy in the bar uses Pensa basses. Even the couch noodlers use Pensa basses because they appreciate the quality. Keith Urban just got a Pensa! Pretty much anyone with an affection for a high-end custom bass buys a Pensa.

Next Up: Matt Brewster of Rust Guitars