The UI alumnus went from playing string instruments to meticulously making them.
Chris Threlkeld-Wiegand traded his bow for a saw when he started making double basses instead of playing them. He’d performed with several orchestras in the Midwest but found he was more interested in becoming a luthier—a maker of stringed instruments—than in being a performer.
“Playing is kind of a fleeting thing. You could have a good moment, but then it’s gone. This,” he says, pointing to the bass he’s making, “200 or 300 years later, it’s still around.”
The Davenport, Iowa, native earned a degree in string bass performance from The University of Iowa. He sold steel in Minnesota before moving to Japan to teach English. He then spent four years each in Austin, Texas, and Albuquerque, New Mexico, and five years ago returned to Iowa to open the Heartland String Bass Shop in Mount Vernon. After two years there, Threlkeld-Wiegand moved back to Iowa City so his 7-year-old son, Ry, could be closer to extended family.
Each place has left an indelible mark on his craft.
In Japan, Threlkeld-Wiegand learned tenets he still practices today. One of them is the philosophy of kaizen, or minute, continuous improvements, which he learned from a Toyota engineer who studied with him. Threlkeld-Wiegand’s student—an art school graduate—designed headlights. He found great joy in improving them, even if that meant changing the lights’ angles half a degree at a time.
“Creativity doesn’t have to be ‘anything goes.’ In fact, I think it’s better to have restrictions,” Threlkeld-Wiegand says. “I like the fact that an instrument should look fairly traditional, but you could tweak it a little so it doesn’t. It’s amazing how a really small change can make a big difference.”
The luthier has built eight unique basses named after significant people in his life. Each bass has its own unique characteristics—like the people they’re named after—whether blood wood inlays, oblique corners, or arched backs and tops.
After Japan, Threlkeld-Wiegand’s woodworking education continued in Texas at Collings Guitars, which makes high-end acoustic guitars for celebrities like Sting, Keith Richards, and Lyle Lovett. The Collings philosophy—that automated machinery has a place in the production of handmade instruments—has influenced Threlkeld-Wiegand’s work ethic.
“I think what handmade implies is that someone is paying attention, whether you’re using a CNC machine or a plane,” he says.
Threlkeld-Wiegand’s next stop after Austin was instigated by his cat, which broke the neck of his bass. When asked about a good place to repair the instrument, a University of Texas professor referred Threlkeld-Wiegand to Robertson and Sons in Albuquerque.
Threlkeld-Wiegand liked Robertson’s work so much that he asked for a job. There he developed a signature specialty—creating C and B extensions, which lower a bass’s register. His extensions can be found on instruments in the Minnesota Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, the Houston Symphony, and the New York Philharmonic.
His basses, one of which won a 2007 International Society of Bassist’s Certificate of Tone, have made music for the Lion King musical and Barbra Streisand concerts. They can be found in Kansas, Minnesota, New York, and Indiana. In case you’re wondering, Threlkeld-Wiegand charges $25,000 for the six or seven weeks of work that go into one of his basses. That may change soon, however, as he’s thinking of raising prices through auctioning.
Customers still manage to find Threlkeld-Wiegand—even though he works out of a garage in an Iowa City residential neighborhood—through his web site and by word of mouth. The bassist turned luthier has come a long way since being inspired to play the bass after seeing the instrument at a theatrical production of The AristoCats as a 9-year-old.
“As I make more basses, I’m defining more things, but in a really, really fine way—things you might not notice off the bat,” he says. “I love that. I think that’s what’s a lot of fun about this job.”
Story by Po Li Loo; Photos by Tom Jorgensen
July 21, 2008