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David Gage Hosts New York’s Grand Central Station for Double Bass
David Gage String Instruments is a Manhattan landmark
Spend a few weeks in New York City and you’ll see businesses and even entire buildings thrive and die in the blink of an eye. Then there are the timeless monuments that have outlasted rapidly changing tastes and held steadfast against moribund economies. Think Rockefeller Center, Empire State Building, Times Square—the island of Manhattan itself. Think David Gage String Instruments.
Tucked away on Walker Street in the Tribeca neighborhood, the bustling, three-story workshop and showroom has served jazz greats and classical heavyweights alike since 1978. Section bassists from the New York Philharmonic and such jazz legends as Ron Carter, John Patitucci, and Dave Holland have trusted Gage, and his staff, with their basses.
Luthiers and a receptionist occupy the first floor, which is divided by three partitions and a loft that serves as the 61-year-old luthier’s office, which he shares with his wife of 30 years, Judy. Basses are tested and deals are cut on the second floor, which houses the extensive showroom.
The third floor houses the brains behind Gage’s technological advancements, including his Realist acoustic transducer for violin, viola, cello, and bass, and the Realist SoundClip for bass and, most recently, cello.
Above the din of sanding, planing, and plucking on the first floor, the lanky, bespectacled, and plaid-clad Gage reminisces about his patchwork beginnings and shares his formula for success. The shop’s entry hall is covered with photos of heroes and clients, most of whom have etched out autographs and words of encouragement. In his office hang posters of his lifelong fascination, the Beatles.
Gage began playing electric bass in the sixth grade and came to the upright bass at 17. “I fell in love with the smell of it, the look of it—the whole aesthetic of a string bass,” Gage says. “It took me a year to realize that the string bass and electric bass are two very different instruments.”
Learn more about David Gage String Instruments at davidgage.com.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Massachusetts, Gage moved to New York when he was 26. He had befriended British jazz bassist Dave Holland, a member of the Miles Davis band (replacing Ron Carter), and after some time, landed a job at Chuck Traeger’s Bass Shop on Christopher Street.
“Chuck showed me a lot about sound, and [shared] a lot of firsthand experience,” Gage says. “Within six weeks, I was the only guy there on the weekends. I was pretty much doing the bulk of the work.
“I really took to repairing. My father was a doctor and I approached the instruments as patients. That idea was really compelling to me.”
Moving Beyond the Art of Making a Bass
He also made basses, which he took to noted acoustician and violin maker Carleen Hutchins in New Jersey and bass maker Lou DiLeone in Connecticut. Gage would do a little work for them in exchange for a critique of his work.
But as he was shooting up the ranks in the lutherie world, Gage quit to decide if he wanted to be a shop owner or a full-time player. Ultimately, the former won. “Playing is great, but the downside of playing professionally is that the definition of ‘a vacation’ is when a gig gets canceled,” Gage says.
“You’re always on the road and when Judy and I realized that we were going to have children, we wanted more stability.”
With further prodding from bassist Michael Moore (who played with everyone from Chet Baker to Zoot Sims) and help from his wife, Gage opened his own shop at age 28. It was a single, $250-a-month Tribeca loft.
“I bought a tool as I needed it, and things grew,” Gage says.
Moore gave Gage eight basses to repair, and retired executives counseled him on business basics and taxes through a city-sponsored program. Before long, business began to snowball. “I had great people around me, which is what New York is all about,” Gage says.
How to Make It in New York
A key ingredient to Gage’s success is loyalty. He employs 14 staffers, six of whom are luthiers. The “newbie,” Zack Lane, has been with him for four years. The seasoned veteran, bassist Mike Weatherly, joined him in 1980.
At a sunlit bench in the front of the shop, Weatherly pauses while rehairing a bass bow. “The biggest thing I’ve learned is that instruments have to work in different ways for different people,” he says. “What works for someone in one area of music or on one style might not work everywhere. We have to be aware of not only the instrument’s condition and needs, but what the player needs to do the job.”
James “Sprocket” Royer started working at the shop a few years after Weatherly’s initiation. “Like Mike and David, I was a bass player,” Sprocket says. “I got into repairing out of self-defense.”
Another longtime employee, Jose Pincay, labors up on the third floor, testing the Realist transducer pickups designed by Gage and Ned Steinberger. The Ecuadorian native’s view looks across the street to the old metal shop where he worked before being recruited by Gage to make the first Gage Travel Case.
Pincay, 51, has been behind much of the shop’s innovation, including creating tools for bass luthiers, working with the late luthier Irving Sloane to create the precision Irving Sloane Bass Machine tuner, and enhancing the technology for the Realist pickups.
“We have diversity in our business,” Gage says. “When the economy is bad, people repair rather than buy. In spite of that, we always have something that works. When the dollar is weak, Europeans look at our products as being a good deal, so we sell a lot of the pickups.”
Though Gage insists it wasn’t by design, his business model is flexible and in a place where everything can change in a minute, that’s a good thing.