Talking Heads – Sounding out Sims
If you’ve ever seen glowing LEDs on the neck of a bass guitar on a dark stage, chances are you’ve seen the work of renaissance man Martin Sims. With a background in development, design and manufacturing for off-shore powerboat racing and Formula 1, what started as a practical solution to his own needs as a bass player has since become a business; centred around Sims Custom LEDs but now encompassing the Enfield brand of custom and production basses, a range of innovative bass pickups and more recently, a unique retail premises.
Kev Sanders of MIN spoke to Martin Sims as he took a break from gluing some bass guitar bodies.
MIN “You’re obviously still very involved with the manufacturing side then”
MS “Oh yes! Actually, this is the part of the business I enjoy most of all”
MIN “So let’s begin at the beginning Martin. How did this all start?”
MS “Well, when I left school I worked for my father’s company ‘Enfield Marine’ building class 1 off-shore power boats on the Isle of Wight. I did my full apprenticeship there in sheet metalwork, welding and development. After a few years my father retired and sold the business to a Greek company and I went off and joined a company that designed and manufactured fire extinguishers for Formula 1 race cars. Each extinguisher was hand made specifically for the driver of the car it was fitted to.”
MIN “Were you playing bass then?”
MS “Yes. And it was around this time I started working with LEDs. I’d done a gig with my band playing a bass I’d made myself. Under the bright stage lights, I couldn’t see the dot markers on the neck. I managed to play a whole solo bass intro a semitone out! Shortly after that I saw some LEDs on an Alembic bass in the ‘Bass Centre’ shop in London and thought “That’s what I need”
With my background in R&D and engineering, I managed to work out a way of retro-fitting LEDs onto the top edge of the bass’ fingerboard without having to remove the fretboard. I had no plans to turn this into a business. I’d fitted top edge LEDs to two or three of my own basses – no front markers at this time but whenever I took out my bass at a gig, other musicians would see the LED markers and go “WOW!”
MIN “Were you still working for the F1 company at this time?”
MS “Well yes. But I went into work one morning and the whole place had been cleared by the receivers – machinery, office furniture the lot. They’d been renting everything and the bank had pulled the plug on their massive overdraft. The company had basically been living a champagne lifestyle on lemonade money.”
MIN “So you were effectively unemployed?”
MS “I was. But I’d had such a positive response to the LEDs I thought “I wonder if somehow there’s a business here?” Truth is, I didn’t really know. But what I did know was that I liked the concept and I’ve always believed that if I like and believe in something personally, then hopefully others will too. That’s something I’ve stuck with throughout my 25 years in this business.”
MIN “Were you still living and working on the Isle of Wight during this time?”
MS “Yes. This was around the early ‘90s. Everything was kind of in the doldrums, property prices on the Isle were ridiculously high so I said to my wife “why don’t we move?” She said “Ok, where do you want to move to?” I knew I didn’t want to live in London but we needed to be near London. In the end we decided to move to Kent and we’ve been there ever since”
MIN “So that’s where the business was started?”
MS “Once we’d moved I bought some cheap, hundred quid basses and a few guitars and retro fitted them with the LED markers. I showed them to a few people and there seemed to be a real excitement about them so I thought “I’ll do a trade show” So in ‘94 I did one of the Guitar Trade shows in London”
MIN “Was that a success for you?”
MS“Ha! I remember walking in there and everyone seemed to know exactly what they were doing. I thought “what am I doing here? I know nothing about this industry” It was actually quite scary being there on my own amongst the big guys. Anyway, I did the show but thought that I’d got absolutely zero from it. I was really deflated and thought “now what do I do?” But then a couple of weeks later this guy rings me and says “hey, I spoke to you at the show – I’m ready to send those basses down to you” I’d completely forgotten the conversation! When they arrived, I was horrified to see that they included a mega-bucks Alembic and a Warwick Buzzard! I thought “Oh God! What now?” I’d only ever worked on either my own basses or cheap stuff. I decided I’d play safe and just send them back. But my wife convinced me to have a go, saying that as someone had put their faith in me, I should do it. So, I reluctantly did the work and returned them. After not hearing back from the customer for weeks I thought “oh man, the guy hates me!” In the end I couldn’t bear the suspense any more so I rang him. To my surprise and relief, he said “Yeah, they were great thanks, I have two more for you!” That’s really how the business started.”
MIN “Did you need to advertise much to keep the business coming in?”
MS“Well what happened next was a magazine that was running at the time called ‘Bassist’ agreed to run a story on the business. I drove up to their office with a couple of Alembics and a Spector bass – one of the very first ‘Euro’ models I think it was and they did some nice photos and ran a three page article on the business. From the moment that issue hit the stands I started getting phone calls and that’s when things really started to take off.
MIN “Were you just working from home at this time?”
MS“Yes. I had a big table in the lounge I’d put a cloth over it and that’s where I worked for the first six months or so until we moved when we had our first child. At the new house I had a workshop purpose-built in the garden which is where I stayed till 2002.”
MIN “Sounds ideal. How come you moved from there?”
MS“I guess I decided I needed to branch out and expand the business a little. I noticed that a lot of the people who brought their basses to me for LEDs would ask “oh, while you have the bass could you re-lacquer the neck or fix something?” Up until that point I’d always sent instruments to another company for the lacquering. It was just a nightmare because they had a monopoly on that kind of work in the area. They were so slow and in effect, everyone was held to ransom, paying way more than the work warranted. And then one day they really let me down badly. I had a customer who was going out on a gig with the Stone Roses and needed his bass back. I’d just spent over a month out in Chattanooga training a guy up to do the LEDs and it had all gone horribly wrong so on the way back I decided I was going to do the lacquering on my own. I didn’t tell any of the customers, I just set myself up and tried to learn.
Pretty quickly, word got around and some of my regular customers for LEDs, like Martin Petersen and Jonathan Law asked if I’d do their spraying too. What I didn’t know at the time was that these guys had instruments at the company I’d used previously too, in some cases, for six or seven months! So I agreed to take on the work and within just a few days I had 26 basses and guitars to refinish! It was a real learning curve because unlike car spraying there was nowhere I could go to learn the process. So once again I bought some cheap bodies and sprayed them, stripped them, sprayed them, stripped them – over and over, practicing till I got results at least as good as the guys we’d sent them to previously. Once I could do that, I set about refinishing all the guitars and basses that had been sent to me. After a while the quality of our finishing was among the very best.
Around this time I met a lovely guy called Jamie Crompton who looked after endorsee’s guitars for Fender. I started repairing, refinishing and airbrushing designs for them and this culminated in a series of Strats that I finished which included the signatures of the musicians who used them. There was one signed by all the members of Pink Floyd which I did with the Dark side of the Moon Prism design on, a Led Zeppelin one and several others. These were all auctioned off for the Nordoff Robbins music therapy charity. I believe the Pink Floyd one alone made over £40K – not bad for a Mexican Strat!
MIN “Were you offering any other services at this time?”
MS “For some time I’d been getting custom scratch-plates made by a sign writing company just down the road. I thought that this was something we should do ourselves so I went out on a limb and bought a CNC cutting machine. This was a huge investment – I basically spent everything I’d made in the previous two years on the machine and software. I could have bought a smaller machine just for scratch-plates but my reasoning was that if I was going to spend say, 15K on a small machine, why didn’t I get a much bigger one for 18K; same service and running costs and it would give us flexibility for the future. That turned out to be a very good decision.”
MIN “Were you still working on your own at this point?”
MS “Just prior to buying the CNC machine in 2003 I took on my first employee Rob Fleet who’s still with us. Like me, Rob knew nothing about CAD and CAM processes but he was very good with PC computers so between us we basically learnt to use the thing by trial and error – pushing buttons to see what moved, that kind of thing. Anyway, we eventually figured out how to cut out fingerboards as well as scratch-plates and soon, people started asking us if we could cut bass guitar bodies for them so we did that too. Eventually we were confident enough to start using it for producing necks. This is without doubt the most challenging thing we’ve done.”
MIN “How come?”
MS “Making a bass neck is easy and even making a bass neck that will be ok in the UK is pretty straightforward. But making a neck that will work in Vermont in the winter or Texas or Singapore in the summer is a real challenge. We had a few problems in the beginning, but I eventually figured out a system so that we could achieve exactly what we wanted.”
MIN “So now you were making your own Bodies, super-stable necks and scratch plates and you could fit LEDs and finish the basses to a high standard – sounds like you were getting closer to producing your own instruments.”
MS “Absolutely. For over 15 years I’d been fitting LEDs, then making bodies, necks and parts, building prototypes for other companies (like the Lodestone prototypes for Mark Gooday at Ashdown) refinishing and lacquering and making one-off custom instruments for people. Then, around 2006 we created our first pickup; the ‘Super 8’. After ironing out all the phasing issues and perfecting the design, we needed something to put them in and so in 2008 I decided it was time to build our own basses and we launched the Enfield ‘Cannon’ model – built specially for the Super 8 pickups and made to the customers own spec. The preamp was a custom-made John East design, we CNC milled our own bridges and control knobs and used top quality lightweight hipshot hardware throughout. The Enfield name was used because it was the name of my Father’s powerboat company.
MIN “Did the ‘Lionheart’ and ‘Fusion’ (Now called the ‘Avenger’) designs follow from the Cannon bass?
MS “After about 5 years of production and refinement of the Cannon basses we needed a more production-based instrument for our customers who didn’t want the complexities or cost of the Cannon basses. So, in 2013 we produced a new pickup design; the ‘Super Quad’ which is basically one half of the Super 8 pickups for a new range of production basses. This new design of pickup allows the player to switch between Split coil, single coil or full humbucker and is much more tolerant of string spacing and position than the Super 8 design, so it has a much wider range of applications and that means that we can also sell it as a retro-fit to other luthiers and players too.
MIN “And now you’ve opened the new shop”
MS “Yes. The shop was opened on the 28thof last month. (July 2019) In 2011 we’d taken over an old mid 19thcentury ‘Oast’ house (a circular brick building traditionally used for drying hops – Ed) right next to our workshop because I thought the unusual circular shape would make an ideal showroom for our products and services and that’s how we used it for several years.
Then, while I was in NAMM this year I realised that the South East could really use a specialised bass retail business, not just a guitar shop with a few basses and amps in it – but somewhere that catered specifically for bass players and from where we could properly display and sell our new range of Enfield basses. Previously, a customer would come to us, look at our range of products and options and describe what they wanted and I’d make it. I was always happy with this because I know basses and the processes for making them intimately. But I’ve never been involved in retail, It’s such a different beast. So Marcus who’d previously been at Bass Direct joined us and I’ve basically given him free rein to run it as he sees fit. At the end of the day the market will decide if we’ve done it right or not. Certainly, the shop looks stunning and since the opening the reception has been really positive.
MIN “So what about the future Martin – how do you see the business developing from here?”
MS “My plan for the future is to expand the pickup production. The Super Quad pickups are such a fantastic design and as we own the moulds for the carbon fibre shells and have designed our own bobbins and bobbin moulds the whole thing is so much more scalable – we could get a thousand made at a time if we needed to and distribute them worldwide without worrying about things like humidity or warranty returns. Eventually I’d like to restrict production of the basses to 100 units a year. As I make all the Cannon basses myself, I’ve already limited production of that model to just 5 per annum. This should help ensure our basses retain exclusivity and in future our basses will be serial numbered according to which instrument out of 100 it is for that year.
MIN “And what about the thing that started all this off; the LEDs – will they still be a factor in the business?”
MS “Ha! You know, in 25 years of doing the neck LEDs there’s hasn’t been a single year when we haven’t done more than the previous. It’s funny when I think that I started the spray shop because I thought the LED thing wouldn’t last and I’d need something a little less specialised to fall back on! Previously, we’d always prioritised the work we did for our clients over promoting our own Enfield basses and pickups. With the new shop we’ve now swapped that around.”
MIN “Thanks so much for talking to us Martin, best of luck with the new shop”
MS “Thanks, you’re very welcome”
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