Bass Maker Dan Lakin Never Tires
by Robert Loerzel
Old tires are piled up against chain-link fences all around the A. Lakin & Sons factory north of Chicago's Goose Island, but tire recycling isn't the only work going on inside.
High-quality bass guitars played by the likes of U2's Adam Clayton are also made inside the Lakin building.
Lakland Bass, owned by Dan Lakin of Wilmette, is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a series of events next week, including a concert March 10 at Park West featuring Donald "Duck" Dunn of Booker T and the MG's fame, Darryl Jones of the Rolling Stones and other bassists.
The tire business was founded around 1915 by Abraham Lakin, Dan's great-grandfather, and it's been the family's line of work ever since. But when Dan finished college and began working at the factory for his father, Lewis, things didn't work out so well.
"I didn't like it," Dan Lakin said. "He knew it. He fired me a few times."
Meanwhile, Lakin began buying and selling used bass guitars. He had played bass for the jazz band at New Trier High School and Synthetic Breakfast, a rock group at Southern Illinois University.
After hiring Hugh McFarland to repair some basses, Lakin was impressed enough to start a business with him-making bass guitars with a feeling of vintage instruments, both sturdy and comfortable to play. McFarland's no longer part of the company, but Lakin said the firm continues making instruments in his trademark style.
Lakin compared the feel of a Lakland bass to driving a BMW.
"There's a certain solid feel to the BMW," he said. "It feels real solid and real strong."
Another firm in Montana makes the bodies of the basses out of lightweight, resonant ash wood and ships them to Chicago, where Lakland employees assemble the instruments. For one thing, they smooth down the sharp ends of the frets.
"We try to make the bass feel old," Lakin said.
About 70 percent of Lakland's basses are largely built overseas-Lakin acknowledges it's a way to keep down labor costs-but the craftsmen in Chicago do the final work on even those instruments. The overseas basses sell for $950 to $1,800, while the all-Chicago models go for $3,300 to $4,200.
For a while, Lakland was a subsidiary of Lakin's father's company, but now it just rents space in the tire-recycling facility. After years of losing money, the bass company is "breaking even enough to keep going," Lakin said.
The challenge for an instrument manufacturer is to build a good reputation. Sometimes, that involves giving away instruments to star players.
"The guys that can really afford it are the ones who don't pay," Lakin said. Guys like U2's Clayton. "I couldn't think of asking him for a dime."
Clayton can be seen playing his Lakland basses on a recent concert DVD. Lakin said he hopes that kind of visibility will draw in new customers.
Other musicians using Lakland bass guitars include Prince, Chris Squire of Yes, John Stirratt of Wilco, Boz Burrell of Bad Company, Chris Chew of North Mississippi Allstars, Chris Hillman of the Byrds and Keith Moseley of String Cheese Incident.
"It's not one guy," Lakin said of his company's push to gain credibility. "It's more of a cumulative effort."
Lakland Bass celebrates its 10th anniversary with the "Raising the Bottom" concert at 7:30 p.m. March 10 at Park West, 322 W. Armitage Ave., Chicago, featuring Tributosaurus (led by WXRT's Matt Spiegel, a Wilmette resident) playing sets with Donald "Duck" Dunn, Bob Glaub, Darryl Jones, Joe Osborn and Elvis Presley sideman Jerry Scheff. Tickets are $25 for the concert, available on Ticketmaster and the Park West box office. Lakland will also host a cocktail party 5:30-7:30 p.m. March 9 at Webster's Wine Bar (tickets are $30); and a master class from 2-4 p.m. and open house from 5-9 p.m. March 11 at the Lakland Factory (suggested donation of $50), with the five bassists featured in the concert. A portion of the proceeds will be donated to the Merit School of Music.