“I like to look at what we do as untying knots,” says Larry Fishman, founder and president of Fishman Transducers, Inc., the world leader in acoustic instrument amplification. “A lot of design of electric gear in this industry has been haphazard and accidental and the optimization of some very basic designs can do wonders for improving the way they perform. A lot of what we do is fix problems. We apply good methodology and sensible science to improve performance.”
The 66-year-old Fishman was born in the Boston area, but grew up in the foothills of the Adirondacks in Gloversville, New York. He got involved with string instruments in school. “The orchestra lady in 5th grade came into class with some violins, cellos, and violas and said, ‘Does anyone want to be in the orchestra?’ And I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it.’”
“They loaned us instruments and gave lessons, which was pretty cool,” he says. Fishman started with violin, moved up to viola, then cello, and finally ended up playing bass. “I just kept getting bigger instruments. It’s a good thing there aren’t any bigger ones,” he adds with a laugh.
Fishman was also mechanically inclined in his youth. “I loved to take stuff apart,” he recalls. “My grandfather gave me a wonderful set of tools early in life and showed me how to use them. I became interested in making things and eventually that led to some pretty serious go-kart and automobile racing. I liked building engines and that type of activity.”
Fishman went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina State University. That’s where and when his interest in music deepened. “I was racing a lot at that time and I thought I was going to pursue that as a career, but I really got the jazz bug running into a lot of very talented musicians in Raleigh, North Carolina, where I was working as a bartender. It was a big mystery to me.”
When he graduated, he moved to Boston, worked as an engineer for a few years, saved some money, and enrolled at Berklee College of Music where he studied music composition and majored in double bass. “That was the end of my racing career,” he admits. “But I always had a basement full of machine and hand tools—I liked to do metal work. I could sit down with a scrap piece of silver and be finished four hours later with a ring. It was an instant gratification type of a thing. That’s who I was—a guy playing bass who loved to make things.”
In the mid-1980s, and still in Boston, Fishman had a steady gig every Sunday at a jazz club. When the owner of the club decided he was going to get rid of the piano, and that the band would have to bring their own electric piano, it changed Fishman’s world. “The guys in the band were saying, ‘We can’t hear you. We want you to play electric bass again,’” he says. “I was not interested in going back to electric bass. So I started working on amplification gear. I bought every bass pickup that I could find. Some worked better than others, but they were all pretty crude. I started working on a bass transducer—it took me about seven or eight months to perfect it.”
The business started growing and gigs were taking him away from home more than he wanted, so he decided to start focusing on the transducer world. “A guy I knew who was an independent rep for Guild called me and said Guild was looking for a pickup for their acoustic guitars. That was our first real big account, around 1985 or 1986.”
Next, Fishman got a call from Martin Guitars. “They were looking for a replacement for something they were having some quality issues with. So I designed something for them and they took it to a trade show in 1986 and came back and said, ‘We’d like 10,000 of these.’ And I said, ‘Uh oh.’” At that point it became a serious endeavor and it moved out of his basement. “My wife and I rented a 5,000-square-foot factory space and hired some people, mostly musicians looking for day work.”
Fishman’s impact goes way beyond music too. For example, Apple recently invited him to deliver an employee presentation, which he titled, “Inspiring Tools for Musicians: A Confluence of Engineering and Art.” In 2016, Fishman will celebrate its 35th anniversary. In that time the company has been issued more than 30 patents in transducer and musical instrument design. “It was not a planned business by any means,” concludes Fishman. “It’s just something that accidentally grew out of a hobby.” For more on Fishman visit: www.fishman.com.