It is never just the sound of a guitar. It is the feel of it. The weight of it. The way it sits against the player’s body, and how well it responds to every touch, be it a pick across its strings or the flat of a finger against its frets.
Mike Lull knew all that, and on a molecular level that drew some of the world’s most talented musicians to the Bellevue guitar shop that bears his name, including members of Pearl Jam, Heart, Soundgarden and Cheap Trick.
“A good luthier can make or break an instrument and an artist’s ability to fully express themselves with it,” Pearl Jam equipment manager George Webb said in a tribute on the band’s website. “… Mike Lull wasn’t just a good luthier, he was a true Master.”
Mr. Lull died Feb. 12 after a brief battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, while he was healing from back surgery. He had just turned 66.
In the days since, those he left behind have been inundated with condolences and remembrances.
“We are busy, and it’s a lot of people coming by to grieve, but also giving us guitars to work on,” said Paul Schuster, whom Mr. Lull hired 10 years ago as the general manager of Mike Lull Guitar Works. “It’s business as usual in some ways. We know what to do because Mike showed us.”
For more than 42 years, Mr. Lull tended to the guitars of rock stars and everyman players, repairing broken head stocks, pickups and restoring instruments that were bought online, exchanged backstage, uncovered in estate sales and found during travels around the world.
Ann Wilson of Heart remembered visiting Mr. Lull’s shop in the ’70s as a “timid” bass player.
“Mike treated me with gentleness and respect,” Wilson said via email. “He transformed my vintage Hofner violin bass into that bottom end that makes ‘Even It Up’ and ‘Bebe le Strange’ rock, and all my basses for the Lovemongers road- and studio-worthy.
“Most of all though, he encouraged me to reach.”
Said Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready: “Mike Lull made every guitar I have play perfectly, and in turn made me a better player. He also saved many a smashed Stratocaster or Les Paul I broke in the name of rock.”
Mr. Lull was born in Eugene, Oregon, in 1954, and moved to Bellevue when he was 5. He started playing guitar in ninth grade and was immediately drawn to the bass.
“It was the coolest thing in my life at the time,” Mr. Lull said in a 2012 Seattle Times story. “And I was really drawn to the low end and the support role that the bass played. It gave the music power.”
Soon, Mr. Lull was playing music with friends, and he built his first guitar in ninth-grade shop class from parts he bought from a neighbor.
As a sophomore at Newport High School, Mr. Lull was repairing his friends’ guitars and got a job at a music store, where he preferred repairing over selling. In 1976, with $100 worth of tools, he and a friend rented the back corner of Brothers Four Music in downtown Bellevue to hone their craft.
Mr. Lull attended Central Washington University for one year before leaving to pursue music. He was still playing in the last years of his life, and in three bands: The Mike Lull Acoustic Rock Trio, The Mike Lull Band and The Neon Lips.
“He was phenomenal bass player and singer,” said his wife, Julie Lull, “the fact of which was overshadowed by his fame as a luthier.”
He started building a reputation for repairs while working at Guitar Works in Bellevue in 1976. Seven years later, the ownership blew apart, so Lull found work at other music stores — including Kennelly Keys in Redmond. The goal was to earn enough money to reopen Guitar Works as his own place.
It was at Kennelly Keys where he came in for a job interview and was spotted by assistant manager Julie Hubbard.
“He walked in and I said, ‘I could marry that guy,’ ” she said. “I was drawn to his special light, which never ceased to shine on everyone around us.”
They were married for 33 years and had four sons: Harrison, 30; Spencer, 27; Cameron, 21; and Preston, 19.
As the Seattle music scene blew up, so did Mike Lull Guitar Works’ repair business, and reputation. Roadies raced in from soundchecks in Seattle theaters, desperate for Mr. Lull’s ability to fix problems large, small and sudden. Others invited him to shows, where he would bring guitars for players to sample, as well as family members to enjoy it all.
“My dad was just a nice guy who did unbelievable work,” Spencer Lull said, “and he didn’t really know the breadth of his influence.”
In 2009, Mr. Lull ventured beyond repairing other makers’ guitars and created the Mike Lull T-bass, a reincarnation of the Gibson Thunderbird bass that earned devotees such as Tom Petersson of Cheap Trick.
In 2012, Jeff Ament commissioned Mr. Lull to create the JAXT4, a signature bass to mark Ament’s 20th anniversary with Pearl Jam. It was the first time a member of the band had put his name on anything but an album — and a step into the spotlight for Mr. Lull, who was stalwart in his modesty, privacy and craft.
Mike Lull Guitar Works will remain open with his name and practices intact, said Spencer Lull, who is moving back from Florida to continue his father’s work.
“My dad’s goal was to make instruments that sounded like those specialized, rare instruments that played like they were perfectly broken in,” he said. “And he codified it, thank God, so it could be duplicated. Rather than hogging all the wisdom for some market prominence, he decided to lay it down so it could be carried out over time.”
Said Schuster: “We are looking forward to continuing the Mike Lull legacy. People trust in the organization that Mike built.”
A memorial service will be held sometime in March and will be announced on the shop’s website at www.mikelull.com.