Wednesday, March 7, 2012

My search for the perfect bass (es) and the quest for tone

When I was 15 (1990) I got my first bass, a SquirePrecision Bass. I'm a lefty, so the first thing I did was flip the strings around. I then drilled a hole for the strap button on the short horn and I was off to the races-blissfully unaware of the insane neck dive that was the result of holding it "the wrong way".

Little did I know that would mark the beginning of a 22 year voyage, a search for my perfect bass, or as it turned out, two basses. The following photo essay documents all the different basses that were part of that process. In short it's a total bass nerd fest! But...if you are a bass fanatic, you might enjoy hearing about the trip that lead me to the basses that finally fulfilled my search. My first P-Bass looked similar to this bass...
I loved my P-Bass, but was always drawn to acoustic string instruments. About four years later in my 2nd year of college I was majoring in music and got my first upright bass, a Roma.
I loved it and really felt I had found my voice in the double bass. But it was not the ideal instrument as far as portability and erginomic comfort were concerned. Aside from all the gigs I was doing, I'd bring it everywhere including campfire jams, beach jams, etc...

After a few little scrapes and cracks here and there, and a lot of hours on my feet (I never could get used to sitting and playing the upright) I began to wish for a little acoustic bass that I could lug around everywhere with me. I thought of getting an acoustic guitar bass, but they always seemed too quiet, with no low end.

Though upright bass was my main instrument at this point, and most of the gigs I was doing were upright gigs, the search for a small loud bass was simmering on the back burner.

Leaving out a lot of exhausting details, it went something like this:

The next bass I got was a Guitarron, the big Mexican 6 string bass...
It is quite a looker...
The Guitarron definitely had the volume and tone I wanted, (you pick it all in octaves and you can play faster lines as single notes) I couldn't bow it which was lame, but it really had that boomy, acoustic, fretless tone I wanted. It's smaller and more portable than upright for sure, but when you sit down and play it you're picking hand shoulder gets pretty jacked up.

A few more years passed and although I was still mainly gigging on upright bass I also did some stuff with Guitarron, and a G&L electric 4 string fretted-custom lefty. I had even built a washtub bass somewhere in here too, and had gotten a G&L fretless 5 string electric.

But, I still yearned for something loud, acoustic, and super comfortable to sit with.
I eventually got a Regal Resophonic bass...
The resonator gave it a little more projection than most of the other acoustic guitar basses I tried out, plus I figured, "I can't bow it, but I can play slide on it!" I really fell in love with the slide tone and also with the way harmonics sounded on it. I got a fancy headways pick up put on board so it sounded great plugged in...


By the way, the last two pictures of the Regal were taken by the amazing bassist/composer and fellow lefty JEFF SCHMIDT , who is the current owner of the Regal Reso Bass.

At this point in my life I had been touring a lot with a few different singer songwriters. And though I'd flown with my upright a bit (to Italy, and around the U.S.) it was getting less and less practical to do so, and as I hadn't got a flight case for the regal yet I tried a different approach for a second.

I was missing that fretless sound and feeling that the Regal didn't have, so I decided to buy one of those cheap Hofner copies (a "Rogue", oh yeah!) and tear the frets out...
This felt and sounded good and was nice because it was such a low end instrument I really didn't mind lugging it all over the place, and dinging it up. I got a little battery powered amp and tried to make a go of it that way.

This was convenient for traveling, but it didn't have the ability to jam acoustically (and carrying a battery powered amp around wasn't ideal either) So it was back to the drawing board!

After researching a million semi acoustic and electric upright basses and not really coming up with anything I was too crazy about, I sort of came full circle back to the upright bass, but this time I had the help of the insanely awesome luthier MATT BOHN a.k.a. THE BASS DOCTOR

We came to the conclusion that for what I wanted:

-something I could feasibly gig with acoustically (no amp), that could be bowed, that was smaller than a regular 3/4 upright, the best option was a 1/2 size upright bass with a detachable neck. So with Matt's help I got a Howard Core 1/2 size and had the neck made so it could be unbolted. A detachable neck allows it to fit into the newer styled flight cases where the body goes into one trunk, and the neck goes into a smaller case which attaches onto the bigger trunk. I have yet to get a flight case, but it's in the works for future travel plans.

The 1/2 size upright is very comfortable to play and is significantly easier to drag around everywhere...
Now comes a whole other chapter in the bass quest. Now that I had found the bass I liked, it needed a great on board pick up system to go with it. I had been honing a bunch of original bass ensemble material using live looping. I was appalled by the tone coming back at me, when using the bow in particular. This is the "tone quest" part of this whole mad search.

Through a bit of research, I saw that a lot of guys were running two pick ups at once, even three. So I had famed luthier RICK TURNER not only install his upright bass pick up (which is really nice for pizzacato), but also build me a blender box/preamp that I could run a second pick up through. I chose the Gage Realist (Wood), as it seemed to compliment the Turner pick up well and have a decent bowing tone. It's not pictured here but I will sometimes add an AMT upright bass mic to this mix giving me three different reference points to work with. This system is incredibly resistant to feed back and can be used at high volumes with out too many worries. And the tone is more pleasant to me than just running a single pick up. Also I should mention that the Bass Doctor was an integral part of getting this pick up system onboard.

If you're curious to hear this pick up system in action, here's a link to a live performance. By about 7:11 into it you can really hear a bunch of bowed parts and pizzacato parts layered up:



So that concludes the upright bass portion of the bass/tone quest. During all this in the background was my infatuation with the resonator bass. I really loved how to Regal sounded and played and began to think about a 5 or 6 string version.

In short, my ultimate dream resophonic bass was made into a reality by the master reso builder PAUL BEARD who built me what is probably the world's first and only lefty-cutaway-resophonic-contrabass-guitar! It's tuned like a guitar but an octave lower (EADGBE) essentially a bass with high a B and E. It's a 36" scale and is surprisingly loud. Check it out, it's insane:
Some sound samples of this bass will soon be up on the web. There will also soon be available a new record featuring this bass with myself, Steve Lawson, Dayan Kai, and drummer Mike Shannon.
If you're still with me you are a bass fiend, congratulations! I love you-

1 comment:

  1. Hey there, Im a bit late getting to this, but I wanted to ask about the guitarron. Did you restring it lefty, or did you just play it upsidown?

    ReplyDelete