Music, Audio, and Other Illnesses

The Bass That Phil Lesh Gave Me

In one’s early life as a musician, one tends to look for signs along the way that you’ve chosen the right path. For me, there were a couple early indicators of that choice. The first was my encounter with Jack Casady, when I hadn’t even been playing for a year. The second one came three and half years into it, when I met Phil Lesh. What follows is the tale of meeting Phil, adapted from something I wrote up for a web site in 2007:

Rick Turner was a musician from the Boston area, who started on the road to luthiery there, and continued both when he moved to NYC. Shortly after his arrival in SF, he met the Youngbloods secretary (who went by the name of Rosie McGee). She was the girlfriend of Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, and introduced the two of them — Rick had done an inlay on a bass for Jesse Colin Young, so she thought they’d have something to talk about. Lesh commissioned an inlay on his fretless bass, and introduced him to Bear and Ron Wickersham — and so Alembic was born. (Bear = Owsley; he had a vision for a team of people who would push the art of instrument and sound system building forward, and Rick was the missing piece).

In 1968, there were 3 custom instruments made by Guild for the Grateful Dead. This is an arch-top, built for Phil — it’s sort of a Guild M-85, at least in shape. The top (spruce) and back (maple) are carved. The neck is a 3-piece running straight through the body, not touching the top or back until the butt of the instrument, where the bridge is sunk into it. I used to think this was Bear’s idea (hence it appearing in the Guild Guitars book as a fact) but Mark Dronge tells me it was his idea, discussed in a limo ride from NYC to NJ w/Phil, Jerry Garcia, and Bob Weir.

Phil eventually discovered that he couldn’t use the bass, for some reason — maybe he didn’t relate to fretless -– I don’t really know. It sat at Alembic on Brady St. til ’73 being used as a test bed for different electronic ideas. According to Ron Wickersham in Blair Jackson’s book Grateful Dead Gear, this was the first active bass. (A circuit called an emitter follower was installed in the instrument to lower the pickups from high[ish] impedance to low impedance.)

Anyhoo – it’s July 1973; I’m 16. I had just gotten my first Guild Starfire, a sunburst ’67 SF-I for $175. I was ecstatic but also somehow disappointed — I didn’t sound like Jack. I’d seen a Guild M-85 and was thinking, “Maybe I need something else! I’ll sound like Jack with a different bass!” (Yes, I was THAT naïve.) I went to visit my oldest brother in Palo Alto from New Jersey and saw a Guitar Player magazine with an article listed on the cover, “The Dead’s Gear”, and had in the last year gotten into them. I read the article – an interview with Rick Turner, all about Alembic. The next day I hopped the train into the city, looked up Alembic in a phone book and invited myself over. Nice people. I asked a bunch of questions, but no RT — he was on his way back from a crafts fair in Bolinas, showing the first Alembic “standard” guitar and bass. I was told to wait for him — he knew all. Speaker cabinets w/tie-dyed grille cloths were sitting all over the place, instruments of all sorts were hanging up. The very first instrument visible was a blond M-85 with insane inlay and no strings. I was in love/lust, my jaw hanging. I asked about it to anyone there. A nice guy named Sparky Razine tells me it belonged to his boss and he believed it was for sale. I asked, “Who’s your boss?” He said, “Phil Lesh.” And I was thinking “Oh, @#%$. Well, that’s that.”

RT arrived and couldn’t be nicer and treated me not at all like some kind of geeky long-haired teenager from New Jersey. He was excited that there was bass player in the shop (3&1/2 years already – I’m reeeaaaalllll good!). He had a bass he wanted people to play and give him feedback on. Plus, while I was waiting for him, everybody there was excited because the first JBL K151 in SF arrived and they mounted it in a cab they have waiting and wanted to hear it. I was handed the bass, plugged into an Alembic F2-B, a McIntosh 2100 and the K-151 in sealed box and told, “Go man! Let’s hear it!”

I was so blown away by the tone, the evenness, roundness and fullness that I didn’t have a moment to feel on the spot. My 2nd thought was “So much for my Starfire…” I’m sure I gave Rick no useful feedback.

Eventually I got around to asking Rick about the M-85 and he told me that Phil wanted to sell it when Rick put some kind of wiring back in it. How much? “Oh, probably $1000.” Imagine $1000 then to a 16 year old. I left, my head in the clouds.

Come September, I was back in NJ and the Dead played Philly. I followed the seats of the hockey rink back around the stage to look at the gear closer up. I saw Sparky and called hello. He recognized me and asked, “Did you ever get your bass?” I told him I was working on it and asked to come up there. He brought me onto the stage (the first time I had ever looked out at a waiting crowd of 20,000 people), and we searched around in different cases looking for Phil’s Starfire, but no luck (we did find Garcia’s and Weir’s guitars though.) He said to come back between sets. I tried but stupidly went across the floor and never got there (although once I break free from the floor I go running up the arms of the chairs, slipped and cracked my sternum). After the show I went back there again and he invited me back yet again and took me backstage to meet Phil, who was leaning on a limo with two very buzzed teenage girls, all giggling. But did I let that stop me? Hah! (Would you?)

So I walked up, introduced myself and start throwing all kinds of questions about active electronics at him: What does he think of this idea or that idea? This probably only lasted a couple minutes – he had some serious @#%$ going on and I knew better than to wear out my welcome. As I was walking away I threw a question back at him: “Hey! Whaddaya gonna do with that Bluesbird Bass hanging up at Alembic?” He calls back: “I can’t use it anymore. They can have it. You can have it if you want it!” I called “For free?” He says “Yeah! I’ll give it you!”

I just laughed and left the arena. My friends were waiting for me outside and it suddenly hit me and I told them, “I think Phil Lesh just gave me a bass…” The next day I send a letter to the Dead Heads PO box and one to RT telling him what happened, admitted I’m embarrassed to bring it up but maybe he meant it and I’d be dumb not to look into it. 4 months later I get a letter from Rick telling me that he talked to Phil and yes, it’s mine, but Phil wants me to come get it, rather than it being shipped to me.

This all resulted in some serious ostracizing for a bit. First I come back from SF, the first of us ever to go this mecca, yammering about Alembic to every musician I know. “Olympic? What?” Then I tell a few close friends that winter about the letter from RT, and all of South Jersey having recently converted to Deadheads (they hadn’t played our area from 68-72), it spread like wildfire and most people thought I was lying.

But eventually I got a call from Rick. It’s ready. My brother was coming east on business and Rick thought that was OK – him handing it to my brother was the same to him as me flying out and him handing it to me. It’s Memorial Day weekend and I was on a canoeing trip up the Delaware — but when I got back Sunday night, there it was: beautiful, and mine. My brother told me that Jack Casady was in the shop when he went to pick it up and said, “I hope you’ll be playing that around here — that’s a seriously karma laden bass.”

But, over the years, I discovered why Phil gave it up. It was gorgeous yes, but not really happy as it was. But it was my fretless and I used it like that for many years — and loved it (in hindsight I think it was hampered by the lack of decent short scale strings that we suffered through in the 70s and 80s. All my short scale basses went into retirement until the 90s). [ I had no idea what “short scale” meant. Dan explained: “Electrical basses come typically in three scale lengths, which is the measurement of the space between the bridge and the “nut”, the point where the fretboard begins. 30.5 inches is short scale (most Guilds and Gibsons). 32” is medium. 34” is long scale, which most Fenders are. Although the long Rickenbackers, like my antique 4000, are 33”.”Ed.]

Those are mother of pearl lines, not frets. Confusing, eh? —Bewildered Editor Leebs.

In ’88 when Rick was running the Gibson showroom in N. Hollywood, I handed it to him and said “Rick – make this thing be what we know it can be, please.” And in ’90 he calls me and leaves a message “Well, 21 years I’ve been working on this thing but it finally works!”

The first thing he did was remove the pickups (they are both now in my original sunburst SF) so it could come alive acoustically. Then he dumped the bridge/tailpiece (it’s brass blocks are on the SF too). He devised a new tailpiece/bridge with his own piezo pickups as the saddles and came up with a new string, a giant classical guitar string, non-magnetic, with a nylon core and bronze winding. Judge the sound for yourself: it’s half of the Tuesday Night Music Club album (most audible on “We Do What We Can”), and I also use it on Rosanna Cash’s “I Was Watching You”.

The pictures were taken in ’78, when it was intact, and from Larry Robinson’s book, The Art of Inlay, after the modification. (Since then I’ve removed the plastic laminate that covered the pickup holes. It sounds much better this way — two big sound holes.)

If it’s for the Dead, ya gotta have a skull, right? This also shows the mother of pearl lines.

Where the pickups used to be. You can see the neck running through the body.