Music to My Ears

The Gear That Changed My Life – The Bass Series

I am going to explore some bass stuff for a few columns here. It’s surprising and a little disconcerting that I haven’t explored this idea yet because I are a bass player. But I was thinking about gear that changed the way I listen to music and nothing changed my listening as much as when I started playing the bass guitar. Also I noticed in Dan Schwartz’s column in Issue 108 that Paul McGowan proposed a piece on why a bass instrument is important. I’d like to take a swing at that.

I did a column on Jaco Pastorius very early on (Issue 11).  As far as bass influences go, everything for me has to start with Jaco. But since I did that already and everyone knows that guy, I’ll cover some major influences like Stanley Clarke and Victor Wooten. I know there are maybe seven readers out there interested in this topic so I’ll sprinkle these guys around. Or not.

Today we’ll go personal. In 1972 I was a guitar player who played bass. Guitar players are particularly guilty of believing that because the bass guitar has fewer strings any guitar player can pick up the bass and play it. That’s why I say I was a guitar player who played the bass. Guilty as charged. Later a real bass player named Jerry Lelancette came to a gig and pulled me aside to quietly advise me on the error of my ways, then turned me onto Jaco’s first album. Now there was a “POOF” moment. About the same time drummer Rob Fried joined our little band and not so quietly asked me WTF I was doing out there.

Before these revelations I was playing a plastic-faced 1960s era Hagstrom bass that played like barbed wire so I was not thrilled with the instrument. In 1976 my young wife and I were visiting a friend dating a wealthy wise guy. One didn’t get far into a conversation with me before I mentioned I played bass, and this dude said he had one he’d gotten in a drug deal and didn’t know what to do with it.

We went to look at the thing in his room. Lord only knows what he had in there. From under his bed he slid out a black case with the Fender logo printed across the top. My pulse quickened. Three clasps later he opened the case to reveal a brand new natural finish Fender Jazz Bass guitar.

Hey! There’s a picture of it!

Remaining nonchalant I asked the man how much he wanted for it.

“I’ll take a hundred bucks.”

This was 1976. Diana and I were 22 years old, married two years and flat broke. $100 was a ton of money. However I had honed my whimpering skill (which is how I got her to marry me in the first place) and went to work. We took the bass home that night with a prayer that the check was good.

The difference between the Hag and the Jazz kicked off a lifetime of exploration. I know of at least one band that hired me before they heard me play a note because that bass screamed “Professional Here!” It wasn’t true for a while but that’s when I really started to take the instrument seriously.

I’d like to take a moment and talk about the parts of this bass, stuff only I care about but you may have noticed and would like some clarification. For instance note the position of the thumb rest. Most of the basses I’ve seen have the rest below the strings or none at all. There was a reason Leo placed the rest below the strings but that’s a story I’ll let a reader tell.

First I removed the pickguard. Looks great without it. Then during my Jaco phase I had the frets taken out and replaced with rosewood dust. Because I play round wound strings the neck took a horrific beating and I had to periodically refinish the fretboard. But I love the sound of the round wounds and the fretless. Plus that maple neck with the natural finish body…Ooh la la.

Later I was in a New Wave band called first The N Men, then White Noise and finally The Uh-Oh Squad (see Issue 71 for more about that). I loved all three names. I changed to the Badass bridge you see below and I’ve never regretted it.

At the time I was doing most of the lead vocals. The guys finally came to me and said “Rasbo (that story in a minute), when you’re singing you are not playing in tune on that fretless. We have to get you a fretted neck.” I acquired a beautiful bird’s eye maple Precision Bass fretted neck (which I still have if anyone is interested) and installed it.

In the following years I would go back and forth between the fretted and fretless necks as events required until I got worried I would strip out the neck screw threads, so I’ve left it fretless and will from here out. Bonus, I now have the excuse to go whimper to the wife about needing a fretted bass. I have begun the process. Diane asked me with a straight face what I would do with the fretless if I got a fretted. The girl is a sketch.

Down next to the bridge is a points plate from a 1978 Harley Sportster. It was engraved by a friend of mine. Rasbo Jenks was my stage name and there is still a very small subset of humanity who know me by Rasbo. My brother owned a light and sound company named Lightning Sound and his logo was a G-clef with a lightning bolt through it. My brother was and is a really creative guy. Eventually The Uh-Oh Squad needed equipment. I sold the Sporty and funded it. In homage I swapped the points plates and mounted this one as you see here.

By 1984 the kids had started coming and it was time to grow up. I went back to school and got an engineering degree. My wife asked me at the time if I wanted a class ring. Being still a musician at heart I requested a pair of active EMG pickups instead.

The last and most heavenly change is the signature on the headstock. PS Audio, where I work, had started a record label and the mixing engineer/producer is a genius named Gus Skinas. The guy knows everybody and is very good friends with Victor Wooten, bassist specifically for Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and more generally for the world at large. Gus told me that he would bring Victor by my office the next time Wooten was in town.

This was a surreal moment. I was sitting in a management meeting at PS Audio in a room surrounded by glass looking outside. Paul McGowan said to me, “Is that Vic Wooten?” And there he was, coming in our front door with that big smile of his.

Knowing Victor was coming but not knowing when, I had brought the J-Bass in to leave in my office. Fortunately Victor is one of the sweetest men on the planet and was glad to autograph the headstock for me.

We had a wonderful chat and I told him the history of the guitar as I’ve told here. I said I’d paid $100 for it and explained all the mods I’d done. Finally I said it’s not worth what it could be because of all the changes I’d done to it.

He turned to me and said, “Well it’s worth a hundred bucks.”

Thank you Victor for making a pretty good story infinitely better. And thank you dear readers, for letting me indulge in a small personal journey.