Music, Audio, and Other Illnesses

What Is a Bass? Part 2: Jack’s $4,000 Revolution

Last issue I started writing about what made an electric bass a bass. I wrote a bit about the background; this time I want to get into the specifics of the construction.

Generally, the basses you saw people playing in the 60s, Fenders, Gibsons, or my beloved Guilds, had separate necks attached by either bolting or gluing them to a body, whether hollow or solid. A notable exception was Rickenbacker — built with a neck-through construction.

At the end of 1971, Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna bassist Jack Casady was seen with a mysterious, and obviously custom-built, instrument: symmetrical, big like his Starfire, but not apparently hollow. From the audience it looked like it had stripes on its face. As a 15-year-old, I remember thinking: what the hell is that thing???

Augustus Owsley Stanley III, or Bear, took Casady’s first Guild Starfire II bass to various craftsmen for customization (as well as doing some of it himself): it was re-finished, had some elaborate inlay work done, and a pullout electronics panel installed (handy for anything one might want to “stash” whilst traveling). It also had an elaborate-for-the-time tone-shaping circuit installed. This bass was stolen right after Woodstock — Jack went into a guitar store and bought two more, one of which was shipped back home for quick installation of an elaborate tone-changing circuit, similar to the one in the stolen bass. This Guild was sent to Ron Wickersham, part of the team of craftsmen that Bear had assembled under the name Alembic — which was originally his name for the hangout where these and other various experiments in living and working were done.

The following June, Alembic incorporated in order to be able to bill Warner Brothers for the recording of the Great Medicine Ball Caravan. There were three partners: Wickersham (who handled electronics and sometimes ran location recording), Rick Turner (who ran a very small shop of luthiers and made the pickups), and Bob Matthews, who also handled recording, known to Deadheads for his recordings of the Grateful Dead. Bear wanted no part of owning the business himself, though.

At the time, Alembic was known pretty strictly only in the Bay Area, and did fairly elaborate custom-work. Rick met them all when Phil Lesh commissioned the inlay on a fretless Guild M-85, which he eventually gave to me. So when Casady had some ideas for what he wanted, there was now a team of people who could realize it.

Mr. Casady and the Revolution.

The resulting bass was the subject of an article in 1972 in Guitar Player magazine, entitled “Casady’s $4000 Revolution”. Not precisely unique, but nearly so, the bass was built with a neck-through construction — two pieces of walnut with a piece of maple in between — and, uniquely, the body halves, hollowed out zebrawood with maple top plates, were glued to the side. (It also had pickups that slid on brass rails, resulting in the striped effect I saw.)  It was largely built and sculpted by Rick with electronics by Ron Wickersham. And although Ron insists that my Guild M-85 is the first active bass, Jack’s Alembic was the first to go “whole hog” and get a fully active circuit for pre-amplification of the pickups and a truly innovative set of state-variable filters for each pickup — in other words, an active circuit, top-to-bottom (as well as LED side-markers in the neck, an innovation back then).

The bass is currently owned by a friend of mine, and lived here for a couple years about 20 years ago. My brother, no slouch in the guitar-repair department, played it and agrees with me that it’s the greatest bass in the world. Like an extremely good upright bass, every single note in its two-octave neck swells, gets louder, when struck.

Turner and Alembic quickly incorporated what they learned building it and started their own line of semi-custom instruments — that is, they picked a few standard features — beyond that, no two are alike. But the neck-through-with-glued-on-body-halves was fixed, and remained that while he was a part of the company. I met him in ‘73, and by the time I was 20 I commissioned a bass as well (with, in part, my college money — I mean, come on, what’s important in this world?).

One of the standard features was a 5-piece neck, generally maple with purple-heart “stringers”, or narrower pieces; on custom-instruments, they were 7 pieces. The result was, of course, greater neutrality on the part of the neck than a standard Fender-type slab or simpler 3-piece, like Guild or Gibson. Strictly for aesthetic reasons, when he and I were designing my bass, I picked the opposite — I wanted the wide pieces to be Purple Heart and the narrow pieces to be maple. It gave less of a racing stripe look. To my surprise, and also my education, it had a pretty drastic effect on the sound of the bass. Of course, NOW it seems obvious. But at the time I had been accustomed to regarding the instrument as whole. Here was an opportunity to hear what a pretty important change in materials did to the sound.

Schwartzenbass, front and back.

I liked it. Well, no — I loved it. Purple Heart is a denser wood than maple, and having that increased density led to greater stiffness, and you could hear that — and I could feel it. And that increased stiffness also raised the resonant frequency of the neck, resulting in a dead-spot[1] that was less severe. (My bass also has a denser tone than Casady’s Alembic).

The bass is now 40 years old, and it’s absolutely incredible. Around 15 years ago, I noticed a marked improvement in the sound, and called Rick, wondering what had happened. His answer: “After all these years, the glue probably all agrees!” Meaning, all the different pieces of wood have started vibrating as one instrument, rather than sub-dividing the vibrations along the different pieces and types of wood.

Yes, even an exotic instrument like an Alembic benefits from aging.

Next: necks get exotic.

[1] A dead-spot occurs where the note lines up with the resonant frequency, and the neck eats up the vibration.

[Bass is property of, and photographs courtesy of, the Schwartz California Institute of Bassology–-Ed.]