What Is a Bass? Part 3: Alternative Materials

Written by Dan Schwartz

In the first two installments, I talked about a bit of the history of electric basses, and covered the innovations that came from Alembic. This time, I want to discuss the next logical step, and one very much of its time: the building of basses, but in particular necks, from materials other than wood.

Although the use of metal to make a neck wasn’t unknown, in particular the famous Rickenbacker (or Rickenbacher) “frying pan”, a lap steel guitar cast from aluminum in the early 1930s, it wasn’t until the early 70s that the design took hold, for a brief spell. The Veleno, from 1972, was made entirely from aluminum — and it was indeed strange. Keith Levene and I ran across one briefly, which excited him a lot, since he was one of the more notorious players of the guitar. But in 1974 a more practical design took hold, for about five years: the Travis Bean.

Bean was a luthier and machinist from southern California who implemented an ingenious design incorporating an aluminum neck, through-body style — like a sculpted I-beam, with pickups mounted in it and, most commonly, a body made of koa hung on and around it. (I’ve always wanted a TB2000 bass, but not so much that I went out of my way to get one). Gary Kramer came out of Travis Bean Guitars to start his company a couple years later, they were mildly different (the neck had wood inserts), a bit less expensive, and in my opinion nowhere near as cool as the original. The goal of these instruments, as near as I can determine, was sustain, and the Beans in particular did a great job of that — they’d ring forever.

All of which brings us back to Rick Turner and Alembic — this time partnered with Geoff Gould, of San Francisco. Gould worked for a company that made satellite dishes, and, witnessing Phil Lesh and his very heavy Alembic bass in 1974, began contemplating lighter instruments. He brought the idea of working with graphite and carbon fiber embedded in epoxy to Turner and Alembic, and together he and Turner got a patent on the concept — along with molding the first graphite neck, shown at the instrument trade show in January of ’78 (and then sold to John McVie).

Gould formed a company he called Modulus Graphite, at first to make graphite necks for Alembic, and then to make guitars with those necks. Quoting Wikipedia: “The name is a reference to Young’s modulus, a measure of the stiffness of an elastic material, used in the field of solid mechanics. Carbon fiber has an exceptionally high modulus.”

The advantage of graphite was hugely seductive to players like me — the ever-curious. (I had already made the discovery of what a difference a denser neck material made in tone and sustain: using the original strings my Alembic was set up for, called Superwounds, which tapered to the core where they went over the bridge as on a piano, an low “A” struck on it would ring for 2 minutes and more.)  The necks had the distinct advantage of being relatively impervious to a lot of weather–related effects, which wood notoriously doesn’t. A bit lighter than metal (the necks were hollow), sustain ‘til the cows came home, and free of weather effects: what’s not to like?

A sort of dead-end, but one of the most fascinating, were the Gittler guitars and basses. These were machined of steel rods — and that was IT. In fact, the basses were just four steel rods, a fretless electric bass, with the pickups contained within the lower part of the rod. (The guitars were similar at the base of the instrument, but then reduced down to a single rod with fret-rods embedded in the single rod.) I had a 2nd Alembic for a little while: a “continuously-fretted” bass, a fretless with a sheet of stainless steel for a fingerboard, but that bass ran into problems, so I attempted to get a Gittler. We went around for months, until he concluded that he couldn’t find anyone to machine the rods to his satisfaction.

At around that time, Tony Levin told me about a man in Brooklyn who had built him a prototype of a bass that was essentially similar, but made of graphite. He insisted I go to see him, which I did. Ned Steinberger had built a few prototypes, and had one left which he wouldn’t sell. But he promised me that he’d make me one as soon as had a company. And a year later, it came. The Steinberger Blend, his term of art for what it’s made from, is slightly different from the Gould/Turner patent, but it’s still a composite instrument. I’ve played that bass continuously for 35 years – for the past 32 years, I’ve dropped the tuning a 4th, and for the past 30, it’s had one set of (cryogenically-treated) strings on it. The instrument plays a huge part in my sound on Jon Hassell’s City: Works of Fiction.

Wood, then metal, then composite — now the trend is back to wood. For me personally, rather than having to choose, I’ve used all of these instruments for a very long time, interchangeably, whenever something in me calls for it. I’ll hear something in the music calling for evenness, sustain, and I’ll grab a graphite-necked instrument. I’ll hear something that wants a resonant, hollow sound with a minimum of sustain, and I’ll grab the old Kay.

I never know until the red-light goes on just what’s called for.

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

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