by Colin Hodgkinson
Carl was born in 1939 in Pittsburgh Pa, the second youngest of eight children; five brothers and three sisters. His father played guitar, steel guitar and mandolin and all Carl’s brothers could play to a greater or lesser degree. But Carl was the best of the bunch.
What became immediately apparent to me when I met Carl recently was the respect, admiration and affection that he feels for his father who died just a few years ago. As well as being a proficient musician, his father was a very inventive man with the sort of mind that needed to know how everything worked, having such a degree of skill that he built his own direct-to-disc machine and lathe from bits and pieces, working after hours while employed at Westinghouse. The machine is still working today at Carl’s brother’s place in Ferdolia NY. What’s more, in 1934/5 he made his own double-coil pickup for a Gibson L4!
At that time a lot of mandolin players and guitarists hung out at Carl’s home and his father made pickups for the mandolins. Soon after experimenting with an old Kay guitar around 1945 he forced a piece of wood in the centre, cut a new nut to take four strings instead of six, made a set of strings from existing piano strings, put the pickup on, and had himself a bass guitar! I heard a tape of this instrument playing and, although tuned an octave down from the mandolin, it was amazingly full and rich.
Needless to say, growing up in such a musical and inventive environment Carl couldn’t fail to be inspired in both directions. He suffered poor health as a child and consequently spent a lot of time practising guitar while his friends were out playing. By the time he left school he was playing in rock’n’roll groups doing a lot of late Fifties nationwide tours with groups such as the Platters.
After getting out of the Army he ran into an old friend from Pittsburgh, bassist. Russell George, who was fast gaining a reputation as a top studio bassist. Russell tried to persuade Carl to go to New York City and try his luck, but Carl wasn’t sure he could cut it as a guitarist. Finally Carl got a call from Dan Armstrong who needed someone to help out in his workshop, and he decided’ to go. He figured that by being in Dan’s shop he’d probably pick up some gigs as well, so he got the bus to New York and moved into a cheap hotel. He was paid only around $65 a week — and that was when Dan had it! He too was hard up a lot of the time. Carl was paid to watch a guy called Eddie Deal work, and from him he learned just about everything. He also kept the place clean and ran errands just like any apprentice, although by this time he was in his late twenties.
It was at this time that he met his present partner, Joel Lutkin. Joel was teaching guitar at the time and he and Carl started to hang out together — Joel showing Carl, among other things, how to get around in the Big Apple.
Dan Armstrong then took a shop in Greenwich Village at La Guardia Place and it was there that they produced the first of the now-famous Plexiglass guitars — however Dan then got involved with Ampeg and closed down the shop so that, in Carl’s words, they were ‘out on the street again’, with nothing but their by now considerable reputations. So they went their separate ways but kept in touch and helped each other out wherever possible.
Then Charles Lobue came into the picture (see Etcetera Apr ’79 SI). He’d often hung out at Dan’s shop and played chess with him, but he was quite a handyman and a fair classical guitarist. He had a few dollars so he persuaded Carl to go into business with him and this became the famous Guitar Lab (Lobue Thompson Guitars Incorporated). Carl continued to work on people’s guitars and basses but he still liked to talk and sit and play with friends who came into the shop; Charles was a bit of a worrier and clockwatcher — so for personality reasons they called it a day.
All this time Joel Lutkin had been in the picture. He had a keen business sense and still enjoyed teaching and, more importantly, being involved in the music business. After much thought Joel and Carl decided to become partners and give it a try, renting rooms on 7th Avenue in Manhattan, the ‘Tender Touch Massage Parlour’ across the street being the deciding factor in their choice of location! This time, while not discouraging the general public, they tried to maintain first and foremost a ‘pro’ environment. Carl was able to specialise because of his reputation. Their friends helped again. Russell George spread the word in the studios and so did another fine player, Bobby Cranshaw. They were soon working flat out making improvements and adjustments to their friends’ instruments; as Carl puts it, ‘Putting frets in, taking frets out, maple fingerboards off, ebony fingerboards on, truss rods out, truss rods in, until maybe we ended up with a better Fender.’ One day it suddenly dawned on them that with all the money Bobby Cranshaw had spent on his bass over the course of the year they could have built him what he wanted from scratch with ‘all that hotrodding’!
So in the summer of 1973 they bought some machinery, some wood, borrowed some money and got going. It was very tough. They worked 18 or 20 hours a day and just crashed in the workshop in the new premises they now occupy in Court Street, Brooklyn. They were full of determination, though, as Carl put it, ‘We had to watch out for the sheriff a lot of the time!’
After a great deal of experimentation with construction techniques they built the first bass in 1974. It closely resembled a Jazz bass in appearance. This eventually evolved into the present bass which I feel is a model of precision and, especially, balance.
All the time they had been in Brooklyn a lot of young guys had worked for them. One of them, Ronnie Blake, eventually bought a place up in the country in Connecticut with a big double garage and here he cuts out all the bodies, now that the design has been decided upon. These are then sent to Carl’s workshop where everything else is finished totally by hand, another guy working alongside Carl and Joel now by the name of Michael Parisi who Carl says has ‘terrific chops!’
Although Carl has made guitars (around 15) he now builds basses just about exclusively and has built over 200. He makes about four a month and considers that enough — obviously he could earn more by turning out more basses, but compromise is totally out of the question.
Stanley Clarke’s piccolo bass was made by Carl. It was expensive because no-one had made one before and he had to figure out the scale and, more importantly, the string gauges. This is because the instrument is tuned an octave higher than a normal bass. D’Addario make all the strings for Carl’s instruments and at that time they sent up about a dozen different sets of various gauges — Carl crouched underneath the workbench turning the machine heads so as not to be struck by flying strings!
As to the materials used in Carl’s basses, he told me that he uses many different kinds of wood for the bodies as long as it’s good, hard wood. Fingerboards are either rosewood or ebony. He uses Schaller machine heads and also used their pickups until recently, but now uses the Di Marzio Jazz Bass double coil humbuckers. The bridge which he (and many others) consider the best around is the Leon Quan Badass. The control panel on Carl’s basses features two volume controls, one tone control, a three-way toggle switch, phase switch and a three-way standby switch. There are 26 frets on the fingerboard, although Carl and Joel used to make instruments with up to 29.
Carl still feels that there is room for improvement in a lot of things. He likes the idea of brass bridges because of their sustaining qualities, but feels that no-one has perfected one yet. Brass nuts he dismisses as pointless — making the point that once one plays beyond the first fret the nut is dispensed with, that one may as well use brass frets. On the subject of pre-amps he told me that he has some work going on at the moment on them but feels that they too need perfecting. He was full of admiration for the Alembics but in general is against too much electronic specialisation in his own instruments. As Joel put it, ‘A guy needs an instrument that’s going to work every night and that he can get serviced if need be in most towns, not something so specialised that if it goes wrong he’s had it!’
Carl also pointed out that the problem of dead spots was often caused by faulty truss rods, the neck blocks vibrating; all sorts of things that happened when the instrument wasn’t ‘made right’. I’ve already remarked on the superb balance of his instruments, and Carl claimed that if I was playing a gig, he could stand next to me on the stage and adjust the truss rod without me knowing it because it was put in properly in the first place and works as it should.
Another unique feature of his basses is the beautiful heel on the neck. This was arrived at more by accident than design. He was building a bass completely from birds eye maple, a notoriously hard wood to work with, and was cutting out the slot for the neck in the usual way by centring the neck so that it was right in the centre of the body, the shape of which he’d drawn out on a piece of wood, scribing a line around the neck then routing it out and chiselling out the corners, squaring it off to make a mortice. This method is very time-consuming and also, in this particular instance, the birds eyes kept popping out of the wood until he messed it up. Carl cursed and threw his chisel at the wall, declaring that they’d got to ‘make a hole without making a hole’. This made everyone around exchange knowing glances! But he did it — by cutting out the neck square, adding the square heel and joining it to the central body section he had in fact made a hole, without making a hole!
All these things aside, however, Carl Thompson still thinks of himself as a ‘a be-bop jazz guitar player’, and hates what he calls ‘that great luthier bullshit’. To quote him: ‘Hell, I haven’t done anything great, anyone who cared enough to sit and work it out could do the same — you could do it Colin!’ Now this for me, as a man who finds it difficult to change a plug, was too much and I reached hastily for more wine!
Finally, Carl Thompson builds beautiful basses and feels that due credit should go to all the people who have helped him along the way, especially Russell George and Bobby Cranshaw, not forgetting Ben Brown who was Dizzy Gillespie’s bassist and has three of Carl’s guitars.
I find it a comforting thought that in these days of the mass hype/mass production, and instant everything else, there are people like Carl Thompson around who build guitars like they should be built —slowly, with love and from the heart.
Carl Thompson can be contacted at the Thompson Lutkin Guitar Studio, 171 Court Street, Brooklyn, NY 11201, US, Tel: (212) 852-1771.
Carl Thompson’s Custom Basses
by Tom Mulhern
Guitar Player Magazine
Above: Carl Thompson with black walnut 8-string bass flanked by two views of a stunning 26 fret 4-string with a mahogany body, a maple neck and two Schaller pickups. Note ebony “half moon” insert at the neck/body joint and distinctive sculpted horns.
During the mid 70’s, Stanley Clarke was the reigning king of bass guitar, and one of his showstoppers was a high-pitched soloing instrument, a piccolo bass, which looked like a bass but sounded very different (it was tuned an octave higher than a standard bass). Stanley’s unusual 4-string was the work of New York luthier Carl Thompson, a specialist in customer instruments ranging from a straight-ahead 4-strings to exotic fretless and double-neck models-and even some electric guitars. Today, 45-year-old Thompson still builds his basses by hand. They feature ornate scrolls on the body and ebony heel caps-trademarks of his craftsmanship.
Thompson has constructed instruments for many of new York’s top jazz and studio bassists, as well as musicians around the country-Bob Cranshaw, Rick Laird, Russell George, Ben Brown, Ken Smith, Michael Howell, Anthony Jackson, Chris Brubeck, Gene Perla, Dave Moore, Craig Nelson, Herb Mickman, and Billy Christ, to name a few. He also specializes in repairs and modifications at his shop (Carl Thompson Guitars, 171 Court St., Brooklyn NY 11201), fixing and fine-tuning the instruments of many of the city’s top guitarists and bassists. He also sells his own brand of bass string.
Despite his expertise, Carl didn’t always want to build basses. In fact, he was intent upon a career as a jazz guitarist. Growing up in a large musical family in Pitcairn, Pennsylvania (about 20 miles east of Pittsburgh), he learned guitar as a kid. His father, an inveterate tinkerer, played guitar and taught Carl some of the rudiments. Carl’s father had a machine shop in the basement and also specialized in carpentry and electronics, leading him in 1937 or ’38 to build a solid body electric guitar in an effort to thwart the type of feedback inherent in his DeArmond pickup-equipped arch-top Gibson. “When the solidbody Fender and Gibson Les Paul came out, it wasn’t really news to me, ” Carl explains. “My father’s solidbody had been around the house for years. He also built an electric bass in 1942 or ’43, and he even built some recording mechanisms. It’s funny that because the pickup hummed, he reversed one of the coils and produced a humbucker.”
Although he wasn’t taught wordworking or machining skills by her father, Carl feels that he absorbed some of that craftsman’s spirit: “My dad passed away about 10 years ago, but he still lives here at my bench-‘Don’t use that file, I told you. See! You used that file and you blew it’.”
Carl was persuaded to move to New York in the late ’60’s by a hometown friend, Russell George, a jazz and session bassist who worked with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, among others. Russell prompted Carl to take a job at designer/guitarist/retailer Dan Armstrong’s shop. “I thought I was going to be the world’s greatest jazz guitar player,” Carl says. ” Everybody thinks that. I got to New York, though, and walked into a wall of them.”
In the early ’70’s, Carl played in duos at Kenny Burrell’s club, The Guitar. “I met all the right people through Dan Armstrong’s guitar shop, too,” he says. ” Eddie Diehl worked there, and I learned most of the stuff by watching him do things like file frets. Eventually, Dan Armstrong closed up shop, and that’s when I started doing it on my own.”
Carl went into business with Joel Frutkin (after six years as Thompson’s partner, Joel left to pursue a career in teaching), and opened a shop in midtown Manhattan. They were extremely busy with studio players coming and going: “Make this nut, make that, adjust my bridge,” Carl reminisces. “It was moving too fast. I wasn’t a very good businessman then, and I got tired of fixing all those instruments. I thought maybe I could make an instrument myself. Joel and I got some money, bought some wood, and started putting basses together in 1974. Russell George spread the word around about me, because he got one of the first ones.”
Carl found that he prefers working alone, and says, “The shop in midtown Manhattan showed me that that was not the life for me. Those years there were good for me because I think I built whatever reputation I have, but I don’t think I could stand that kind of pressure again. It’s also hard to get anything done with everyone coming in and needing something yesterday all the time. But I think that’s where you learn. It’s like being a short-order cook: Get it out, and see what you can do. You make so many mistakes that you just have to learn.”
Why did a jazz guitarist decide to build basses? Carl explains, “It goes back to something my father said to me: ‘If you think something is okay, leave it alone.’ Gibson and Fender and all those people were already making good electric guitars, but the basses needed help. I thought they were out of balance for one thing. I pictured the upright bass, and if you stand with the upright bass, the left hand is behind the right hand. If you play an old guitar like a Gibson L-5 or a D’Angelico, your left hand is always behind the right hand. It’s because of the pitch of the neck and the angle of the headstock and tailpiece. I don’t want to say anything negative about Fender, because they’ve done so much for the electric bass, but I believed their necks were too straight with the body. There was one axis; no angle. I was trying to pick up the upright bass and put it in my hand, to get that same feeling. I wanted to be able to take my hands off the instrument and not have it fall all over the place. I’ve made my instruments balanced. I can sit with the bass on my lap with no strap, and literally take my shirt off without the bass rocking off of my lap. I thought balance was really important. I think it’s very important to be able to sit and play the instrument without having to really work at it. Because of the tension on a conventional neck, it seems to pull forward, and gives you a tendency to lean forward and expend a lot of energy grabbing for that instrument instead of just playing. You need everything you’ve got for playing without struggling with holding the neck. I wanted to correct that.”
Always striving to improve his instruments, Carl recalls that his first bass was pure terror. “I didn’t have woodworking chops of any kind,” he admits. “I never really studied it. It just came to me. I think it’s a desire: If you put your head into it and you have any kind of talent for it, you’ll be able to do it.”
On his first bass, he accidentally hit upon what would later become a trademark of sorts. He was having difficulty fitting a neck into the mortise in the body and discovered a lot of leftover space in that hole. He then pondered how to cover the gap: “I figured I could add a piece of maple to the neck and start over with a fresh hole, but I thought it might look like I was trying to cover up something. So I tried a piece of ebony and put in on like a heelblock, and carved it so the neck flowed right into the body. It serves two purposes. First, it enhances the beauty of the instrument. Second, we can easily change the angle of the neck to the body by increasing or decreasing the taper of the block.”
Early on, Thompson decided to build his instruments of exotic hardwoods, and today he used maple, mahogany, walnut, or cherry for the neck depending on the customer’s choice and availability. Fingerboards are usually ebony, although rosewood is sometimes used, again depending on the customer’s desires. Nuts are made of ebony or other hardwoods, brass, or bone. Body woods include maple, mahogany, walnut, zebrawood, and cherry; these are sometimes trimmed with strips of padauk, rosewood, ebony, bubinga, or other exotics. “We even made a body once by combining pieces of wood that were cutoffs from other instruments,” Carl says. “We squared up some odds and ends and put them together in butcherblock fashion. The end result was excellent, and it became what we called the rainbow guitar.”
Among the unusual features on some of his first basses were 29-fret fingerboards. Carl had long pieces of ebony and thought he’d see just how many frets he could fit onto one board. “I don’t think that it would be practical to use a 29-fret fingerboard today because of all the popping and slapping,” he says. “I usually go for just 24 frets now.”
Carl credits the idea for the piccolo bass to Stanley Clarke, who came to him in 1974 asking for a bass-like instrument tuned an octave higher. “I thought I had to do a lot of different things to make a piccolo bass,” he recalls, “but in reality, it was mainly the strings that made the difference. I thought I might have to pull the headstock back to reduce tension in the strings. I had all these theories, and I was making it harder than it actually was. We started working on it, and I talked to John D’Addario, Sr., a wonderful man, about strings. He really helped me a lot in those days. He always sent me samples to try, and I had a direct line to a lot of professional players. We still work together, and the D’Addario company still make strings for me.”
Stanley wanted his piccolo bass fretless, but without frets, the sound was weak, leading Carl to eventually add them. A few years after building the first piccolo, Thompson constructed another for Clarke, this time with a thinner neck and its scale reduced from 34′ to 32′. Since then, he has built a few more piccolo basses, primarily for studio musicians such as Nashville’s Craig Nelson, who has also purchased a fretted/fretless doubleneck standard bass from him.
During his formative years as a luthier, Carl built a lot of unusual basses (developing a reputation for them along the way), including a 6-string for Anthony Jackson. His biggest problem was obtaining pickups because there were few companies specializing in custom units, which were needed in order to accommodate the wide string spacing. On the early 6-strings, he used a couple of Emmons steel guitar models that were essentially extra-wide standard guitar pickups. He made wooden covers and mounted the pickups in wood. He states, “The sound wasn’t perfect-obviously they were intended as guitar pickups-but they worked okay. Anthony understood their limitations.” Carl later built a fretless 6-string for Chris Brubeck, again with “make-do” pickups. Because the market for custom pickups has improved, Carl believes that his current basses are far superior, and says, “I’d like to put new pickups in those old basses to get their true sound.” Recently, Carl built a 36″-scale 6-string for a studio player named Dave Moore, employing Seymour Duncan custom pickups with bar polepieces. Thompson uses a 34″ scale for most basses, but he feels that the longer scale improves the intonation and enhances the overall sound, especially in the lower registers.
Thompson gives a lot of credit to Michael Parisi, who carves all of Carl’s basses today; Carl does the assembling, wiring, and finishing. Every aspect is done by hand, except for bandsawing the rough body shape and tablesawing the neck joint. “Every instrument is truly an individual,” Carl says. “I always think of every instrument as my first time. It’s kind of like playing the guitar, because I was never the kind of player who was good in a studio situation. Making something the same every time or playing the same way just wasn’t my way of doing things.” Since they are worked by hand, each of the fingerboards is slightly different, and Carl says, “We try to keep the arch of the fingerboard slight because due to the nature of today’s styles-with everybody popping, slapping and so forth-we are able to maintain a relatively low action without the notes choking.”
All Carl Thompson basses have natural oil finishes. The luthier likes oil because it lets him work it in with his hands. “When lacquer chips,” he adds, “you have to strip it down and try to match the color. It’s hard to keep up. If you use good oil, anyone can take care of it. If you get a nick, take some fine sandpaper and work it out. Then reoil it, and it’s back where it was. I think the neck feels better, and most of the guys I deal with like the natural feel of the wood.”
The bridges on Carl’s first few basses consisted of a single piece of ebony, so that the strings would stay in direct contact with the bridge and the bridge would be in direct contact with the body. By limiting the number of moving parts such as springs, screws, and saddles, he hoped to eliminate noises and other detrimental effects, which he feels are present in standard adjustable bridges. He still believes that kind of construction is a good idea, “providing the neck would never warp-ha!-and the player would use the same gauge of strings all the time-ha, ha!” However, since he has yet to meet a player who never changes string gauges or never takes the instrument outside or into humid environments, he uses adjustable bridges, including those by Badass and DiMarzio. Among other favored hardware are Schaller tuning machines and pickups by DiMarzio, Seymour Duncan, EMG, and Schaller, in any combination a customer chooses.
Besides building and servicing basses, Carl also enjoys teaching guitar and showing others how to take care of frets and make adjustments on their instruments. “Teaching gives me a chance to learn as I go,” he proclaims. “I teach a course in what I call ‘keeping your instrument alive.’ It’s for musicians who want to line up bridges, keep frets in condition, adjust necks, and so forth-all those functional things. I teach at my apartment, which is also my shop for final work-all the carving and heavy-duty work is done in New Rochelle at Mike Parisi’s. Playing, teaching, building-I look at them as one thing. I like to do them all, and try to do them the best that I can.”
Becoming a millionaire isn’t Carl’s objective. He enjoys his work, and he tries to treat all his customers fairly (“I give an estimate on an instrument before I start building, and then I charge what the materials and my time are worth-no more”). Many first-time customers expect a big plant or workshop, but it’s all in his apartment, and he greets everyone congenially: “My door’s always open, and people come in and out of here’ the refrigerator’s always stocked if they want something to drink or a sandwich. They can sit in the living room and watch MTV or listen to records. I’m in the city, but I’m a country boy, and that’s the way I like it.”
Carl Thompson is grateful for his customers’ faith, and he feels that he has carved a niche in the bass building world. “Somehow when I was starting out,” he says, “I got a reputation for building unusual basses. The guys who wanted them had more faith in me than I had in myself. I’m glad and thankful they did.”
Every Carl Thompson instrument is unique; there are no models, per se. Carl builds about five or six of these uncompromisingly personal, custom-order instruments each year, most of them 6-string basses.
Carl moved from Pitcairn, Pennsylvania to New York City in 1967. To supplement his income as a musician, he worked in Dan Armstrong’s guitar shop, where he learned repairs from Eddie Diehl. After Armstrong closed his doors, Carl teamed with Charles LoBue to form the Guitar lab. The pair split up, and in 1971 Carl set up a new shop with fellow guitarist Joel Frutkin. The first Carl Thompson bass was made in 1974. Soon, noted players such as Anthony Jackson and Rick Laird placed orders.
Carl gained considerable notice after designing and building a bass for Stanley Clarke. Shortly after that Carl and Craig Bennett built a 36-inch scale, twin truss rod mahogany 6-string bass for Anthony Jackson. The carved heel block is a distinctive feature of every Carl Thompson instrument.
The early layout work (cutting neck blanks, roughing out bodies, etc.) is performed in Carl’s small shop in Stahlstown, Pennsylvania, while the final carving, electronics, and finishing is done in Thompson’s apartment workshop in Brooklyn. Carl generally works alone, although Michael Parisi helps with layout work and Thompson’s early influence, Eddie Diehl, helps with detailing
by Tony Bacon and Barry Moorhouse
Pages 56 and 57
Carl Thompson was a jazz guitarist who in 1967 began working in Dan Armstrong’s guitar repair shop in New York. When Armstrong closed down some years later, Thompson says that many of the local players he’d worked for suggested that he should open his own shop . . . which he did. Thompson continued to play jazz gigs, and on one occasion was asked to play bass, so he borrowed a Fender. Next day he complained to his partner Joel Frutkin about the shortcomings of the bass guitar, and Thompson began, as he puts it, “to think about making a real instrument.” The thinking soon translated into action.
Consequently he and Frutkin began to build a small number of handmade bass guitars in 1974, and New York session players like Ken Smith became customers. “That same year I was very friendly with Stanley Clarke and Anthony Jackson,” Thompson recalls. “Those guys were hanging out in the shop, they were playing club dates and record dates. I did some fret-jobs on Stanley’s EB-2 and on his Alembics when he started playing those. Shortly after, when he first made the big-time, he came in and said he had this idea for making a bass that would be tuned up an octave, and did we think we could do it?”
Despite the fact that Thompson had made only around eight instruments at that point, he persevered with the idea and made the guitar that became known as a ‘piccolo bass’. In some ways it wasn’t a bass at all. It was tuned E-A-D-G but an octave higher than a bass: almost a guitar with two strings missing. However, the first piccolo bass that Thompson made for Clarke had the same ‘full’ 34in scale-length as a bass guitar. This, and the fact that it was devised by a bass player who played with a bassist’s technique, meant that it was more a high-tuned bass than anything else. Later after the 34in piccolo bass was damaged, Thompson provided Clarke with a new 32in scale piccolo that became Clarle’s main high-tuned bass. Clarke has continued to use an array of basses, including standard, tenor (up a fourth to A-D-G-C) and piccolo types, and came to specialize in ‘lead bass’ playing, even going so far on some later performances as to employ an additional bassist to play conventional bass parts below Clarke’s soloing.
Clarke first used piccolo bass on his best-selling School Days album, recorded in June 1976, most obviously on the track ‘Quiet Afternoon’ where he played the main melody on the Carl Thompson 34in-scale piccolo bass (overdubbed above a conventional bass guitar part that he played on Alembic standard four-string). Carl Thompson remembers: “Stanley put my name on the back of that album and it kind of turned my life around. It made alot of people aware that there was somebody on the scene called Carl Thompson.”
Within a few weeks of Clarke coming in to his shop in 1974 with the piccolo request, Thompson was confronted with another seemingly peculiar idea when session player Anthony Jackson asked if it would be possible to make a six-string bass. However, Jackson was not thinking of the guitar-down-an-octave of earlier six-strings, such as the Danelectro UB2 which had really been more of a guitar than a bass.
Jackson proposed to extend the bass guitar’s range both upwards and downwards by keeping the standard four strings tuned E-A-D-G and adding a high C-string and a low B-string, resulting in a six-string bass tuned B-E-A-D-G-C. The high-C was not in itself a new idea for a bass guitar: Fender had used it on their ill-judged and therefor short-lived Bass V. But a low B-string was a new concept – and one that would later persuade many bassists to reach for the low notes. In 1974, however, it was a bizzare idea.
“There were many intances where I just wanted to go lower down,” says Jackson about the origins of his low-B idea. “I would detune my Fender bass to get the lower notes when I wanted them, but it was always awkward to do that, it resulted in lower string tension which meant I had to raise the bridge, maybe modify the nut. There had to be an easier way to do that. I’ve always been a fan of pipe organ music, Bach, Messiaen, and I knew I could never hope to get any string as low as the lowest pipes on an organ. However, I felt that I ought to be able to get down another fourth, to B. I knew I was going to call it a contrabass guitar, because the range was below a bass guitar, enough to warrant a new name.”
It was difficult to find a maker willing to transform the idea into a guitar. Jackson had not yet climbed the heights of the session world that he would later reach and could not afford to experiment wildly with many expensive custom-made instruments. But Thompson agreed to go ahead and make a stab at the extended six-string bass – even though Jackson states that Thompson’s initial reaction was that it was “a dumb idea”.
Jackson says he left the details largely to Thompson, who recalls suggesting an extra-long scale-length but that Jackson opted for the 34in length he was used to from his Fender. Finding pickups wide enough to extend under all six strings proved almost impossible, but Atilla Zoller, a jazz guitarist with a flair for pickup building, was hired by Thompson to wind some custom units especially for the six-string. Thompson also had trouble finding a suitable bass string that would facilitate the low-B tuning, but the Addario string company eventually came up with a specially wound suitably fat string.
The first extended-range six-string bass guitar finally appeared from Thompson’s workshop early in 1975. Jackson was immediately disappointed by the string-spacing, which he had assumed was going to be wider. Later, into the 1980’s, five and six-string basses would become more popular and their string-spacing would become wider to suit the finger-style technique of bassists rather than the plectrum-based styles of guitar players. However, in 1975 this was a new field, and no one was sure what to do. Jackson knew, however, that this first attempt at the contrabass guiatar wasn’t quite right.
On a tour with Roberta Flack, laying down his Fender to play the new six on a couple of songs, “But I didn’t have a chance to put it through it’s paces until I did the first session with it,” he says, “which was for the Panamanian saxophone player Carlos Garnett. We did an album called Let this Melody Ring On in June 1975, and on one particular tune I used the contrabass. I was absolutely adamant that Carlos should put in the credits ‘Anthony Jackson bass guitar and contrabass guitar’, which he did. I was very proud of that.”
But Jackson abandonded the bass after that one tour and one recording session – primarily, he recalls, because he found the string-spacing restricting, and he returned to his Fender. Jackson and Thompson made some more experiments around 1976 including a fantastic 44in-scale trial bass guitar and a 36in-scale four-string that Jackson did not keep for long. The musician and maker drifted apart, but Jackson continued to dream about the musical usefulness of an extended-range instrument.
Veteran Bassbuilder With Vision
by Michael DuClos
Bass Player Magazine
Wearing aviator sunglasses and a tattered baseball cap and cradling an old arch-top guitar, Carl Thompson holds court in the back room of his shop in Brooklyn, New York. A small group of young apprentices listens intently as Thompson breaks down an old jazz standard to its elements, revealing elegant simplicity in its harmony. This eye for the essentials is at the core of Carl’s approach to doing just about everything not the least of which is building instruments. I don’t know anything about the molecular synergy of atomic structure he laughs. My concept is simple: First, I think about all the things I don’t want in an instrument. Then, once I get those out of the way, I end up with the things I do want.
While Thompson’s philosophy may be simple, his ornate craftsmanship and unique use of exaggerated cutaway scrolls, extended tailpieces, and exotic woods is immediately recognizable – thanks in large part to Primus bassist Les Claypool, who’s rarely seen without a Carl Thompson bass. “Les has been great” smiles Carl. “He found one of my basses in a shop, loved it, and sought me out to build a 6 string for him. Les has helped me a great deal – he’s made it possible for me to reach more people.”
A jazz guitarist by trade, Thompson moved from the small Pittsburg suburb of Pitcairn to New York in the late 60’s; there, he worked at the repair shop of famed luthier Dan Armstrong. I worked at Danny’s to support my playing career, he says, but it was the opportunity of a lifetime. All the great guitarists came through Clapton, Bloomfield, Townshend, Kenny Burrel, Jim Hall. Of course, a number of great bassists came in as well.
Carl first became intimate with the idiosyncrasies of the electric bass on one of his many jazz gigs. I was playing guitar six nights a week at a club in Brooklyn, he recalls. One night we had to back up a singer, and I was asked to play bass so I borrowed one from [veteran bassist] Bobby Cranshaw. Let me tell you, spending the night with one of those things was an education! The strings wouldn’t stay in tune, and the thing was really top-heavy. The next day, I decided to try building a bass you would keep balanced without using your hands. I figured that if you’re exerting energy just holding your bass, you’re working too hard.
Committed to building a better instrument, Thompson opened his own shop and set to work. I went to the library and picked up a book on [legendary violinmaker] Antonio Stradavari. It talked about headstock angles, quartersawn wood, flatsawn wood Stradavari never made an electric bass, but he sure knew how to build an instrument. I, of course, learned how to build basses by making mistakes. That’s how my partner Ronnie Blake and I came up with our heel block by making a mess out of the hole and carving a new block of wood to make a clean neck joint. To this day, the heel block is my signature, my personal stamp.
By the mid 70’s Thompson’s reputation as a builder who would try almost anything had spread among New York’s bass elite. He built the world’s first piccolo bass (a bass tuned one octave higher) for Stanley Clarke, and Anthony Jackson came to him with a request for an instrument that would not only change the face of bass building, but would play a large role in altering the course of contemporary music. Anthony approached me about building a 6-string bass, and my first reaction was crazy guy! Six strings, low B what are you talkin about? Anthony said he wanted to extend his range, but I told him the first thing we’d have to do is lengthen the scale 34 just wouldn’t be enough. To get that B sound right, we’d have to stretch it; it’s simple physics. He agreed, but he was so used to playing his Fender he wasn’t sure if he could deal with the longer scale – so we ended up making it 34. It was a difficult but worthwhile experience.
Even with the recent upsurge in popularity and production, Thompson refuses to change his approach but he’s always looking for ways to improve his instruments. These days, I’m making basses that weigh only 6 ½ to 8 pounds, yet they stay completely balanced. He says many people think that a bass has to weigh a lot. It’s funny Les Claypool still can’t believe how little his 6-string weighs. I’m always searching for new things, so when people ask how long it takes me to finish a bass, I reply, I don’t know I’ve never finished one!
On building Les Claypool’s “Rainbow Bass”
Although I did not meet Les until 1989, he told me he had been playing the converted 4-string piccolo bass for about 10 or 12 years before that. During that period, due to illness, I had all but given up building instruments. Gary Kelly, a local bassist and dear friend, kept bugging me to build him a six string bass. After several months I decided to give it a try. That instrument was the first one to have the extension on the bottom where the strings go through the body. Later on I built Gary a six string fretless. I am not sure if it was in 1988 or 1989, but Les met Gary along with another friend and bassist, Ernie Provincher, who also had one of my earlier four strings at the NAMM show. They gave him my number, and Les called, and he and Larry came to my apartment to discuss building his bass. Actually, as I recall, we didn’t talk about the bass that much. Mostly we talked about his love of sailing and fishing and my love of jazz music and harmony. Come to think of it, the only thing Les said in regards to the bass was that he wanted a six string fretless with one pickup. After spending the better part of a day with Les, I assessed that he was a “Wild and Crazy Guy”, so why not make a “Wild and Crazy Bass”.
The idea for using all of those kinds of wood came from a guitar I had built in the 70’s. That particular guitar was made from scraps of wood left over from other instruments we were working on. Mike Parisi, a young man who was working with me glued all of the pieced together, butcher-block style, and we made a neat little guitar. I called it the rainbow guitar because of all the different colored woods. I figured that would be a good “Show Piece” for Les, so I built him the “Rainbow Bass”. Space does not permit me to discuss all the detail that went into building that instrument. Let’s just say “Wowie-Zowie” in the vernacular of Les Claypool.
The neck blank for the bass was assembled by Ron Blake. Ron is a superior craftsman who has been with me since 1976. The shaping of the neck and all the bodywork was done by me in my kitchen here in Brooklyn, which was my workshop at the time. I can assure you it was not easy! After Les played the bass for a few months, he decided that it didn’t quite balance for him. I cut the top horn off, added some wood and carved the scroll you see today. In his first video, Les is seen playing the bass without the scroll, in its original form. A lot of people ask me if I had built two “Rainbow Basses” for him-no, just the one, with a few modifications. I stated earlier that I though Les was a “Wild and Crazy Guy,” and no doubt he is! I also think he is extremely talented, bright and caring man. So if you young bass players are looking for a hero, from where I sit you couldn’t do better than Les Claypool.
Recently I received a package from Primus, I thought, maybe some thing happened to one of his basses. I wasn’t sure what it could be. To my surprise when I opened the box, it was a Gold Record dedicated to me from Primus’ Tales From The Punchbowl. What a guy!
Cool Hand Carl
By Rex Miller
One day, Carl Thompson, who used to play guitar and bass with Billy Ward and the dominoes (who put the legendary Jackie Wilson on the map in the fifties), got sick and disgusted with the heavy Fenders and Rickenbackers he was always lugging around onstage:
I got angry and said, This is ridiculous! These things were bulky, they were out of balance. Once when I was tuning up, I reached up and almost fell off the bandstand.
Playing six hours a night on three-night weekend gigs, out of what he calls a top-40 gig in Bay Ridge, Carl felt he was fighting the instrument. You know those big companies don’t care. I began studying on how to build a better bass.
He went to the library and got a book: The Life and Work of Antonio Stradivari. It told about the strength of wood when it was cut the right way; about balance, the feel of an instrument to the hand, angles and relationships.
When Carl made his first bass, he showed it to the famous jazz bassist Stanley Clarke, who immediately ordered one. The most frequent comment Carl now gets on his basses is: I never really knew that this is the way it’s supposed to be. His fame spread, and soon it made sense to open a store.
Now he doesn’t play so often by himself, but enjoys steering young musicians right with fine instruments from his shop on Boerum Place. Unlike George and Janine, he’s been at the same address since 1968: This neighborhood is the greatest. I always look at it as a big Pitcairn (Pennsylvania, Carl’s hometown), never as New York City. It’s a big small town.
It’s gotten a little more intense over the years. It used to be a little more laid back. But hell, man, what you gonna do? The whole world is more intense, isn’t it?
I know everybody here. I know John the druggist, I know Alex the shoemaker. I actually know them! He smiles broadly. I made it that way myself, too.
All those guys, when I said: I’m gonna make a bass, they said: Carl, you’re crazy.