Endorsement from Jeff Berlin

(two excerpts from interviews with Jeff Berlin in Guitar Player Magazine)

What kind of strings do you use?
Long-scale round-wounds made by Carl Thompson. They’re gauged .100, .085, .065, and .045, low to high. I’ve been using them for several years now. They’re without peer. For years I searched for the right strings – I used to mix my own sets with two of these, one of that, and one of the other. I did everything I could to get the sound. One day, a friend of mine, Steve Friedman, who owns Stuyvesant Music in New York, said, “Try these Carl Thompsons.” I did, and there they were! Boy, they’ve got life in them. And they sound so good when I play legato. I keep them on till they’re just too dull to handle – usually a couple of months.

Have you ever had problems with tendinitis?
No, although other people are having problems these days, because everyone’s playing so gosh-darn hard. I see people just slammin’ the bass. I turn my amps way up and let them do the work. Turn up louder, play lighter, and use lighter strings. I use Carl Thompson strings that are light – .040, .060, .080, .100. The best way to play is with the lease amount of pain and resistance.

Guitar Player questions to the Editor

Could you tell me something about the origins of the modern 6-string bass? Who built the first one, and what companies manufacture them today?
-Terry Chatreau, Los Angeles, CA

Although Danelectro, Fender, and Gibson all built what they called 6-string basses in the ’60s, those instruments might more accurately be called bass guitars, with their short scales and guitar-like tuning (though one octave lower). The modern 6-string bass originated in the mind of Anthony Jackson and the shop of New York luthier/repairman Carl Thompson in mid-1974. Feeling limitations in range at both ends, Jackson conceived of an instrument he called a contra bass. Tuned in fourths, it had an extra B string below and an extra C string on top. He engaged Carl Thompson to work out the details and execute the design. Thompson’s first effort had a Honduras mahogany body, an ebony inlaid tailpiece, a hardrock maple one-piece neck, a 34″ scale, 26 frets, and a single pickup designed by Attila Zoller. “I wasn’t too sure what was going on,” confesses Thompson. “At the time I had made maybe only eight or nine basses. I built it at the same time I was building Stanley Clarke’s first piccolo bass.” Though Jackson described the instrument as “extremely fine” in a Jan. ’86 Guitar Player interview, he rarely played it, because the string spacing he had specified was too narrow. Among the first builders to jump on the 6-string idea were Stuart Spector, Ken Smith, Alembic, and Vinnie Fodera. Nowadays, it is difficult to find a bass manufacturer that does not build a 6-string.

First Bass Men

(excerpt)
The Four-String Mutual Admiration Society Proudly Presents: Rush’s GEDDY LEE And Primus’ LES CLAYPOOL. The Blows Are Low, But Never Off-Bass

GW: It’s been the Wal bass for you of late, right?

LEE: In the last few years, yeah. It has a great sound – and a very flexible one. It’s an easy bass to work with in the studio. I can get a wide range of sounds from it. But I was admiring Les’s basses today. They felt really good.

CLAYPOOL: I play Carl Thompson basses. I picked up a four-string years ago, because Stanley Clarke had one. I saw a used one in a shop and loved it.

LEE: What did you play before?

CLAYPOOL: I had just gotten an Ibanez Musician, but I got rid of it quickly and borrowed money to get the Carl Thompson. A few years later I saw one of his six-strings at a NAMM [National Association of Music Merchants] show. I had to have one. So I called Carl. He liked the fact that I knew all about him and his basses even though he’d never met me. He builds them in his apartment, on a custom basis. He’s a funny, older guy. He told me, “I like you because you’re weird – like me.” When he made me the six-string, he said he was going to make the best bass he ever made in his life. That really killed me.

LEE: It’s quite a piece of work.

Les Claypool gets a Taste of the Big Time

(excerpt of an article by by Karl Coryat)

KC: How did you discover funk?

LC: One day, a friend of mine said, “Geddy Lee is good, but he’s nothing compared to Stanley Clarke and Larry Graham.” I told him he was crazy, even though I didn’t know who those guys were. Then I saw Stanley’s I Want to Play for Ya [Portrait/Sony] in a record store. I bought it, and it blew my mind. I also saw Louis Johnson on [the TV show] Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, saw him go bang-bippety-bip-bang, and thought, “Man, that’s the coolest thing!” By my junior year, I was getting way into all the funk players. Guys would give me shit and call me “Disco Les” because I was playing all this funk stuff.

Around my senior year, I bought an Ibanez Musician EQ bass. I had always wanted a Rickenbacker before, but then I decided the Rickenbacker was no longer the cool bass to have. I hung around Leo’s [music store] in Oakland all the time; they had tons of new and used stuff. One day, I saw a Carl Thompson piccolo bass sitting there. I had stared at the photo in I Want to Play for Ya where Stanley had all his basses lined up, and a couple of them were Carl Thompsons. I always thought, `Man, that sure is an ugly bass.’ I picked up the one in the store, though, and I couldn’t believe it–it was so easy to play. Suddenly there were a lot of things I could play that I couldn’t play on my Ibanez. I used to test basses by trying to play “Roundabout,” and it was pretty easy on the Carl Thompson. I went home, and I begged and pleaded my mom for the rest of the money I needed to buy that bass. She lent me some, and I went back and bought it. It’s still my main 4-string.

In the ’80s, it wasn’t cool to have a fancy-woodwork custom bass; it was cooler to have a pink one or something the color of toothpaste. So people were constantly giving me shit for having a bass that looked like some weird piece of furniture.

Primus made its first record, Suck on This, in 1989. Recorded live at a club, it became a college-radio sensation, inspiring the group to invade the studio for the followup, 1990’s Frizzle Fry. The sessions for Sailing the Seas of Cheese, recorded in ’91, found Les scaling new heights, as he made the jump from 4-string fretted to 6-string fretless. By the time the band recorded the EP Miscellaneous Debris, a playful collection of covers, Les had improved his mastery of the 6–and thrown in a measure of good taste to boot.

KC: When did you get your Carl Thompson 6-string?

LC: I was doing a demo at NAMM for ADA, and this guy came up to me and said, “Oh, you play a Carl Thompson bass? Look at this.” He whipped out this amazing Carl Thompson 6-string fretless. After that I knew I had to have a 6-string, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted a fretless.

I didn’t actually get my 6 until just before we started Sailing the Seas of Cheese. We were on tour in New York, and I tracked down Carl Thompson. I told him I was interested in a 6-string; he was impressed that I had been playing his bass for years and loving it. A little while later, he started hearing my name around, so he called me and said he’d start building me a bass if I sent a deposit.

I couldn’t decide whether I wanted a fretted or a fretless. But I was getting to a point with my 4-string where it was like a stalemate; I was getting bored with it. I needed something that would just blow things wide open, so I decided to go for the fretless 6-string.

Carl told me he was going to make the best bass he’d ever built in his life. He basically made a butcher block out of all these different pieces of wood, and then he cut the body shape out of it. He called it the Rainbow Bass. Apparently it almost killed him to make it; he had a bad sinus problem, and all the dust was making it worse. And I was saying, “Carl, I need the bass before we start our next record,” so he had to rush–he even had to go to the hospital at one point. But he finished it on his birthday, and the serial number is his date of birth.

When I got the bass, I thought, “Ohmigod–what have I done?” It was so much more difficult to play. I was used to my 4-string’s 32″ scale, and all of a sudden I had this big hunk of wood with a 36″ scale and no frets. When I tried to play chords they all sounded like shit, and I couldn’t move around very well. But I kept playing it and playing it. I’m just now getting to the point where I feel comfortable on it. Carl is sending me another 6-string: the very first fretless he built in the ’70s. He’s installing frets and light-gauge strings, and I said I’d see what I could do with it.

Toys That Go Winding Down
These days, Les Claypool takes three Carl Thompson basses on tour: his main 4-string (which was originally a piccolo bass and now sports a whammy bar), his 6-string fretless, and a 4-string he bought from a friend. “That one’s maple,” Les notes. “It’s heavy, but it has a great tone, like an old Jazz Bass.”

Les Claypool | Primus

(Excerpts from Bass Player Magazine, February 1993)

GW: The bass line on “DMV” is really out there. Do you conceive of these things modally or what?
CLAYPOOL: It just comes out of jamming – I think that one was a hotel room jam. I wrote it on my [Carl Thompson] six-string fretless [See Collector’s Choice, page 83]. But when we recorded it, I played it on this new bass I have: a six-string fretted model that Carl gave me. It’s got an incredible sound-real low and farty. I played it on “Hamburger Train” too. Carl put really light gauge strings on it. The low B string is like the high G on a regular bass, and it goes up from there. [Les’s six strings are tuned, low to high, B, E, A, D, G, C.] The top string is actually a solid-core string; it isn’t wound. You can get a great twanging sound off the top string, like a Strat or something. The strings are very closely spaced, compared to my fretless six. Carl put frets on this one so I could do tapping. If I’d had this fretted bass for “Jerry Was a Racecar Drive” [Les’s tapping tour de force on Sailing the Seas], I’d probably have used it instead. It makes your fingers super-strong to do tapping on a fretless, but frets make your life so much easier.
GW: It was pretty ambitious of you to take on that six-string fretless a few years back.
CLAYPOOL: Yeah. At first I was really afraid I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Because I play a lot of chords, which just sounded like a pile of shit on the fretless. The fretless was more of a horizon-broadening device than anything else. Because I was getting pretty bored with four-string bass.
GW: Did the six-string fretless broaden your compositional horizons?
CLAYPOOL: Totally. Even on the new album. To me, “Bob” is just a total six-string fretless song-it’s just made for that particular bass, which is so amazing. It has a 36-inch scale, so it’s like a piano or something. It can get thunderous low end without sounding muddy. You can hear that on “Bob” or even on “My Name is Mud” –crunketty-crunkettycrunketty…. It’s like someone taking a ballpeen hammer to piano strings.

An open letter to Bass Player & John Slog from Carl Thompson

(reference: Bass Player Magazine, Jun 97, Page 96)

First of all I would like to thank Bass Player and John Slog for that wonderful picture of my Bass in the June 97 issue. Thank you kindly. However, there are a few points I would like to make clear.

I didn’t spend my life dreaming about making a bass, much less a “user friendly” one. Hey guys, I just don’t talk like that. Back in early 1974, I had to play a Fender bass for three consecutive nights, 6 hours a night. I thought the Bass was too heavy and out of balance. I wanted to try to correct that. The truth is that if Fender had put the neck into the body another 3/4″ or so, towards the bridge, I would have probably never made a bass. I can assure you that making my bass was not a life long dream.

Although I did make several 36″ scale basses in 1976-77, The one I build for Anthony was in late 1974 – early 1975 and was a 34″ scale.

I never take into consideration the percentage each piece of wood will contribute to the overall mass or how their positions will affect the basses resonance. I’m not even sure what that means. When I first met Les, I thought “what a wild and crazy guy”. So, I made him a “wild and crazy bass”. I did my best to assure that the instrument would be lightweight, balanced and that everything would work properly. As far as selecting the wood for the body, it was just a matter of appearance. That’s it, period.

I am quoted as saying “My basses don’t have only a single sound in them”. I do no know what this means. I don’t think my basses have a sound in them. I try to make instruments that are comfortable to play, so you can get your sound. The main reason I think Les Claypool gets the sound Les Claypool gets, is because he is Les Claypool. The same goes for Stanley, Anthony, Jeff Berlin or any musician.

You are the sound …you are the music.

Thank you for your kind attention,
Carl Thompson

Sound International, June 1979

Carl Thompson
Guitar Maker
by Colin Hodgkinson

During the past few years a handful of young luthiers have become well known for beautiful handmade guitars and basses. One of the most respected of them all is Carl Thompson.

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.