Guitar Player Magazine, March 1985

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.”

American Guitars by Tom Wheeler, 1992

In this photo Carl holds a 4-string curly maple fretless bass. In the foreground, he is flanked by two of his 6-string basses. Note their starkly original body-bridge extensions. In the rear, an early maple scroll-body 6-string and a maple left-handed 8-string. The bass Carl is holding is the one he uses for his gigs.

Carl Thompson

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

The Bass Book

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.

Bass Player Magazine, February 1996

Carl Thompson
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!

Bass Frontiers, Volume 3, Number 4

Carl Thompson:
On building Les Claypool’s “Rainbow Bass”
Bass Frontiers

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!

Brooklyn Bridge, July 1997

Cool Hand Carl
By Rex Miller

When a real live musician turns to making instruments, the quality is already built in.

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.

Bass Player Magazine, July 1997

Taken from “Jurassic Basses”
by Mikael Jansson & Scott Malandrone
Bass Player Magazine

Further electric trails were blazed in 1934, when James Thompson, father of custom bass builder Carl Thompson, built a solidbody electric guitar for use in his homemade studio. James – born in 1902 – was employed by Westinghouse as a coil winder of huge “house-size” generators. But he was also a musician who built the machines he needed to manufacture parts for his many musical inventions. In fact, in the 1920s he constructed a lathe on which Carl Thompson still machines his truss rods. “My father was not a bass maker by any means,” says Carl. “He was just a guy who happened to be a master of all trades. The man was a great woodworker, a phenomenal machinist, and an excellent audio engineer. He did everything.”

James built his electric guitar with the aim to eliminate feedback during recording. The Thompson guitar, which was assembled from a “Blue Bird” neck and a body fashioned from two 2x4s, featured a dual-coil humbucking pickup he built himself. The humbucker was handwound on his lathe. Carl’s mother told him she “could always tell when ‘Pappy’ was building pickups, because he’d bake the insulation in the oven, which would stink up the whole house!” Eventually, almost all stringed-instrument players in town had James B. Thompson pickups in their instruments.

An ill-fated recording session in 1942 initially inspired James to build an electric bass. Apparently he had a difficult time miking an acoustic upright and wanted to record the bass direct. His electric 4-string blossomed from a broken Kay arch-top guitar; he carved a solid block to fit the inside of the box, which would help to support the pickup and thick strings. The area of the strings directly above the Thompson dual-coil pickup was painted with a conductive coating and wrapped with steel wire to generate signals in the coils. It was a success, and James used this bass on many home recordings; Carl himself played it when he was 12. Although Carl still has many of those early recordings, the bass (which was the only 4-string his father made) has since “dissapeared into the family.” James Thompson passed away in 1974, but he lived to see some of his son’s ealiest bass-building experiments.

[I have listened to a tape taken from a home-done record of James and some friends playing. Both the guitar and the bass sounded great. I couldn’t tell the difference between them and some old fenders I have played. -Aaron]

Allegro, October 27, 2000

Carl Thompson
The Evolution of a Bass Maker
by Joy Portugal

Carl Thompson grew up in Pitcairn, Pa., a little town about 25 miles east of Pittsburgh, and has been playing the guitar since he was seven years old. Early in his professional career he was the guitar player with Billy Ward and the Dominoes until he was drafted; he was musical director/arranger of the Third Division glee club during his tour of duty in Germany. In 1967, at the urging of his childhood friend, bassist Russell George – the two grew up in the same neighborhood in Pitcairn – he moved to New York, where he began playing gigs and working as a repairman for Danny Armstrong.

“Everybody in the rock ‘n’ roll business at that time came into Danny’s shop on 48th Street. The Allman Brothers, Frank Zappa, Eric Clapton, Paul Simon, etc. While working at Dan’s shop I also got to meet all my “heroes” and work on their guitars – Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall, Tal Farlow, Grant Green and the studio players: Barry Galbraith, Allan Hamlon, George Barnes, etc. Hey, I even worked on some of Les Paul’s own guitars,” Thompson told Allegro. “Imagine – the kid from Pitcairn in the big time.

“Eddie Diehl – probably one of the greatest jazz guitar players who ever lived – was working for Danny at that time. I watched him work and Eddie talked to me and helped me with things. And the next thing I knew, I was doing it. Later, I set up a little shop where I did repairs and setup work on guitars and basses.” In the early ’70s, a loan from the Local 802 Credit Union helped him buy wood and some tools.

In 1974 Thompson was asked to double on bass on a gig in Bay Ridge, and borrowed one of Bob Cranshaw’s Fender basses. “I played three nights on it – Friday, Saturday and Sunday – and on Monday morning I came into my shop and decided to see if I could build an electric bass with a better balance and a more comfortable playability. I got a book from the library on the life and work of Antonio Stradivarius – not that he ever made an electric bass, but he sure knew about building musical instruments.”

When he first got started on this project, Thompson says, his friends tried to dissuade him. “They said, ‘We’re all playing Fenders. They’re okay.’ I said, ‘It’s not that they’re okay. I think you guys have just gotten used to playing on them.’

“Before I made that first instrument I had never used a gouge or any kind of carving chisels. I can assure you that first bass was a real project. (I still have the number one bass and the number one guitar.) After I’d made a few instruments my friend Stanley Clarke wanted me to make him a piccolo bass, something tuned up an octave higher. When he came out with his hit album, “School Days,” he mentioned my name in the liner notes, thanking me for building the piccolo bass, and he almost singlehandedly made me somewhat of a famous bass maker.

“Around the same time Anthony Jackson, a very hot studio player, had an idea for a six-string bass: the regular bass – E, A, D, G – plus a low B and a high C string. We built that first six-string for Anthony, and now all the major companies build six-string basses. “At the beginning a lot of my friends, guitarists and bass players, spread the word – and the next thing I knew, I was making a lot of basses for rock, jazz and studio players. It just became my life.”

Thompson recalls that, in the late ’80s, “I was almost ready to stop building. Then Les Claypool of Primus came along and I made him a very fancy six-string fretless bass. A few years later, Bass Player magazine had a picture of Les playing that bass on the cover, and I’ve been busy ever since.” Claypool recently sent him a gold record, when the band’s latest album sold 500,000 copies.

Despite the fact that he doesn’t advertise, “I’m always backed up,” Thompson says. “And I don’t have any big machinery of any kind, no computerized routers. I work with regular tools. I hand carve all the bodies; make the necks, everything.

“A lot of builders talk about the molecular structure of the wood or how, if you use too many glue joints, you zap the energy from the wood, or this kind of bridge gets a certain sound, or this pickup is better than that one, or whatever. I haven’t got a clue. All I know is, it either is or it isn’t. If it isn’t, I just keep working on it until I think it is. And when I think it is, I turn it over to you – and if you think it is, then we’re both happy.”

Thompson’s ability as a builder is probably related to the fact that “my dad had this incredible mechanical mind – a machinist, a woodworker, an electronics whiz and, I might add, a pretty fair musician. My five brothers were all very mechanical, also. I was the only one in the family that didn’t get into all of that. I just wanted to play the guitar. I guess it was in my genes and just came out later when I started building.”

Most important, he says, “is that I grew up in a family that nurtured me and encouraged me in whatever I was going to do. And if the music business were different, I’d probably still be playing. But at the time when I made that first bass, things were changing. A lot of little clubs were disappearing and the recording business was changing.

“My life now is building instruments and teaching. When a gig comes along where I can invite my friends and we can just get together and play, fine. But I still practice every day. I’m very serious about playing even though I’m not on the scene, like I was at one time. When I practice I get so focused that no matter what happens – whether the wood doesn’t work right or the phone bill’s due, whatever- it puts me in a zone where I can get done whatever has to get done, and no one can hurt me for the whole day. When all’s said and done, for me it’s just the music.

“P.S, I’d like to thank Russell George, my friend and musical mentor, for encouraging me to come to New York in the first place.”

< Back to English

Am 19.05.2001 fährte uns Dan Jackson zu dem Bass-Bauer Carl Thompson. In der kleinen Werkstatt in Stadtteil Brooklyn, am Fuße der berühmten Brooklyn-Bridge trafen wir Carl Thompson, als er Arbeiten an Dan’s beneidenswerten 6-Saiter vornahm. Der 62 jährige war mit der Justierung des Sattels beschäftigt und ließ sich anfänglich nicht von seiner Arbeit abhalten. Im Verlauf unseres Besuches jedoch schenkte uns Carl Thompson seine volle Aufmerksamkeit.

Carl Thompson wurde in einer musikalischen Familie groß. Sein Vater beschäftigte sich mit dem Multitrack-Aufnahmeverfahren, das letztendlich den Gitarristen Les Paul zum Ruhm führte. In dieser Zeit baute Carls Vater selbst eine elektrische Gitarre, die über ein Humbucker-Tonabnehmer-System verfügte, daß erst 20 Jahre später durch die Fa. Gibson in Serie hergestellt wurde. Diese ca. 1940 gebaute Gitarre hängt direkt neben Carl Thompsons Werkbank.
In den 60`er Jahren lernte Thompson Europa kennen und lieben. Als Musikdirektor der US-Armee wurden Konzerte u. a. in Würzburg, Hamburg, Berlin gegeben. Voller Stolz zeigte Carl uns Zeitungsartikel aus dieser Zeit. 1968 ging Carl Thompson nach New York in der Hoffnung, dort als Jazz-Gitarrist leben zu können. Unglücklicherweise spielte zu dieser Zeit jeder Gitarre, so daß Carl Thompson einen Job in Dan Armstrong’s Geschäft annahm, wo er mit Reparatur arbeiten beauftragt wurde. Zu seinen Kunden zählten im Laufe der Zeit Hendrix, Clapton, Townshend, Duane Allman und Jazz Gitarristen wie z. B. Jim Hall und Les Paul.

Ca. 1978 erhielt Carl Thompson einen Job als Bassist. Er kaufte sich einen Fender Bass, war jedoch mit diesem Bass unzufrieden. Daher beschloß Carl seinen eigenen Bass zu bauen. Der Rest ist Geschichte.

Während unseres Besuches führte uns Carl Thompson einen Bass vor, der mit einem Lichtwellen-Tonabnehmer ausgeröstet war. Carls Vater, ein Jazz Gitarrist, hinterließ seiner Nachwelt Musikaufnahmen, die Carl Thompson neben seinem eigenen Können in einem Radio Interview vorstellte. Ein Mitschnitt dieser Sendung spielte Carl uns während unseres Besuches vor. Zusammen mit zwei Mitarbeitern produziert Carl Thompson maximal 10 Bässe in einem Jahr. Über geringe Nachfrage kann er sich nicht beklagen. Eine Erweiterung der Werkstatt kommt für ihn keinesfalls in Frage. Wer sich einen Carl-Thompson-Bass gönnen möchte, muß weit im Voraus planen. Derzeit beträgt die Wartezeit für einen seiner Bässe mehr als 3 Jahre!! Doch liebe Linkshänder, seid gewarnt! Nicht nur das Carl Thompson angeblich das Herstellen von Bässen haßt, nein, noch viel schlimmer! Er haßt am meisten Linkshänder Bässe herstellen zu müssen. Ein 6-saitiger LH-Bass ist für ihn der Gipfel der Zumutung. Allerdings war ich mir nicht ganz sicher, ob diese Äußerungen ernst gemeint waren, obwohl er mir gegenüber diese äußerung wiederholte, und mir mit ernster Miene tief in die Augen schaute.

Wir lernten Carl Thompson als bescheidenen Bassbauer kennen. Er betonte wiederholt, daß es nicht auf das Instrument ankomme, sondern vielmehr auf den Musiker. Seine Devise: Musik kommt von Innen und so könne man auch mit dem richtigen Feeling einen Danelectro zum Klingen bringen. So ist auch seine Signatur auf meinem Bass zu verstehen: “It’s just the Music.”

Arni’s Lefthand Basses

We knew Carl had fans internationally, but Volkmar Arnecke took it to Germany! Click here for proof. – Aaron

On May 17th, 2001, Dan Jackson took us to the luthier Carl Thompson. We met Carl Thompson in his small workshop in the Brooklyn district, near the famous Brooklyn Bridge. He was just working on Dan’s fantastic left hand six string bass. The 62 year old bass builder had to do some adjustment working on the bass neck. At first there was no chance of stopping him from doing his work. But a short time later he gave us his complete attention.

Carl Thompson grew up in a musical family. His dad was a machinist / inventor kind of guy and he came up with a humbucking pickup design before Gibson – and was also experimenting with multitrack recording – the thing that guitarist Les Paul became famous for. At this time Carl’s father was building his own guitar, featuring this humbucking pickup. This guitar is hanging on the workshop wall, next to Carl’s workbench. Carl was a Jazz guitarist who moved to New York in 1968 hoping to earn a living playing guitar. Unfortunately, everybody and their mother was playing guitar, so he got a job doing repair work in Dan Amstrong’s shop. His customers included guys like Hendrix, Clapton, Zappa, Townshend, Duane Allman, and jazz guys like Jim Hall and Les Paul. In around 1972 or so he got a gig playing bass, and borrowed a Fender bass. He didn’t like the way it balanced, so he set out to make his own, and the rest is history.

During our meeting with Carl Thompson we saw the new Lightwave infrared pickup and listened to a radio interview with sound documents, including songs from his father’s band.

Together with two co-workers Carl is producing not more than 10 basses a year. There is a great demand for his basses, but Carl doesn’t want to expand his workshop. So if you like to have a Carl Thompson bass, it takes time. You will have to wait for your bass for more than 3 years. But dear lefties, be warned. Carl told us about the difficulty of building left handed basses. He hates to build left-handed basses, and a six string left-handed bass is an absolutely unreasonable demand. I don’t know if I could believe him. But when he told us this, he was looking straight into my face with a grave look in his eyes.

We became acquainted with Carl Thompson as modest luthier. He told us a lot of times that it isn’t important to have an expensive bass guitar. It’s the musician who’s making music, not the instrument. “Music is coming from the inside!” With the real feeling, you will let a Danelectro bass sing also. “It’s just the music.” That is what Carl Thompson signed on my bass.