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.”