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.