Chinese Bass Project

I play music quite often here in Bisbee with various local musicians. My main instrument is the fiddle, and playing fiddle is second nature for me these days. Bisbee has quite a few fiddle players, and sometimes there are more than enough fiddlers at a music session — but good upright bass players are in short supply.

Pondering this less-than-ideal situation it occurred to me that if I had an upright bass I could probably get up to speed on the awkwardly-large instrument and even things out a bit. After all, a double bass is just a fiddle writ large, and the tuning and intervals would be close to what I’m accustomed to.

So — off to the internet to see what might be available. I had recently decided to give up on the button accordion. I realized that I would never become a good player of that free-reed contraption. The dealer in Massachusetts from whom I’d bought the accordion agreed to buy it back from me, so I had some money to work with.

My options soon became clear. Buy a beat-up plywood student bass, or look to the Chinese workshops, actually small factories with CNC capabilities, and see what they had to offer. The violin I play these days was made near Shanghai and I’m more than satisfied with it. I looked at the Ebay store of a dealer who handles the output of the same factory which produced my violin and found a tempting deal.

I found an Ebay auction for a partially-completed 3/4-size upright bass. It has plywood sides and back, made seemingly of some species of poplar, a solid-spruce top, a maple neck, and an ebony fingerboard. No bridge, tuners, tail-pin, or soundpost, though. The price was right, even including the necessary accessories which I got from other Chinese vendors on Ebay.

Last week I walked down to the Bisbee post office to check my mail. I had Dingo, my dog, with me on a leash. After attaching Dingo’s leash to the bench out in front of the post office I walked in and unlocked my box. A notice within told me that I had a large parcel to pick up.

I walked up to the desk and spotted an enormous cardboard carton, six feet tall and three feet wide, standing near the shelves full of parcels. What else could it be than a bass?

I walked back to the apartment, indicated to Dingo that she should jump into my truck’s cab, and we drove back downtown.

The clerk at the PO let me use their dolly and I backed out of the building with the carton. A friendly man helped me to load the bass into my truck’s bed.

Once I had manhandled the large box up twenty-five steps and into my apartment I quickly opened up the cardboard carton, which had been very well packaged. Amidst a litter of cardboard prisms and sheets the body of a bass was soon revealed, along with a massive neck with the fingerboard glued on. All I had to do was put it together!

I enlisted the help of my co-tenant C-Sharp a day later. I bored a one-inch hole in the bottom of the bass while C-Sharp straddled and steadied it. I had a foam pad under the bass. Then I carefully reamed the hole to a taper which matched that of the end-pin. Being unwilling to spend hundreds of dollars for the proper reaming tool, I made do with a round surform rasp and a half-round file.

The next task was to glue the neck to the body. The neck came unattached so that the bass could be shipped via air freight to Bisbee for a reasonable sum. C-Sharp helped me with this task, and here is how it looked after a frenzied scramble with hot hide glue, a bar clamp, and a band tie-down:

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After the clamps were removed and the bass had been restored to its more comfortable upright position:

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The bridge and soundpost are the next challenges!

Larry

Dog Paradise

This morning I was up early, as usual. I have a new resident in my apartment, a local musician who had been all but homeless before I offered him a spare bedroom, and this time it was with the full consent of my landlady! I’ve been helping this guy get his financial situation in order, but the effort has been draining. I needed to get away from Bisbee for a while — much as I like this canyon town, sometimes things get weird and complicated, leading me to think my life is some sort of Truman Show soap opera.

I’ve been needing to see how the rough lane back to our cabin has fared after the recent torrential monsoon rains. My new dog Dingo (formerly Lydia) has never been back to the valley after her forced exile to Bisbee, the result of an unfortunate poultry-killing incident. So the dog and I headed out of town in my truck, bound for the Sulphur Springs Valley.

The lane back to the cabin was in remarkably good shape. The rains had actually made the road better, filling in persistent holes and in general evening it out. I parked by the cabin and marveled at how green the landscape was, very unlike the nuclear test zone appearance it had early in the summer. The dog leaped out of the truck and if she could talk, she might well have said “Larry, I don’t think we’re in Bisbee anymore!”

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Dogs and desert washes are a natural match. Dingo raced up and down the intricate mazy networks of washes, surely smelling many exotic odors.

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I walked down a few washes myself, looking for what plants might have been enjoying the copious rains. Here’s a succulent plant which I haven’t identified. This plant forms ephemeral low-lying mats of purple-green vining stalks with tiny reddish flowers:

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Later I came to the conclusion that the fleshy-leaved plant was Portulaca umbraticola, or Wingpod Purslane, a native relative of the common European garden weed.

Plants which grow in the washes shed their seeds into the sand and gravel. The next big rain, which might be during next year’s monsoon season, will transport the seeds to new downstream sites.

The Devil’s Claw plants look like miniature trees, with fat trunks resembling those of the Baobab trees of the African continent. The fat green pods are fully developed now. When they dry out during the next inevitable dry spell the pods will split and assume their devilish seed-dispersal form, hooking on to any passer-by clad in either clothing or fur.

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The area in which our lot is located was once laid out in a grid of four-acre lots. The boundaries are still visible in satellite photos. The lots were marketed in nationally-distributed magazines like Organic Gardening and Mother Earth news back in the sixties and seventies. “Retire in the sun! Inexpensive lots for your dream retirement cabin!” The lots were cheap and people all over the country bought them, only to find that no utilities were available. Many reverted back to the county due to unpaid back taxes.

Times have changed, solar electricity is cheaper than it’s ever been, and more people like Bev and myself are willing to put up with some minor inconveniences in order to avoid crowded cheek-by-jowl communities. The developer way back when even made a cursory effort to put culverts in the washes. These culverts are still around, but they were much too small to serve their intended purpose. Monsoon floods plugged them with sand and silt and occasionally groups of them can be found:

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I can just imagine the expression of the hopeful developer who paid to have these culverts trenched in — once he had seen their fate! Dreams fading to ashes…

Larry

Clouds Over Sonora

I like the name of the Mexican state Sonora. It sounds musical, like the word sonorous,but the etymology is a bit confused. Was it just Spanish Catholic bullshit, perhaps derived from some female saint’s name? Nobody will ever know for sure. The name has been used, though, for hundreds of years, and it’s here to stay.

Yesterday afternoon I drove to the Safeway store on Rt. 92. As the vista across the border opened up before me, I noticed an appealing clump of cumulus clouds burgeoning up from behind one of the Sonoran mountains in the distance. I parked in the Dollar General parking lot and tried to find a view without too many interfering wires and other evidences of civilization. I propped my camera on a high fence, a barrier which prevents invasion of the Dollar General territory by Ace Hardware barbarians, and got this one shot:

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I love these Southwest sky scenes. What could that small dark-gray object be appearing towards the right? It looks like a crude flying saucer prototype, perhaps part of an R&D project undertaken in secret by the Mexican Air Force.

I got back to the truck and found Dingo, my dog, calmly waiting for me on the passenger seat. She is very tolerant of my inexplicable eccentricities!

Larry

High Water Abounding

I guess I forgot to post this! A selection of photos taken on a walk around Bisbee before the recent rains!

A diaphanous Coprinus cluster, well-hydrated:

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Perhaps a species of Lepiota growing from decaying cottonwood roots, near a three-foot-wide stump:

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Notice how this cluster of mushrooms has engulfed an Ailanthus leaf, which nevertheless continues its photosynthesis:

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Drainage canal shots:

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A mysterious door on Mayer Avenue gushes forth water:

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Three shots of Brewery Gulch, still taped off but after six dump-truck loads of gravel and debris had been hauled away:

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Larry

To The Charleston Bridge And Back

It was the evening of September 19th, last Thursday. Several of my musical cohorts had gathered at my apartment to play a few tunes. Of course these occasions are social as well as musical, and occasionally we would take a break and talk.

Jim, one of our bodhran (Irish drum) players works for the federal Bureau Of Land Management. The BLM manages quite a bit of wild and semi-wild land in our area, including much of the watershed of the San Pedro River. Jim loves that river and his job requires that he spend a lot of time in and around the stream. He has been excited lately by the record high levels of the river’s flow after the recent monsoon rains. Jim said to me:

“Larry, tomorrow morning you really should drive over to the Charleston Bridge over the San Pedro. The channel narrows in that reach of the river and the water should be really roaring!”

I can take a hint! The following morning I got up early, drank some coffee, and ate some eggs fried with chile peppers and onion. Just as dawn was lightening the eastern horizon I was driving towards Juniper Flats, a miles-long flat-topped granite mountain just outside of Bisbee. Mist shrouded the eminence and the whole scene was surreal. The cell-phone towers on top of the Flats were barely visible:

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I found a spot where I could pull over as morning traffic whizzed by. More mist swirled around the towers until they were barely visible. An imaginary scene from an old novel imperfectly remembered took form in my mind:

Frodo and Sam, cloaks wrapped around them to counter the chill morning breeze, gazed in wonder at the scene before them. Sam said:

“Could those be the towers of Minas Tirith, Frodo?”

Frodo’s eyes narrowed and his look of melancholy determination made him seem older. He said:

“I’m afraid so, Sam. Saruman awaits us in his dark tower!”

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The sky began to lighten as I descended into the broad San Pedro Valley. The river is bordered by cottonwoods, an undulating dark-green ribbon bisecting the valley. I crossed the highway bridge, then after a few miles turned on to Moson Road. The landscape in that morning light was simply stunning. Mist swathed the Mule Mountains in cascading layers of white and gray. I had to pull over or run off the road. I shot a few photos that charmed morning:

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A pickup truck passed me, going fast, and I pulled out behind it. There were no speed limit signs, but I figured that the truck was probably driven by a local rancher, and he probably knew the local speed limit. I was buzzing along at fifty-five or so when I passed a parked sheriff’s car. “Hmm”, I thought, “I wonder what he’s waiting for?”

Me, it turned out! The sheriff, with blue and red lights flashing, promptly pulled me over into some high grass on the road’s shoulder.

I’m a bit skittish about having run-ins with law enforcement officers. I’ve had some unpleasant experiences and I hoped this wouldn’t be one to add to the list!

The sheriff seemed to be in a good mood as he walked up to me from his car.

“Y’know that there’s a speed limit of 45 miles per hour on Moson?” he asked me.

“I really didn’t know! I didn’t see any signs.”

“Well, I’m just givin’ ya a friendly warning. Try to keep your speed down, okay?”

Just then another armed and uniformed man walked up and stood beside the sheriff. He was from the BLM. He said:

“Hi! Was that you parked by the side of the road back there a ways? Havin’ some trouble, were ya?”

“No, no trouble. I was shooting photos of the Mules…”

“Yeah, that mist is somethin’ else this morning, isn’t it! Where ya headin’?”

“I’m going to the Charleston Road Bridge to see the floodwaters, take some photos.”

“Well, have fun! I might see you over there later!”

Both the sheriff and the BLM guy seemed cheery, almost ebullient. Not too surprising, as they were being paid to be out and around in this splendid landscape!

The sheriff indicated that I was free to go. It’s always a relief to hear that!

After a few miles more of driving at 45 MPH I turned right on Charleston Road, which would take me back to the river and the Charleston Road Bridge, my destination. There was a parking lot near the bridge, and angled across the river was an older iron bridge. I parked and let Dingo, my dog, out. Dingo followed me onto the old bridge, where I encountered a woman with her young son. We peered down at the brown torrents raging below.

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I said to the woman “This is amazing! Have you ever seen the San Pedro so high?”

“Yeah, a few times, but I’ve never seen it last this long!”

The young boy petted Dingo while we watched the water rush on past.

I decided to walk down to the edge of the riverbank below the bridge. Dingo followed me and the dog was soon invisible in the rank streamside vegetation.

Then the woman, still on the bridge with her boy, shouted down to me:

“Your dog! Your dog! It’s in the water!”

Oh, no! that current would snatch that dog away, and who knows where she would end up! I couldn’t find Dingo anywhere. Then the woman shouted to me again:

“Your dog’s up here with us!”

I looked up towards the parking lot, and there was Dingo, prowling around and doubtless soaking up new and strange scents.

I shot a few more photos of the torrential river water:

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I was ready to head for home, as I felt I had adequately recorded the scene. I headed back up Charleston Road. Perhaps because I was watching my speed carefully I missed my turnoff on to Moson Road and ended up at a busy Sierra Vista intersection. The morning rush was in full swing. Damn, I thought. I really don’t like driving in heavy traffic. I saw an opportunity to drive the long way back, south on Rt. 92, so I took it and sped out of town.

That drive was frustrating, as there were incredible scenes of morning light illuminating the cloud-swathed Huachuca Mountains, but traffic was heavy and it was hard to find a place to pull off. I finally found a place, parked, and shot some photos. In the next photo Rt. 92 can be seen stretching out across the San Pedro Valley, headed for the Mule Mountains and Bisbee:

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Another shot of the Mules nearly obscured by clouds:

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I was tired after all of this and took a nap after I got back to the apartment! So did Dingo.

Larry

A Simple Walk Becomes Complicated

My new companion, a mixed-breed yellow dog named Dingo, really, really, likes to go out on walks. If I so much as start to put my shoes on, don a hat, or slip my wallet into my back pocket, she becomes excited and spins around, emitting squeaks of anticipation. This is good for me, I admit. I’m probably walking twice as much around town as I did before Dingo arrived here.

Yesterday afternoon the sky was cloudy and the temperature cool, perfect walking weather. Dingo and I descended the twenty-five steps to Brophy St. and endured the gaze of my downstairs neighbor Sue’s cat, whose coat is almost exactly the same color as Dingo’s. The two animals regarded each other, reminding me of the recurrent scene in the Seinfeld show: “Hello, Jerry!” “Hello, Newman!”.

Brophy St. descends steeply to its intersection with Tombstone Avenue. Looking down the hill, the view partially obscured by blown-over giant Arundo reed stalks, I saw a familiar black-and white feral cat toying with something in the street. I think my neighbor Sue feeds that cat, but it can’t be approached.

The cat fled as we approached, and I saw something like a short snake crawling around on the pitted concrete. A closer look revealed that the creature was a half-grown Madrean Alligator Lizard:

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Oh, why had I left my camera up in the apartment? I keep telling myself “There are no boring walks — something interesting will always be encountered!” I turned around and trotted back towards the steps. Dingo thought “Hmm, this new master is proving to be a bit erratic! Why are we going back up the stairs? I swear, I distinctly heard Larry utter the magic word ‘walk’!”

By the time we got back to the scene of the feline crime that cat had resumed its torments. The beleaguered lizard was wheeling about and snapping viciously at the cat, who didn’t look very threatened. I ran up and tried to kick the cat away but it fled into the giant reeds.

What a moral dilemma! I knew that if I left the lizard, the cat would be right back. I knelt down and closely inspected the lizard’s injuries. The right front leg seemed to be broken and useless, and a bite had been taken from the creature’s flank right next to that leg. This lizard probably wouldn’t survive. I made a tentative effort to pick it up by its tail, but with surprising and disconcerting swiftness it snapped at me like a snake striking.

Notice in the above photo the clear line separating the patterning of the body and the single color of the tail. This is a sign that some other predator bit off the tail some time ago. A new one grew back, but without the original colors and patterns. This lizard was born under a bad sign!

Two more photos:

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So I left the doomed lizard to its fate, a grim one most likely involving that merciless cat.

Just opposite the Brophy St. hill is a pleasant vacant lot shaded by tall and stout cottonwood trees. This lot borders the drainage canal which gathers up flood waters and conveys them who knows where. The water probably ends up in Mexico. Several Palmer’s Agaves live in that lot, and one of them had intercepted falling cottonwood leaves with the wickedly-sharp spines which terminate every leaf. A couple of photos of this agave, scenes which charmed me:

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Just two days ago the waters roaring and churning through the canals were reddish-brown with silt and sand from the canyon slopes. Yesterday the flow was clear, and the numerous waterfalls and riffles reminded me of a mountain stream. How nice, that at certain times Bisbee’s main drag is bordered by such a picturesque series of streams!

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A closer view:

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One of my goals for this walk was to see how the flow had changed on Wood Canyon Road, where Bev and I lived for two winters. Dingo and I walked up past the fire station and turned across the canal bridge onto Wood Canyon. The flow had gone down since I had last seen it the day before. Then the road was a river, from curb to curb, but here’s what it looked like Sunday afternoon:

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As we walked back down Tombstone I wondered if the lizard would still be there on the Brophy St. hill. Perhaps only a mangled corpse would be left. I saw nothing; presumably the cat devoured the poor lizard.

Larry

A Celestial Retrospective

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I’ve been writing for this blog for over ten years. That’s a long time in the often-ephemeral blogging world! My early output, from the spring of 2004 to the spring of 2010, was lost to a hard drive crash — oh, well, that’s what having no back-ups got me!

Faithful commenter Joan Ryan saved many of my early photos and burned them to CDs. I’m still grateful for her gesture!

Since June of 2010 this blog has been hosted at commercial server farms, for a while a free one, but these days I pay for the service. Currently there are over six hundred posts on this blog and thousands of comments. Every now and then I will delve back into older posts. It’s fun to see what was on my mind a few years ago! I woke up early this morning; nothing much was happening on the net, so I began to read a series of posts I wrote just before my fateful move to Arizona. These posts involved meetings with gods and deities of various cultures. I can’t really remember how I got on that subject! It might have been the influence of Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite modern writers. Here are links to those short posts in chronological order; you might find them amusing:

Deity Encounter

Another Talk With Eos

Eos Gets The Blues

Meeting Another Deity

I Meet Atropos

Kokopelli Shows Up

Charon

A Visit From A Snow God

Thor

Loki

Quetzalcoatl

Ares and Eros

An Anomalous Visit From Poseidon

A Visit From God

Oh, No, Not Lucifer!

A Poker Game

Poker, Part Two

The Earth Mother Visits

A Visit From Cronus

The nature of blog posting is such that each new post appears at the “top” of the blog. These posts from 2011 are displayed in backwards or reverse chronological order if you click on the right sidebar link for “Eos Stories”. I restored real chronological order in the above links so that the little tales read sequentially. I hope someone out there enjoys them! I like them, but then I’m biased.

Larry

A Striking Bisbee Stairway

Three houses down from where I live in Bisbee is a house nearly hidden by vegetation. I always stop for a while and look at a set of steps which looks like it might have been transplanted from a villa in, oh, say Minorca or some other Mediterranean locale, the workmanship a remnant of the British colonial era when brilliant native craftsmen could be hired for a pittance.

The slightly run-down appearance contributes to the entrance’s charm.

An arched iron trellis supports a couple of trained apricot trees, and this time of year apricots are still hanging from those trees. Fallen fruits glow orange, scattered across the steps. Yesterday morning before the rains set in the light was just right and I snapped some photos, while Dingo the dog patiently awaited the resumption of our walk. Without further commentary, here is a sequence of photos for your delectation:

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Larry

Dingo At The Falls

Wednesday morning the weather forecast looked dire. A plume of clouds and rain had been pushing up through the Gulf of California, like a celestial firehose aimed right at Southern Arizona. Mist shrouded the tops of the Mule Mountains but there was only a slight bit of drizzle at seven in the morning, so I thought I would go on a quick excursion before the world got too wet.

I also wanted to see how well my new dog Dingo (Lydia in a former life) would do riding in a truck and hiking unleashed on a trail. So off we went in the truck. The Falls are just a few miles north of town. Dingo rode well in the truck once she figured out that I wanted the driver’s side!

The trail to the falls is uphill all the way, but really not very far. Dingo kept ahead of me but didn’t venture too far away. In the final stretch the falls could be heard tumbling over the edge of Juniper Flats. I think this sound excited the dog and she got to the end of the trail before I did. Meanwhile this scene, a cavity in the granite delicately embroidered by patches of ferns, caught my eye:

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I was looking for the dog as the scene unfolded before me. I saw that Dingo had run off down to the rocky outlet of the falls, where the water leisurely flows over and through flats and boulders:

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Looked like a happy dog to me!

The trail ends at a relatively flat area of granite boulders surrounding a twenty-foot-wide pool. Dingo caught up with me and immediately plunged into the water and began to swim across it. Bev suggests that Dingo might have some yellow lab blood in her:

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Yeah, that dog was in her element!

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I shot a short video, panning down the falls and ending with a view of Dingo on the other side of the pool:

This shot is of some the upper ocotillo-dominated slopes surrounding the falls:

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This evening Dingo seemed tired; after all, she was adapting to a new home and has been on quite a few walks. She likes this dilapidated chair, which is unfit for human use:

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As I write this the area has received over two inches of rain since the excursion to the falls. It’s flooding in the valleys and washes and I’m sticking close to home for a while!

Larry

Basses Rule!

I’ve been playing the fiddle here in Bisbee for a couple of years. As the music which my friends and I play has become better known, other fiddlers and violinists have stepped out of their private shadows and joined in. Some just for a while or occasionally, while others have become frequent jam session partners. But there can be too many fiddles, hard as that may be to believe!

After playing in several sessions with as many as six or seven fiddles forming a soprano/alto wall of sound, I began to think about taking up the upright bass. There just aren’t enough bass players in Bisbee, and I’m sure I could pick it up without straining my powers of learning, a case of an old dog learning not a new trick, but a variation of a trick I already know pretty well. I just have to learn the larger scale of the bass. The musical intervals involved are analogous. Does it sound like I’m trying to convince myself?

So, I thought, how am I going to go about this project without going into debt, a state which I generally try to avoid. I figured it all out in one morning of many internet communications and transactions. The net to me is like water to a fish.

First, I had to sell a Hohner button accordion. I’ve realized recently that I will never get very good on that instrument. Strings are my musical medium. That accordion will soon be en route to the dealer in Massachusetts from whom I bought it. They are charging a small commission to sell it for me. Okay, now how to get hold of an upright bass for a good price?

Well, the current fiddle I play is a nice one made in a small factory near Shanghai. I’m familiar with several Chinese Ebay vendors who sell instruments made in a closely-knit group of of factories in the Shanghai area. Their instruments, in my opinion, are the best value in violin-family instruments today, especially if you don’t get hung up in the desire for that “old European mojo”.

So I did some searches on Ebay for new upright basses. I know what beat-up used ones go for in the US, and they are generally all-plywood student models. I don’t mind plywood for the back and sides, as the wide pieces of wood for solid-wood backs and sides are becoming rare and expensive. As a species we use the good stuff, wood-wise, faster than it is being grown. But the top is another matter entirely, and I prefer solid spruce for the tops of stringed instruments. That’s the part which vibrates, and plywood is a liability, in my opinion.

I found what looked to be a very good deal, especially for me, as I can do instrument assembly and set-up. It’s an “in-the-white” 3/4 size upright bass with the neck not yet glued to the body. The top is solid spruce, while the back and sides are rather plain-looking plywood. The neck is shipped unattached so that the shipping container wouldn’t be huge, and thus expensive to ship. What I will have to do is glue the neck into its socket with hot hide glue, apply finish (varnish over shellac sealer, maybe some decorative painting on the the back), install the tuners, bridge, end-pin, tailpiece, and maybe set a soundpost if that hasn’t already been done. This sort of fiddly work is one of my ideas of fun.

Because of this coming speculative musical transition I’ve been re-familiarizing myself with the best bass players on the planet. Being a person with non-specific and non-organized religious ideas, I have to say that included in my personal pantheon, along with various plant and fungal spirits, are those inspired musicians who stride among us as gods, capable of inimitable feats of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic magic. Here’s a long video of three bass players who have taken Leo Fender’s early and crude electric basses and exploited the successors to Leo’s instruments to the max. Stanley Clark is about my age, and I used to listen to his playing when we were both young. He’s still going strong! Marcus Miller is just one cool player, a masterful bassist who has played on a slew of pop, R&B, and jazz recordings. He’s the player in the porkpie hat. Victor Wooten is simply amazing, a younger player who has tapped into some divine veins of music. A few highlights of the video: Victor Wooten really struts his stuff starting at 11:50. Stanley Clark really wails on an upright bass starting at around 19:00. All three play wonderfully towards the end of the video in a funky instrumental version of Michael Jackson’s classic song “Beat It”. This is ultra-funky, groove-laden, and sexy music, and be warned that it might not be suitable for strait-laced and inhibited folks!

Larry