Birth Of An Electric Bass

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It may seem like I’m overextending myself, but the fact remains that while I’ve been working on the Chinese upright bass I’ve also been assembling the components of an electric five-string fretless bass.

For a long time I’ve wanted to work with one or more of the woods in the Cupressus genus, the group which contains the true cypress species. My first choice was Arizona Cypress, a local wood, but the trees are scattered and rare, and I’m reluctant to deprive this mountain-and-desert region of even one of its iconic trees.

I turned my attention to one of the coastal species, Cupressus nootkatensis, commonly known as Alaska Yellow Cedar or Nootka Cypress. After some Googling I happened across the web-site of a Canadian violin-maker who mills instrument wood as a sideline. The shop is in southern Alberta, not far from the mountainous habitats of several coniferous tree species.

I ordered a few pieces of Nootka Cypress from the shop — clear, quarter-sawn old-growth wood. The parcel of wood meandered across the continent, for some reason passing through Toronto before heading west again.

Nootka Cypress only grows in a thin coastal strip extending from Alaska, down through British Columbia, and petering out in Oregon. The species is being stressed by the warming climate, as its shallow roots need snow cover to avoid damage during the coolest period; during recent decades that snow cover has been scanty. Many dead trees are now available, so that makes me a jackal feeding upon the corpses of northern forests. I can live with that! Here’s a photo of the glued-up body blank, the neck, the Pau Ferro fingerboard, along with the neck reinforcement pieces:

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There is a Tlingit legend about the origin of killer whales which involves the yellow cedar tree. I read several English translations of the legend on various First Nations myth web-sites, but the Wikipedia version I think is the clearest and most succinct:

The tale begins with a young warrior Natsilane who is destined to become chief due to his skills, intelligence and generally pleasant demeanour. His brothers are extremely jealous of this, and plot to depose him. The brothers take Natsilane out to sea fishing, taking him further away from the shore than they have ever been before. As he becomes concerned, the brothers throw Natsilane overboard and row away.

As Natsilane is beginning to drown, he is found and rescued by Sea otter, who floats him to a large island saying it is too far back to the mainland for Sea otter to help him back. Instead, he promises to look after Natsilane and shows him the best hunting and fishing grounds. Once Natsilane is settled on his new island, alone, Sea otter confers one last gift to him, a pouch of seeds, and instructs Natsilane to sow them. Natsilane does so, and over the years the seeds grow into a bewildering array of different types of tree, all of which are now native in the Pacific Northwest. Natsilane uses wood from the trees to carve tools and a boat.

In appreciation of Sea otter, Natsilane then tries to carve a new totem. He tries all the trees, but settles on using a large Yellow Cedar tree and carves a huge fish from it, and leaves it on the shore for Sea otter to find. The next morning when Natsilane goes down to the shore, the fish carving is gone and in the bay is swimming Blackfish, the first killer whale. With a boat and supplies, Natsilane travels back to his home, guided by Blackfish. When he arrives, he finds his brothers out fishing again, squabbling. He orders Blackfish to destroy their boat and drown his brothers which it does immediately. When it returns, Natsilane orders that from this day forward it must never harm a human again, and that when it finds a human in trouble at sea it must help him. He then sends the whale off to sea. Natsilane returns to his village, which had been terrorised by his brothers, and becomes chief.

This legend inspires me to call the electric bass I’m putting together the Orca Bass. Perhaps I’ll carve an orca outline on the body of the instrument — perhaps wood-burned. A fantasy comes together in my fertile mind: Someday I’ll have this bass on board a whale-watching excursion boat, perhaps on a meander through the Queen Charlotte Islands. From the boat I’ll engage in a call-and-response exchange with a pod of orcas!

Larry

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