Birth Of An Electric Bass

1280px-Orca_Orlando_Seaworld

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:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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:

Chinese_Bass-1

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

Chinese_Bass-2

The bridge and soundpost are the next challenges!

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

I’m In Musical Love…

After viewing this wonderful video I’m now a fan and devotee of Kate Davis. She both sings and plays the upright bass in such a masterful way that I’m just blown away, drifting on the desert breeze. Have a listen:

Larry

Just Imagine…

Way back in the pre-internet dark ages I was an unwilling high school student. Most of the curriculum for “college track” students, a category which had been assigned to me without my knowledge or concurrence, was just utterly crappy.

The year was 1972. I had some sort of vague Civics class, or perhaps it was American History — it doesn’t matter what it was now, so many decades later.

The teacher was a woman in her forties, an age that seemed ancient to her students. Her name was Joyce. She may very well be in a nursing home, or dead, by now — I don’t know.

Joyce had an interest in the burgeoning counter-culture movement of those years; if she had been younger she would have been a hippie. One day, as I was dying of boredom in her class, Joyce announced “Class, I have a song I’d like you to hear! It’s by John Lennon!”

In retrospect, technology was so charmingly primitive back then! Joyce pulled a vinyl LP from its cardboard sleeve and gently laid it upon a mechanical turntable. She slowly dropped the needle into the groove of the track she wanted us to hear.

That was the first time I ever heard John Lennon singing his song “Imagine”. It’s an idealistic song, well suited for young people who haven’t become jaded, and haven’t yet been sucked into the dominant corporate/military paradigm.

I was heartened to hear a young singer cover this song four decades later.

So some of that sixties idealism still survives!

Larry

Cherish The Ladies

I’ve been fooling around with the new capabilities this new blog platform has, one of which is embedding video or audio stored in my blog directory — i.e., not from a link to another server. I like not being dependent on storage provided for free!

Here’s a multi-tracked recording I made last winter. “Cherish The Ladies” is a jig of uncertain origin. It doesn’t get played much these days, but I’ve liked the tune for many years. I played guitar, mandolin, and fiddle:

Larry

ABC Files and Recording Music and Video

This winter I’ve been writing less and devoting more time to playing and recording music. It’s great fun, and I feel it is high time I documented my music after so many years of playing.

The software available for musicians is plentiful. I tend to use only FOSS software (FOSS stands for Free And Open Source), a trait which as time passes becomes more feasible and less a statement of religious conviction.

Some of my favorite and most-used pieces of software cluster around an ASCII-text file format known as ABC. Chris Walsh came up with the format back in the 1980s. He needed a way to represent traditional melodies without going to the trouble of drawing staves and using normal musical notation. ABC is musical shorthand. Notes are represented by letters, and various typographical symbols indicate bars, rests, and most other musical features. ABC is quite portable; it can be scrawled on a restaurant napkin or included in the text of an e-mail. The format has been most popular with musicians in the British Isles.

With todays gargantuan multi-gig computer hard drives the advantages of ABC have declined somewhat, but there are so many tune and transcription collections available on the net in ABC format. For a fiddler like me the files are a cornucopia of musical delights. So portable, too! Millions of tunes in ABC format can be stored on a CD or a USB stick.

Software is available which converts an ABC file to a printable Postscript file. The results are excellent. Here’s an example. This is an ABC file represnting the bare bones of a tune I came up with several years ago:

X:1
T:Goldberg Waltz
R:waltz
C:Larry Ayers
N:First played circa 2004 --
N:Notated January 2013
L:1/8
M:3/4
K:G
GA|"G"B2 BAGE|D2 B,2 D2|"C" E2 C2 E2|G6|"Em"E2 B2 B2| B2 B B3|
"D"ABA GFE|D2 B,2 A,2|"G"G,2 BAGE|D2 B,2 D2|
"C"E2 C2 E2|G6|"D"D2 d3 d|d2 d2 d2|"G"BA G"D"F "G"GA|G6||
|:"G"Bdg dgd|Bdg dgd|"C"ceg ege|ceg ege|"Em"B2 e2 g2|b2 b2 b2|"D"a2 ag fe|
d2 dc BA|"G"B2 d2 g2|gf ed cB|"C"c2 cdef|g4 ^g2|"D"a3 gfe|d3 cBA|"G"B2 G F G2 :|

A program called abcm2ps translates the ABC typography into a file which looks like this:

goldberg

The tune sounds like this (more or less, as I seldom play anything the same way twice!):

Goldberg Waltz recording

I’ve been using a multi-platform program called Audacity, which can be obtained here:

Audacity

It’s a very versatile multi-track recording and sound-editing application.

Videos are ubiquitous on the net these days due to the popularity of Youtube and, to a lesser extent, Vimeo. I thought it would be fun to make some music videos and upload them, but I had a problem. I’d never successfully edited video before, and the few times I tried I felt stymied. The software has been written by people who grew up editing video and certain user-interface assumptions are made by the developers which were not at all intuitive for me.

I finally figured out my problem, which was that I assumed that the editing paradigm used in text and audio editors carried over into video editors. This isn’t true. Video editors mostly have been developed using an analogy with film editing. Cutting and splicing film (with discarded strips of film falling in curls to the cutting-room floor) is used as a metaphor for dealing with streams of video frames. The computer’s cursor is exchanged for a knife or scissors which “cuts” the sequence of frames.

This may seem obvious, but it took me a while to embrace and be able to use that metaphor! I can be dense at times.

I’ve been using two video editors, Openshot and Kdenlive. They are both good programs, but each has its strong points.

I started out using the audio track recorded by the camera, a Canon G11. That audio was fairly decent considering the tiny microphone on the camera, but I wanted multiple audio tracks. Lately I’ve been recording and editing with Audacity, then substituting the Audacity track for the camera’s recorded audio. I also have been using an external microphone. Of course the audio has to be synchronized with the video, but I found that Kdenlive does that automatically.

Here are a couple of videos. This first one was shot using the built-in camera and mike on Bev’s Imac:

You can see Sage the collie in the background in that one. Pets wandering into the scene are commonly seen in Youtube videos!

This is a later one shot with the Canon G11 on a tripod, and with the audio recorded with Audacity:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMm7n5FX6UM&w=420&h=315]

One last video… this one shows me playing an Irish set-dance tune called “The Blackbird” on the guitar. I dubbed in a fiddle track as well:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYiRWOMSrXg&w=420&h=315]

All rather amateurish, I admit, but fun!

Larry

Waves Of The Danube

Several years ago I happened across a tune, one of those melodies which crossed the Atlantic Ocean sometime during the 20th century. I can’t remember where I first heard it — probably the internet was involved.

I first knew the tune as “The Anniversary Song”. This tune was played as a fiddle duet by Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson, and I learned that the tune came from a song by Al Jolson.

Later I learned that the tune was written by the Romanian composer Iosif Ivanovici, and the original title is “The Waves Of The Danube”.

Here’s a sappy movie scene with that song:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VcQVNw2w78&w=420&h=315]

I learned the tune on the fiddle and guitar, but then I was faced with the task of introducing the tune to the session musicians in Hannibal. The chord sequence is a bit more complex than the simple sequences in the fiddle tunes we normally played.

The tune became a favorite tune in the local sessions. I still enjoy playing it!

Larry

Barn Dance In The Valley

Bisbee, Arizona, is located improbably in a narrow canyon just a few miles north of the Mexican border. The town wouldn’t be here if there weren’t substantial deposits of copper ore, but the mines closed down thirty years ago. The town remains as a tourist destination, many people coming for the ideal climate and the picturesque buildings.

I was invited to play the fiddle for a barn dance down in the Sulphur Springs Valley, a vast expanse of flat land between the Chiricuahua Mountains and the Huachuca Mountains. The area encompassing the valley and the mountains was the homeland of Cochise’s band of Apaches, and the county was named for that famed chief.

Before the music started I had an interesting conversation with Dennis, the co-proprietor of the ranch. He and his wife run 400 head of cattle on 30,000 acres of dry mesquite valley land. Naturally Dennis was concerned about the drought conditions which have prevailed in the valley for the past twenty years. I learned much from our discourse.

It’s been a while since I played fiddle for a dance. This dance was a good one, and luckily somebody shot video and edited this one:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtnaX_9QgZ0&w=560&h=315]

I was invited to play by Mark, a skilled mandolin and guitar player.

Larry

Wardell Gray With The Count Basie Orchestra

The year was 1950. Wardell Gray, inheritor of Lester Young’s musical legacy, was working with Count Basie and his band. Gray had impeccable phrasing and tone; he had taken to heart Lester Young’s musical advice: a solo should tell a story. Have a listen:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2uMjh2dOSI&w=420&h=315]

Larry