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About my bass...and some angst...

In 1982 I bought a German flat-back 3/4 bass that was about 50 years old at the time. I bought it from a local bass player. He told me that it was one level up from the student models they were building at the time; hand carved, but by people in an assemly line, each making one part. It had a pretty bad sound but I didn’t care. It WASN’T a plywood bass, it was a real carved wood bass and I was psyched. It had a nice long sustain on the low F, a sound I was never able to get on the plywood bass I’d had for a year or two before. I played it for 26 years.

Over the years I had work done on it as I could afford. Back in the 80’s I drove 7 hours to bring it to Lenny Harlos in Pembroke, MA, to work on it. Lenny was a master. When I first brought him the bass he set it up for me and the sound improved greatly. He never did anything more to improve the sound, but did maintenance- fixing cracks, etc.

Lenny eventually retired and moved to parts south. When I heard he was retiring I panicked. Any upright bass player will tell you having a good person to take care of your bass is manna from heaven. I went through a few years of twilight time when I was taking my bass to this one and that one. The closest to a bass any of these people worked on were cellos and none really knew anything about basses. Mine was a “lab rat” for them all.

Here ensues a small saga

There was one fellow who told me that my sound post was all wrong, insisted on making a new one and replaced it for the old one Lenny had made me. I took it home. It now wasn’t playing any notes, just overtones, plus the strings were all of a sudden VERY far away from the fingerboard. I called the guy and told him what was going on, suggesting that maybe there was something wrong with the sound post and he said that he was positive that he had replaced the “wrong” sound post with the “right” one, that he had done a lot of research on it, blah blah blah. His tone of voice said I was not supposed to question The Master. I probably got an extra dollop of The Tone, being a “chick bass player”. He said that he would fix the high action by taking off part of the back of the neck and then building the neck and fingerboard up to the strings so that the action would be right and I would still be able to get my hand around the whole thing- and when did I want to bring it down to get the work done? I was stunned. I said I’d call him back.

I had a reading with my psychic channeler later that week, and asked the Guides what the hell was going on with my bass and what I got for an answer was, “It’s too tight! Too tight!” I said, “Where?” The woman’s hand floated to about 2-1/2’ off the ground and said, “There.” I called my friend who I’d bought the bass from, and who had recommended this guy to me for bass repair. He recommended getting the guy to put in my old sound post just to make sure. Of course! Why hadn’t that occurred to me? Because I had been cowed by his “I-know-everything-you-know-nothing" attitude. I called him and said I was bringing my bass down and wanted him to put in the original sound post before he did anything. I could just about see his eyes roll as he said, “Ok, Ellen, if you insist.”

I brought the bass to his shop a couple of days later and watched as he removed the sound post he had made and replaced it with Lenny’s. I played the bass. It had its voice back. I was so relieved. Now I knew there was no way I was going to let this guy chop my bass up. I didn’t care if he couldn’t hear the difference. I will say in his behalf that he was horrified at what a big mistake he had almost made. Turned out he could hear the difference, too. He was almost on the verge of tears. I never took my bass there again and prayed for someone who knew what they were doing.

Rescued by Paul Perley

My prayers were eventually answered and I found Paul Perley. I highly recommend Paul for bass work to anyone in the area who needs bass work done. Although he is another one who comes from working with cellos, he made the effort to learn about basses and I think he just has the gift, too. He does great work and is a really nice guy.

A few years ago I had some extra money. I took my bass down to Paul and said I wanted him to make the bass sound better. He asked me to play it and describe what I heard and what I waned to hear, which I did. He got it. I’ left it with him for a month and he made the whole top thinner so it could resonate more. The difference in the sound was really incredible. It was beyond my wildest dreams of how it could sound. He explained to me that when he took the top off he saw that the sound bar and the top were all one piece of wood! Paul removed it and made a real sound bar for it. He did one other thing which he swore me to secrecy about. Sorry, can't tell.

Messing about with the electronics

I decided that it now deserved good sound reinforcement. For the last 10+ years I had been using a Working Man’s 12 amplifier. For a pickup I’d been using a Fishman Transducer. I never liked the sound with this equipmentit was always thin and tinny, and until Paul did his magic, the bass also sounded “choked”.

I replaced the pickup with a David Gage Realist and the amp with an Acoustic Image "Clarus", a 300-watt amp weighing 5 lbs. brands, and two Raezer’s Edge speaker cabinets, each holding a 10” speaker. I use both when it is warranted. Mostly I play duo gigs and one works fine. I love this combination of pickup, amp and speakers, and recommend it to upright players who are looking for a warm woody sound with nice definition.

Now: Have smaller bass, will travel

I played the German bass for 17 years, exclusively. In June of ’05 I broke my ankle badly enough to require surgery to put in a steel plate. The surgeon said recovery would take 18 months. My upright playing days were over for the time being. I started playing out again in Sept. and used my old Fender Precision fretless bass guitar because I had to sit in a chair and elevate the ankle on another one. That was what I used when I was playing R&B and Motown in the late 70s to late 80s. Before I took it out to play during my ankle recovery, it had been sitting in the closet for 17 years and only came out a couple of times when my upright bass was in the shop and I had a gig to play. I’d added a Seymour Duncan bridge pickup to it back in the 80s because I wanted it to sound like Jaco Pastorius’s bass. It’s a wonderful bass.

I am, as I write this in November '06, just about physically ready to go back onto upright bass. For a few years I’ve been talking with Paul Perley about him finding me a 1/2 size bass to make it easier to haul around. As I’ve been moving through my 50s, that German bass seems bigger and heavier. Paul found me a beautiful 30-50 year old 1/2 size Wilfer/Juzek bass in the attic above the shop at the Metropolitan Music Company in Stowe, VT. He set it up for me and traded it for my German bass, God bless him. An interesting note: Metropolitan Music Co. has always been the sole importer and distributor of John Juzek instruments. There’s an interesting page on the history of their relationship with John Juzek at their website.

So now I’m in a quandary. I thought if I had a smaller upright I would be more likely to begin practicing (I’ve lost ALL my upright chops!) and start to play gigs on upright again. I love the sound of upright bass, and this little bass sounds exquisite. The problem, though, is that technically I can do so much more on the Precision, I'll never be able to have the same technique on upright, and the Precision is so much easier to haul around. I love its sound and I can emote with it. I still have to as I still have to elevate my leg somecan’t get through a whole gig with the leg down yet, so I don’t have to decide about which bass to us ... yet. Stay tuned. Back to the Top