Saturday, 30 April 2016

GUEST BLOG! John Lovett, with 'The Bass of Doom'

The Bass of Doom

These days it is very rare for a musician to be associated with one particular instrument for their whole career. There are a few one of the most interesting is the Fender Jazz Bass owned by the late Jaco Pastorius. This was known as The Bass of Doom.

The Bass of Doom started out as 1962 sunburst finish bass. Although modified by Jaco over the years that is in essence what the bass always remained.

The biggest change to Jaco’s bass was that the frets were removed. The frets are the metal bars that are used to accurately sound the notes along the neck of a guitar or bass. Removing the frets of an electric bass guitars means that the player has to be a lot more accurate with where they put their fingers, but it means that the bass produces a softer sound, closer that of an upright, or double, bass.

The story goes that while Jaco was on the road with Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders he got it into his head to convert his bass to fretless. This was in the early 70s when fretless bases were rare, so the band came down to breakfast one morning in a cheap motel to find Jaco ripping the frets from his bass with a butter knife filling in the slots and holes with liquid wood.

Cochran was not pleased by this, they had an early show and he didn’t think Jaco, who only had the one bass, would be able to get it in a fit state to play and then play the show fretless with little or no practice.

Halfway though the performance Cochran walked over to the riser where Jaco was playing and bowed. Not only had Jaco put the bass back together in time, his playing was flawless.

This story is told consistently by members of the CC Riders. Although some other sources state that Jaco bought the Bass of Doom in New York with the frets already removed. The only footage of Jaco with Cochran shows him using a sunburst Jazz Bass. The footage is not very good quality so it is hard to say if it is the same bass or another one.

The other changes Jaco made to the bass were to remove the pickguard, bridge and pickup covers plus a mute system. Most every player would remove the bridge and pickup covers from a jazz bass; they get in the way and really don’t do very much.

The mute system would have been an optional extra. Jaco didn’t buy the bass new so it may have been removed before he got the bass. It was a basic system designed by Leo Fender just before he left the company, and didn’t work all that well. Leo would refine the design for the Stingray bass made for the Musicman Company that he founded after leaving Fender, that system did work and a muted Stingray bass is the sound of funk and disco.

Removing the pickguard was not common. The pickguard is a large piece of plastic that protects the wood, and gives the bass a more modern look. Jaco felt it deadened the sound of the bass so removed it. Leaving just the metal control plate, however he switched the knobs from plastic to knurled metal, easier to grip during performance.

Jaco had to do a lot of work on the neck of his bass. He chose to use round wound strings, these are normal on fretted basses but normally fretless bass players go with flat wound strings. Flat wound strings are smooth so do don’t damage the wood of the neck, but round wound stings normally used with the metal frets are more lively however they will chew up the wood.

Jacob would use boat epoxy to refinish the fingerboard of his bass every month or so. Kevin Kaufman who became Jaco’s bass technician in the late 70s was able to refine the technique of epoxy on the neck and make it more durable. Even then Jaco would practice on a fretted bass and only use The Bass of Doom for performance and recording.

Jaco didn’t exactly treat his bass with kit gloves. He would throw it in the air, balance it vertically on two fingers and was a very physical performer. The finish was worn at the back where it would rub against his clothing, in the 70s he wore large belt buckles at times and there was a lot of wear from his right arm. The bass was a tool and used hard.

However at the tail end of 1985 the bass was smashed to pieces after falling down a flight of stairs. It was Kevin Kaufman who had the task of putting the 12 pieces back together. To do this he glued the sections of the body back together, sanded them down and then covered them with a maple vainer. This was finished and the restored bass looked like new.

Jaco was happy with the restoration, and the day the bass was returned to him by Kaufman he recorded the song ‘Moodswings’ with Mike Stern. However the reunion was short lived as not long after the bass was stolen, Jaco was in a park in New York someone distracted him and when he turned back the bass was gone.

Less than a year later Jaco had been killed after being beaten by a nightclub doorman. The doorman was later convicted of Manslaughter.

Fast-forward to 1993 and the Bass of Doom resurfaced in a New York music shop. There is no definitive story as to where the bass was or how it arrived in the shop. Legal cases between the owner and Jaco’s family took some time then in 2008 the bass was sold to Metallica bass player Robert Trujillo.

Trujillo is a life long fan of Pastorius, he is also close to Jaco’s family and the bass is now used by Robert or Jaco’s son Felix to promote the legacy if Jaco. In time the idea is to put to bass on display in Florida, Jaco’s home state, as the centrepiece of a museum to his music and legacy.

Fender make replicas of The Bass of Doom, either in relic condition or as the bass looks now post restoration. Jaco’s popularising of Fretless bass, especially in Japan means that Fender, as well as other companies, by the early 80s were producing fretless basses alongside standard models, and although Jaco wasn’t the first to use a fretless electric bass he did a great deal to popularise the sound.

Three classic tracks that really who off Jaco’s playing and the Bass of Doom.
1)   ‘Portrait of Tracy’ from Jaco’s self titled debut album. This is just the Jaco and the Bass. Jaco mixes harmonic notes and normal notes to create a beautiful tune.
2)   ‘Hejira’ from the Joni Mitchell album of the same name, Jaco’s melodic bassline drives this song and showcases the classic fretless sound.
3)   ‘Soul Intro/ The Chicken’ from the album ‘Invitation’ a driving bassline and arrangement for big band drive this classic track.

Also check out the track ‘Mr Pastorius’ from the Miles Davvis album ‘Amandla’ a tribute to recorded after Jaco’s death.