Brad wrestles a bass

Brad Fulton, fiddler, luthier (proprietor of SeaStrings, in South Ohio Nova Scotia), Development Officer/ Building Inspector/ Fire Inspector for Municipality of the District of Yarmouth, sometime member of the Yarmouth Shantymen and the Yarmouth Orchestra, teller of tales, author of The Saga of the Stove Wicks, and friend of 34-some-odd years, sent this picture a week or so ago. Just the picture, with the subject line A Thousand Words:

Bass buzz

So I wrote back, knowing that there would be A Story to accompany the image. A few days ago he responded with the text below, and subsequently granted permission for me to blog the Story. I’ve bolded a few especially choice bits:

There’s something about string basses. They aren’t one of us. They’re too big and ill mannered. They don’t fit well in my studio. I confess I’ve always tried to have an arms length relationship with them. In the surgery the table itself and the patient thereon have to be moved every time to correspond with work station space needs. All the basses to date have been just a little less than welcome, and I think they knew it. They had all arrived via “ok, yes, well I guess I can likely fix it” situations. All have proven difficult. There hadn’t been a one I’d rather not have bothered with. I came close to using my rubber mallet on one. Up to this point there’d been three. Inviting number four in was actually my idea, not that it mattered any. He ended up being just like the others. Too much work and bother for too little instrument. I’ve half a mind there may not be any more basses ever again. I near lost this wrestling match, and I’m not sure I could do it again with any more of them. Truth is I don’t have a great deal of time for string basses. I’ve since learned (the fiddle elves had never warned me) there are bass trolls out there that prey on guys like me.
I have to say up front it’s only the least grade basses I’ve ever worked on. Non instruments really. The laminates. Tugboats in the wood instrument flotilla. Clever veneers over plywood in the shape of their real cousins, overweight by quite a bit. This latest one was made in Germany circa 1955. It was purchased by the town band in ’57 from Herb Deveau’s long since gone bankrupt music store on Main St (good old Herb). It once had its neck wrenched out on a band trip and was sent back to the factory for repairs. Its last 25 years had been spent on Williams Street in John Hood’s back room in pieces.
John, retired high school teacher, was at the baton year one when I joined the Town Band in ’78. He conducted the high school band his entire career, and is our resident tuba in the orchestra. Every year or so John would slide his old bass into a casual conversation or two and wonder out loud if it could be fixed up and sold. There are folks who do such things in Halifax I’d always tell him.
This tale all began when my cello student Dan e-mailed out of the blue about his friend Warren in Digby who had smashed his bass up in an accident and was looking for a replacement instrument. Bingo … I just happened to know where there was one. Opportunity knocked and I ran over and opened up the door. John was surprised and delighted I’d finally taken the bait, and he then told me “it’s a real wooden bass you know”. My turn to be surprised and delighted. It only needed its fingerboard to be refit (more blunt trauma), a new nut, endpin work, bridge and setup. We struck a deal for seastrings to restore, and be suitably rewarded at sale. Now John has been around music and instruments all his life, and I didn’t give a moments thought when he made the bass claim. The sad truth was band instruments he knows all about, string basses not so much. Turned out it was all wood all right, all cleverly laminated together looking for all the world like the real thing.
A deal was a deal though, and so began the task of putting it together and playable again. My first discovery was the fingerboard hadn’t come off quite as cleanly as one might have hoped. A few good sized slivers of ebony were left glued on the neck, and a few slivers were missing … a little big job. The second was the tailpiece setup (previously coat hanger wire rigged) couldn’t accommodate a proper fix without serious alterations. Old familiar bass repair issues all over again. One step forward, two steps back. And so he lay there on the worktable, taking up all the room in the shop and being stubborn. My feelings toward laminate basses hadn’t changed one whit.
Just for good measure the endpin lacked the holdfast ring and screw mechanism to lock the pin. I had no luck despite an exhaustive search through my entire stable of ‘nuts and bolts’ bins, including the half dozen from my Father’s basement shop. I believe I heard a smug grunt of satisfaction from the bass beast after the last bin came up empty.
Off to Waterview. I don’t doubt you might have gazed upon it at some point, having perhaps stretched your legs whilst waiting for the ferry. It’s very near the terminal north. It’s a true blue all Nova Scotia rough and ready working waterfront machine shop. Fix everything metal mostly for boats they do. There’s a hunk of pig iron on a rope which acts as the external pulley rigged counterweight closer for the slightly oversize and unmarked rough entry door. One never knows what lies on the other side of that funky door. I treasure the place. Inside was a huge excavator in the midst of an autopsy. The only people in the place were somewhere among the massive sections of the thing working torches. A great day at Waterview Machine Works. Protocol dictates standing looking hopeful being respectful until one of the guys finishes up and comes to deal with your petition. In for a penny, in for a pound. I requested a brass ring fitting for tubby’s endpin. Impress buyers. A small touch of class never hurt anyone. He may sound like rubber bands stretched over cardboard, but he’s going to have a spiffy new well-fit endpin.
Bass buzz
Tying off as it were with black electrical wire tailgut on the lardy monster led to a rousing all night battle. Lord but there’s a lot of tension on a bass tailpiece! The first two attempts ended in pull out failure. There wasn’t going to be a third. It was him or me. With tailpiece in vise I toiled like a sailor, heaving and grunting fighting to knot the wire to hold. Site built wood forms for concrete can be wired together with less effort.
There is a truly wonderful ending to this epic, however it wasn’t at the preferred time of tune up. That’s always my favorite time in the shop, when my bow brings a restored instrument to musical life again. Fats just didn’t cut it. He’s a looker but he wasn’t a sounder. Good thing he had his good health and an outstanding endpin.
His final insult to SeaStrings was a doozie. I gotta hand it to him. After I won the tailgut fight and he was at last tuned up I decided the flotsam rattling inside his belly needed purging. Wish I’d had a garage station air compressor hose so I could have just blasted him like mechanics blast engine grime off motor parts. Cleaning out fiddles is a snap. Cellos too can be handled quite easily, however what does one do to clean out a bass? I lied down on the floor and raised him up over me belly to belly with my arms and legs thinking I’ll just tip him gently side to side and all the stuff will dribble out of the f holes. I rather underestimated his weight and girth though, and at the end of a very long evening of tailpiece wrangling I was almost out of gas. I simply didn’t have the physical strength to pull off this stunt. With the whale hovering at arms length above me, my feet up in the air spread wide supporting either side of the lower bout, the absurdity of the situation overcame me and I began to laugh … not the wisest thing to do when you have a bass raised over your prone body. Panic at the seriousness of the situation came next. What if I lose it off to one side and it crashes onto the concrete studio floor? More laughter. My muscles burning, my arms shaking, the bass wobbling precariously and I’m either going to crack it into pieces or be crushed by it. What’s a poor luthier to do?
Survival instinct is a wonderful thing. I simply gave in. Folding like an accordion I let the beast squish me, hugging it safely when it came to rest on my chest then carefully rolling over to rest it on its side beside me. All in a day’s work at seastrings.
Now Warren plays jazz bass with a professional guitarist. In the interim his quite wonderful bass was repaired by the bassmaster George Barkhouse in Halifax, and this old second rate laminate sure wasn’t going to be finding a new home in Digby as per my original scheme. Go figure. My local bluegrass contacts didn’t even consider him worth coming to meet in the flesh either. Not even when the set of photos I’d sent included a nice shot of the endpin. I was having nightmares of this monstrosity hanging around the studio for months.
My cousin Murray, Mom’s sister Vera’s oldest boy lives in Pictou and plays bluegrass bass. Murray just might know someone who wants a beginner bass. He e-mailed back saying he forwarded my e-mail (complete with endpin shots) to Jerry’s Bluegrass and Old Time Music website somewhere in East Hants. Two days later at 8 in the morning Shelly from Tantallon calls up and asks if he could come down in his station wagon to see the bass. It’s always a good sign when a buyer thinks things through. Let me tell you Shelley was no slouch at setting the endpin to his own height neither… another good sign.
We were all happy to see it go. I’m almost feeling sentimental about the old fart. One more for the elves.