Here’s an article I wrote for the September 2012 edition of Basslines, the online magazine of website BassGear.co.uk. Owner Phil Nixon deals mostly in electric instruments, so this was an unusual contribution…
Have mandobass will travel (with difficulty!)
I’ll come to that later, but first Phil has asked me to recall some of my Canadian experiences, and since I’ve never taken my trademark mandobass (bass mandolin) to Canada I’ll tell you something of my travels without it. I’ve spent five happy summers in Canada, teaching, playing at festivals and sightseeing. Their festivals are fantastic…as long as you don’t mind staying dry. Canada’s alcohol laws are a tad restrictive and preclude drinking in public places, so intoxication has to come solely from the music. Once you’ve accustomed to that idea the music really does take centre stage. Another amazing (to a Brit) side effect of a dry festival is that after a weekend of hard revelry there’s not a glint, not a hint of litter; no cans to trip over; no unsteady bodies tripping over cans that aren’t there and no large cleaning vehicles noisily scouring the site every night.
Canadians are renowned for their politeness and friendliness and I’ll add to that, enthusiasm. They’re great audiences and very generous with offers of temporary double basses. Unfortunately I haven’t been offered a loan mandobass to date. I bought a Canadian acoustic bass guitar in St Johns, Newfoundland a few summers ago, and there are some excellent music shops in Toronto; one even had a mandobass which I might have bought, but as I said before, have mandobass won’t travel!
….Oh and one other thing about Canada. People always ask, “where in Engerland are you from?” When I reply “Reading” they say “NO! Not Reading!” and laugh incredulously. Could it be they’ve seen Ricky Gervais and think everyone from Reading must be funny too? No it turns out that CBC (Canadian Broadcasting) have long referred to everywhere in the globe as situated however many miles from Reading. Go figure as they say over the pond!
So… back to Blighty now and I’ll tell you a bit about my life with basses.
Although I’d been playing guitar for quite a few years, I hadn’t played any bass instrument until my early twenties. The band I sang with at the time had a wonderful guitarist, Phil Fentimen who is an equally fine classically trained double bass player. It was Phil who pushed me to give the double bass a go. He gave me a few tips on playing bluegrass bass one afternoon and then twisted my arm to play on stage that same evening. He lent me an instrument for six months to get me started and I’ve never looked back.
My double bass is a quite respectable German 1920s factory instrument which I found through a wanted ad in the local paper. You never know what people have hidden up in the loft! It came with an extra set of hairy gut strings and a bag of used sticking plasters which the owner, a retiring dance band musician, used to protect his plucking fingertips. Amazingly, I moved into the adjoining house a couple of years later but sadly he’d died by then and so was never reunited with his bass or his plasters.
A few years later I was looking for a mandobass specifically to play with mandolin virtuoso Simon Mayor’s quartet The Mandolinquents. I hoped the sound would blend better with the other mandolin family instruments. By sheer chance two people contacted me quite separately, just a week before the quartet’s first gig, to tell me of a second-hand mandobass for sale. I was astonished by the sheer size of the instrument. I had tried a friend’s old Gibson mandobass in the States but this one was bigger than the Gibson. I could completely hide myself behind it…apart from my feet. Even more startling was the size of the case!
My mandobass is a very different beast from a double bass, and playing it was a challenge as I had to adapt my technique quite drastically. There are no instruction books and no mandobass teachers, so I had to figure out how to play it…painlessly. It came with a couple of felt plectrums and a retractable spike on the side for playing at a 45 degree angle with the neck crossing my body (like a big guitar). After some experimentation, I found it easier to pluck the strings with my fingers than with the felt plectrum. Unfortunately I began to have pains in my right hand, particularly after “tremeloing” with my two forefingers. I had the fingerboard extended so that it now passes over the sound hole. This gives me an anchor for my plucking hand. It’s probably not ideal but doesn’t seem to have had much effect on the sound. After a lot of experimentation with different hand positions I found a comfortable, ergonomic playing position and haven’t looked back.
I settled on two alternative playing positions. To play instrumental pieces with the Mandolinquents I sit and play it as originally intended, but without the extended spike; the body is so large it rests directly on the ground. I usually stand to sing, so had a second spike added to the bottom of the instrument so that I can play it upright.
Surprisingly, there are quite a few mandobass makers around. Mine was made by Robin Greenwood of Dorset, who makes a variety of guitars and folk instruments. I was told that the person who originally ordered it gave specific measurements but was still surprised by the size when he took delivery – which was why he sold it. I’d always wondered if the original owner had confused his inches and centimetres…or was maybe a stilt walker in a circus. The upside is that the sound is great even though the size can be a problem. Flying, as you can imagine, is a nightmare. I have flown within Europe but the mandobass occupies two seats and the cost becomes prohibitive for long distance flights. In these cases I’ll put my more robust Oakwood semi-acoustic double bass in the hold. I’m now looking at the possibility of a collapsible double bass.
Another UK maker is Osborne who makes instruments for the Fretful Federation, a mandolin orchestra based in Brighton. These look fabulous but I haven’t played or heard one yet. US makes include Meyer, Stahl, Vega, Mauer and there are still a few old Gibsons around.
People ask how the mandobass and double bass compare. I’d say that the sound of the mandobass blends better with the other plucked strings of the mandolin family. The strings are wound differently which gives a different sound. Violin family strings are tape wound which makes them smooth for bowing. Mandolin family strings are round wound (try saying that on a bottle of wine) which gives more attack for plucked notes. I actually find nickel bass guitar strings as good as anything on my mandobass. Violin family instruments have arched bridges whereas mandolins have flat bridges. Violin bodies are shaped at either side to facilitate the movement of the bow whereas mandobasses usually have round or oval shaped bodies, although some makers do take a guitar body shape.
I have two other basses; a handmade 1988 semi-acoustic stick bass by Oakwood of Leeds and my most recent acquisition, an acoustic bass guitar by Beaver Creek of Canada.
I bought the Oakwood in the late 1990s and love it. It’s great to play…and easier to transport! The body shape is like a large Appalachian dulcimer (Oakwood also make guitars and folk instruments including dulcimers) and the amplified sound is by means of a Shadow pick-up. I simply plug it straight into the PA. Unfortunately I haven’t taken it out as much as it deserves because the mandobass has become my trademark. Maybe next tour!
Last but not least, I bought the Beaver Creek acoustic bass guitar in Newfoundland a couple of years ago. I’m usually not fond of acoustic bass guitars; the bodies are mostly over bulky (for me) in order to get the bass sound. The Beaver Creek is not only an elegant size and shape bu t has a really great sound. They’re not available in the UK as far as I know – an opportunity Phil?!!