Wednesday, 8 July 2015

From John Pearson of Solwayer Guitars... a different kind of Uke Bass!

It's amazing, the things you see and the people you meet at a uke festival! GNUF 2015, Huddersfield, May just gone... in the hotel bar late one night, I heard a bass being played during a jam, and I noticed that the bass, although uke-bass sized, was nothing like the U basses I'd seen before... it had the look of a bass guitar (a rather beautiful bass guitar) and appeared to have conventional electric guitar strings. MUCH thinner strings than U basses usually have. And so I met John Pearson, builder at Solwayer Guitars, a small design/manufacturing business, based in northern Cumbria here in England. And he told me that he built this beautiful and great-sounding uke bass himself.

John told me that his mini-EB0 bass, is a (roughly) three-quarter size model of the original bass made by a well-known American guitar manufacturer, "no names, no pack drill". It's in constant use, he explains...

He went on... "I built the bass in late 2012 after joining the Carlisle Ukulele Club. I’ve played both guitar and bass in a variety of bands over a number of years – I play by ear and I think my memory must be very visual as I rely a lot on shapes to learn parts. So, although the first instrument I ever played as a kid was an orange plastic ‘autographed’ Beatles ukulele (if only I still had it), as an adult I had real trouble ‘unlearning’ my guitar chords and relearning uke chords – for me, it’s guaranteed to confuse, with the same string intervals as on the top 4 strings of a standard-tuned guitar but with a different tuning – so my ‘D’ shape is a ‘G’ on a uke – too much for me to get to grips with!

I’ve been a guitar builder (semi-professional) since 2007. I trained originally as a designer craftsman in the 1980s but have earned a living ‘away from the tools’ for quite some time. After a few months playing in the club I thought, you know, what the club needs is a bit of bass thumping away in the background. I’ve always loved the look of the Gibson EB0 or EB3 bass, so the two things, my constant struggle with those uke chords, and my love of the EB0 bass came together and the mini-EB0 was born.

It’s entirely handbuilt (apart from the pickup, the tuning heads, and the bridge saddles). The body is from a single piece of mahogany shaped and carved by hand based closely on a vintage EB0 bass. The neck is made from 4 pieces of mahogany – the main part of the neck from 2 pieces laminated side by side, and the headstock likewise. The headstock face is from a piece of black vulcanised fibre board, the same stuff Gibson uses, and the fingerboard is rosewood with mother of pearl dot markers.
The neck bolts into the body – strictly speaking it should be a set neck glued into the body to be faithful to the original, but a bolt on neck is easier to make and I wanted to have the ability to adjust the neck angle if necessary – you can’t do that with a set neck. Also, if the neck ever got damaged or broken (it can happen, believe me!) I could make a replacement without having to trash the lacquer finish on the body to get the old neck off. Also, at this size, the ‘set neck versus bolt-on neck’ debate about what delivers most sustain or resonance is irrelevant – it makes no tangible difference on a 22” scale length bass!

The bridge plate is handmade from a piece of aluminium ‘L’ section – I had to make it myself to get the right string spacing – and it uses chrome bridge saddles from a Fender Stratocaster type bridge. The bass strings through the body.

The body and neck are both finished in cherry red nitrocellulose lacquer as per the original, which has been flatted and hand polished to a high gloss – although as the photos probably show this has dulled a bit as the bass gets regularly handled and played. The lacquer is also getting some crazing in it which gives it a nice authentic vintage feel.

I spent quite a bit of time experimenting with different bass strings to achieve the standard EADG bass tuning I wanted. I now use the bottom 4 strings from a set of 6 strings intended for a Fender Bass VI. These are thinner gauge than the thinnest conventional bass strings I could find and they work really well, although the string tension at such a short scale is quite low and the bass needs to be played in a certain way to keep things sounding properly in tune. Otherwise it works just like a conventional electric bass – the wound strings induce a current in the pickup (a hot-wound humbucker) and the bass has normal volume and tone controls and a jack lead output to carry the signal to an amplifier. For such a small instrument, this thing really shakes the walls!

I use the bass with Carlisle Ukulele Club at regular Sunday sessions and in the gigs that we do. I also play it with a Band called Slaves of Venus – we play covers of all that was best between about 1977-1982 (my era of music!), or as someone said to me the other night ‘tunes you love played on small guitars – what’s not to like?’ We’re starting to build a bit of a following now – have a look on facebook for the latest.

The bass has also been seen in action at a few uke events including N’Ukefest 2014, the Omega Uke Express 2014 and at GNUF 2015. I’m all booked up for Omega Music’s Morkelele weekend in July this year and also for their Uke Express 2015 in November.

In the not too distant future, I’m intending to have more time to devote to building uke basses and to think about taking some orders if anyone’s interested – but bear in mind these are unique handmade instruments and don’t come cheap. I’d be more than happy to be contacted if anyone has any questions. See here on solwayer guitars for contact details –

I desperately need to tidy and update this website but at least it gives some idea of what I’ve been up to with guitar and bass building over the last 8 years or so."

Thanks to John Pearson for that! That bass is a real beauty isn't it! Something different, and it's good to see someone strive and succeed in bringing their vision to reality... I hope you enjoyed reading all about it as much as I did; that instrument is a real head-turner!

Thanks for dropping in... come again soon!

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HI! I hope you enjoy this blog and I'd love to hear your comments! But I know you'll forgive me if I read them over before I click the "publish" button! Thanks!