Friday, March 26, 2010

6-string and 12-string basses

I don't like modern 6-string basses. Not only do they tend to be ugly, they either have four three-or-more-string courses- which seems pretty pointless to me, since it's application would be extremely limited- or they have six individual strings with the same thickness of a regular four-string, requiring the neck to be like three inches wide and look like a wooden plank with metal rods hovering over it. This makes them extremely unwieldy- your hands would have to be extremely flexible and dexterous to maneuver the fretboard. It just looks plain silly to me.

Now, 6-string basses from the '60s are a different matter altogether. The most famous one is probably the Fender VI, which I came to know about through it's use by John on the Let It Be album whenever Paul was playing piano. Now, the difference between a vintage 6-string and a modern 6-string is that a vintage one has approximately the same neck width of a normal guitar, but it uses a longer scale length, slightly thicker strings, and is of course tuned an octave below a regular guitar. So there's an obvious advantage to this: there's no need to train your fingers in order to play it if you're already familiar with a guitar neck.
Now, when it comes to guitars, my brother prefers wider necks because he learned to play guitar on a nylon string guitar. In contrast, I learned to play a tiny 1960s Silvertone acoustic, so I prefer thinner necks (although I can handle classical guitars and Gretsch guitars just fine). But there's a limit to how much width my brother's hands can take when playing guitar or bass, so a modern 6-string is out the question. None of them are aesthetically appealing to us anyway...
See, the plan is for my brother to eventually learn and compose some very technical basslines, which of course would include making use of bass' entire range. With an old-school 6-string, that range can be expanded even further, even going as far as using guitar techniques- not to mention the potential for using huge and heavy chords.
Thing is- every recording I've heard of a vintage 6-string is nigh indistinguishable from a regular vintage bass, save for the high notes, of course.

So thank goodness Fender came out with a reissue of the VI model recently... we won't have to cough up a wad of cash to buy an original one that way.
Danelectro baritone guitars I hear are also often used as 6-strings by tuning them from a low B to an even lower E, in particular for this style called "tic-tac bass"- which apparently is the technique of overdubbing said bass over the top of an upright bass to compensate for low volume in '60s country music. Unfortunately I haven't been able to find much information about it...
I want to use a Danelectro baritone for the sake of having an old-school baritone (can you say Duane Eddy?), but I don't think we'll be using it as a bass very often.

6-string basses were very uncommon in the '60s, and not a whole lot of people used them. I recently found out that The Shadows used a Fender VI for one track, and Jet Harris used one too, which is right down my alley. A more unusual use of the instrument is by garage rock greats The Remains, who were a supporting act for The Beatles in their last tour (OMG another Beatles connection!). I've only listened to samples of their album on Amazon, but I can tell that I'll enjoy them very much, 'cause the samples alone sound awesome.
(And I have to say- I think The Remains are one of the most underrated rock bands ever. I love mid-'60s garage rock.)
Anywho... I learned about this because I had learned about the only other true '60s 6-string bass I know about through a post on the Guitar Blog, which is the Teisco TB-64. It's gotta be one of the grooviest looking guitars (or basses) I've ever seen, and if it's what I'm hearing on The Remains' album, then it sounds just dandy.
The only other band I know about that uses the Teisco is the alt-rock band Blonde Redhead, which the main reason I want to check them out (and hey, what's wrong a little bit more alternative?).

And if that weren't obscure enough, the June '09 issue of Vintage Guitar magazine had an article about Burns guitars during the British Invasion (yay!) as part of their "The (Way) Back Beat" series of articles- in it, it described a variation of the famous Burns Double Six twelve-string guitar- which is strongly associated with the British Invasion- that used a special set of strings that made it a twelve-string bass. As far as I know, this was the only thin-necked 12-string bass to ever exist. This of course excited me, because now I knew that the advantages of a twelve-string guitar and an old-school six-string bass had been rolled into one! This renders any modern 12-string basses useless in my mind.
The trouble is that this feature didn't last long, and there doesn't seem to be any recordings that have been confirmed to definitely use it- although the article mentions that Hank Marvin of The Shadows recorded with one (which I find completely unsurprising somehow), but they don't say which songs used it.
The biggest contender for a usage of a Double Six bass is this obscure instrumental group called the Reg Guest Syndicate (I have no idea what their name means) and their solitary album Underworld from 1966. Apparently the liner notes of the album mention that they used a 12-string bass. Now, unless they made a DIY 12-string bass out of a 12-string guitar, or- even more unlikely- downtuned a 12-string guitar, I can't imagine what else they could have used besides a Double Six bass...
Unfortunately the only songs of theirs that are currently circulating are a couple tracks on a couple of instrumental compilation albums. So far no one has uploaded a needledrop of their album, which is extremely frustrating because their music is described as being entirely cheesy spy themes, which is right down my alley!
Someone was generous enough to upload a video of their song "Underworld" on YouTube, though, and I must say it's one of the most awesome rock instrumentals I've ever heard:

The second I heard the opening riff, I immediately thought of the 12-string bass, because it sounds very much like I had imagined. Not only that, it has fuzz! I love fuzz.

The other problem is that I can NOT find ANY information on the Double Six bass ANYWHERE on the internet. That magazine article is all I have. Because of that, it is likely that no vintage Double Six guitars have survived with the unattainable bass strings.
So here's my plan:

Buy a modern day reissue of the Burns Double Six, and put some strings made for the Fender VI reissue on it as well as regular guitar strings. This would be the closest approximation we could get, save for spending a lot of dough on a vintage Double Six guitar. Fortunately there's no indication that the original bass version used a different scale length- only different strings.
The only trouble is that I don't think that Fender makes the VI reissue anymore, and thus no more specialized strings. I guess we'd have to buy baritone guitar strings or something...

Hey, can you blame me for wanting to have an extremely unusual sound at our disposal?

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