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Rick Suchow: Bass

rebuilding the bass of doom...

by Rick Suchow

(This is the unedited sidebar piece I wrote for my Jaco feature published in Bass Guitar Magazine in late 2008. The main piece, "Pastorius Kids Seek Jaco's Bass Of Doom", can be found in my View From The Bottom section)

Jaco Pastorius' basses of choice were a pair of well-worn Fender Jazz models, a 1960 blond fretted and 1962 sunburst fretless. Both were manufactured as fretted basses, as Fender did not begin to market fretless basses until 1970. Jaco reportedly bought each instrument second-hand for under a hundred dollars, and it was the '62, later converted to a fretless, that would become the trademark bass Jaco was noted for.

How the frets actually came to be removed is not as clear however, with Jaco himself giving varying accounts. Although he generally claimed that he removed the frets himself with a butter knife, he gave a different and more detailed version of the bass's evolution to writer Bill Milkowski in 1984 for Guitar Player magazine. "When I got the bass," explained Jaco, "the cat who had it had taken the frets out himself, and he did a really bad job of it-- left all kinds of nicks and chunks taken out of the fretboard. So I really had to fix it up. I filled in the chunks with Plastic Wood." He told Milkowski that he used Petite's Poly-Poxy, a boat epoxy, on the fretboard. "You can find it in any boating supply store in Florida," remarked Jaco. "I used about six coats on my fretless, and it took about a day for each coat to dry."

It was Kevin Kaufman however, Jaco's bass technician from the late seventies on, who perfected the epoxy technique used on Jaco's fretboard. "I explained to him that how I surfaced the board was a bit different than what he had done," says Kaufman."He used a very thin epoxy paint and had applied many coats. I used a more viscous epoxy and cast the fingerboard with a single application. I told Jaco that in my opinion it would transfer sound better and wouldn't wear out in the same way, and that there are many different epoxies and all of them sound completely different." Jaco was happy with Kaufman's work and would continue to use his services for the rest of his life.

Kaufman did his most significant repair in early 1986 after Jaco rang him from New York to say that he was having trouble getting his bass to play well and laughed. "A few days later I got the instrument in a box slightly larger than a shoebox," explains Kevin, who worked in Florida. "It was in 10 or more fundamental pieces and many splinters beyond that. It was obvious why Jaco had chuckled." The instrument had reportedly been thrown down a concrete stairwell by Jaco in the heat of an argument. Although he told Kaufman that he didn't have high expectations, Jaco asked the accomplished luthier to do his best. "I can't find another axe that even comes close," said Jaco.

Working with luthier Jim Hamilton, Kaufman spent over 150 painstaking hours repairing the bass. "Because there were so many fragments missing we decided that we would have to carefully glue everything together and then inlay any pieces that were missing. I took each part of the instrument and attached it to homemade jigs to hold these parts to a milling machine, which is typically a metal working machine." After weeks of cutting wood and removing fragments, Kaufman and Hamilton finally had the bass assembled. "The hope was that in the end all the parts would transfer sound and resonate as before. We also wanted to be absolutely certain there was structural integrity, realizing that the instrument was of no real use if it was fragile once it was done." An eight inch overlay was laminated to the top and back of the body, but because of the overlay's thickness Kaufman had to use a sander to maintain the body's size. The same process was used for the headstock, and was reinforced with pearwood. In addition, the neck pocket, pickup cavities, control cluster and machine holes all needed to be re-cut.

Kaufman personally delivered the completely rebuilt Bass Of Doom to Jaco in New York, who was ecstatic to see his friend Kevin and his miraculous work. "Jaco immediately restrung it with a new set of Rotosounds. After playing it for a few minutes he gave me his 'who loves ya'. The bass was back as far as Jaco was concerned and he was now eager to get going to pay some bills and make a session later that night," says Kaufman. That session turned out to be with Mike Stern to record "Moodswings" for Stern's new album "Upside Downside".

It was about a year later when Kaufman heard that the Bass Of Doom had disappeared. "Gregory Pastorius (Jaco's brother) called me and said that Jaco's bass had been stolen, and asked if I had any pictures of the bass after it was rebuilt," explains Kaufman. "I didn't actually talk to Jaco about the instrument until he moved back to Florida in December of 1986. Jaco told me that the bass had been stolen when he left it temporarily unattended on a park bench. I think his exact words were, "I only walked away for a few seconds!"

Looking back, Kaufman is happy to be a part of the legendary history of the Bass Of Doom. "The instrument was great, special to some extent," he says. "It was a bunch of variables that when combined had kind of an exponential effect. That instrument, in Jaco's hands-- his facility and touch, his sense of melody... the whole amalgam was unique." Perhaps Jaco's friend Bob Bobbing says it best: "There is no denying that this fretless instrument is the one that changed music. In Jaco's hands, the Bass Of Doom's fretless voice made it's way onto some of the most beautiful music ever played and in the process brought into style the use of the fretless bass as a melodic voice, arguably Jaco's biggest influence on the instrument to this day."
BGM Issue 40