Sunday, September 2, 2012

The 'Skunk Works' bass

My career as a bass fiddle player has been only slightly more successful than my career as a pitcher in the big leagues.  Which is to say, I would have starved to death during the Johnson Administration if we had depended on either one of them to put food on the table, although I played a whole lot more bass in  my youth than I ever threw in organized baseball. I pretty much gave up on the baseball thing at about age 10 or 12, when I could throw a blazing fastball that nobody every knew, including me, where it was going. I once walked a fellow on a fourth pitch that went over the backstop in a sandlot game.  I think they're still looking for the ball.

But for years, after falling in love with the bass sound while playing an old brass Sousaphone in the band at Aycock Junior High School in Greensboro, I fooled around with a bass fiddle.  In high school days a bunch of us got up a folk music group and decided we'd be the next Kingston Trio.  I borrowed an old, beat-up, dark-brown aluminum bass fiddle from the father of a friend and we played all over Greensboro and sometimes as far away as Danville, VA.  We entered a big contest where the prize was an appearance on the Arthur Smith Television Show down in Charlotte, knowing we'd win. (I recently mentioned this to a friend who, unbeknownst to me, had grown up in Greensboro, and he said, "Wait a minute, did you guys have on wide-striped shirts?" We did. He saw us that day long ago, 1963 I guess, up on a tractor trailer bandstand. And so he also saw us not win the thing, not go on to the bigtime in the Queen City, not go on to great fame and fortune in the entertainment business.)
The Villagers in 2004, Cane Creek Valley, Buncombe County

But we kept playing, despite the fact I couldn't read a lick of music, didn't know how to figure out what key some sheet music was in, didn't even know proper technique. See, I thought the beauty of the bass fiddle was you just listened to what other folks were playing and pick out about three pairs of notes and figure out real quick how you could do a little walk up or down the strings.  And that beat-to-a-pulp old aluminum bass sounded pretty dadgum good.

Years later, when I got a big raise one year, I bought a 1946 Kay double bass, nicked and gouged and cracked in places, and played it for decades with my high school buddies, a band called the Villagers. Thought about that old aluminum bass from time to time, but not much. I figured some sheet-metal genius somewhere had made a one-off version of the traditional spruce bass.  Sometimes I'd tell somebody about it, and they'd say something like, "You're kidding! Aluminum? No way."

A couple years ago my '46 Kay, made the same year I was, burned in a house fire. I've been looking for a good replacement ever since. Played an inexpensive late model substitute for about 18 months, but the other day drove up the Shenandoah Valley on a mission to Jerry Fretwell's bass shop in downtown Staunton, VA. He and his wife Mary Jane have a great website ( where you can see all these old basses he has -- a bunch of Kays, dating to the 1930s, and a rare Gibson bass, one of 85 that company made, and some other brands of old basses as well.  Jerry also buys new Engelhardts, which bought up the old Kay brand, and customizes them for folks who want a fancier new one.  I had my eye on a 1940 Kay and a 1952 Kay that I had spotted on his website. They were in pretty good shape and sounded great, but I fell for a 1959 Kay with a blonde finish, a new bridge and a set of Super Silver strings that Jerry installed as I watched.  Soooooo much easier to play that the metal-wound strings I had on my interim base.  I'm taking lessons now from Mike Mitchell over in Floyd VA ( -- and learning things I should have known, oh, about 50 years ago. It's a revelation.

But the thing that really knocked me out was what I saw in Fretwell's front window: an aluminum bass, painted to look just like wood grain.  In fact, it was one of three aluminum basses in the windows -- one of them flat white, and another off to the side in a bright shiny silver.  They were made in the late 1920s and 1930s, all aluminum, and they were part of a collection the Fretwells have.
Here's a photo from the Fretwell website:
Aluminum basses, every one.

Turns out there was quite a production of aluminum basses in this country, starting in the late 19th century and championed, for at least a little while, by the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA). I found a website that said the first ALCOA bases were turned out in the company's "skunk works" in Buffalo, where the company would fashion experimental products from aluminum.  Eventually the company made 500 of those aluminum basses, each selling in the $200 to $240 range when new.  There were other brands as well in the aluminum bass business.

The website notes, "The faux natural wood was well done; the top had graining and color close to that of a dark varnished tight grain spruce and the back / ribs have a faux curly figured grain patterning. AlCoA  had a fifty step patented process for creating this finish. From the distance of a bandstand or stage, you’ll have trouble identifying it from a wooden instrument."

I have no clue whether that old brown-painted tin bass I borrowed in Greensboro all these years ago was an ALCOA bass or an Aluminum Musical Instrument or even one of the G.A. Pfretzschner basses, but I do know that that it looked every bit like what you'd think of when you hear the term "skunk factory."  But beat up as it was, it would make a joyful noise. 

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