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A Conversation with Charlie Chadwick

Puremusic: I've been a fan of you musically for such a long time, that it's really amazing to me to be having a conversation today about a different side of Charlie Chadwick, that is you as inventor.

Charlie Chadwick: That's a pretty heady title. I don't know. Sometimes you just patch things together and put some tape on it, and some glue, and it's hard to call it an invention. I don't even feel like I make basses, I feel like I'm more of a chop shop.

PM: [laughs]

CC: And so that's a heady term for what I do.

PM: Yes, but if one were indeed chopping something to make it such that it might revolutionize its nature and its possible role in the world, yeah, it's a certain kind of chop shop we're talking about. But yeah, I hear ya.

CC: Yeah. It's something that rarely has a good name. When I was a little kid I remember -- and my parents could tell you -- I was a little kid taking things apart. It always held some weird fascination with me. I mean, toys -- it doesn't matter, I'd get my dad's tools out and be taking screws and nuts and bolts and taking apart my bicycle, and anything I could -- I just liked taking things apart -- I'd go, "What's inside there?"

PM: [laughs]

CC: It's just kind of a sickness. And it played itself out as I got older, I actually got some of the things back together. There's kind of a latent engineer gene in me somewhere that never was expressed or never trained. But taking things apart is always something that I do. I even look at a band that I'm in and think, "I wonder if we took this part here and put it over there, and then took this thing out and" -- it's just weird.

PM: Well, a person that has that inclination and the freedom of mind to be a deconstructor/reconstructor is graced and doomed to do it in every corner of their life, including their very life --

CC: Yeah.

PM: -- like it's how they see their life. They see the arc and the trajectory and go, "Okay, I'm over here, and what I'd like to do is go here"--

CC: Yeah.

PM: In those reconstructional terms, that's what you've really done. And I want to get to the essence of that, which is -- before we embark on the path to this glorious solution, let's describe the problem.

a large fragile thing

CC: Well, the problem is that an upright bass is a large fragile thing. And the problem is that nothing besides this large fragile thing sounds like it. There have been many many attempts to duplicate the sound of an upright bass, many attempts at solutions. And Leo Fender started in 1950, his Fender Bass, which is now the father of the modern electric production bass, was an attempt to duplicate the upright bass. He had little pieces of felt under the strings to dampen the strings in the way that an upright dampens things. And he'd compromise on the string length, but get it as long as he could, but still have it being held around your neck.

Every attempt to get the sound of an upright bass has been a compromise, and you can't get anything that sounds like an upright bass without a large wooden cavity of air, 42 to 44 inches of string length, and a bridge that vibrates on the top of this instrument. And all the attempts have been -- the little rubber band thing -- have you ever seen those little -- De Armond Ashbory Electric Bass. It's about two and a half feet long, a little bitty thing, smaller than a Fender Bass, and it has these rubber band strings, and that's supposed to sound like an upright.

PM: [laughs]

CC: Yeah. And people have been working on this for the longest time. Well, nothing quite sounds like it. So that's the problem, that nothing sounds like it, but it's a big fragile thing, so you're back at square one. So as traveling musicians do, if you have a road crew or a big company or a moving van, or whatever, you create these gigantic air-lined or foam-lined cases for your upright basses, and cross your fingers and pray and hope that it arrives safely, because it's fragile, indeed. You're looking at about 3/8" thick piece of spruce, which is basically pine, if you can imagine something that's --

PM: Pine?

CC: Yeah, pine, soft as pine -- spruce is not hard stuff.

PM: It's as soft as pine, spruce.

CC: Yeah.

PM: Because I never see it in any kind of thickness.

CC: It's very thin. And it's carved out of a book matched piece of wood, so you can imagine the tree has to be pretty good sized to get a front and a back out of a spruce log, and spruce doesn't grow fast. So all these things complicate and cause the expense and the fragility of it.

An upright bass, because of the size -- you get cracked tops on guitars, imagine if the top was two and a half times wider than it is, it's more susceptible to cracks when you've got fluctuations in humidity. So the instrument is fragile from a moving standpoint, from humidity and temperature, from shock, and then compounded by the fact that there's typically 300 to 350 pounds of string tension coming across the top of that instrument. It's not like a guitar; guitars are less than 200 pounds. You add another 100 pounds of pressure on the strings.

more than the sum of its parts

And if you take the strings off and loosen them, the sound post falls over. It's one thing after the other. It's just a pain in the ass to move those things, and it always has been. And any time you see a bass player walking through a parking lot into an airport with a giant upright bass, it's like a comedy routine, it's like a joke. It's like, where's the punch line.

PM: Right, you feel bad for the guy.

CC: You feel bad, it's like waiting for a pratfall. It's a pain in the ass. So our modern world has further impeded the movement of basses by restricting air travel for large instruments. Several of the airlines don't even take basses now. And then you add a marketplace where traveling has become more the norm. 20 years ago I used to get steady gigs. You had to go work at the Hilton for three, four weeks at a time, and set up your gear, and there you go. Now every gig is what we used to call a casual, it's a one-off.

PM: Yeah, it's a one-off.

CC: So you're moving your gear all the time, and you're flying. And it's not just the major acts that have airline containers and bands, but even smaller acts are traveling, too. And they're traveling in the van, or they're traveling by air. And there's the bass player going, "I'm so screwed. I have a $10,000, $15,000 instrument that I've saved and worked hard to get, and I'm playing a $100 gig downtown with my bass around a bunch of drunks, or I'm putting it on an airplane and signing a waiver saying they're not responsible for ruining it...

PM: It's crazy.

CC: It's so horrid, that to fill the gap several companies began making a travel friendly sound-alike upright bass.

PM: Sound-alike! [laughs]

CC: That's what they are. I mean, you compromise the body or the string length or anything else, and it's not a bass anymore, but it's something. So the solutions were -- obviously, the body is the biggest part, so they compromised the body. There's one called Czech Ease. Czech Ease has the body -- they took a saw, if you can imagine this, and sawed off the bottom ten inches of the base, so the bottom bout is like a little smile cut out of it.

PM: Oh, my lord.

CC: So it's about 10 inches shorter than a normal bass, but in every other way -- it's got a short tail piece, and the body is smaller. Well, that's pretty close. At least it is acoustic, you can actually hear it with a guitar. But a bass body was designed with that volume of air for a reason; the smaller the box, the smaller the resonant frequency. When you shorten the tail piece -- the tail piece was designed with a very specific amount of mass, and because it's made of ebony and it's the size that it is, it counter balances the mass of the string on the opposite side of the bridge.

The bridge is just this dumb piece of wood that sits and breaks the string at a certain point. And the bridge wants to be in perfect equilibrium, meaning that the amount of pressure from the backside of it and the front side of it are exactly the same; and it wants to move up as much as it wants to move down. And those dynamics, keeping the bridge in perfectly suspended equilibrium is what allows it to vibrate at its maximum rate.

So you've cut the tail piece down, you've cut the backside of the bridge, you've made the strings shorter on the backside of the bridge, you've lost all of that, that dynamic has been lost -- and you've lost the volume of air, and bingo, you don't get a bass sound. The other solution is to cut the bass laterally down the sides so the bass looks like a normal bass, but it's only four inches thick.

PM: Right. Instead of how many?

CC: Oh, nine, ten inches. And you've lost a huge volume of air. Another solution -- the most popular one is called an Eminence. An Eminence makes a body that kind of looks like a --

PM: Eminence -- not the speaker company from Kentucky.

CC: No, no, a different company. But they're the most successful company in travel basses. And they have a bass where the neck comes off. It's a normal size neck. The headstock is a little smaller. But the neck comes off and it's bolted on. And the body is about, I'm guessing, eight, ten inches wide -- and shaped like a bass, but imagine if you took Photoshop and just shrunk the bass from side to side, and it's only about four inches thick. It's a very, very small body. And the bridge is of course much shorter, also, maybe four inches high instead of the normal six and a quarter inches high. So this is one of the technical solutions. With the Eminence bass you unbolt it, and it fits in a golf bag, one of those plastic golf bags. And the airlines will still take a golf bag even though it's oversized. Eminence's solution is you stand there as a bass player -- and you got to make sure your zipper is zipped up, because you can see it around the bass.


CC: I mean, the bass is very, very thin, and you're standing there playing this kind of weird thin thing. And of course there's no resonance, the strings don't bounce off the finger board like they should because there's no body there, and you can't play it without an amplifier. So it kind of looks bass-ish, and it stands upright, and it's got a 42-inch string length, so hmm, okay.

PM: Right. They sent it in the bass-y direction.

CC: It's bass-like. And then go to the last solution -- this is what pushed me over the edge in bass travel -- is the rental bass.

PM: [laughs]

CC: Just imagine for a second, Frank, you love your guitar.

PM: Yeah.

CC: And you probably own a couple of great guitars. And that's your instrument. Can you imagine, okay, you've been practicing, you're ready for your gig, and you say, well, no, you're going to play this Sears Silvertone guitar, it's really a great guitar, Frank, you're going to love it. Well, it doesn't have your strings, it doesn't have your action, it doesn't have your pickup. It doesn't look like your instrument. The spacing of the nut is different. Even on basses, the string lengths are different. They vary anywhere from 40 and a half inches to 44 inches. That's a lot of real estate.

And the break, where the neck attaches to the body on an upright, can be at what they call an Eb neck or a D neck. You've got a rental bass, you don't know. And you have no control over what you get. You're just lucky to get something. They'll go to the local music store and pull one out of the window, or they'll go to a high school and get one out of the closet.

PM: What a nightmare.

CC: Well, the night of reckoning for me was when I was playing The Tonight Show with Shelby Lynn to an audience of about 30 million people. And I'm giddy. I'm just giddy, thinking, this is the biggest audience I've ever played for in my life. And I never thought at this stage in my career I'd ever do those kind of things, that's the big time that I didn't opt for.

PM: Right.

CC: So I'm getting ready to play my gig, and we go to sound check -- and I was renting basses with Shelby -- and the bass they've got was the worst piece of shit bass that you'd ever see.

PM: Wow.

CC: The worst. I mean, I it was some high school -- it was the third or fourth bass down the line at some high school music room. It had an awful pickup, the strings were so far off the fingerboard that it was almost unplayable. And I'm thinking this is what it's come to.

PM: "I'm playing this piece of crap on The Tonight Show."

CC: [laughs] And it was the best they could do. They didn't try to find a lousy bass, that's just the state of affairs. That's how it's working right now. And for a bass player, a jazz player or a bluegrass guy, he's either going to put his bass in a van and hope that nobody crushes it with a suitcase or a guitar, and drive to his gig, which can be awfully difficult; or rent a bass; or borrow a buddy's bass at the bluegrass festival. So usually what happens is everybody is playing the same bass, they just pass it off to each other. This is the world of bass players. This is what it's like for us going out there in the world and trying to travel and play the instrument that we love.

PM: Ouch.

terms to know

CC: Being the take-apart guy that I am, being the guy that says, "Well, why can't we" -- it's occurred to a lot of people that they could deconstruct this thing and put it back together. But you only have to try it once, and you realize, oh, that's why they glue the neck in. That's why the setup is such nightmare. Everything is held together with tension. You take off the strings, the bridge falls off; the sound post falls out, and that takes a professional to reset it.

PM: It does?

CC: Yeah! You go to a bass shop and spend 100 bucks to have your sound post set.

PM: Man.

CC: And then what happens to the strings when they're taken on and off the instrument constantly? What happens when you takes strings off -- if you took the tail piece off of your guitar, all the strings would wind up into the tuners, they'd be a big mess. How do you keep them from getting tangled up. How do you attach them back so that they attach and unattach easily and quickly? And all of that being said, how do you do it without a bunch of tools and special equipment and sound setting tools?

Like the way you set a sound post is you have a long S-shaped bar of metal that goes into the F-hole. And with that and a flashlight you kind of wiggle the sound post around and hope you don't knock it off to you have to start over again, and the tap it into the right place, tune the strings, check it, tap it again. That's the nightmare of taking an upright bass apart. There are so many more problems than a guitar, for instance. I've seen folding guitars, and some very clever designs, too. But the problem with the upright is it's held together by the string tension. Once the string tension is released, the thing starts to fall apart.

PM: It's more like a marionette.

CC: I don't know much about marionettes, but what's holding the bass together is a careful balance of dynamics. And actually, it's the glue around the edges is what's holding it together. And when that glue fails -- and it does -- then it delaminates, and then of course the bass explodes. And actually I've heard stories of basses exploding. It's sitting in the corner, and you hear this bang -- "What the hell was that?"

PM: Wow!

CC: The bass just blew up. Yeah, that's what makes a bass make sound -- or any instrument, for that matter -- is the stored energy. It's the energy being stored as you tighten the strings, that's storing the energy, and the glue is resisting it.


It's like you take a swing, and then pull the swing back, and it's full of energy stored right there while you're holding the swing up. When you let go, there is goes. And that's what hopefully a good acoustic instrument does. It's got stored energy and a great desire to vibrate and to make sound. And that's what an upright bass is, all its stored energy is potential energy, if you will, it's hundreds of pounds of energy stored in that bass. And if anything fails, then that energy is released instantaneously as a blowing up.

Well, those are the problems, and that's what I faced.

PM: I mean, that's a long list of serious problems.




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