Now in its third year, the annual London Bass Guitar Show has established itself as a crucial event in the British bass calendar. For the thousands who visited the Olympia this time around, it was a joy to see so many major bass brands present and correct. If it was Markbass, Aguilar, TC Electronic, Ashdown, Hartke, Warwick, Fender or Gallien-Krueger you were looking for, then all were there, alongside myriad smaller boutique brands, which made up the varied, exciting and engaging selection of bass-related exhibitors.
But this show isn’t just about gear, in spite of all the top-class goodies on show, and the palpable buzz around the stands generated by the high levels of bonhomie that often marks bass players out as a friendly and affable bunch. The throng who rolled up to catch the outstandingly groovesome Yolanda Charles performing on the Elixir Strings stand was typical of this. Other ‘can’t miss’ talents included the likes of Michael Mondesir, Steve Lawson, Paul Geary and Sub Motion Orchestra’s Chris Hargreaves. Meanwhile Dave Marks, Dave Swift, Neil Murray, Andrew Levy, Mo Foster, Jonas Hellborg and BIMM’s Franc O’Shea plus many others all added to the epic hang.
If bonhomie was fuelling much of the chat in the exhibition hall, then it was also flowing in the masterclasses, the first of which featured Megadeth bass legend Dave Ellefson. If you’d been scrabbling for earplugs in anticipation of a thrash metal onslaught, the ensuing considered and highly engaging chat from Ellefson came as a refreshing surprise. With his three decades of experience on both the road and in the studio, he described with endearing honesty that his own development as a player has come via hard-earned experience, trial and error. “What’s the first thing you learn when you record?” he asked the packed room, to which he answered himself: “You suck.” He was of course relating this to his own experiences, admitting that his initial studio recordings with Megadeth forced him to focus more on his timing and tone, revealing an unexpectedly sensitive side to this monster of rock. When he closed his masterclass with another impressive display of what a solid all-round player he is, it was no surprise to see a lengthy queue of Ellefson fans for the meet and greet at the Hartke booth afterwards.
Back on the exhibition floor it was UK bass retailers Bass Direct and Bass Gear that were most likely to blow holes in your wallet, especially when their proprietors – Mark Stickley and Phil Dixon respectively – were on hand with their usual mix of super-friendly banter, top-notch customer service and across-the-board product knowledge. Both reported that business was healthy and that increased sales to the continent and worldwide were contributing to their current successful flourish.
The wider market for bass gear these days is truly vast, and it’s fair to say the sheer variety of stock available to UK players has arguably never been better. With most major brands represented at the LBGS, it was worth looking to the smaller luthiers for some eye-catching new arrivals. A good example was Warwick’s funky new Jazz-style bass, the Corvette CV (the initials stand for ‘classic’ and ‘vintage’) with its swamp ash body, maple neck and Indian rosewood fingerboard. The bass is a lightweight and highly playable instrument with a quirky retro-modern look, with a price around £2,700. There was just so much cool stuff to get through. Was there time to sit around? Was there heck. A quick spin around the Cort, JHS, Barnes & Mullins and Bass Centre stands, plus a gander at bass guru Andy Baxter’s rare bass wares and a chatter with Mansons’ head honcho and BGM founding editor Adrian Ashtown, was followed by a word with magazine contributor and bass book author Stuart Clayton of Bassline Publishing. After that, we checked out Finnish bass designer Tom Stenback, slapped a few of Rob Green’s world-class Status instruments, nabbed one of the Musicians’ Union’s super-cool pocket fans with 3D lettering and headed to the back of the hall for a natter with insurers Allianz, there to protect you if your gear ever gets nabbed.
A few paces away in the back corner of the hall, we found UK luthier and electronics guru Martin Sims and his excellent Enfield guitars, offering a truly modern J-bass, the Fusion, for a £1,200 pricetag. While the big brand names come with their own quality reassurances, smaller companies’ personal touch means you get added design innovation into the bargain. In Sims’ case it comes in the form of the debut appearance of his newly developed follow-on from his unique Super 8 pickup system, which allows players to switch between split pickup, dual coil and humbucker configurations. The new version is split into two individual pickups, moving away from the large Super 8, housed in a pair of graphite covers with their own three-way traffic lights. Designed to be easily installed and with a contemporary look, their impressive sounds – just from changing the way the string’s vibrations are amplified – represent a world-beating product that got their soft-launch at the LBGS and left many players extremely impressed.
After all these gear indulgences it was back to the masterclasses and auditorium for a triple bass treat in the form of Jah Wobble, Guy Pratt and Nate Watts, who rounded off the day in style. With his eclectic career spanning punk, post-punk, dub and prog-edged jazz – not forgetting world music, which he insists he invented – Wobble is a man with charisma and bass-lines to burn. His Zen-like approach to his playing now takes in subtle Irish and African influences, crossed with funk and jazz, in all manner of time signatures, which he happily demonstrated – the best being in 15/4. Tellingly it was disco bass-lines that linked Wobble and Pratt, the former showing how effective disco-style octaves are in bass-lines, while Pratt simply stated: “If a bass player says he doesn’t like disco, he’s either lying or rubbish.” This was just a taste of Pratt’s unmissable masterclass, fuelled by frighteningly funny tall tales at the top table of rock and pop for the last 30 years. A master joke teller, Pratt dished out no end of immaculately grooving bass-lines on his legendary Fender Jazz bass, Betsy. His wonderful tales from the dark side of pop included Madonna’s ‘Time is money, and the money is mine!’ catchphrase, Michael Jackson communicating via a large Samoan man on the ‘Earth Song’ session, or his woeful attempts to smash a bass at the end of Pink Floyd’s Pulse tour.
If Pratt had the lion’s share of one-liners, it was Stevie Wonder’s right-hand man and musical director Nate Watts who delivered the day’s killer bass-lines. His lazy, laconic feel simply oozed swing as he ran effortlessly through a gamut of his benchmark-setting bass parts – ‘Do I Do’ and ‘Sir Duke’ – played with effortless brilliance, backed by his sister on vocals and a drum-machine beat. It was the epitome of contemporary bass playing, and a prime example of just how closely the bass can shape and create the most memorable, life-affirming music.
After Saturday’s epic display, Sunday’s show had a lot to live up to, and despite chilly temperatures and a biting wind outside, the show soon warmed up and became a hive of activity and low frequencies. With most exhibitors replenishing their stock following Saturday’s purchasing onslaught, it meant there were plenty of basses, amps, effects and accessories for the attendees to get to grips with.
It didn’t take long for Sunday morning to get going where Saturday had left off, and nowhere more so than on the Main Stage and in the Masterclass Hall.
Following his electrifying display of upright technique on Saturday, Stray Cat bassist Lee Rocker’s masterclass was naturally well attended, with a high degree of entertainment value and wise words from this top exponent of the art. As one performance ended, another started, so we took a quick dash to the Main Stage, where Andrew Levy of the Brand New Heavies was playing along to some of their biggest hits and answering as many questions as he could. After a quick chat with BGM (no rest for the wicked), Andrew was whisked off for a signing session on the TC Electronic stand. With a full stand of equipment, the TC team was rushed off their feet all weekend, attending to the playing requirements and questions from existing and potential adopters.
It was great to see that even in these lean times, bassists were making the most of the show offers and splashing their cash readily. Looking around, there was no shortage of happy faces and bags, cases and boxes being clutched tightly. Various bass illuminati could be spotted around the show throughout the day: early visitors included all-round top blokes Trevor Barry, Steve Pearce and Guy Pratt, while Dave Swift seemed to be present for the whole weekend, checking out gear and chatting to passers-by. Both Nate Watts’ and David Ellefson’s Sunday sessions were rammed with attendees, and reaction to both sessions was highly positive. The fact that both of these legends were happy to interact with, chat to and sign anything for attendees of the show highlighted the fact that being willing to give something back to the world of bass is all part of the job.
We had lots of fun hobnobbing with the country’s finest stockists and distributors, from the ever- friendly JHS, Korg, Meinl and Strings And Things via Promenade Music, Goto Guitars and Guitar Guitar, experts to a man. An academic moment was spent with Trinity College London, where you’d be advised to go if you want to get some theory under your belt, and stalwarts Rotosound and Yamaha are always a pleasure to talk bass with. Keep an eye out for superlative John East, Fat Boy, MLP, Ortega and Square One products too.
Warwick endorsee Jonas Hellborg was the next big name on the Main Stage and, armed with his Warwick electro-acoustic and amplification, he proceeded to captivate his audience with a top-notch 40-minute solo performance of the highest standard. With his custom range of Hellborg amplification on the Warwick stand, the new LWA 1000 Class D 1000 watt (4 ohms) amp, the recently released WA series of amps and a wide selection of cabinets and combos, not to mention some exquisite basses, the Warwick stand was constantly busy on both days. With founder Hans-Peter Wilfer and consultant Andy Irvine on hand to demonstrate and discuss all things Warwick, crowds were well served.
Igor Saavedra’s fascinating solo playing style, a flexible Mark Knopfler-style picking technique, caused a lot of interest and although he’s not yet widely known over here in the UK, his appearance at the show garnered a lot of attention. Next up on the Main Stage was Grog Lisee, armed with a G&L bass and Hughes & Kettner amplification. Her band, Die So Fluid, served up the only full band performance of the weekend, essentially a mini-gig for their fans. Their 40-minute blitzkrieg performance required the audience to get out of their seats, adding to the general excitement.
It was refreshing so see so much new gear on offer and available for testing. Fender, Gallien-Krueger, Hartke, Peavey, Trace Elliot and Vanderkley all had plenty of amplification wares to show off whilst Westside Distribution had Mesa Boogie and AER amps, cabs and combos to whet our amplification appetites. Mark and Dan Gooday of Ashdown were on hand to show visitors their new range of tube amps, the MiBass 2.0 amps, the Dr Green pedal range and a variety of different cabinet configurations.
New York’s finest, Aguilar Amplification, were also back for round three of the LBGS, with Daves Boonshoft and Avenius welcoming enthusiastic punters and endorsees into their booth. They showed off their full range of DB and Tone Hammer heads, plus a wide selection of cabs and pedals. Their secret weapons in the form of their AG 4J-HOT Jazz, Super Singles and the DCB Soapbar pickups were loaded into a stunning Roscoe Century five-string and a couple of Mike Lull basses. As their name suggests, the Hot J pickups, with their larger, 16mm magnets and over- wound design, add both grit and punch while retaining that all-important mid-range. Very impressive indeed.
The race was now on to the end of the show weekend at 6pm, and the eagerly anticipated appearance and masterclass performance from Peter ‘Hooky’ Hook, whose melodic approach to bass playing and experience of some of the most influential bands of the last 35 years made him a must-see. There wasn’t a spare seat in the hall, and the level of expectation was repeated during his signing session, with a a queue of epic proportions. Malcolm Joseph, currently Grace Jones’s bassist, closed the live proceedings on the Main Stage with a lesson in all things dub groove-related, wrapping up a highly successful weekend of diverse live performances. Overall, the LBGS 2013 reminded us all that as bass players we may be in a minority, but boy, do we know how to have a good time. It’s often said that bassists adopt ideas, particularly technological and design and manufacturing developments, and are more open to change than most other musicians – looking at the products on show, this really seems to be the case. From stellar artists to kids starting out on their bass journey, the weekend had something for everyone. Roll on 2014’s show, which promises even more surprises.