Sound On Sound, the audio magazine that I regularly write for, includes a monthly column called, ‘Why I Love….’ and back in August 2019 I wrote a piece for the column entitled, “Why I Love…Fretless Bass’. The piece resulted in quite a bit of feedback and comment at the time, but as I know not everybody reads Sound On Sound, I thought I’d do a sneaky re-boot of it here – and add a little extra detail.
Why I Love…Fretless Bass
Fretless bass – the instrument that dare not speak its name. It had the allotted fifteen minutes of fame in the 1980s when almost every bass player that had caught a glorious moment of Jaco Pastorius in Weather Report or Joni Mitchell’s band had a go at fretless. We know better now though: fretless bass is gauche, uncouth, unnecessary, and dripping with musical cliché. It’s a solution that nobody likes the sound of, looking for a problem that nobody’s ever heard. Well that’s the kind of lecture I’ve heard on too many occasions.
But, and boy is this a big but, I love fretless bass, very deeply. In particular though, I love my 1983 Wal Custom. It’s the one possession I would genuinely run back into the burning house to rescue. It’s irreplaceable. We’ve been together now since 1983 and I’d be fully heartbroken if we were ever to be parted. And that’s because my Wal is not just a uniquely great (and now valuable) instrument, it’s at the heart of why I got involved in playing music in the first place. And now, nearly 40 years later, I wonder what on earth I would have done if I hadn’t discovered how much fun and creative satisfaction can be had making music with other people.
Wind back to the late 70s and early 80s. I’m leaving teenage years behind and, inspired by punk, I and some friends have begun to mess about with guitars. Perhaps driven by wanting to be a bit unconventional, but more likely driven by thinking four strings must be easier than six, I decide to be the bass player. Writing, as I just did, “inspired by punk” however is slightly, no, deeply, incongruous ‘cause the music I loved was prog – mostly Genesis and Yes.
In gaps between tours, Genesis’ now constantly and unfairly ridiculed drummer, Phil Collins, was one of the busiest musicians around. He contributed to countless records by all sorts of people and I would always give them a listen, discovering numerous artists and genres as a result. For example, Collins had his Brand X jazz/rock/fusion side project, and as a result, I began to become really interested in jazz. Brand X was sort of Weather Report with a sense of fun, and the original bass player was Percy Jones, late of Soft Machine. Jones’ fretless playing (initially on a Fender Precision Bass) immediately had me sitting up and taking notice. I absolutely adored the sound. It seemed to be wired directly to my insides and made me grin uncontrollably. I absolutely had to have a go, so I traded my first proper fretted bass for a Washburn fretless. What could possibly go wrong?
What went wrong was that Brand X occasionally had another bass player, John Giblin, who played a fretless Wal, and the sound of that was like nothing else: to my ears, utterly unique. And then Percy Jones started playing a Wal too and Giblin’s fretless begun to appear on records by the likes of Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel and John Martyn (Phil Collins played drums on that one too), and now I was both employed in a proper job while also in a sort of Japan inspired (the late Mick Karn of Japan played a fretless Wal) art rock band, I worked out that if I sold the Washburn and pretty much all of my other possessions of any value, and took out a loan, I could buy a Wal too. So that’s what I did.
My Wal, hand-crafted by Ian Waller and Pete Stevens in High Wycombe, turned up after a frustratingly long wait in May 1983, and it was everything I hoped it would be. It was £595 + £70 for the case. Suddenly I could, for the odd moment, sound just like Percy Jones and John Giblin. I’d never have their talent or technical ability (I still don’t) but I could play it in tune (well, usually) and make some very similar noises. The Wal gave me a musical voice, and a world of creative expression opened up.
Although I’m not using the Wal much in the musical projects I’m involved in at the moment, hardly a day goes by that I don’t pick it up, and hey, fretless bass will have its time again. I’ll be ready.
And that’s where the Sound On Sound pieces ended. I thought however, with a bit more space, I’d add a couple of things. Firstly, my original invoice from Gigsounds music shop in Streatham, South East London (sadly long gone), secondly a link to Trevor Raggatt’s brilliantly comprehensive history of Wal basses and thirdly, I’ve put together a short Spotify playlist featuring five classic fretless Wal performances (One Mick Karn, three John Giblin and one Percy Jones), and one slightly less than classic Wal fretless performance by me. And if after all this you’d like your own Wal, here’s where you need to go.