This one may be a bit too technical for those of you who aren`t musicians, but it still may be a good read. PersonallyI have a lot of love for the bass. I even have one laying around my house without the time to properly learn to play it. Oh well, maybe someday…
Fuzz to phase with Squire Superbass
By Tony Mitchell
I’D LIKE to say ‘Thank you very much, SOUNDS readers’ ” said an evidently flattered Chris Squire when I told him a short while ago that he’d been voted number one bass player in our poll. He added that it meant much more to him that it had been you, the readers, who had put him top of the list rather than some panel of pop pundits. Chris, of course, is probably more responsible than any other single musician for championing what some of us call the `Rickenbacker’ sound. The fact that many people just call it the ‘Chris Squire sound’ shows just how important his contribution has been. So I asked Chris what he thought about the obviously renewed popularity of the Rickenbacker bass guitar.
“It’s interesting to talk about that because they do seem to be more popular now than they ever were,” he said. “There were definite phases when a few people were using them, then there were hardly any around at all, but now you’ve only got to turn on Top Of The Pops and you see half a dozen.”
Chris first came across the instrument when he was about 17, working in Boosey & Hawkes in Regent Street. He was learning to play bass on a cheapish guitar, but had the opportunity to buy a better bass through the company’s ‘electric’ branch which was then in Piccadilly Circus. At the time B&H were main agents for Rickenbacker, and, says Chris, at that time “it just looked like the best machine available.”
“I had been to see the Who and Entwistle had used a Rickenbacker, and I suppose you can say in a way he turned me on to the sound of it.
“So I bought one, and I must admit I’ve never come across another one that sounds quite like it. I still mainly use that first one, and although I’ve bought others since then, I’ve never quite found one that achieves that same colour.
Did he, then, prefer older instruments in general?
“Undoubtedly there are new instruments which do have different advantages because there obviously is a greater understanding of pick-ups, phasing and all that kind of stuff. So I wouldn’t say, as some people do, that it’s impossible to pick up a good new instrument.
“If all some of the big manufacturers were interested in was swelling their quarterly profits, at the expense of quality, then in the long run I think they’d lose out. I mean, look at our car industry …”
Preferring not to, however, we moved on to discuss strings, and the appearance of Chris’s name and picture in ads for Rotosound strings, made by James How.
“I’ve met James How and he really is interested in developing new strings and better things for musicians,” Chris said. “He’s really dedicated to that sort of thing. He made a fantastic set of strings for the Rickenbacker whereby you don’t have to have the signal travelling through all these cables when the effect is switched out. It’s a special switch box, and when you press in the control, not only does it bring into circuit the wah-wah, but it also switches a switch in a box behind the amp which sends the signal to the wah-wah, so when you switch it off again it cuts out the feed and it goes straight through to the amp again.”
In other words a by-pass control! But there’s more … “Apart from those I’ve got a Hammond reverb unit and a tremelo that I had made by a guy, and a Mutron, and another little box called a Compact Phaser which is definitely the best phaser going in my opinion — it gives such a wide range of sounds. It’s a very clean, neat, quiet unit.”
Despite the quality of this device, which is actually a studio phaser, Chris still maintains that there is only one way to get the genuine tape phasing sound, and that is by doing it with tape. “It’s a very broad spectrum — a different kind of phasing. And then of course there’s flanging …”
“As well as those things,” Chris continued after an unsuccessful attempt to put into words the exact difference between the two, “I’ve got a nice echo unit which I got from the States.’ It’s operated on a foot eight-string bass which I designed.”
How did Chris come to design the guitar?
“Well I put to them that I wanted an eight-string bass and I also had a few criticisms of the standard bass that they were making, so I asked them to make this eight string bass very similar to my original four-string bass.
“However, when they made it, it was strung like they string their 12 strings, with the thick string first in each pair, and we experienced teething troubles with that arrangement. I had to take it to Sam Li and he changed it all round so that you hit the thin string first. I believe they’re making them like that now.
The reason for having the strings round that way, Chris explained, was that when fingering with the left hand, it was natural to ‘aim’ for the nearer string of each pair. If that string were the thinner of each pair, you would naturally hold down the thicker one as well, but if the thinner were behind the thicker, you would tend to hold down only the thicker one properly. Simple, isn’t it?
“They did tell me at one time that they were going to name it the Chris Squire bass. I have used it quite a bit now and it’s very nice.”
Had he had any basses custom-built by anyone?
“Actually I haven’t. I’ve been approached a few time by Alembic, and people who used to work for Alembic, and people who were going to work for Alembic, who all of course promised that they could make a better one than you could get from Alembic. But in fact I haven’t ordered anything yet.
“I already have quite a selection of bass guitars. Gibson, Fender; a couple of six string including a Danelectro, which is a very good guitar. It feels like it was made of toughened hardboard or something, and it only cost me something like 100 dollars in the States three years ago, but it sounds great.”
Talking of sounds, it must be pretty widely known that Chris is well into effects. I asked him to describe some of the equipment he uses, and why.
“In my opinion the best fuzz-box for bass is the Maestro Brassmaster. I’ve used it for a couple of years and haven’t come across anything better. One of the main characteristics which I like is that it has a mixer control which allows you to let through a certain amount of the straight-through sound and put the amount of fuzz you want on top.
“I think the Cry-Baby wah-wah is the best one ever made. Admittedly mine has been specially doctored so that, again, you can let through a certain amount of straight-through sound and use the wah-wah at the same time.
“I have quite a complicated stage set up actually. It’s worked out on the theory that if you are going to use effects, the amount of lead you have to use with them is fine when you’re using them, but when you’re not, you don’t want the signal travelling through miles of cable.
“So I worked out a system pedal and it works on a revolving disc principle, but you actually use the foot pedal to control the amount of echo. I can’t remember who makes that, I`m afraid.”
“Another thing which isn`t available here that I’ve been using for the last four or five years is a set of Dutron bass pedals. It’s a simple one-oscillator device but it produces a very nice sound through a Fender amp and a JBL 2×15 cabinet.
“But on my last trip to the States I got from Moog one of the sets of Taurus bass pedals that they now produce. I’m really excited about this development because although it’s basically the same technique, you’ve got a lot more facilities. My road manager has built both sets of pedals into one unit. That way I can have either the old ones or the new ones or both!
“Of course bass pedals have a limit to what they can do — the best use for them is sustaining notes; you can’t play anything very fast on them. I use them to add some bottom to a particular chord or something. It gives me the advantage of being able to play something high on the bass guitar and put in a low note with them … so it works for me.
“It’s almost as if Moog developed the Taurus bass pedals with me in mind, though I’m sure he didn’t.”
Presumably Chris was fairly choosy about the amplification he used for this set up?
“Funnily enough most things work — I can get a sound out of most amplifiers. I use Sunn speaker cabinets with a mixture of JBL and Gauss speakers, the reason for that being that the JBLs are harder and you get more brightness out of them, but I can’t take everything JBL – the Gauss have got more of a roundness to them.
“I think there are about four Gauss and two JBLs in each cabinet. I know I could get a lot more sophisticated about it if I wanted to — a W-unit with horns and crossover unit and all that — but I really don’t know if I’d be any better off.
“Most of the time I use a Marshall 100 watt amp, which is something else I’ve had for a long time. I stopped using it for a while when Yes first went to America and started using Sunn transistor amps which I got a very good sound with. But for me they did just lack that singing valve quality which is hard to achieve with transistor amplifiers. Mind you, solid state stuff is improving all the time.
There’s one other thing I’ve picked up in the States called the TMI Frequaliser. You use it as a pre-amp with a power amp, and it has such a wide range of tone controls with boost and cut that you can balance the sound — the volume of any string or particular note — according to the hall you’re in.”
Basically this unit is a sophisticated graphic equaliser, and Chris was so keen for people in this country to hear all about it — with the possiblity of an arrangement to import it being made in the near future — that he offered to let us give one a thorough going-over. Naturally we took him up on this offer, and so, thanks to our number-one pollster, an exclusive review of this device will appear shortly in SOUNDS.
Thanks again Chris, and as the saying goes, keep on plucking!