In 1968, a 16-year-old musician named Anthony Jackson had an idea. Why not expand the range of his bass guitar, he thought, by adding two strings: a low B and a high C? He called the concept a contrabass guitar and began to look for a builder who could make such an instrument. Late in 1974, he found one: Carl Thompson, a New York City luthier who had already done one “special project” by building a piccolo bass for Stanley Clarke. Thompson thought the contrabass guitar was a strange idea, but he went ahead and built the first 6-string bass tuned BEADGC. Jackson wasn’t happy with some aspects of the instrument, so he asked Thompson to try again. The second attempt never made it past the test bass stage, and Jackson moved on to another New York City builder, Ken Smith.
Smith built two contrabasses for Jackson. The woodwork was done in Smith’s Brooklyn shop by a young luthier named Vinny Fodera. While working there one day, Vinny answered a knock at the door and met Joey Lauricella, a bassist who had been doing some sales work for Smith. Lauricella began to help out in the shop, and the two became good friends. In 1983, they decided to go into business for themselves, forming a partnership to launch Fodera Guitars.
Anthony Jackson was one of their first customers. In the ensuing years, Fodera has built a series of contrabasses for him — probably the longest and most productive partnership between a player and a builder in the history of the bass guitar. While both Thompson and Smith had been skeptical about Jackson’s concept, Vinny Fodera embraced it. “I was quite enthusiastic about the idea,” he says, “and I think that set the tone for our relationship. Anthony appreciated that instead of telling him how bad an idea it was, I was eager to give it a shot.”
The first Fodera Anthony Jackson contrabass, a double-cutaway instrument with a 34" scale, was delivered in 1984. It was called No. 5, because it followed the two built by Carl Thompson and the two by Ken Smith. Five years later, Fodera created No. 6, a single-cutaway instrument with a 36" scale. Since then, Fodera has built six more versions; the most recent, the Anthony Jackson Presentation II, a.k.a. No. 12, is a Hybrid contrabass with a hollow body (see: www.fodera.com/anthony-jackson-presentation-ii/). (It’s called a Hybrid, Vinny explains, because it has tone characteristics of both acoustic and electric instruments.)
Throughout the process of creating these instruments, Jackson has been closely involved, often spending entire days in the Fodera shop. “We were willing to try anything to please him,” says Vinny. “It was a privilege to work for him, and his ideas were quite sound. We were curious to hear the result of them in the instruments.” Jackson confirms the sympathetic nature of the collaboration. “It went very naturally,” he says. “There was never a matter of them saying, ‘I don’t understand. What are you trying to do?’ There wasn’t any of that at all.”
The Fodera–Lauricella team provided Jackson with an ideal working relationship. While Vinny Fodera is a full-time luthier, Joey Lauricella is a working bassist as well as a builder. “It’s like I’m the hands and he’s the ears,” says Vinny. “Joey knows what will work and what won’t work.” Lauricella says that he has spent many hours sitting with Jackson and evaluating instruments during their development. “It was amazing to have that kind of relationship with him. He valued my opinion and wanted to know what I thought of his instruments. He would say, ‘How do you feel about it?’ I’d give him my feedback and we’d talk about it.”
That give-and-take was vital in moving the work ahead, with the two partners evaluating the input from Jackson and helping each other decide what to do. “There was no situation where one of them was right on it and the other was sitting there and maybe not really sure,” says Jackson. “I knew what I wanted, and as time went on and I got better at expressing it, they anticipated. I was able to get them to understand what I was looking for, and when I wasn’t sure, they could put me in a frame of mind where I was sure.”
Vinny Fodera praises Jackson as “the world’s ultimate bass test pilot.” Hearing him play and critique their instruments provided invaluable input for improving them. “He was brutally honest,” he says, “but he wasn’t emotional or biased. He has almost a scientist’s demeanor, in that he’s just concerned with quality of sound and responsiveness and the success of the features we were striving to create. We needed to know the truth, and he would give us very accurate evaluations.”
The experience of working with Anthony Jackson for so many years has provided benefits to Fodera Guitars that go beyond the building of his instruments. “With other people where we’ve done signature models, we turned it into the same kind of experience,” says Lauricella. “That way, we could make a true signature model rather than just put a name on an instrument.” Vinny Fodera sums up the relationship this way: “It’s been the most difficult challenge, working for Anthony and trying to satisfy him, and yet it’s been the greatest education. We both feel that we were able to hone our skills more than we might have because of the high standards that Anthony has always held us to. It’s been an extraordinary ride.”
Jim Roberts was the first full-time editor of Bass Player and also served as the magazine’s publisher and group publisher. He is the author of How the Fender Bass Changed the World and American Basses: An Illustrated History and Player’s Guide (both published by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard).
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