Jim Roberts details the relationship between bassist Jack Casady and Alembic basses
After Leo Fender introduced the Precision Bass in 1951, other instrument makers saw the potential of the electric bass guitar and jumped into the market. Gibson introduced its Electric Bass (later known as the EB-1); Danelectro rolled out its Short Horn and Long Horn models; and, in 1957, Rickenbacker offered its Model 4000, the first neck-through-body bass. By the time Paul McCartney arrived in the U.S. in 1964 with his Hofner 500/1, there were many different electric basses available.
One popular model in the late ’60s was the Guild Starfire Bass, a semi-hollow 4-string available in one- and two-pickup versions. It became the preferred bass of two notable San Francisco musicians, Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead and Jack Casady of the Jefferson Airplane. Both liked the sound of the Hagstrom Bi-Sonic pickups but felt the stock electronics left something to be desired. Modifications were in order, and they turned to a group of technical wizards in the Bay Area. The mastermind of the operation was Augustus Owsley Stanley (a.k.a. Bear). He modified basses used by both Lesh and Casady by installing switchable capacitors and brought in Ron Wickersham, an innovative designer and modifier of electronic gear, to continue the work.
Wickersham initiated a major upgrade in tone by putting active electronics in the Guild basses. “The circuit chosen was a Darlington-connected monolithic circuit, the CA3018,” he explained in my book American Basses. “The results were amazing. The pickups’ [frequency] response went up more than three octaves, and the clarity this brought to the fingering skills of the musicians revealed the true character of the music.”
The team started by Owsley grew to include Bob Matthews, a recording engineer, and Rick Turner, who had experience as a musician (bass and guitar), sound mixer, and luthier. In 1970 they incorporated their operation under the name Alembic and soon began work on their first ground-up instrument project, a new bass for Casady that became known as Alembic #1.
Whose idea was it? Did Casady ask the Alembic team to build an instrument, or did they suggest it to him? “It’s hard to say,” reports Turner. “We all saw each other frequently, and Jack knew that I was making pickups and starting to build stuff.” Casady also isn’t sure, but says that “the natural evolution was making the whole instrument from scratch, so that’s what I wanted to do.”
However the project began, Alembic #1 became the instrument that changed the bass-building world, combining innovative design, high-end materials, and unheard-of electronic sophistication. Casady says he wanted a scale length that was “a little longer than the short scale [of the Guild] but not quite as long as the full 34″ scale, so we compromised on a 32″ scale.” Although the basic design was neck-through, Casady asked for a semi-hollow body, which turned out to be a good idea on both sonic and practical grounds. “The body halves were solid zebrawood,” says Turner, “and they were heavy. So I carved them out, to accommodate the electronics but also to lose some of the excess poundage.” The body sections were topped with pieces of bird’s-eye maple. The ebony fingerboard had elaborate abalone and silver designs — “I got carried away with the aesthetics,” says Turner — and featured tiny red LEDs as position markers.
When it came to the electronics, “what I wanted it to be was a platform to experiment,” says Casady. To facilitate that, he asked for pickups that were interchangeable and mounted on brass rails, so they could slide to different locations. “There were some challenges to doing that,” says Wickersham. “I had to use microwave connectors and small-diameter Teflon coax cable, because that was slippery and would slide where normal shielded wires would jam.” The onboard circuits, which featured superfilters and other high-end components, were also interchangeable. “The concept was that the electronics would be modular, like the channel strips in a recording console,” says Turner, “so you could pop them out and put in different flavors of preamp and EQ.”
When the work was finished, Casady immediately began to use Alembic #1, and it was his main bass for about three years. He went back several times for tweaks, including different circuits and changes to the controls. Wickersham remembers, “For a lot of people, what Jack asked for would not have been improvements, but it was what he was seeking. It’s harder to play an instrument that reveals just what you’re doing with your fingers, rather than being voiced to sound pleasant on its own.”
After an unfortunate incident when the bass was dropped and had to be repaired, Casady stopped using it, feeling that the sound had changed. It had a complicated history after that, moving among different owners and receiving different electronics and new body plates made from purpleheart. It is now back in Turner’s hands for restoration, with the goal of making it look as close to its original appearance as possible. After that, it will probably be placed in a museum exhibit.
When Alembic #1 was delivered in 1972, the price tag was $4,000 — about $24,000 today. Every aspect of the instrument, from its appearance to its electronics to that price tag, was astounding at the time. It represented the second major milestone in electric bass design and construction, after the Fender Precision Bass. This collaboration between a great player and great team of builders yielded an instrument that paved the way for a new generation of electric basses, ones with striking aesthetics and superior expressive possibilities, an evolutionary process that continues to this day.