Back in 1994, a young and cocky upright bass player was planning on traveling to Florida with the high school jazz band. Since the jazz director didn’t have the space or the desire to try and fit an upright bass on the bus, said cocky bass player (oh alright, it was me. You happy?!) went with his dad to Marshall Music and for $150, bought an electric bass. The used Applause 4 string PJ bass in gloss black would be my first foray into the world of electric bass. In true high schooler fashion, I appropriately dubbed it “Excalibur,” the sword of kings. And it wasn’t until a year later, on a bus in Germany during a tour with the Blue Lake International Youth Symphony Orchestra, that listening to Michael Manring’s album, Thonk, would open my mind to the possibilities of the instrument.
The years in college saw me making the transition from “upright player that has an electric bass” to “serious doubler on both electric and upright” to “he’s great on upright and scary on electric.” I absorbed as much as I could, played as much as I could, even playing in groups where I was forced to cover multiple musical roles at once (my original funk group had a saxphone-bass-percussion lineup, so there was a LOT of ground to cover). Excalibur was handling the abuse I was giving it, even so far as to go through two complete refinishes (going from that heavy gloss black to red stain with pickguard to electric blue), the addition of a Hipshot DeTuner (Manring had four; surely I could handle one), the addition of Seymour Duncan pickups, namely the Quarter Pound P pickup and Hot Jazz pickup (a Christmas gift from my parents, arguably the coolest parents in the world). Other, better basses would come into the stable and be in the gigbag for all the real work, but Excalibur in all its cobbled-together, road weary glory was still there on the stand, waiting for the 1am return from the gig where you felt inspired that you just had to write something down or play out an idea or two.
And then, about ten years ago, when I was working on another bass and needed some pickups, the soldering iron was put to Excalibur and the pickups were pulled out. I figured at some point I’d get other pickups. Then I needed that HipShot and just didn’t want to fork over the cash for a new one, so once again Excalibur was there. Much like the fabled “Giving Tree” from Shel Silverstein, Excalibur was giving me the tools to be inspired somewhere else, even to the detriment of itself. It got to the point where it was nothing but a badly spray painted body with a bridge, and a neck with no tuners. And there it sat.
Maybe it was fate. Maybe it was the wanton desire to connect with that bright eyed, cocky kid that attacked playing with an abandon and total disregard for rules, but in the beginning of December, I looked at Excalibur (that had taken residence in my workshop in a corner) and decided it was time. I had the pickups that I had sworn I would replace (currently a Lakland P pickup and Seymour Duncan Hot Stack J pickup, but another Quarter Pound P is on its way), but needed tuners and a new bridge. A quick perusal on eBay and a week later, the parts to reforge the great Excalibur were here. In keeping with the tradition of changing it a bit, this time the frets were pulled to make Excalibur a fretless, much like how Jaco pulled them off the fabled Bass of Doom and cementing his role in bass history.
Tools were used. Sanding was required. Swearing was heard as I tried to figure out how I pulled out the electronics so I could put them back in. Excalibur is more battle weary than ever, sporting many spots where someone – that at this point shall remain nameless – was too eager with the orbital sander, in addition to the dents and dings that are part of the history of such a great instrument. But here he sits, together at last, ready to inspire again and take whatever it is that is needed.
While this story is about my first bass, it’s really about the inspiration we all have. Part of rebuilding the bass was a small effort to reconnect with that kid that didn’t know of any musical rules to adhere to, and just played in the way that his inner voice commanded him to do so. But somewhere along the way, things were just taken from that kid in a way that none of us thought of, until there was nothing left but an empty shell that only echoed the might that it once had. In this, the first day of 2014, take the time to look back and reconnect with what inspired you. Find that inner forge and begin to rekindle that fire.
Sure, that kid from years back with Excalibur didn’t have a care in the world, but now that I’m sitting here with a reforged version of Excalibur in my hands and decades of knowledge and experience, that acts like a bellows, shooting air into that fire of inspiration and taking into places that I have no idea where they’re going to lead.