5 Great UK Bass Builders from the '70s and '80s Custom Boom

The '70s and '80s saw a rapid evolution in the design of bass guitars on both sides of the Atlantic, but, especially to American audiences, UK bass builders are not as well-known than their US contemporaries.

Below, we're looking at five of the best that began in this explosive era of new building techniques.

Peter Cook/Ned Callan

Even before The Who made it big in America and bassist John Entwistle started using Alembic basses, he was already playing custom instruments. They were built by his then-guitar tech, Peter Cook, who had struck out on his own and was making basses under the Ned Callan name in his workroom in Ealing, west London. Later, they were manufactured in some volume for him by Shergold—which also made for Burns and others—and these were sold under the Shaftesbury Ned Callan brand.

You can see one of Peter Cook's Explorer Birds made for Entwistle here.

Entwistle called one of his handmade Ned Callan basses "Peter Cook's Jigsaw Puzzle." Others included several hybrid "Explorer Birds," with Gibson Explorer-like bodies and maple Precision necks. One went for £12,000 when the Entwistle collection was sold at Sotheby's in 2004. There was the Lightning Bolt, as illustrated on the Who By Numbers sleeve, and the custom Flame Bass, which Entwistle sold at auction for $33,000 in 1988 (and Christie's sold for $44,880 by in 2010).

Cook was also an accomplished repairman and worked on instruments for Pete Townshend, The Damned, Motörhead, Whitesnake, and others. The basses he made for Entwistle may not have added much in the way of electronics or unorthodox materials, but he showed that you didn't have to produce Precision clones to make a statement. His name is still above the door of the guitar shop in Ealing that he founded in 1981, although he has not been involved in the business for 30 years.

Wal Basses/Electric Wood

Shergold is a name that will appear regularly in this article, and eagle-eyed bass fans will detect a family resemblance between several instruments here. You might call it a distinctive, utilitarian chunkiness, as in the Ned Callan models—and also in the angularity of a Wal bass. There is a reason for that: Pete Stevens had worked for Shergold.

In 1974, Stevens joined Wal's founder, Ian Waller, an ex-pro bass player turned luthier and electronics wiz, to form Electric Wood. Their Wal basses were an instant hit among London's studio bassists, early adopters including John Gustafson (Roxy Music, etc.) and John G. Perry (Caravan, etc.).

Wals had bolt-on necks and plainer styling than Alembics or Jaydees. But they offered eight-coil humbuckers, advanced electronics, sturdy hardware, and were much-admired for playability and tone. Users of the first series included John Entwistle, Percy Jones (Brand X), and Gary Tibbs (Adam and the Ants). The Pro series, launched in the mid-'80s, saw the end of Wal's distinctive leather pickguards but added advanced filter options. Five- and six-string Wals appeared later, with exotic body wood choices.

The extensive list of Wal users includes Paul McCartney, Geddy Lee (Rush), and Justin Chancellor (Tool).

Wal founder Ian Waller died in 1988, and Pete Stevens continued with the business, later offering a MIDI bass. Stevens died in 2011, but Paul Herman, who worked with Wal in the '70s and '90s, had by then taken over, and he still produces Wal basses today, exporting them globally.

Jaydee Custom Guitars

John Diggins is well-known for guitars as well as basses, his users having included Tony Iommi, Angus Young, and Roy Orbison. Jaydee basses, recognizable partly thanks to a distinctive headstock design and wooden pickup covers, have remained popular to the present day. Diggins started out with the Birmingham maker John Birch. Birch was a pickup specialist, and Diggins did much of the woodwork, building his reputation with guitars for Iommi, Manny Charlton (Nazareth) and, most famously in Britain, Dave Hill (Slade).

Diggins left John Birch in 1977 and set up on his own. His first bass was for studio player Richard Ford (Bill Nelson, etc.) who wanted a piano-like tone with extended sustain. Diggins drew a somewhat Alembic-influenced design on the back of a wallpaper roll and was so impressed with the resulting instrument's tone and sustain that he decided to make more.

Distinctive features included round brass string anchors and wooden pickup covers, which Diggins says came about almost by chance. Searching for something other than traditional metal, he glued together strips of offcuts of the exotic woods he used and liked the result. He hadn't anticipated that for players like Mark King (Level 42), a master of slapping, wooden covers worked better than metal, which tended to ring when the strings slapped against them. Wood added a percussive sound, which was just what King and other players in this style wanted.

Diggins, in semi-retirement today, handed the everyday business to his sons Michael and Andrew. The line now has a distinctive family style, active or passive, using Jaydee's own pickups and circuitry, multiple laminated walnut and maple through-necks and bodies, with laminated center-body sections and a choice of exotic woods for the outriggers. The exceptions are the simpler Roadies, which have mahogany necks and bodies. Diggins himself says he spends most of his time "in the backroom" working on new ideas, the latest of which is an innovative truss-rod system.

Status Graphite

Soundwave, based in Essex, south-east England, gave birth not just to Trace Elliot, which became a pioneering bass amp brand, but also Rob Green's Status Graphite basses, which remain in high demand today. Green began working on Shergolds and found himself handling repairs in Soundwave's "back room" as the company developed PA equipment. They soon noticed bass players, too, were interested in the potential of PA-style gear, and searched for an equally advanced bass with which to demonstrate it.

By the early '80s, Ned Steinberger's minimalist all-synthetic headless basses had won acclaim, and Soundwave were early advocates. Wanting their own bass guitar brand, they encouraged Green to produce an advanced design, and in 1981 Status Graphite was born, marrying old and new technology. His original Status featured a headless graphite neck and a phenolic fingerboard, but with an exotic wood body. Still available today, it now comes in many varieties: headless or headed, with fingerboard LEDs, all-graphite bodies or endless wood choices, EQ configurations, and even an optional "chameleon" lacquer that changes color depending on the light.

Mark King was an early Status enthusiast, and his signature KingBass, launched in 2001, is still available, though now with headstock and five strings, and the most advanced King is the Parametric. The company also offers an all-graphite model named for a Chris Wolstenholme (Muse), and another prominent user is Alex "V-Man" Venturella (Slipknot), who has a signature bass on the way. Rob Green and a team of six still work from a small factory in Essex and offer a bewildering range of options beyond the standard series, which itself comprises 11 basic types.

Overwater

Chris May is another UK bass specialist who founded his business in the '70s. He'd worked as a guitar repairer, and first set up in London's famous Denmark Street, later relocating north, initially to Newcastle, later to Alston, and currently in Carlisle, near the border with Scotland.

Overwater only offers basses (though it has made guitars in the past) and has carved out a niche with top-end professionals, notably session bassists. Overwaters can be found with a number of theater, broadcast, and recording bassists, users including Mo Foster, Paul Geary, Phil Mulford, Andy Pask, and Phil Mann (UK) and Mary Anne McSweeney, Jim Donica, Carlos Hidalgo, and Bill Kratz (USA), plus much exposure thanks to YouTube bass teacher Scott Devine, who has a signature Overwater model.

In the early '80s, Overwater developed its own active electronics, designed by Bruce Keir (who worked later at Marshall and Blackstar). An innovation was the C Bass, introduced in the early '80s when Andrew Bodnar (Thompson Twins) told May he needed to play lower than the bottom E of a four-string bass. Enter the 36-inch-scale C Bass, developed to meet this need and an instant success. Before long, five and six-string bases supplanted the C Bass.

Overwater does offer a full custom-making service, but the main lines are fairly conservatively styled instruments, with a hybrid P- and J-style inspired by Carlos Henriquez. May says many of his designs come about like that, when highly technical players look for something unavailable off the shelf. Also, Overwater is one of the few custom makers to offer semi-acoustic (Expression) and hollow basses (Hollowbody). Overwaters have appealed especially to jazz and session artists rather than the hard rock fraternity—a thinking player's bass, maybe?


About the author: Gary Cooper is a journalist working in the musical instrument and pro audio fields. He contributes to a number of music magazines and websites. He lives in Sussex, England.

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