Celebrating 20 years of the Jack Casady Bass

It was 20 years ago that Epiphone released the Jack Casady Signature Bass, which became a milestone both for Epiphone and for Casady. For Epiphone, the collaboration led to a great friendship and also proved to be a crucial first step in a resurgence of the Epiphone brand that continues today with dozens of signature artist models. For Casady, the bass he designed --ostensibly to solve problems he encountered on stage and in the studio-- has made him a kind of "Les Paul" of the 21st Century. Players around the world count on his bass for touring and studio work without knowing the man who made it.

Jack Casady was born in Washington D.C. in 1944 and began playing in bands in high school --first guitar and then bass. In the mid 60s, his former bandmate Jorma Kaukonen invited him to San Francisco to join what became the Jefferson Airplane. Jorma and Jack later formed Hot Tuna, the blues inspired improvisational group they continue to lead today.

In the 1960s, Casady, along with Paul McCartney and Motown studio bassist James Jamerson, revolutionized the electric bass with a style that was melodic, punchy, and forward in the mix. Casady, like so many of his fellow musicians in the San Francisco area in the mid 60s, had an interest in what makes his instrument 'tick'. He began to experiment with body styles, pickups, and materials and developed a deep knowledge of the possibilities and limitations of the instrument. For the next two decades, Casady befriended the best luthiers to determine how to re-make the electric bass into a truly expressive instrument, one that emphasized the musicality of the player. Casady brought that expertise to Epiphone --probably the only company that would have given him the keys to the factory just as Epi Stathopoulo did for Les Paul.

Around 1997, Casady sparked a friendship with Epiphone President Jim Rosenberg and the Jack Casady Signature Bass was born. The bass seemed to ignite Casady's passion for recording and performing all over again. Of all the members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame from his generation still working, Casady is unique in his drive and ambition to improve, excite, and confound his audience. Over the last few years, no less than four major world tours featured the Jack Casady Bass. And when such tone sticklers as Paul McCartney, Jack White, the Stone Roses, and the Monkees say you're the best, well, how could there be any doubters? On the occasion of the Jack Casady Signature Bass' 20th anniversary, Epiphone talked to Casady about his early days in Washington D.C., his influences like trailblazer Monk Montgomery, and why he's never seen or heard without his Epiphone.

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You grew up in the Washington D.C. area in the 50s when it was developing as a great music scene. Link Wray, Danny Gatton, and John Fahey are from the area. Record collectors like Dick Spottswood and Joe Boussard had radio shows. Were you aware of the local music scene?

Oh, totally. 1956 is when I started playing guitar. I started on an acoustic guitar that was in the attic that belonged to my father, Dr. William Robert Casady, who was a dentist. He was an audiophile, too. He and I built Heathkit radios and amplifiers. We built my first guitar amplifier together. He belonged to the American Jazz Society. But being in the D.C. area was a crossroads of all kinds of music. I would get on a bus and go down to Constitution Hall and hear great orchestral works when I was 15 years old. Along that time, I'd take a different bus and go see Ray Charles, the Coasters, Jackie Wilson, and all kinds of rhythm and blues at the Howard Theater. Those acts that would go through D.C. on their way to the Apollo Theater. $1.50 shows --it was fantastic. At the same time, I'd go across town to the Shamrock and hear Mac Wiseman and Lester Flatt and Mike Seeger & the New Lost City Ramblers and all kinds of folk and bluegrass and country that would come up to the whole area as well.

So later on when I started playing bass at age 16, I'd play at the fairgrounds in the summer for various country acts and I'd be playing R&B in the clubs on a six night week. Basically 5 sets a night --40 (minutes) on, 20 off --that kind of thing. But also, I remember Jorma and I when we had our little band when I was 14 years old, we opened up for Link Wray down on 10th street and the clubs there. So it was just a tremendous crossroads.

One of the other things there was the wonderful jazz scene. I saw Roland Kirk and Eric Dolphy --players that just influenced me for the rest of my life not only for the uniqueness in their playing but the tone that they would get from their instruments. Charles Mingus and Wes Montgomery. I saw Monk Montgomery playing an electric bass, which was heavily criticized in those days. But I got to see so many great artists. Nancy Wilson I saw a number of times in these clubs. Great singers, great players. It was just a wonderful period. All of this was between 1956 and 1965, when I left to join Jorma in San Francisco and started the band that became Jefferson Airplane.

At that time when you were becoming professional, were you aware that you had a unique approach to bass?

I did have a musician friend of mine say: "Jack, you were always moving the melody lines around back then, even on pieces where you were supposed to play like the record." So I guess I was always doing it.

I think the short answer is that when I started playing the bass guitar, I had access to all those upper registers as well as the low registers. And because I loved melody and I loved a lot of the orchestral works I heard, it was a natural flow to go from the bass orchestra end and listen to the double bass, listen to a composer move the melody line from the lowest to the low, up to the cello range and up to the viola range the violin range and on up. And to me, I just heard the melodic lines coming out and tried to do that.

Now don't forget, for most of what we did in the club circuit, original music was highly frowned upon. You pretty much played Ray Charles and Louis Prima in the club world. And the club world then was different. The best way to describe it... it was somewhere in-between Las Vegas and Adult Music in the club world. So I was 15 or 16. When you walked in there, there were people you'd have thought of as a bit more sophisticated and so you played sort of a genre of music. It was really quite stifling in the long run. It was before bands started to form together and write all their own music. It was really hard to break out of the Washington D.C. area. It seemed like you had to either go to Nashville or go to New York or Los Angeles. And then, often it was kind of this 'leader-sideman' thing where you'd have a producer who would have a singer and he'd hire some musicians. It was really hard for a band so-to-speak. The concept hadn't really formed.

But when I went to San Francisco, I met people who would form together not necessarily because they were the best musicians but just because it was live or die. Some players would have completely different levels of skills than other players but the combination --like a good football team-- would produce a unique sound. And until I was able to get out of that stifling environment in Washington D.C. --into an environment where I was appreciated-- where I could write all my own stuff on bass, that was the real breakthrough for me.

I tell my students, particularly the young ones, that there's a certain time and a window that opens up from learning what others have played to when you start to write your own and think individually about the instrument and your own melodies and lines and music. And you need to grab that when that time goes by or you may be forever lost in a world of hearing and imitating other's music.

Do you notice any difference between your students today and how they think about music compared to your days starting out in Washington? For instance, you had something to break away from, where as players today can easily access any kind of music.

I try to narrow my goals as a teacher to see what I need to shore up in the individual's playing. And so in my job, I'm not teaching composing. But I am trying to give them an understanding of the instrument hopefully that will free up roadblocks in their playing and their thought process on the instrument that I --as a teacher-- would like to see them develop as their own path. But also, realize at the same time that they've got to articulate their ability on the instrument so that hopefully --when they come up to a level of creating their own music-- they will be able to present it in an articulate matter so it's understood.

How are your Epiphone basses treating you?

My Epi basses are treating me just fine! Jim Rosenberg (Epiphone President) is not only a good friend, but he and everyone at Epiphone really puts forth the necessary mechanical means behind putting this bass out on the market. I just can't believe it's been 20 years now since my lovely late wife Diana and I worked on these basses, getting the tone right on it, and that it's still out there. Because in the world of bass manufacturing it's somewhat of an odd duck to have an f-hole acoustic bass out there. But I'd like to think it's got a good solid position in the market and that it's a versatile instrument. So my Epi basses are treating me just fine.

A lot of upright players choose your bass as their electric bass. Do you play upright?

I'm a closet upright player. I have a 1937 Gibson upright bass in the other room but I'm not a violin player. It's in the violin family but I started out on guitar and that's really where I come from. You know, I'm always chasing that sound. I'm chasing the more --acoustic sound but with the articulation of an electric instrument. That was my philosophy in developing this. I discovered the original (inspiration) --a Gibson Les Paul bass-- in 1985 in New York City at Chelsea Music, a little store that local musicians know about on 23rd Street next to the Chelsea hotel. I played it for a couple years and got a couple of others but it slipped by me. I had played f-hole basses before. I believe the people who were involved with Alembic--Owsley Stanley and Ron Wickersham --started working with f-hole instruments with custom electronics in 1967. One of those is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame now.

The issue that I had over a period of time was that it was a super short scale. So when I saw this Gibson Les Paul Bass --according to Walter Carter was produced in the early 70s and they did a run of about 400 and then discontinued it-- I really loved it because it had the same philosophy that I had with low impedance electronics, which opens up that sound. It's not a very hot sound and it's not a very loud sound, but it's got much more dynamic range. So when I approached Jim Rosenberg --this is 1998-- I wanted to reissue it with a different pickup. And the bass you see today is that project brought to fruition.

With the long scale neck and a single pickup in the sweet spot that has that full harmonic range, I thought it was a very versatile instrument that engineers would love and would not have to mess with. Jim said: "Jack, we'll give you anything you want. You want three pickups? I'll give you three pickups." I said no, I want one that's really great.

So we started developing the pickups. And I kind of developed them in a way that the early lap steels were: a nice thick heavy gauge wire going around the Alnico magnets. We basically fattened up that pickup and made it more clear. What we did in the 60s was flip it (the pickup) over and glue on another Alnico magnet. It would boost the output of the pickups that way and have a bigger magnetic footprint. Because you're only using one pickup you could do that. And it fattened up that pickup and made it more clear. We used somewhat the same strategy for the Epiphone.

I worked with J.T. Riboloff to develop that pickup and we went through maybe 20 or 30 different prototypes before we were able to 'ok' what was finally put out on the market. And one of my concerns was that it was one thing to do a custom version but I wanted to make sure the production version held up. So every year, I get two new basses of whatever the production line is and take them out on the road and play them so I know the quality is right up to snuff.

In the studio, do you like to mic the bass amp or go direct?

I like tube preamps --any number of tube preamps. I use the V72 Telefunken a lot but there are a number of great ones out on the market now, both boutique and more established names. (Ed: V72 Telefunken tube preamps were also used in the early mixing desks at Abbey Road.)

My job --and what I want my legacy to be-- is to make something with universal appeal. I wanted to get the instrument to where a jazz player or a pop player or a folk player or a rock player could find that instrument and work inside the instrument with their own technique. It's my feeling that having that single pickup in the sweet spot allows you to then move your hands dynamically over the 'sking' length of the strings. And through various techniques, a player can pull out the different sounds. But at the same time, it's a true, real sound. It has a transformer with an impedance selector. One of the things I started to shy away from in all the early developments of bass electronics in the 60s is back then we were trying to make the instruments more hi-fidelity. We were able to extend the dynamic range but then I found out that the preamp limits you somewhat. You might find an instrument that has an unusual sound but then you're stuck with that sound all night long.

So, I wanted to have an instrument where the individual player could with the density, the meat in their hands or how they approached the instrument --get something different. It's the player, it's not the instrument. But at the same time, you want an instrument that will respond to different directions that you discover and hopefully this instrument does that.

None of this would have happened without Epiphone. Twenty years later, I really didn't expect that this would still be in the line. It's a testament to how unique Epiphone is in the industry. And Jim seems to like to work in the vintage area of instruments that have come and gone because of fashion. Epiphone brings them back so the new young players will come along and hear these instruments and understand what a good instrument is supposed to sound like. That's why I love Epiphone.