Classic Wal Basses - The John Entwistle Wal JG Series Bass, JG1128
|John Entwistle playing one of his Wals at a celebrity gig with |
Rick Wakeman, members of Status Quo and others
The Ox, Thunderfingers, just plain John... call him what you like the Who's bassist wasn't averse to picking up the odd bass or two. Indeed, the Sothebys auctions of his private collection have passed into rock and roll history – for the scale, scope and just plain weirdness of the basses he had accumulated. However, amongst his beloved Fenders, Alembics and Warwicks nestled a couple of classic, custom build period Wals. Well, you'd probably expect that he'd have managed to pick up a couple of everything, wouldn't you? However, Entwistle's relationship with Wal was closer than many of the brands in his collection. In fact, close enough that he agreed to appear in adverts and other promotional literature for the brand.
The bass in question here is a JG series bass, complete with the characteristic leather tooled scratchplate which typified the design. It now resides in Arizona in the collection of bass and Wal enthusiast Mike Gutierrez. As a professional sports and music memorabilia appraiser and a regular contributor to the US version of the Antiques Roadshow he's well placed to spot a good deal when he sees one. Bearing in mind the prices which Wal basses have reached in recent eBay auctions the Entwistle JG looks like a pretty good value investment – even without its famous provenance. On the day, six years ago, the bass went for only £2040. Gutierrez recalls, “When I first heard of this auction I knew I had to go! I had just started buying basses & guitars casually and this was a must-attend event for me that eventually marked a renewed interest in musical instruments - but in full fever! Initially I lost out on the 1953 Gibson EB1 bass, then the 1967 Rickenbacker 4005 bass, plus several others including Alembics and Buzzards. I had a list of basses I was interested in and would have stopped had I won a couple. The Wal bass, simply because of design, was on my list and toward the latter portion of the auction, so I bid and won.”
The construction of the Entwistle Wal is typical of the JG series basses. The body is fashioned from solid ash, mated to a four bolt maple neck with rosewood board – a typically Fender-influenced 1970s construction, but effective nonetheless. That said, little else about the bass is “typical” since pretty much every component, other than the tuning heads and strap buttons are custom made. Most distinctive is the leather tooled scratchplate – a throwback to the original Wals made for John Perry and Rick Wakeman/Roger Newell. The bass also features a pair of Wal's unique eight coil humbucking pick-ups, each armed with a coil phase switch situated on the pick-up mounting ring. These temper the high and low end response of the of the bass and providing additional tonal flexibility from a still passive circuit – a clue to the session player input which went into the design of the bass.
But how does it play? Best to ask the current owner. “I'm not that much of a gear-head. I look for a sound with a strong low end that can also pop the highs. Mid-range isn't that much of an issue to me as I always was a huge James Jamerson fan and he played through an Ampeg B-18, which was just a low decibel machine with no crispness and not very discernible. All I can say is that it has that sound which has always moved me. The heaviest of all my Wals. My first thought when I grab that neck is that it was probably a prototype which Pete & Ian would work on improving. It's slightly round and the width of the fretboard is not as wide as later models. On the other hand, perhaps that's what John ordered. If you watch him play you will notice he had small hands.”
Many Wal aficionados – or Walnuts as they're affectionately known – place the distinctive sound of modern Wal basses at the feet of their unique pickups and active circuitry. This begs the question of how this vintage model stacks up. Gutierrez has had a range of Wals in his collection over the years so he seems qualified to comment. “I've had two early pre-production custom Pros, single and double pick-up Pros and the "Last Pro" (which is essentially the prototype for the Mk I Custom Series bass). And there's a Mk II waiting for me in Brighton, that I just paid for today. But the JG really does sound so comparable to most of the others I think Ian and Pete got this right from the beginning. To my non-educated ear Wals rank as the best sounding modern bass! I can get them to do most anything - even sound like a Fender, yet also boom like thunder. I like the body shape on all Wal models. I would be proud to hold and play any of them, and have! The neck profiles sing to me. I feel like I'm at home when I grab them. It's almost like they were personally profiled for me. The weight is generally heavy, especially the Entwistle JG, but I get used to it quickly.”