Every so often something comes along in life that forces you to reevaluate. Sometimes it's something foundational and Earth-shattering and sometimes it's a tiny tweak in perspective. Over the last few weeks I've had a series of revelations about the nature of one of the early Wal bass designs. I'll leave it to the reader's discretion to decide which camp they fall into.
I have a confession to make. Having never actually had an opportunity to play a JG series Wal bass I had always considered them a bit of a homespun, stepping stone bass. A simple work in progress towards a more sophisticated, complete design - as embodied in the Pro Series bass. I now realise that assumption was very, very wrong.
Over the last few weeks there has been a strange coincidental domino effect of emails popping into my inbox and social media feeds. First an email arrived from a bass player I have long admired and whose playing with Michael Nyman scales pinnacles I can hardly dream of. In it a fascinating anecdote was related and photos of the first true JG, number JG1112 were produced. Then a JG bass suddenly turned up being offered for sale on eBay and flagged on the Wal basses fan group on Facebook. Finally, other JG owners, emboldened by the reaction to that bass joining in an online show-and-tell session showcasing their own instruments. What a treasure trove.
One thing that became clear across these communications - which encompassed the second JG ever made and one of the last - was that my presumptions about the basses were dead wrong.
As noted above, and probably due in some part to the rustic design qualities of the leather tooled scratchplates, I had presumed that the JG series basses were somewhat thrown together. Perhaps more the spiritual brothers of the original Wal, W1111, than the modern-retro 70s Pro bass aesthetic.
In fact, the JG was a much more carefully designed bass than I had previously imagined. Sure, there was the homespun charm of the leather scratchplate, often festooned with small daisy like flowers. But there was more clever design hiding below the surface. Let's look at the evidence.
The body design of the JG series, carved from solid ash, set the template for the models which came after it. John Perry's original Wal was shaped somewhat differently. The almost symmetrical shape of the body reflected the Gibson which he had favoured up to that point - albeit with something of a softer Fender aesthetic added. Rounder horns, softer contours and radius end edges. The strap button was located on the back of the neck plate (a la Gibson). On Perry's short scale basses that wasn't such a problem. However as the scale length increased balance problems crept in. Gustafson's first JG came with a neck plate mounted strap button. However, it wasn't long before an alternative one was added on the back of the upper horn. The button soon migrated further to the usual mounting position for a double cutaway bass.
Some have wondered at the inspiration of the body shape. Was it a blatant copy of the similarly shaped Hayman and Shergold basses? I prefer to think of it as a piece of convergent evolution driven by ergonomics. As the need for additional stability was needed the anchoring point moved further from the centre of gravity. That will be what drove Leo Fender towards the classic Strat/P-Bass shape in the first place. That was a certainly the thinking of former Caravan bassist, John G Perry. He insisted that the extension of the upper horn from the shape of his near-symmetrical W1111 was merely a matter of balance and practicality.
The JG body and scratchplate shapes translated directly into the design of the Pro series basses. The first clue that the JGs came as a fully formed design.
Here there is a key feature that evolved across the short production life of the JG bass.
|JG1117 - note the "Mk 1" style neck|
|JG1148 - "Mk 2" style with mukulungu stringers and heavy-duty machineheads|
The earliest necks were plain in comparison to the more familiar Wal laminate design but still elegantly designed and well-engineered. They too featured laminates but more visually subtle maple (sometimes birds-eye figured) and English hornbeam. However, between JG1118 and JG1119 the design was changed to match the more familiar laminate arrangement alternating maple, hornbeam and a tropical hardwood called "mukulungu". As many other builders have found, the laminate provided a very stable structure for the neck. Around about this time the quality of the tuning heads was improved and the more familiar Schaller half open design adopted.
Electronics and Pick-ups:
It is here that the level of thought and design which went into the earliest Wal basses becomes clear. Firstly, there is the circuit loom. Most of those who have ventured to take the access plate off the back of their basses will have been greeted by the same sight – a rat’s nest of tangled wiring connecting together the various pickups, volume and tone controls and switches. Not so on a Wal. Removing the scratchplate from a JG bass presents the eye with a glorious piece of design. The leather front of the scratchplate may look rustic, not so the rear. The back of the scratchplate is in fact, one huge printed circuit board with electronic connections laid out on the plastic connecting potentiometers, pickups and other accoutrements. The whole back of the scratchplate is covered with conductive material (other than the necessary bare plastic sections isolating the circuit). This would have the added advantage of providing screening from unwanted electrical interference – enhancing the performance of the bass. The printed circuit also includes a declaration “ELECTRIC WOOD LTD. EW 031:1 patent pending”. Some significant degree of thought and preparation had gone into the bass.
It’s not clear whether the patent was actually approved (or indeed ever actually applied for). A well-known trick used by many was simply to declare “Patent pending” as a way of discouraging copyists. In a pre-internet age the effort required to verify this, even if one could, was probably enough to dissuade all but the most dedicated forgers and all without the hassle or expense of actually filing a patent. All that is missing from the Pro Bass design are the clip on connectors used to connect the pickups and output to the scratchplate. On the JG these are hard wired using traditional solder connections.
Then there are the pickups – already a fully formed concept which has been carried on into all future Wal basses. They are already housed in the distinctive ABS housings which have been retained right to the present day for 4 string Wal basses. Eight individual bobbins, one for each magnetic pole piece and two per string. Effectively each string was treated to its very own humbucking pickup. I’ve never had the ability to dismantle one of these pickups (nor would my electronics expertise stretch to deciphering its mysteries if I did). However, I understand that in the earliest versions (the JG and Pro basses) the pickups are wired with each row of four bobbins in series (as in a regular humbucking pickup) and then the two rows wired in parallel with each other. The later Custom Series basses have a slightly different arrangement where the two bobbins for each string are wired in series, and then each string’s pair of coils is wired in parallel to each other. In that latter case, literally a separate humbucking pickup for each string.
The JG basses share a feature which was also carried onto the passive Pro Series basses. Each pickup can be switched between parallel and series wiring. These options are switched in the Pro Series by small flick switches on the scratchplate. On the JGs they are mounted, as tiny dip switches, in the pickup mounting rings themselves – just visible between the two height adjustment screws on the lower side of the mounting ring.
But that’s not all. The JG basses still have a few surprises in store in their wiring. Looking at JG1112, John Gustafson’s bass (only the third produced) I was astonished to see that it featured an option I wouldn’t have imagined available until well into the Pro Bass – a versatile and complex set of output options. Alongside the standard ¼ inch jack socket was a passive transformer balanced XLR output. This not only gave the option to “Earth lift” the XLR output to deal with potential earth loop problems but it gave the ability, through a specially wired cable, to send the output of the bass to external effect pedals and then return the wet signal to the bass for Direct Injection into the PA via the XLR socket.
The Pro Bass promotional brochure describes it thus…
Another early model, JG1117, springs another unexpected surprise. The scratchplate of this bass features a small switch and the rear has what is obviously a battery cover. This is a very early version of the “Pick-Attack” function which was included on in the Pro Bass wiring and later perfected on the Custom Series basses. Another piece of “design aforethought” I would never have expected to have seen on these early basses.
After all that it seems odd to finish on something as mundane as the hardware. However, this once again shows the level of thought which had clearly gone into the JG series basses. As with the other, later models very little is off the shelf – just the strap buttons and the tuners (smaller less substantial types on the earlier versions, upgraded to more heavy duty, half-open Schallers later on). This neck upgrade also introduced the distinctive Wal string guides.
The distinctive Wal bridge is included in a pretty fully-formed version. Effectively, this is the same silver chrome version that graced the Pro Series basses.
A closing thought:
All in all the JG is not the part-prototype/part-experimental/part transitional bass I had always assumed. But then again, this is Ian Waller and Pete Stevens we’re talking about. Of course it wasn’t! I, of all people, should have known better. No, it is a thoroughbred beast in its own right. That Ian and Pete could go on to improve and enhance (perhaps even better) the design in the Pro Series basses and then further refine and perfect it through the Custom series is testament to their skills, abilities and genius. However, the JG stands on its own two feet and on its own terms as a fine piece of bass building and bass design.