Phil Lesh

The Early Custom Basses 1968 - 1974


One of the most forward thinking bassists to come out of the sixties rock era is Phil Lesh, who was a founding member of the legendary Grateful Dead. Over the course of some 30 years and thousands of shows with the Dead, Phil 's unique approach to the bass was heard all over the globe, from Woodstock to the Great Pyramids of Egypt. At the time of Jerry Garcia's death in 1995 the Grateful Dead had become the most successful touring band in history. In the early seventies, as the Dead's stature and success grew, they reinvested much of their revenue into the band's sound system and equipment, including Phil's custom basses. Here is a brief look back at a few of his special axes.


The Quad Bass

One of the technological advances that came out of the Dead's pursuit of "the ancient ideal of the perfect sound system" was the development of Phil's two quadraphonic basses in 1974. As described in the band's official newsletter from that year, each bass had three pickups: bass and treble low impedance, and a quad pickup. The bass and treble pickups had four controls: band width, center frequency, filter type and mix of filtered/unfiltered direct, while an additional quad pickup, which was actually a frequency-detector, was added to bass number two. In addition, the basses had 10 push buttons that allowed Phil to select any one of 16 quad or 8 stereo arrangements of his speakers to project his sound. The electronics inside this innovative instrument were designed and built by George Munday, and the body was designed and built by Rick Turner. Not only was there an amazing pallet of sounds available to Phil, he was also able to amplify each string separately through four different speaker towers that could be set up at equidistant locations, effectively enabling him to throw his sound around an entire stadium or venue.

A fascinating side project that grew out of Phil's experimentation with the quad bass was his collaboration with keyboardist Ned Lagin. The two performed what Phil described as "electronic cybernetic biomusic" as well as "music as metaphor for thought". They played between sets at various Dead concerts in '74, and together they recorded the album Seastones, one of the first releases on the Dead's emerging Grateful Dead Records label launched that year. It was Phil's only solo album during his 30 years with the Dead. I recently talked with Phil about his early collaborations with Lagin, as we perused the cover of my old Seastones album (something he hadn't looked at for years).  The album has long been out of print, but if you're able to find it, it's quite an experience-- depending on your state of mind at the time, of course. Is he still in touch with Lagin these days? "Yeah, I see him down at the grocery store," says Phil. "I still ask him from time to time if he'd like to work together on some music."


The Guild Fretless

Soon after I posted the section above, I heard from LA bassist Dan Schwartz. For those who don't know of him, Dan has played and recorded with many major artists including Sheryl Crow (with whom he won a Grammy), Rosanne Cash and Susanna Hoffs. After reading my Lesh story he thought I might be interested in his, and it is indeed truly fascinating. Back in the seventies Phil actually gave Dan his '68 Guild custom fretless, one of three custom basses designed by Guild for the Dead that year. I'd like to thank Dan for getting in touch with me to share his tale. As Dan tells it:

"There were 3 custom instruments made by Guild in '68 for the Dead. This was for Phil. Top (spruce) and back (maple) are carved. The neck is a 3 piece running straight through the body, not touching the top or back until the butt of the instrument, where the bridge is sunk into it. I used to think this was Bear's idea (hence it appearing in the Guild Guitars book as a fact) but Mark Dronge tells me it was his, discussed in a limo ride from NYC to NJ w/Jerry, Phil and Weir.

Rick Turner met the Youngbloods' secretary in '69 shortly after his arrival in SF (where thru old pal Banana he meets Jesse Colin Young and does an inlay for him). She introduced him to Lesh who commissioned an inlay on this fretless bass, introducing him to Bear and Ron Wickersham, and so Alembic is born.

Phil discovered he can't use the bass for some reason - maybe he doesn't relate to fretless – I don’t really know. It sits at Alembic on Brady St. til '73 being used as a test bed for different electronic ideas. According to Ron Wickersham in Blair Jackson’s book “Grateful Dead Gear”, this was the first active bass.

It’s July 1973 - I’m 16. I’ve just gotten my first Starfire, a sunburst '67 SF-I for $175. I am ecstatic but somehow disappointed. I don’t sound like Jack. I’ve seen an M-85 and am thinking "Maybe I need something else!" I go to visit my oldest brother in Palo Alto from New Jersey and see a GP with an article listed on the cover "The Dead's Gear" and have in the last year gotten into them. I read the article - an interview with RT all about Alembic. Next day I hop the train into the city, look up Alembic in a phone book and invite myself over. Nice people (the baby Micah is there too). I ask a bunch of questions but no RT - he is on his way back from a crafts fair in Bolinas showing the first Alembic "standard" guitar and bass – I’m told to wait for him, he knows all. Speaker cabinets w/tie-dye all over the place. Instruments of all sort hanging up. The very first instrument visible is a blond M-85 with insane inlay and no strings. I am in love/lust/jaw hangin'. I’m asking about it to anyone there. A nice guy named Sparky Razine tells me it belongs to his boss and he believes it's for sale. I say  "Who's your boss?" He says, "Phil Lesh." And I'm thinking "Oh, @#%$. Well, that's that.

RT arrives. Couldn't be nicer and treats me not at all like some kind of geeky long-haired teenager from New Jersey. He is excited that there is bass player in the shop (3&1/2 years already - I'm reeeaaaalllll good!). He has a bass he wants people to play and give him feedback on. Plus, while I'm waiting for him, everybody there is excited because the first JBL K151 in SF arrives and they mount it in a cab they have waiting and want to hear it. I am handed the bass, plugged into F2-B, Mac 2100 and K-151 in sealed box and told "Go man! Let's hear it!" I’m so blown away by the tone, the evenness, roundness and fullness that I don't even have a moment to feel on the spot. My 2nd thought is "So much for my Starfire..." I'm sure I gave Rick no useful feedback. Eventually I get around to asking Rick about the M-85 and he tells me that Phil wants to sell it when Rick puts some kind of wiring back in it. How much? "Oh, probably $1000." Imagine $1000 then to a 16 year old. I leave, my head in the clouds.

Come September I'm back in NJ and the Dead play Philly. I follow the seats of the hockey rink back around the stage to look at the gear closer up. I see Sparky and yell hello. He recognizes me and asks "Did you ever get your bass?" I tell him I'm working on it and ask to come up there. He brings me onto the stage and we search around in different cases looking for Phil's SF. No luck. He says come back between sets. I try but stupidly go across the floor and never get there (although once I break free from floor I go running up the arms of the chairs, slip and crack my sternum). After the show I go there again and he invites me back again and takes me backstage to meet Phil, who is leaning on a limo with two very buzzed teenage girls, all giggling. But do I let that stop me? Hah!

So I walk up, introduce myself and start throwing all kinds of questions about active electronics at him: What does he think of this idea or that idea? This probably only lasts a couple minutes - he's got some serious @#%$ going on and I know better than to wear out my welcome. As I'm walking away I throw a question back at him: "Hey! Whaddaya gonna do with that Bluesbird Bass hanging up at Alembic?" He calls back: "I can't use it anymore. They can have it. You can have it if you want it!" I call "For free?" He says "Yeah! I'll give it you!" I just laugh and leave the arena. My friends are waiting for me outside and it suddenly hits me and I tell them "I think Phil Lesh just gave me a bass..."

The next day I send a letter to the Dead Heads PO box and one to RT telling him what happened, admitting I'm embarrassed to bring it up but maybe he meant it and I'd be dumb not to look into it. 4 months later I get a letter from Rick telling me that he talked to Phil and yes, it's mine, but Phil wants me to come get it, rather than it being shipped to me. This all resulted in some serious ostracizing for a bit. First I come back from SF, the first of us ever to go this mecca, yammering about Alembic to every musician I know. "Olympic? What?" Then I tell a few close friends that winter about the letter from RT and all of South Jersey having recently converted to Deadheads (they hadn't played our area from 68-72), it spreads like fire and everybody thinks I'm lying.

But eventually I get a call from Rick. It's ready but I owe $400 for the wiring parts and to Glen Quan for a finish he was never paid for. I find and send the money and my brother is coming east on business and Rick thinks that's OK - him handing it to my brother is the same to him as me flying out and him handing it to me. It's Memorial Day weekend and I'm on a canoeing trip up the Delaware but when I get back Sunday night - there it is. Beautiful, mine. My brother tells me that Jack was in the shop when he went to pick it up and says, "I hope you'll be playing that around here- that's a seriously karma laden bass." My brother tells him its for his little brother in New Jersey.

And as I started to use it I discovered why Phil gave it up. Gorgeous yes, but not so great sounding. But it was my fretless and I used it like that for many years -- and loved it (in hindsight I think it was hampered by the lack of decent short scale strings that we suffered through in the 70's and 80's. All my short scale basses went into retirement until the 90's)."In '88 when RT was at Gibson here in town I handed it to him and said " Rick - make this thing be what we know it can be please." And in '90 he calls me and leaves a message. "Well, 21 years I've been working on this thing but it finally works!"

First thing he did was remove the pickups (they are both now in my original sunburst SF) so it could come alive acoustically. Then he dumped the bridge/tailpiece (it's brass blocks are on the SF too). He devised a new tailpiece/bridge with his own piezo pickups as the saddles and came up with a new string, a giant classical guitar string, non-magnetic, with a nylon core and bronze winding. Judge the sound for yourself: it's half of the Tuesday Night Music Club album. Most audible on "We do What We Can." The first pictures were taken in '78, when it was intact. The other is from Larry Robinson's book The Art of Inlay. Since then I removed the plastic laminate that covered the pickup holes. It sounds much better this way. Two big sound holes."


Rick Turner: From The Source's Mouth

I asked Dan if perhaps he had any more info about Phil's '74 quad bass than what I had already posted here, and he kindly hooked me up with the source, Rick Turner, who was the instrument's primary designer. Besides being one of the contributors to the design and construction of several Lesh basses, Rick was highly involved with the Dead in the late 60's and early 70's, as he was with many of the now legendary Bay Area bands of the time. He formed the groundbreaking company Alembic with Ron Wickersham and Augustus Owsley Stanley, better known simply as "Owsley" (or occasionally by his nickname "Bear"), and soon found his state-of-the-art basses being used by such top names as Stanley Clarke, ELP's Greg Lake, Fleetwood Mac's John McVie, Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones and other renowned bassists.

Rick kindly clarified a few points in my Lesh story for accuracy. As for the development of the quad bass, he states: "Ron Wickersham deserves a bit more credit for the concept of the electronics. Yes, George executed the whole thing, but it was with Ron looking over his shoulder the entire way. Also the whole idea of the filters was Ron's, and then there's the 'Godfather' bass, aka 'Big Brown', which was truly the evolutionary step." Regarding the original quad bass, nicknamed 'Mission Control', "I made everything except the electronics circuitry," he explained.

Rick also answered a few questions I had. How did he come up with the name Alembic?

"That was Owsley's doing. It's the alchemical retort... the distillation vessel."

Did he continue to work with Phil on his basses after 1976?

"No, we got pretty burned out on the whole changing Grateful Dead scene and pulled way away. As the drugs got harder, the whole thing got nastier and very unpleasant. Too many parasites and syncophants..."

As for Wickersham's statement in the Blair Jackson book that stated the Lesh Guild fretless was the first active bass (as Dan mentions above), Rick recalls that it wasn't. "I think Jack Casady's modded Starfire came first, or maybe a Jazz Bass." According to Dan though, "As far as I know, Jack's brown Starfire was a passive-tone circuit built around a Gibson vari-tone that Bear gave Ron. The sunburst one a little later (after mine) used the active circuit for the emitter followers, but again has passive filters. I got this from talking to Ron this year. My ears told me that, but he confirmed it."


Phil's Thoughts

Here are a few final thoughts on both the quad and Guild Starfire basses from Phil Lesh himself, as told to Karl Coryat's for the April 2008 issue of Bass Player.

Karl: Today’s bass technology owes a lot to the Alembic electronics you were involved in early on.

Phil: Yes—the Grateful Dead was driving that. I wanted more tone out of the bass; I wanted to be able to boost any area of the frequency spectrum. But most of all, I wanted the tone to be consistent across the instrument’s whole range. We talked about having tracking filters, where the frets were wired—so every time you fretted a note it would close a circuit, the instrument would know what note it was, and it would send a signal to an outboard filter, which would then shift so the filter’s center point was the root. The tracking-filter idea never caught on, though. Neither did the quad bass we developed, where I had one amp system for each string—although that was amazing the few times I tried it with the Wall of Sound. I had two bass speaker columns, each 30 feet high. I think there were 16 speakers in each column. So I had eight speakers for the E string, eight for the A, and so on. But it never went far enough; I should have had footpedals to change the configurations. It was also impractical: In order for it to work, the speaker sets needed to be separated—but in that case the pattern wouldn’t make sense to any one musician onstage. It would make sense only to someone standing 50 feet in front of the stage.

Karl: Was one particular bass the guinea pig for these experiments?

Phil: Yes—my second Guild Starfire. We called it Big Red; then we stripped all the paint off it and called it Big Brown. It had LEDs in the neck and touch-sensitive switches and everything. The Guild was very fragile—it had layer upon layer of circuit cards inside it, and it was always in the shop, like a British car. Eventually I went back to basics and played a Music Man bass for a while. But I still have the Guild, with all the same electronics as well as the power supply and the cable, which is like a hose.