Percy Jones talks Wal…
One of the earliest “name” bassists to become a recognised Wal user, Brand X’s fretless wizard, Percy Jones, was literally the poster-boy for the basses. Now resident in the US and gigging regularly with his band, Tunnels, we caught up with him to mine his memories of the genesis of a classic marque.
So, how did you first get involved with Wal?
I met Wal when Brand X was rehearsing at Farmyard Studios. I had already become acquainted with Pete The Fish since he used to spend quite a bit of time at the studio. They both came in one day with a prototype bass and asked if I was interested in playing it, at the time I was using a fretless Fender Precision. I tried out the bass and was immediately impressed by the sound and the action. The only problem was that it was very neck heavy and didn’t balance at all well. I pointed this out to them and not long afterwards they showed up with another bass that was perfectly balanced. I started playing this bass and rehearsing with it, after a couple of hours it suddenly went quiet. Turned out that the IC in the preamp had fallen out of its socket. They rectified this problem and then things pretty much rolled along from there.
What are your particular memories of Ian and Pete from that time?
Well, they both seemed to be really into music and I could tell that Wal was very serious about making high quality bass guitars. He was a player himself so he had that “inside” knowledge of the instrument. They were both very friendly guys and very open to suggestions.
What was it about those early Wal basses that attracted you to them?
Primarily I think it was the frequency response that got my attention. It was a full response, from the bottom to the top with nothing missing. They’d put a lot of attention into the choice of wood and construction such that very little energy was being soaked up in body resonances. The sustain was very even right across all four strings. They designed their own pickups with a pole piece for each string along with their own preamp and tone shaping circuits. The fingerboard had a very comfortable, elliptical camber and the string spacing was wide enough so you had enough room to get good finger velocity. With a low impedance preamp-driven output it could drive long cables with no loss of high end from capacitive loading.
The Precision was a fine bass too but it was a struggle to get much high mid-range out of it. That was partially because of the P-bass pickup design, which consists of two separate coils, one coil inductively loads the other, giving a low pass response. Also with the Fender you lost some high end because of cable capacitance. The Wal came with all these issues resolved.
Brand X at one point had a drummer and percussionist and I was right in the middle of them. In fact Morris Pert used to play on the back of my head sometimes. Some of the music was dense, and some of it was busy – so having a full range bass that had the clarity to project through all of that was important to me. It was a very easy bass to record, I almost always just recorded direct.
You owned one of the first ever custom-built “JG” series basses…
Yes, I had an early one with the leather scratchplate which I think was originally made for John Gustafson. The basses were easier to play because you could hear the attack of all the notes. You had all the bottom, but there were sufficient high mids to give the notes a nice sharp edge.
You later played the active Pro Series basses – Wal used to refer to their players as their “design team” – were you involved developing it?
I made a couple of suggestions to them. One was to have a switchable filter to lift the frequencies between 2k and 3k. This was to give fretless players the degree of attack needed on the note transients. They eventually took this further by using a parametric filter for the midrange, so a player, fretless or fretted, could tune it to whatever he or she wanted. It was simply an overall better sound.
They took their original concept and kept tweaking it. The basses just kept improving. I also have a custom 4 string and a custom 5 string. Again, they are tweaked versions of the original series. I think they looked at all the aspects of the instrument and improved whatever they could. They constantly asked the players for feedback, I think they took comments and suggestions and just kept on tweaking.
Were you still involved with Wal when Ian died? It must have been so unexpected.
I’d moved to the States and I got the news from a student that I was teaching at the time who played a Wal. He came in for a lesson and told me what had happened, it was a very big shock. Wal had been in New York the previous year and had stayed with us for a couple of days.
More recently you’ve been better known for playing Ibanez Ergodyne basses. What prompted you to move away from the Wals to those?
A lot of people ask me this. I simply wanted to try another direction for a while to see if I could develop a slightly different sound. The Ergodyne I have is a customized version of the original in that it is all wood construction and has only piezo pickups and no magnetic pickup. Broadly speaking it's a sort of a hybrid electric/upright sound.
I still have three Wals. They are great instruments and I do still play them from time to time. Ian and Pete were both very nice guys and very serious about their craft – which was making very high quality, great sounding basses. Wal basses are now much sought after, so the proof is in the pudding.
With sincere thanks to Percy for sending me the shots reproduced here of him playing his Wals and Ibanezes