Transcript from "Bassist" magazine 1999. Roger Newell
Inspired by all the revelations in Bassist's Wal Special, I thought it time to reveal the details of one of Rocks Progressive icons - the Wal Triple Neck bass. Built for me, but later made much more famous by Yes' Chris Squire, between us it was used in some of the largest venues in the world, and made its last appearance with Chris on the Union tour featuring Yes's mega eight-man line-up, where it sounded as impressive as ever. Its beginnings were somewhat humble in comparison, though...
The man to thank - or blame - for the idea was Rick Wakeman. We met at my local pub in Buckinghamshire, where I often jammed with friends on a Sunday night for a free pint. Rick lived nearby, sat in on keyboards one night and had so much fun, it became a regular occurrence. Much to our surprise, he adopted most of this band for the Journey To the Centre Of The Earth gig, which was recorded and when subsequently released, hit the top of the album charts.
We'd rehearsed the Journey set and performed the Festival Hall show during a three-week holiday from my day job, but a number one album cannot he ignored. Plus, uneasy with the musical direction of Yes on Topographic Oceans, Rick left Yes and hired us...
By the time of the follow-up album, King Arthur, we'd done a lot of touring, particularly in America, and were riding the crest of a progressive and conceptual wave.
The choice of luthier to attempt this unique piece of history was no problem. I'd met Ian 'Wal' Waller sometime before and was well acquainted with the short scale bass he'd made for John G. Perry, his only professionally made instrument at that time (featured in Bassist Nov '96). Wal felt perfectly capable of manufacturing the instrument but the idea was beginning to bother me greatly, after all, I was kinda slight 'n' skinny ('Budgie' was my nickname!) so how could I cope with something that sounded so 'large'? An evening or two designing with Wal had me feeling a lot easier. My first request for 4-string fretted, 4-string fretless and an 8-string neck was rejected (too heavy), so we came up with a basic 2-neck design on an off-set body to improve balance. Rick rejected this two neck option: Mike Rutherford of Genesis was already using a double- necked Rickenbacker, and he wanted to top that, but if weight was the problem then stick a guitar on it! I protested. I didn't play guitar on any of the stuff. Rick, never to be outsmarted, retorted, “I’II write something...” And he did!
Again, Wal and I set to work by the end of the night he'd got it (I was asleep): guitar at the top, fretted bass in the middle, lined fretless on the bottom. Now I'd never even seen a fretless bass close-up at that time, so the thought of playing an unmarked board scared the proverbial out of me; I insisted on the fret lines. Whether this pre-dated Jaco's fret- stripped Fender, I have no idea, but he'd not been heard of in 1974. Whatever, we put on stock Fender parts (hard to get back then), including bridges and pickups. Four split-coil Mustang units for the bass necks and a standard pair of Telecasters for the guitar. For the huge scratch plate, I chose hand-tooled leather along the lines of John G. Perry's as I thought that looked classy, with a natural finish the body.
There were a few fitting sessions as it gradually took shape, being finally completed just days before a four month world tour. It felt reasonably comfortable, sounded good - but not great - and was a complete dog electrically. There were switches for each neck, pickup switches and Volume and Tone for each neck on dual concentric pots. Frankly, it was a bloody nightmare. Wal, as ever, was totally undaunted. We discussed each problem and he came up with a solution.
Firstly, re-winding the pickups to make them much more powerful added enormously to the impact, so the sound was fixed. I was already using a massive pedal board of effects (all pre-digital), with a set of Fender keyboard bass pedals (Moog had yet to produce their outstanding Taurus unit) and I sang at the same time. Boy did I earn my money. So it made sense to dump the volume controls from the bass and put Volume pedals on the board. A further switch on the bass allowed me to choose between the basses or the guitar, helping to prevent unwanted sound from sympathetic vibration on other strings. This proved very effective and, with a final decision to tune the fretless down to D-G-C-F to accommodate the Merlin track for which I'd de-tuned my Precision on the record, Budgie and bass extraordinaire flew to America.
Rick, bless him, was right the triple-neck caused a sensation whenever I used it, which was usually only a couple of times a night due to the weight, but it sounded great. We did a long world tour and it never once let me down. It did tend to leap from my hands when I jumped into the air (an action I considered pretty cool at the time - sad, eh?), so we strapped the headstocks together to stop that. It was a great success. Subsequent tours and two more albums followed, then the bombshell was dropped. Rick was persuaded to fold up the band, and within a few short weeks was back in the bosom of Yes. He naturally offered to let me buy the Wal from him, but it now had a profile of its own and was considered to be worth shed loads more than it cost to build and sadly, more than I could manage to pay, considering that I was now unemployed. We parted company, and to this day I've never even held it, let alone played it so my own association ends here. But that's not the end of the story.
Rick returned to Yes in time for their Going For The One album, which featured a truly epic track where Rick plays a beautiful organ section over a strange repetitive bass line played in octaves. Chris Squire used three different Rickenbackers when recording this track, so when it was decided to perform it live he needed something to cope with all aspects of the song.
Chris told me: “The only reason I decided to use it was because of the track Awaken which along with regular fretted bass, required the use of fretless and 8-string so when it came to doing it on stage, because of the quick change-over between different sections, I knew I'd need a guitar that could produce the three sounds quickly. Rick suggested I borrow the triple-neck and as it did the job so well he eventually gave it to me. [Well, f**k me! - RN]. I didn't realise it was only the second bass that Wal had ever made. I adapted the top neck to become the A, D and G string of the 8-string bass, tuned in octave pairs. I changed the nut so the strings would pair up but didn't change any of the rest of the guitar, I just left it as it was 'cos it sounded all right. The leather scratch plate added a lot to the visual appeal and I didn't really change it much as far as I remember, unless some enthusiastic roadie had a go at it first, but I may have removed the cover plates. It's very heavy, and for a 20 minute piece, of music, I needed an extra wide strap. I did notice, too, that the necks had a tendency to wave about a bit.”
Yes had another break-up, whereupon Chris donated the three- headed beast to the Hard Rock Cafe's display in New York., Again this was not the end of the story.
Hard Rock Return
“When we did the Union tour we borrowed it from 'the Hard Rock’,” continues Squire, “and it did need switch cleaner spray, plus the necks needed attention. After the tour was over, the Rock wanted it back. Soon after I was introduced to this Japanese guy who'd made two copies of the triple-neck. [The company was Kidd - RN]. He gave me one and got me to sign the other which he kept, so I've now got a slightly more up-to- date working model. It doesn't sound quite as good, but then it is relatively unplayed. Perhaps you should have had it first! I used to put the middle neck through a Fuzz box and that sounded better on the original than it does on the copy.”
Having assured-its iconic status in prog rock history it's unlikely that the triple-neck will ever see a gig again, but if you're ever in New York, drop into the Hard Rock Cafe where it still hangs securely on the wall and say “Hello” from me.