Wednesday, 17 August 2016

JG Bass Special Pt 2: A tale of two basses

John Gustafson's original JG bass (JG1112) and Martin Elliott's solid ash Custom Series basses

John Gustafson in 1978 with the Gordon Giltrap Band
A few weeks ago I got a very interesting email quite out of the blue. It came from a bass player who is notable in his own terms but even more so in the inextricable links he has with the history of Wal basses. During the 1980s and 1990s Martin Elliott was a session player working on the London and wider UK session circuit. To carve out a successful living in that tough world one needs a range of skills – the ability to read accurately from a chart while simultaneously injecting real life and emotion into the notes rendered, the ability to come up with original and inventive bass lines on the spot time and time again and the ability to be the sort of person that people want to spend many, many hours shut in a claustrophobic environment with. In short, you need incredible playing skills and a winning personality.

Martin Elliott with the Michael Nyman Band
Forli, Italy, July 2016 (Photo by Francesca Lelli,
Kframe fotografia Bologna -
Across the course of his career he has played with many artists – from Petula Clark and Helen Shapiro to the Jesus And Mary Chain. However, since 1983 it is with the classical composer, Michael Nyman, that he has been most closely associated. And let’s face it, Nyman is hardly renowned for writing simple, basic bass lines. 

Elliott also has strong links with Wal basses which reach back to the early days of his session career. This has led to him owning two unique Wal basses, including being the original owner of one of the most notable Wal basses in existence – the solid ash Mk 1 which is now used to great effect by Colin Edwin of Porcupine Tree.

However, his email wasn’t about his playing experiences or his basses (more of that later). No, it was about something much more intriguing…

For the last few years Martin has made his home by the sea in Kent, sharing his session duties with indulging musical and other artistic passions while being part of a local community. And one of Martin’s near neighbours has a strange and serendipitous link with Wal history. He is the son of the late John Gustafson – one of the great (sadly all too unsung) bass players of the 1960s and 1970s and a pivotal figure in the history of Wal basses. Martin noted that Jon’s son had just been over at his house and had brought John’s old JG bass for him to admire. Would I be interested in the few snaps he’d taken while he was over there? There was only one possible answer to that question!

Martin takes up the story. “I never met JG, even though he lived along the road from me, but my mate Jim Leverton [former Caravan, Blodwyn Pig and Steve Marriott's Packet of Three bassist] knew him well. I recently photographed one of John Gustafson's old basses. He lived along the road from me, as does Jim Leverton (who also has a lovely old Wal) and his son, Joe, brought the bass round here for me to look at."

Here are the photos of JG1112 which Martin sent to me…

Gustafson’s first JG bass was a natural finish, ash-bodied fretted bass – as were most of the earlier JGs. The leather scratchplate mirrored a previous custom bass that Ian Waller had made for him. Later he also acquired a sunburst fretless JG (JG1131). The neck is the Mk 1 JG laminate design featuring only maple and hornbeam. The neck plate shows Wal’s original mounting design with the strap button mounted in the centre of the plate. This clearly wasn’t comfortable enough as the photo of the front of the bass shows that an additional strap button was added to the back of the upper horn. 

Even on this earliest of JG basses the electronics are as sophisticated as any later model. This includes the phase switches on the pick-up ring surrounds and the passive balanced DI output.

Below are photos of two additional Gustafson Wals, pictured when they were dropped off at Wal’s workshop for some TLC. On top, the fretless JG bass and then below a Pro IIE with a funky body design.

Photos courtesy of Wal Basses
Which brings us to the second pair of basses linked to this story… A brace of Custom Series basses which buck the trend of the design as they boast solid ash bodies instead of the usual laminated bodies. I’ll let Martin take up the story…

Martin's original Mk 1 Custom
“So, I've been using Wals for over 30 years and have happy memories of visiting the original workshop back in the '80s.” The Custom Series Wal bass, because of its tone and versatility, was a staple of the British session scene. As a member of the session playing community he also chose to acquire a Wal bass. However, that first Wal was more conventional than his eventual purchases. “Here's a photo of my original Wal from a TV show with Helen Shapiro. It had a mahogany core with Bird's Eye Maple on the top. I went to Wal because they were not far from where I lived and I knew that Percy Jones and John Giblin played them.”

Martin and his original solid ash Mk 1
“This bass didn't last long, though. It looked great, but didn't resonate properly. The E string just died and I couldn't make it work for me, so I took it back to Pete and (very cheekily) showed him how my old Fender sounded! Because of the Fender, which was ash, they suggested that I would like a solid ash body and so I agreed.”

“As you know, that bass ended up as a classic! I can't believe that they didn't chuck me out, but I guess they could tell that this body didn't work. I know they kept it on a shelf for a long time, so maybe they never did use it. I used to see it when I popped back to collect my new basses.

The ash fretless backing Petula Clark
I followed the 4-string ash-bodied bass with a matching fretless. I played that on many recordings with Gary Numan and even on the TV with Petula Clark.”

That original ash-bodied Mk 1 later went on to find world-wide fame when Elliott sold the bass to Colin Edwin of Porcupine Tree.

However, Elliott is still a keen Wal user and his current bass, a Mk 2 five-string, harks back to those original ash Wals. “My current solid ash 5-string is also amazing. I have used it with Nyman for years and it is a magical instrument.”

You can find out more about Martin Elliott, his music, his basses and his photography at this website:

Martin's ash-bodied Mk 2 5-string Wal

And finally, just as a bit of fun, here are a few of Colin Edwin's Wals in for a service at the workshop in Fetcham, including the Martin Elliott ash-bodied bass. A little bit of Wal magic!

Colin Edwin's ash-bodied and wenge-topped Wals in for some fettling at Wal HQ


1 comment:

  1. These last two articles have been very interesting. My own Custom has a solid body of mahogany, with an inlaid central stripe, and I wasn't aware of any other solid Customs until now.

    I also have the one piece XLR/jack output plate, although the dip switches are absent. A case of using up old components, I assume.