Wal Basses the early years
Over the last half a century some incredible bass guitars have come from these shores. From the “yeah baby” grooviness of Burns, to the quirky ergonomics of Shergold, from the Alembic influences of Jaydee and John Birch to the macho 80s lines of Status… all classic designs in their own right. However, perhaps one other British bass stands shoulder to shoulder with them – the instruments made by Electric Wood in High Wycombe: the Wal bass. For much of the 1980s and 1990s a Wal was the must-have bass de jour for the discerning British session player and attracted a wide range of celebrity endorsees (all of whom shared one characteristic… they’d bought their own Wals - the company had a “no freebies” policy). A few years ago the brand ceased production when ill health forced the retirement of founder Peter Stevens. However, in the hands of luthier, Paul Herman, Wal has recently re-emerged so perhaps it’s perhaps an appropriate to have a look back at the birth of the brand. We’ve gathered together some of the characters who were instrumental to the story and picked their brains on those early years.
Ian Waller - the Manchester years...
|Ian Waller (second from left) in the Demons - early 1960s|
Ian Waller was an enthusiast. A bass enthusiast and an enthusiastic tinkerer. From an early age he was adept with his hands - playing in bands around the early 60s Manchester scene and building instruments and pedals to power his own music. It’s a matter of record that, with US trade embargoes biting, the availability of decent instruments in the early days of the UK beat revolution was low. Many aspiring players plumped for lower cost alternatives like Hagstroms, Dallas Arbiters and Grimshaws. Others such as "Big Wal", as he had become known around the scene, went for the home-made route. Other members of those early bands recall him as a popular figure on the circuit, the quality of the bass he had made with the assistance of his father always drawing gasps of admiration from jealous musos.
After closely missing out on taking his place as one of Herman’s Hermits a decision was made to seek fame and fortune in down in London. But not as a rock star - as an electrical engineer, putting his electronics experience to good use building medical diagnostic equipment. However, his enthusiastic tinkering continued and before long he was building radio-controlled gadgets for the theatre and film industry – one old friend recalls him showing off a couple of radio controlled cars fashioned in the shape of a ham sandwich and a tomato sauce bottle! The passage of time saw both Waller and his soon to be partner in crime , Pete “The Fish” Stevens, working at the Farmyard Studios owned by Quantum Jump drummer, Trevor Morais. All the time that tinkering still extended to instrument building. “I remember Wal as someone who was always building guitars and basses.” recalls former Caravan and Quantum Jump bassist, John G Perry. Indeed, Perry would become the first person who would benefit from an instrument officially created under the “Wal” banner.
A Quantum Leap...
Ian Waller“We were at Farmyard Studios. There were a lot of jams going on there at the time, organised by Trevor Morais who owned the place. Mega-jams with all sorts of people – like Johnny Gus, Peter Robinson, Rupert Hine. A lot of notable musicians from that period who’ve gone on to do some amazing things. So I met Wal via Trevor, they were good mates. We were getting Quantum Jump together and my old Gibson EB3 wasn’t quite up to that but I wanted something ¾ scale – that was all I’d ever played and I wasn’t used to big, grown-up basses. So I asked Wal to make me one which would have its own identity as well as sounding like a Gibson or sounding like a Fender. At that time I was starting to do a load of session work so I needed a bass that was a chameleon as far as its range of sounds was concerned. Combining the two ends of the spectrum – Gibson at one end and Fender at the other – and seeing what happened. What came out of it was something with its own identity; and better than the other two in my view.”
It’s at this point that John Gustafson takes up the story. “I first Met Wal in the early 1970s. A friend of mine, Tony Walmsley, the Pedlars’ tour manager, took me along to see him at his flat off Bond Street in London. I remember I bought a Sammy Turner album off his flatmate! Wal was talking about basses and I became interested. He asked me what I would like in a bass. I was playing a Fender Jazz at the time, the first thing I suggested was an extra fret as the Fender only went up to E flat on the G string. I loved the Jazz neck at that time and I wanted something with a similar width and with a sculpted back for a more comfortable position.” Unsurprisingly the bassist was tempted and an order placed. “I bought a hybrid from Wal: a precision neck with a Wal body, the leather scratchplate was Wal's surprise. It was a great bass which I used until I picked up the JG model.” That hybrid bass became session hound Gustafson's staple instrument through the following years – including a stint as the studio bassist for Roxy Music. This lead to it featuring on a range of classic 70s tracks, including providing the iconic bass line for ‘Love Is The Drug’. “Yes, it is the green hybrid on Roxy Music’s Siren, including ‘Drug’.”
Three necks are better than one...
The next notable commission would become one of the marque's most notorious and iconic basses – the Wal triple neck. Originally commissioned by Rick Wakeman it was another Farmyard connection... “I knew Wal well. I saw him a lot in the early seventies and loved the sound of his basses. Very unique. The bass was made for my King Arthur album. I needed two guitars in one section but only had one guitar player, so initially my plan was for a twin neck with one bass neck and then one guitar neck. But then there was a piece that went between fretless and bass so it became a triple neck . Wal always told me from the outset that it would weigh a ton... I said that didn't matter because it wouldn't be hanging round my neck!”
|Roger Newell playing the Wal Triple Neck in Rick Wakeman's band|
The neck in question belonged to Roger Newell, former bassist for Wakeman's English Rock Ensemble, who continues. “The triple-neck bass evolved from a conversation that I had with Rick. There were quite a few double-neck guitars about then and Mike Rutherford had his bass & 12-string combination so the idea was to have three necks for a bit of up-staging. For me it was a standard fretted bass, a fretless bass (tuned to D) and a guitar on top. I said to Rick, ‘I don't play guitar in anything.’ So he replied ‘I’ll write something’ and he did! I was involved pretty much throughout the design; I had to be, as I would be playing it. Wal was a local guy and already a friend, so was Pete but he wasn't working with Wal then, he was collecting tropical fish from around the world – hence his nickname of Pete The Fish.
“We rehearsed at Trevor Morais’s place where his band Quantum Jump also practised. Wal had built a short-scale bass for their bass player John G Perry and this was the inspiration to build mine. I chose the pick-ups, asked for tooled leather scratchplate (like John’s) and Wal worked on ways to make the thing come together in a practical way. The final design was drawn out on graph paper on his kitchen table. We both liked the look of it so he set about making it. He made a beautiful job and apart from some re-wiring to make it more practical on stage it basically stayed the same. It wasn't easy to play, or to put on, as it was pretty heavy and had a mind of it’s own. (Chris agrees too!). In America, during a tour of their factory, Ovation made me a custom strap in order to spread the weight out as much as possible over my whole left shoulder. It helped a bit. Whenever I put it on the crowd went nuts. It was simply amazing and never failed to get a positive reaction.”
|Wakeman performing in the King Arthur concerts|
|Close up of Roger Newell playing at the King Arthur gig at the |
Empire Pool Wembley, from a BBC documentary programme.
|Wakeman's shows were nothing if not over-blown!|
|Squire with his triple neck replica by Hiroshi Kid|
Wakeman certainly agrees with that final comment, “Phenomenal! I think there were more pictures taken of that bass than any other bass ever made! The Americans loved it.” However all good things must come to an end and eventually the bass was given as a gift to Yes bassist, Chris Squire. “My band had come to an end in the line-up that had been with me for some time and the bass was unique to that line-up. Yes were recording, Going For The One in Switzerland and I realised the the triple neck would be ideal for ‘Awaken’... Chris loved it and so I decided to give it to him. It's now in the Hard Rock in New York and Chris uses a much lighter and cheaper copy triple neck on shows.” Strangely Newell's recollection is slightly different. “When Rick folded the band he offered me the bass at almost five times what it cost to build and without another gig in sight I had to turn down his generous offer! When he gave it to Chris I was indeed a little upset! It was Chris that changed the guitar section into a short scale 6-string bass with three octave pairs. I still have a Wal Pro Bass and I love the sound and the feel! As the triple neck was the first full-scale bass that Wal designed the neck profile was made to fit my left hand perfectly so when I play an early Wal bass there is something rather personal about it, like a custom instrument, so I guess I got the benefit in the end! Also recently the bass has been dubbed the ‘Roger Newell bass’ so there is some justice in the world.”
A business proposition...
But what inspired the transition from interesting sideline to full time business? Perry recalls “Of course my first bass was stolen. That was awful but in some ways the impetus behind getting Wal going as a business. I went to Wal and said, ‘I’ve had it stolen so I’m going to have to get you to make another one but I think you should also start making them for other people.’ It was that theft and losing the thing that created that thought. Purely out of embarrassment, I expect; probably thinking ‘How can I go tell this man who’s made this beautiful instrument I’ve gone and left it in the car and got it stolen. I must give him more than just an order for another one.’ That was what kicked the whole thing off. So he and I put our heads together and we got some capital together to set him up in London, actually. A little place just off Bond Street. And he literally just started from there, from scratch. When that very first bass surfaced again Pete said, ‘Do you want it?’ I said, ‘No, no, no, This is the first one... for the museum!’.”
|John G Perry (right) in the Gordon Giltrap Band|
The JG series sported solid ash bodies while the necks were moving towards the laminated structure which would become a characteristic of all future Wals. The distinctive tooled leather scratchplate was retained. Most significantly, however, it was on the JG basses that the unique pick-ups which contribute so much to the Wal sound were introduced. Although, on the surface looking like a standard set of humbuckers their internal construction was unusual to say the least as Wal used his knowledge of electronics to good effect. Rather than simply being two coils of opposing polarity to cancel out mains and RF interference the Wal pick-ups effectively contain eight individual pick-ups in one housing – a humbucking pick-up for each string. Added to this, the JG basses also had various switching options built into the mounting rings allowing coil-split and out of phase tonalities to be thrown into the mix. It made for a versatile yet intuitive mix.
Gustafson, owner of two JGs, a matching fretted and fretless recollects, “The only other Wal I ever picked up belonged to John Perry, It was the short scale that he preferred and so naturally it felt a strange. The JG is on hundreds of sessions combined with a Fender Twin, almost everyone commented on the sound of the bass and it's versatility. On other gigs I had a later Pro series Wal as backup; although it had wider neck I was very comfortable with it. It had a great sound, more biting than the JG. Amongst others, Al Jarreau said he loved the sound of it on some live shows in Germany."
|John Gustafson playing with the Gordon Giltrap Band|
|Gustafson pictured more recently (still playing his Wal)|
“I took the JG On a Japanese tour with the Ian Gillan Band. I wasn't playing particularly loud but the sound crew told me they didn't have it through the PA and that it was the best, tightest and punchiest bass sound they'd heard at the Budokan. What a feather in your cap Wal!”
Although only around 40 JGs were built, the marque picked up an impressive roster of customers. John Entwistle purchased one (originally destined for Renaissance bassist, John Camp) as did session players like Alan Spenner and Gary Tibbs. Jethro Tull's John Glascock and Blue Oyster Cult's Sandy Pearman were customers, as was a rather surprising Paul Simenon (at producer, Pearman's behest). To be fair, the Clash bassist did find the complexity of the bass a little too un-punk for his tastes, soon reverting to his trademark Precisions. As the 1970s progressed Wal established itself further, launching the Pro Bass. Building on the template set by the JG it was an active, production line bass (albeit a typically small and hands-on production line, as befits a company called Electric Wood). In the early 1980s the “Custom Series” was launched featuring significantly enhanced electronics and exotic woods, signalling the brand's move into what’s now dubbed boutique territory. In this period the bass reached a Fender-like level of ubiquity in the British rock world. Developments and improvements continued with the introduction of a 5-string variant – one of the earliest commercially available 5-strings to be manufactured in the UK – and a brief dalliance with the concept of a midi-bass (which actually worked).
Tragedy strikes... a bass-making legacy
|Wal and Pete in their workshop in the late 1980s|
|Ian Waller in the mid 1980s|
However, in July 1988 the company was rocked by an unexpected tragedy. The sudden, untimely death of its founder Ian Waller. Victim of a heart attack as he walked home one evening, his passing sent reverberations throughout the British music industry. A solemn tone enters John G Perry’s voice as he thinks back to the time “It was very sad when Wal died. Had an aneurysm – he was only in his forties. He was living just off Shepherds Bush at the time. Very fit, a vegetarian, lots of exercise. Kept himself fit – he was always a big, strong sort of guy. Wasn’t the sort who did anything to excess. He was walking up to his first floor flat and he must have had a burst aorta as he was walking up the stairs. Just like that. His funeral service was out at Amersham and the church there was absolutely packed with family and friends. There was a who’s who of bass players in there, other musicians, friends of Wal’s. He was a very very dearly loved man. Hugely missed. But what’s so exciting is that he lives on in his basses”.
The memory of it also brought a sombre mood to Gustafson's reflections. “Wal's passing was dreadfully unexpected news. His funeral was a testimony of the love everybody had for him; a gentle man who lived for his art. Pete carried on the tradition in the same meticulous way.” Sentiments echoed by Newell and Wakeman, “Wal was a quiet guy really, loved to work on new ideas and hated repetition so it was just as well Pete kept an eye on production. Pete’s a gem; a really genuine and lovable character and a friend for life. You couldn't help but like Wal and Pete, both great guys.” “Just guys who loved music. That was their motivation; a rare quality these days. I was tremendously sad when Wal died.”
Perry sums up the legacy of Ian Waller, “Still after all these years when I open the case and pick one up it takes my breath away. And I know the love and heartache Wal and Pete put into making these things for us – the level of care, you would not believe it. Every Wal has bit of Ian Waller in, and Pete Stevens after Wal died. They are not inanimate objects, they’re living breathing things. Every bit of wood he picked up spoke to him.”
Acknowledgements: In preparing this article I'm truly indebted to the players who provided information and took the time to recall the early years of the Wal brand or describe just why Wal basses are some of the best around. Particular thanks go to John G Perry, John Gustafson, Colin Edwin, Rick Wakeman, Roger Newell, John Illsley, Justin Meldal Johnsen, Laurence Cottle, Percy Jones, Gordon Giltrap and all the others who contributed. Many thanks. Long live Wal!