This page is dedicated to the equipment geek in all (or some) of us...
• Dan Crea's Gear -
My primary goal when choosing equipment is clear tone with a strong attack, to deliver the clearest possible harmonic and rhythmic information to the band and the audience. That helps the band stay tight and the crowd to shake their bones. And of course reliability is paramount - no gear is acceptable if it cannot be relied upon.
While listening to the first Fennario recording, I wasn't happy with how my Sadowsky sounded - it's too bright and aggressive compared to Phil's gentler sound, especially when played with a pick, and emphasizes higher-mid frequencies that get in the way of the rhythm guitar. I found ways to work around it but it always has that Maple-necked J-bass tone lurking in the background, sounding more like Geddy Lee than Phil. After pondering the problem for a while I woke up one morning with an idea - my dad is a fantastic wood-worker, why not design my own bass with a custom Dead-inspired body?
I knew right away that it would be a "hippie sandwich" (a nickname for instruments with many layers of different wood) and have the Irwin horns from Jerry's guitars, Tiger & Rosebud. I fell for those guitars when I first saw them, it was so cool that he had instruments that were unique to him and expressed the Dead's personality so thoroughly. I also wanted it to be a 5-string (that's my preferred number), inspired by Mike Gordon--I feel confined on a four, but never really liked six.
With those parameters in mind I sat down with Adobe Photoshop and the internet and proceeded to research and design the bass. I like Phil's mid-late 70's sounds the best, so I decided to try and copy the sound of his Alembic prototype, nicknamed Mission Control. I started with the approximate dimensions of a 5-string Fender P-bass, narrowed the string spacing for smoother pick playing, shifted the neck and bridge towards the player's left for more comfortable access to Phil's preferred higher frets (an idea I stole from the only Alembic I've ever played), and added the Irwin horns, stretching the upper horn out a bit to avoid any issues with the bass being neck-heavy and echo the lines of the Warmoth headstock.
Choosing woods for this project was a slow but enjoyable process. I started with a neck from Warmoth that matched my specs. They had one in stock that I liked with birds-eye Maple with Purpleheart laminates, so I carried these through the body. Both are very bright woods so I was reassured that the bass would have nice tight low frequencies even though I was choosing very warm-sounding Mahogany for the majority of the body. The crowning piece of wood is the Coco Bolo for the top and back. It's a beautiful wood and gives a nice rich midrange, and is also the same wood that was used for the top of both Tiger and Rosebud.
Hardware and electronics required almost as much debate as the wood. I really liked the bridge and nut on my first professional-quality bass, a 1995 Warwick Fortress that I bought in college, so that was easy. The bridge is both infinitely adjustable and rock-solid, and the adjustable-height nut is a big bonus. I found a site in Germany to order them, and they were the first pieces to arrive. For pickups I chose a set of classic Bartolini humbuckers, similar to what Phil would have had in his first Modulus basses in the mid 80's. For electronics, I found a company in England called ACG who makes sweepable filter-based bass preamps similar to Alembic's higher end electronics, and very much like the controls on Phil's 70's basses. It had a much steeper learning curve than the usual two or three band onboard EQ that I'm used to, but the flexibility is great and the tonal variety is endless.
All in all I'm very pleased with this bass! I was concerned about how playing a homemade instrument would be after years of playing nothing but my world-class Sadowsky and couldn't really know for sure how this configuration of parts would all sound together, but it has exceeded my expectations in every way! The Hippie Sandwich wood construction seems to be exceptionally stable and has only required very infrequent and minor adjustments after the initial settling-in period. The sound is exactly what I had hoped for - warm and round, but still very distinct and clear. It fits very well with the rest of the band, settling into the overall mix just perfectly--even doing a good imitation of John Kahn's P-bass when played fingerstyle for the JGB tunes. I can't imagine having a better bass for this band!
My amp is an SWR Super Redhead, built just before the Fender buyout a few years back. It's a great compact little workhorse, able to carry a small room on its own or provide a really fantastic tube DI to a mixing board. I replaced the 12AX7 preamp tube with a 5751 made I think by Phillips - I tried a handful of replacement tubes and all were far better than the stock Groove Tubes - by comparison the stock tube was very harsh, brittle-sounding and unmusical. The speaker cones tore within the first year so I had them coated with some sort of hard, shiny epoxy by New England Speaker in Stoneham, MA. Surprisingly, this had very little effect on the tone and they've been quite robust ever since. Technical specs (on the updated version) can be found here: http://www.swrsound.com/products/search.php?partno=4420100010
Phil doesn't use effects, so I don't either. I'm not really big on bass effects anyway, although I do sometimes use my Lovetone Meatball envelope filter for a little over-the-top funk in other projects. I believe it's the best envelope filter that money can buy and I was lucky to get it at a great price.
Playing with a pick is one thing I'm still getting used to, and will probably never feel entirely natural. It is very essential to getting Phil's sound in my opinion, however. I really like the 2.0mm thick Dunlop picks better than anything else I've tried.