Monday, 14 July 2014

Wal custom built basses, rarities & oddities...

Wal custom built basses, rarities & oddities

Throughout their history, Electric Wood were known for their custom builds alongside their production models. Whether it was the iconic triple neck or a tweak to the established formula, if you could convince Ian or Pete then the world was your oyster. However, they had to be convinced it would work. They remained craftsmen, dedicated to building beautifully crafted working tools for working musicians. The weird and wonderful but frankly silly basses could be left for other builders. 

When visiting their workshops in High Wycombe it was not so unusual to see the odd Strat shaped guitar (albeit sporting the characteristic Wal laminated body) hanging from the guitar rack. Alongside might be a Jazz bass in for renovation. However, despite that their passion remained for the basses for which they had become known.

There were a few oddities, though. This page showcases a few of Wal's more unusual creations.

A unique Wal bass design.  
Steve Chesney's custom "36 fret"
fretless Wal custom bass with
burled redwood top and
matching headstock facing. 

But strangely this isn't a "one-off".
It's a "two-off"!
Steve Chesney's 36-fret fretless extended cutaway Wals!

Throughout the 1990s and until Pete laid down his chisel one of Wal's most passionate and prolific supporters was a bassist from the USA called Steve Chesney. For a long period in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Steve was the go-to guy on the web for info on Wal basses. He hosted a website on the brand which was often mistaken for the "official" Wal bass website. And in many ways it was. With Pete Stevens' lack of inclination to concentrate on topics as prosaic as "web promotion" and the relationship that the two had, Steve soon became the US ambassador for the brand.

Over the years Steve gathered together an enviable collection of basses built specifically for him. As a leftie player the scope for picking up a Wal second hand was sorely limited. A series of commissions, therefore ensued. At one point the number of Wals he owned reached double figures, all built to his personal specifications. However, the most unusual of these commissions were two unique, probably never to be repeated, builds. A brace of left-handed fretless basses with finger boards built to accommodate a 36-fret playing area. This unusual fingerboard required an extended reach to allow that playing area to be utilised. The length of the neck had already disposed of the possibility of a neck pickup and so a long, slot-like extended cutaway was created. It makes for a unique and striking look, particularly with the exotic wood tops.

Steve ended up having two basses built in this configuration. One features a burled redwood top and lined finger board. The other is quilted maple.

 And its non-identical twin!  Also Steve's...

Non asymmetric cutaway Mk I Custom

This unusual looking Wal turned up some years ago being offered for sale on eBay. Its provenance is uncertain as although it features many proprietary Wal features and fixtures it has clearly been assembled from disparate pieces. The bass is configured as a leftie but features a right-handed fretless neck turned around (and with the logo upside down). The electronics and bridge are clearly Wal in origin but were they originally mated with this body in a workshop in High Wycombe?

All in all it is a bit of a mystery but it definitely counts as an oddity!

Jonas Hellborg's single-necked Wals

Although, in Wal terms, Jonas Hellborg is most intimately associated with his iconic double necked bass that was not the only instrument he commissioned from Electric Wood. In addition he owned a couple of single necked Wals, closely modelled on the upper half of his double neck.

The basses both possess a body which seems to be significantly slimmer than the Mk II basses which Wal was producing at the time, although they feature an extended upper horn like a Mk II. The sleeker, slimmer body profile is reminiscent in some ways to the Mk III body style which appeared over a decade later. Single pickup designs, they also feature pickup placement akin to the double neck. As such they are positioned a centimetre or so further from the bridge than is usual for a Wal bridge pickup. Most unusual (although there's a lot of competition for that crown with these basses!) is the use of a 4-a-side headstock on a single necked Wal bass. On the double necks on which they are modelled the 4-a-side headstocks are used for purely ergonomic reasons - it would be simply too fiddly adjusting the D and G strings on the upper neck and E and A strings on the lower neck otherwise. Here it seems more on an aesthetic decision.

One of the basses features a natural wood body, however, it was the other (a black poly-gloss model) which Hellborg seemed to favour. It was doubly unusual in that it featured a Kahler tremolo unit rather than the proprietary Wal bridge.


Fender bodied Wal Custom bass

One little known option which Pete offered at Electric Wood was to build a Wal bass, not in a standard Mark I, II or III body but in a Fender shape. It's not an option that was taken up by a lot of players. However, the first taker was Kevin Hopper, formerly from 1980s indie pop band, Stump. Here he chats about how the bass came about...

Kev Hopper's Wal in its original form with Stump
"I bought the bass as a standard fretless model in 1984 secondhand from the Bass Centre in Wapping. It cost £550. I'd wanted one ever since I'd seen Percy Jones play one at a Brand X gig around 1979 but couldn't afford one till 5 years later. On receiving it I have to admit that my first impression was not a good one: although the bass sounded great it was very heavy, didn't balance well on the strap or the lap and worst of all it had a huge, fat baseball neck which I absolutely hated! I decided to put up with it and get used to it... because I liked the sound so much."

"The first thing I had changed were fret-lines inserted at the Wal workshop. While I was there, for some reason, it never occurred to me to ask if they could make other changes to the bass so I played it how it was all through my Stump days."

"Anyway, years later around 1993, I took it down to the workshop for a service and I saw a Fender template hanging on the wall. Pete explained that it was there in case customers couldn't get on with the Wal body shape but that no one had taken up the option yet. So of course I explained that I found the shape awkward and it might suit me. I then casually mentioned that I didn't like the fat neck and he immediately offered to slim it down and narrow the profile for me. If only I'd asked in 1984! I also mentioned that I'd like the body heavily contoured to reduce the weight. So he did all that for me. The sycamore facing was found in a skip in Leeds (I think Paul Herman spotted it)."

"Incredibly they charged me just £200 for the new body. The staff at Wal were great. I was surprised they knew all my stuff and had been following my career."

Kev Hopper playing his Jazz bodied Wal

The reprofiled Wal neck

Kev's Wal in its original mode back in the Stump days

A more modern piece on the Jazz bodied Wal

The FoderaWal and the SeiWal

Ian and Pete were always very protective of their bass designs and, in particular their pickups and electronics. The chances of finding an aftermarket Wal pickup are less than zero so these two Walish basses are definitely oddities. A Fodera and a Sei with Wal pickups and electronics.
With the FoderaWal as I recall the owner bought a beat up Wal 5 string with the express intention of harvesting and handing them over to the guys af Fodera. You see the resulting bass before you.
The SeiWal is a little different. There are few whom Ian and Pete would trust with a set of their pickups. Martin Petersen of Sei Basses is one, perhaps the only person. He is a luthier of huge skill and his Sei basses are real things of beauty. This one is a Flamboyant model with the rare addition of a bit of Wal...

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