Anthony Jackson & Vinny Fodera on the Fodera Presentation II Contrabass

April 21, 2014
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Anthony Jackson’s dogged determination to realize (and later, standardize) his dream instrument, the 6-string contrabass guitar, survived early detractors. Reluctant builders, closed-minded producers and engineers, and doubting peers—not to mention numerous fiscal and design dead ends—threatened to end the vision. That all changed upon Jackson’s teaming with Fodera Basses in 1986. But while the 27-year union has led to a half-dozen successful instruments, including “No. 10,” which Anthony has played exclusively since 1996, he has maintained his tireless focus when it comes to refining, improving, and evolving his invention. The same can be said of Fodera founders and builders Vinny Fodera and Joey Lauricella and partner Jason DeSalvo. So when this talented, titanium-grade think tank set out to create a new Fodera/Jackson Presentation model, musical and technological boundaries were sure to be challenged, stretched, and redefined. We headed over to Fodera’s shop in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, to get an inside look at the new Fodera/Jackson Presentation II.

Anthony, what led you to decide it was time for a new contrabass guitar?

AJ: I got very lucky with No. 10, which I’ve played longer than any other instrument—17 years. Note: No. 7, in 1988, was the first Presentation model. I learned a great deal about the correct way to design and enhance the instrument. But then a time comes when you can’t make an improvement by simply turning a screw a quarter of an inch—bigger things have to happen, and you start to feel a burning inside about some kind of successor. While trying to put a few ideas on paper, Vinny told me he’d like to try to build a full hollowbody version, one that would keep all the best qualities of my solidbody Presentation model, but add more of an acoustic character. Vinny had the idea to chamber No. 10 to get a bit more wood sound from the air vibrating in the chamber, and it is more resonant than Numbers 7, 8 and 9, but it’s not a substitute for a full hollowbody.

What was the main challenge?

AJ: To get both the wooden, warm, resonant sound of an acoustic instrument with the response, eveness, sustain, and string sound of a solidbody. If you think of a cello, the resonance occurs when energy from the string is conducted into the body; the body resonates and draws energy out of the string. If you can continually feed energy into the string, as you do with a bow, then sustain is no problem. But if you pluck a note, pizzicato-style, it dies right away. The body is so resonant it doesn’t allow the energy of the plucked string to keep the body vibrating. I’m a sustain fanatic, so we needed this instrument to have enough sustain to satisfy me, while still having a clearly discernable wooden character. To achieve a balance between the two was a very difficult, expensive, long process; and while it is a compromise, it’s a glorious compromise.

What was your reaction when you first played it in the shop, and then on a gig with Mike Stern soon after?

AJ: I knew instantly it was a successful design, which was both a sense of relief and a major victory. The Stern gig was when I was able to really relax, because that was the full-out doctorate exam, and it passed with flying colors; it was amazing! It had a richer, more complex sound than anything I’ve heard in a bass guitar. It’s louder, especially in the middle and upper register; the sound carries as beautifully up there as it does down low. When you go farther up the neck, the strings get thicker and shorter, and normally their ideal characteristics go away. On this instrument—especially on the middle four strings in from the 8th to 14th frets, but all the way up—the notes retain their sweet, rich character and touch and sustain. Coupled with the heel-less access, it never feels or sounds like you’re nearing the end of the fingerboard. Overall, the sound of wood is there, as is the sound of a steel roundwound string, but it’s richer than that; it’s the sound of the wood and metal together, which was the goal.

You’ve since used it on tour with the Michel Camilo Big Band and on recordings with Wayne Krantz and with Mike Stern and Jeff Richman.

AJ: I’ve officially retired No. 10, and I’ve been traveling with the Presentation II. That has required a bit of tweaking, as the instrument is still breaking in, on its way to stabilizing eventually. The main adjustment factor for me is the neck. It's the biggest I’ve ever played, but the sound and consistancy make it worth my while. I had my Meyer Sound system with Michel, which gave me my truest live sound, and the studio session for Mike Stern and Jeff Richman, in particular—where the instrument was optimally set up—was very revealing. I went straight to the board, and no EQ was used on the tracks. The Presentation II had excellent definition, with a very strong but tight bottom end, and lots of sustain and wood. It was successful playing it with fingers and very successful using a pick; there was no sense of thinness or excessive brightness. It balanced beautifully. All of the musicians, especially the ones whom I work with regularly, have noticed the difference immediately.

Going forward, what are your thoughts?

AJ: The Presentation II is definitely a handful, an armful, a lapful. But if the effort is put in, it will give you back so much capability as a performing artist. The timing was right for what Vinny, Joey, Jason, and I envisioned; the fact that Fodera allowed me to indulge my wildest ideas is absolutely spectacular. It’s without doubt a major achievement in my life, secondary only to my highpoints as a player.

Vinny, what led you to think about this kind of design?

Vinny Fodera: Matt Garrison approached me in 2006 about a hollowbody bass for some projects that he thought would benefit from a more acoustic-sounding instrument. That sparked the idea. Matt required a short-scale bass, with a small, thin body, and electronics onboard. We all liked the results, and it led me to think I could apply some of the principles to Anthony’s Presentation series. We agreed to go forward with a 36"-scale hybrid that a longtime client ordered, essentially funding the idea and understanding it would be a prototype. The bass was very close to hitting the mark, except the body was a little too wide for Anthony; he asked for the third hybrid [counting Garrison’s bass] to have the same body profile as his No. 10 solidbody, and I changed the internal structure accordingly, with even better results. Anthony likens it to going from an upright piano to a grand piano; it’s very piano-like and very responsive, with a rich, round, deep tone, yet it has the quick feel, reaction, and articulation you get from a solidbody. Other than the one passive pickup to amplify the strings, the instrument’s tone is purely intrinsic.

What can you offer about your proprietary bracing and neck joint?

VF: The bracing is something we want explore more before we discuss it. The design will get out there soon enough for players and builders to examine, which is fine. We deliberately kept the body a closed, sealed box, with no ƒ-holes or ports, so the bass wouldn’t feed back at high volume. With so much air inside and with this type of bracing, you get a very acoustic sound, but with a lot of sustain and punch. The carved-out neck joint is heel-less; that came from the single-cutaway solidbody I first came up with in the ’80s, at Anthony’s prodding. Anthony has golden ears, is a studied perfectionist, and always pushes me with aspects of design I wouldn’t think of. That’s why we make a great team.

Let’s talk about the woods involved.

VF: We opted for alder as the main body wood; it has a nice bass tone, it’s structurally sound and stable, and it finishes well. The bracing inside had to be a dry, resonant wood; I went with Honduras mahogany, which is a little stronger than spruce. For the top and back we chose holly, which is sonically equal to koa. I carved the top for an elegant look, but also because having more material enabled me to play around with where I carved away wood to get the maximum vibration and response. The fingerboard is ebony to balance the instrument’s warm, bassy sound. Ebony is very hard and dense, and it rings at a high pitch and adds clarity in all the ranges. The most unusual choice was red oak for the neck; it’s strong and stiff like maple, to stay put under the tension of 36"-scale strings, and the piece I chose has deep pores, so it’s full of air. We also made the headstock a little bigger and at a deeper angle, to add more mass for sustain and tighter string tension; and Anthony asked for the neck to be a little wider at the body, which is always good—the bigger the neck, the more energy stays in a plucked string.

What have you learned from this type of construction, and what does it mean for future Fodera basses?

VF: When you build a solidbody, the tone is largely at the mercy of how good that piece of wood is. But this kind of hybrid construction has so many variables, you have much more control over how the bass is going to vibrate and sound—especially with the top, which is crucial to the sound of a hollowbody. As it becomes increasingly more difficult to get good wood, and as resources dwindle, hybrid instruments might be the answer for the future. With regard to Fodera basses, the possibilities are endless. We can build any model in our catalog using this hybrid design. The challenge will be to tool up for it, to make it more affordable. As good as this bass turned out—and I can honestly say this is the best bass guitar I’ve ever built or heard—I don’t think you can ever replace the solidbody bass guitar; it’s too good, too practical, and too versatile. But now there’s a choice for those who want something in between an acoustic and an electric sound, and we’ll keep exploring it.

SPECIFICATIONS

Fodera Anthony Jackson Presentation II

Instrument type 6-string contrabass hybrid
Scale length 36"
Body size 14" wide, 4" thick
Neck width 2.31" at nut; 4.06" at end of fingerboard
Frets 28
Finish Acrylic gloss
Pickup Seymour Duncan Dual Coil
Strings Fodera Anthony Jackson Signature Set
Other Titanium tuners, D-tuner, bridge, and trussrod

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