ONE OF THE GREAT THINGS ABOUT working at BASS PLAYER was the access it gave me to both musicians and instrument makers. As a freelance writer, I had done many artist interviews and profiles, but I hadn’t had many opportunities to talk to bass builders and learn about their work. That changed in a hurry after I arrived at BP. We were constantly churning out product reviews, factory tours, and roundtable discussions with builders, as well as seeing loads of new gear at trade shows every year. I loved it, and I learned a lot about the creativity and craftsmanship that goes into making our instruments. (I later organized much of that information for my second book, American Basses.)
Sometimes writing an article involved talking to both an outstanding artist and an outstanding builder. One prime example was my feature about Michael Manring’s third album, Drastic Measures [Windham Hill]. Not only did I sit down with Manring and producer Steve Rodby—an outstanding bassist himself—to go through the album track by track, I also got the inside story of the creation of the Zon Hyperbass, the new Manring-inspired instrument that made its recording debut on Drastic Measures.
One of the most amazing aspects of Michael Manring’s work is his mastery of retuning to create a sonic palette for his compositions. For the article, he explained which instruments and tuning(s) he used for each piece on his new album—and why he had asked Joe Zon to build him a new kind of bass that would allow him to more fully explore the artistic possibilities of alternate tunings.
ABOUT THE MUSIC
Preproduction work on Drastic Measures began early last year, when Manring recorded about 20 songs in his home studio and sent the demos to Rodby. “I tried to pick the strongest tunes,” says Steve. “I wanted to make an intense record, one that would powerfully communicate Michael’s strengths.” Rodby and Manring eventually agreed on a program of 11 tunes: seven ensemble pieces and four solo-bass features. “We wanted to balance the album,” notes Rodby. “We agreed there should be a balance of solo pieces and ensemble pieces, fast music and slow music, simple music and complicated music. One of the ironies about Michael’s music is that it’s almost always ten times harder than it sounds. That’s good for the listeners, but it also causes a certain misperception. Some of his music, especially the solo pieces, is simply amazing. The first time I saw him play, I had to ask myself: Where are those notes coming from? A lot of what Michael does isn’t fast and linear; it has vertical density. If he does it really well, if it’s perfectly in tune and elegantly performed, you’re just presented with the music.”
ABOUT THE INSTRUMENT
The Zon Hyperbass was under development for about a year, and it was completed just in time to be used on Drastic Measures. Although it shares some characteristics with Zon’s standard models, including a graphite neck glued to an alder body, it was essentially designed from the ground up. Obvious at first glance are the unusually long phenolic-resin fingerboard— a full three octaves—and the radical body shape, which gives Manring complete access to the highest notes. To facilitate quick retunings, the headstock has four custom-made Hipshot machines, and the massive bridge sports two levers, one that raises and lowers all four saddles together, and another that can be “assigned” to one or more saddles with set screws … By flipping the detuners and bridge levers, Manring can choose from dozens of possible tunings— although he actually uses “only about 40.”