Retro-Rama, 1930s Pfretzschner Aluminum Upright Bass

THIS METAL MONSTER IS A DIFFERENT breed indeed.
By DAVE POMEROY ,

THIS METAL MONSTER IS A DIFFERENT breed indeed. As long as there have been musical instruments, there have builders trying unconventional materials. In the 1890s, a few companies began producing aluminum instruments. Most went out of business fairly quickly, and no evidence of an aluminum upright bass surfaced until the late 1920s.

This aluminum upright was made sometime in the 1930s by G.A. Pfretzschner, a German instrument maker in the town of Markneukirchen, in the famous “Music Corner” region of eastern Germany, now home to Framus and Warwick. There were a number of other companies that experimented with aluminum basses back in that era—including Alcoa, a company much better known for foil and cans! The concept was simple: metal is stronger than wood and less subject to the stresses of time and weather. The U.S. Navy used aluminum basses during World War II for their durability in humid onboard conditions, and later many were also found in band camps such as Interlochen, at least one of which was used for late-night boating excursions. Speaking of boats, here’s how I came to find it:

Not long ago, I was discussing string basses with a couple of friends when I was asked by one who had seen this bass at a local violin shop, “What would an aluminum bass be good for?” It was a great setup line, so I said, “Maybe a planter or a boat!” We laughed it off, but the next night I watched the Nashville Symphony play an outdoor show and was forced to rethink my answer. Lo and behold, the NSO’s newest bassist, Kevin Yablonski, was playing the very same bass my friend had mentioned the night before. I asked Kevin about it, and he told me his “outdoor” bass was still in Ohio, so he had rented this bass for the night. When I asked how he liked it, he smiled and said, “Well, it’s really loud—and sounds pretty good!” Turns out that being funny is not always the same as being right . . . .

The Alcoa basses were 100 percent aluminum and were welded together seamlessly, often covered with a brown faux wood-grain finish. Not surprisingly, they sound pretty harsh, according to most descriptions I have found. This Pfretzschner has a fair amount of wood inside, which definitely helps mellow out the tone. The neck is wood, as are the interior corner blocks, bass bar, and back brace, all of which are bolted into place. The soundpost also rests on a wooden platform. The rivet and divot count is really high on this bass. Someone must have used it for BB or pellet gun practice, as there are dozens of little round dents on the back!

This bass actually sounds amazingly good. It is loud and aggressive, with a lot of sustain and the crispy top end one might expect from a metal bass. There is a strange reverb effect from the metal cavity that works well as an effect of sorts for solo playing, but could get to be a bit much after a while. A cool side effect is that the metal body sounds awesome as a percussion instrument, somewhere between a timbale and a steel drum. The arco sound is big and bright, and it cuts through like a knife.

There are still a few of these basses floating around, and any aluminum-body bass certainly will always be a visual attraction. Ira Dean, former bassist for the band Trick Pony, has a custom aluminum bass with working headlights, complete with wipers! I, for one, won’t make a joke the next time somebody asks me about something that seems crazy at first. Special thanks to Dustin Williams of Williams Fine Violins in Nashville for the loan of the bass and insight on its construction. Tune in next month for an interesting sequel.

Many thanks to all who have offered assistance to Nashville bassists who lost gear in the horrific flood of May 1 and 2, especially Sean Smith and Lane Baldwin, who have spearheaded the “Low Notes for Nashville” charity effort. We also have a Musicians Flood Relief Fund at nashvillemusicians.org, a hundred percent of which goes to musicians who lost equipment in the flood. Once again, we have shown that the “Brotherhood of the Bass” is a living, breathing thing.