Imagine a scenario where a dulcimer and bass guitar hook up after a gig, head off to a bar for a few drinks, and nine months later, the result of their romantic interlude is an instrument that embodies the best attributes of both. That’s what John Shelton of Wisconsin must have imagined when he came up with the Bassimer. (Actually, he got the idea after visiting a Kentucky dulcimer shop.) I was first introduced to this instrument by Victor Wooten, who played a beautiful melody on it. While it’s true that Vic could strum a tree branch and make it sound beautiful (something he’s probably done at one of his Bass/Nature camps), the unique sound of the Bassimer is what caught my ear. The Bassimer offers a rich and resonant open tuning, with one A offsetting the instrument’s plethora of D strings. Its tone and voicing immediately brought to mind Michael Manring, a bass player famous for his use of odd tunings and unorthodox string types.
Our test Bassimer STD sported a poplar body covered in industrial hammered paint. The medium frets dive into the rosewood fingerboard just below the D2 string, making the bass a fretted/fretless hybrid. While I dug this aspect of the instrument, I found that chords were difficult to play as a result, since barring across the neck made the fretless string ring flat. A single Mighty Mite soapbar pickup sits closer to the bridge than the neck, allowing room for the upside-down-mounted EBow, located below the octave-spaced double-course top strings.
Speaking of that, the EBow feature is way cool. In the 3-position switch’s down position it functions normally, accentuating the first-order harmonic sound, and in the “up” position it adds more high-harmonic texture. We bassists have few calls to use anything like an EBow, so getting to experiment with one was an absolute blast, especially when I combined it with a loop pedal.
The STD model is basic in many respects, with inexpensive electronics and construction materials; higher-end models can be customized to one’s own specifications (although all Bassimers are short-scale basses, usually 30"–32"). If painted poplar is not your thing, you can upgrade to mahogany, maple, etc.; pickups and electronics can vary as well. The heel/neck joint on our tester was not as tight as I would like, perhaps due to the fact that Shelton uses existing short-scale necks rather than constructing them in connection with a particular body. Also, the electronics cavity was unshielded. However, these aspects seemed to have little or no effect on the instrument’s sound.
The key to easy playing involves thinking of the bass as a reverse dulcimer to some degree, utilizing the outer strings for droning and the middle strings for chording and/or melody creation. After just a few minutes with the Bassimer, I was able to compose a short piece that was both fun to play and (according to my wife) not unpleasant to hear. The inexpensive soapbar pickup proved ample in providing clear and vibrant tones, and the tone control worked well, especially in relationship to the EBow control; rolling off the tone when utilizing the EBow yielded softer, more flute-like tones. On his website, Shelton provides several videos of him playing original compositions on the dulcimer, which will give you some idea of how one might approach the instrument, but the fun of this bass is really trying to figure it out for yourself.
All of us here enjoyed exploring the Bassimer, and each tended to approach it from a different musical perspective. I found the instrument inspiring and delightfully friendly in terms of the learning curve, so we’ll likely be seeing more of these little bass/dulcimer ankle-biters running around in the future. —Rod Taylor
Pros Innovative sounds, easy to play, huge fun factor
Cons Some minor construction issues
Weight 6.9 lbs
Made in U.S.A.
Warranty One year limited