When Jaco said, “the sound is in my hands,” he was talking about the intimate connection between player and instrument that begins with the strings. No matter how advanced your bass may be or how sophisticated your signal chain has become, you need the right strings to get the right sound. That was a key theme of a discussion I had with Eric Cocco, vice president of La Bella/E. & O. Mari, Inc.
La Bella is a family-owned business that traces its roots back to Italy in the 17th century. Brothers Emilio and Olinto Mari immigrated to New York City early in the 20th century and established the La Bella brand in 1920. They opened a factory in Long Island City in 1937, and 40 years later, they moved production to Newburgh, New York, where it remains today. All La Bella products are made in this 40,000-square-foot facility, and every string is made from American wire. “There are a lot of U.S. companies buying wire that’s drawn overseas,” says Eric. “It’s lower-quality—period. We’re sticking to our guns and using only the good stuff made here.”
The La Bella name has always been associated with the flatwounds used on early Fender basses. After Rotosound strings were introduced in 1963, many bassists opted for the brighter sound of roundwounds—but recently there has been a move back to flats. Eric attributes this resurgence to historical factors, including admiration for the sound of such players as James Jamerson and Duck Dunn, and also to the versatility of onboard electronics and modern amplifiers. “You can do a lot with flats that you couldn’t in the past,” he says. “I have friends who are slapping with flats. They’re like, ‘Oh, I just turn this knob to get the sound for that, and then I can go back to the darker sound.’”
Another classic La Bella product that has seen a revival are nylon tape-wound strings, available with black or white wraps. “The numbers on those have gone through the roof,” says Eric. “They have a unique sound, and they’re being used by boutique builders making instruments with chambered bodies, piezo pickups, things like that.”
As much as he has enjoyed the renewed interest in classic La Bella strings, Eric has also been working hard to create new products in response to player input. These include the Rx Series, roundwounds that have been re-engineered for lighter tension and increased responsiveness. Eric asked artists to test different versions, eventually settling on strings with lighter cores and more windings. He describes them as “more musical” and says he has been gratified by the positive response from such players as Chuck Rainey and Rubén Rodriguez. The Rx 5-string sets have a lighter B than many competitive sets, an innovation that Eric is especially proud of. “A lot of players were insisting on these big strings—.135, .140—and I had a hard time convincing them to try a .118. I’d give them the string without telling them the gauge, and they’d be like, ‘Wow, what is this? It’s so punchy and strong!’”
Four years ago, Eric moved La Bella beyond string making by teaming up with luthier Mas Hino to make Olinto basses, named in honor of his great-grandfather. Hino, well known for his work at Rudy’s Music Stop, is hand-building instruments inspired by the 1963 Fender Precision. “You often see builders getting companies to make their [private-label] strings,” says Eric, “but we did it the opposite way.” Ed Friedland reviewed an Olinto in BP’s August ’15 issue, praising it for “nailing the important stuff” and saying it had that “elusive magic” found only in certain special instruments.
The Olinto basses are made at The Guitar Shop NYC in Brooklyn, where Eric has established a retail sales and repair operation. He sees the shop as a hub for the area’s musicians, a place where they can meet, try out gear, attend clinics, and benefit from their shared interests. “It’s what I remember from the stores I went to as a kid. It’s been amazing—and it’s made me a better string maker.”
For more about La Bella Strings, go to labella.com.
Jim Roberts was the founding editor of Bass Player and also served as the magazine’s publisher and group publisher. He is the author of How the Fender Bass Changed the World and American Basses: An Illustrated History & Player’s Guide (both published by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard).