Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Followup on the Stellartone Tonestyler Newness

Last night at home I spent over an hour on the B1 with the new setup: Nordstrand split coil pickups, with the electronic configuration shown in the image on the previous post. Top pot is volume, the center pot is a blend. Roll it clear one way, get the neck pickup, clear the other way, get the bridge pickup, and stop at the center detent and you get both 100%.

Here's the cool thing: volume remains constant through that movement. My oh my. And no hum.

Bottom pot is the Tonestyler, part #506, especially for bass.

The first thing I noticed was the fullness of tone. If you own a Barker Bass, particularly a B1, you know fullness of tone. I heard more yet. Sort of like discovering fourth gear when you're doing 90 in third (not that I've ever done that, of course, ahemmmm).

Now about the Tonestyler itself, the bottommost pot. It has detents, a most wonderful addition to this sort of thing. Rather than look down to see where the set screw is on the knob, or trust your muscle memory to move the pot just like you did last time, only in reverse direction, you just need to count the clicks!

The sounds I personally prefer are those on the bass side of things, and in running through a bunch of show tunes with a CD I was moving from full bass or one click past that in the ballads to up about 4 clicks for eighth and sixteenth note parts where I wanted more definition and a little more cut-through.

You'll find your sweet spot, or rather sweet spots somewhere along that delicious 16 click spectrum, and the gem of all this is that you can go back and get that exact sound whenever you need to.

And what a sound. Oh shut up, I heard someone over my shoulder say. Ok, ok, I'll not go back to that.

I'll just Thank Don Campbell and his company, Stellartone, for offering something with real substance to the electric players of the world. The Barker Beanie is off to you, Don!


In the next week I'll get some pictures of this bass, #99. Actually, she doesn't look any different from her siblings. Disguised. Stealth Barker. Beware.

Perhaps she'll go trick-or-treating with me. I'll dress up like an old guy who likes to make tall basses.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Relentless Innovation vs. Let It Be

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

If that bromide had been extant when Leo Fender's Precision Bass had been accepted by the world, how little we'd have now. For sure, we wouldn't have the Jazz Bass. The idea of not one, but two pickups! Wow!

The initial decision at Barker Musical Instruments to use the traditional, single coil Jazz Bass electronic array was a conscious one: It represents a known, it is versatile enough to respond to an array of tonal demands from players of many different schools, and it just looks, well, right.

The later decision to add the Precision Bass configuration in the lower cost (well, we like to say, "more accessible" but this time I'm not going to) Brio model was partly to honor Leo's groundbreaking instrument and partly to offer a choice. Both layouts have their passionate adherents.

Will you see more of this movement toward complexity from Barker Musical Instruments? Well, on my watch, you probably won't see anything approaching the image above on the right. (The gentle pejorative is "knob farm" but in fact there are wonderful bassists, especially the extended range players like Stew McKinsey (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stew_McKinsey) and Gregory Bruce Campbell (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_Bruce_Campbell), whose breadth of musical ability and imagination respond to options way beyond what we mere mortals can grasp.)

Still I attempt to remain open to subtle improvements that can combine with the inherent and unique sonic virtues of the Barker Bass--tone and sustain, mainly--to lead the player's hands to discover something new, exciting and useful.

The image on the left is the underbelly of an exciting option to the Barker Bass. I have mentioned with some anticipation the Stellartone Tonestyler. Now, thanks to Don Campbell from that company, I have combined it with a slightly different wiring scheme that changes the Jazz configuration from volume, volume, tone to volume, pickup blend (with center detent), Stellartone. The first one off the bench, tuned and plugged in, gave me goose bumples from note 1.

It is an outstanding improvement. In time, the parts and schematic will be available on the Barker site (www.barkerbass.com) for retrofit and it will also be possible to order this configuration on an otherwise stock B1 four or five string.

The Stellartone Tonestyler also brings new shades and sweep of tone to the Brio, in a simple replacement of the tone pot.

Like your Barker as it is? Let it be.

Want a little more? We can do that.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


"Virginia, you must not sing. Do not ever sing." That was her stepmother, the piano teacher. The little girl looked down at her ragged shoes, looked up, and when it was clear there was no more to be heard, turned and walked quietly away.

She didn't sing. But when her daughter was old enough for band, somehow the family came up with a clarinet. There wasn't a lot to do in that little Montana town, so the daughter got good enough on that clarinet to get some college scholarship money.

She could sing, too. That, went the story, came from her dad, but that conclusion was reached in the absence of what she might have gained, both genetically and experientially, from her mother.

Her son, two years junior, sought the trumpet. Those were the guys who got to stand up and play solos, after all. What's not to like about trumpet? But through a couple of strange twists, he ended up lugging an old, silver, dented Eb upright tuba home.

Practice sounds in that small house couldn't have been anything close to enjoyable.

He, too, excelled on his instrument. No solos, but plenty of encouragement at home. And eventually at one college, after auditioning, heard, "I'll match any scholarship you get offered anywhere else." He landed at a different school for other reasons, where the tuba contributed four years of scholarship money.

The third child, somewhat later, is a singer like her sister, and took to the guitar, mostly as self accompaniment. She, too, would talk of the encouragement.

Virginia was proud of her kids, but never prouder than they were of her when, as a widow who had scarcely ever had a job, she went to business school, graduated at the head of her class, and took a position as a medical secretary. She eventually retired from that office.

Things looked good. She had purchased a house on her own and her three children were grown and gone and making their way in the world.

"You have two choices, Virginia," the doctor said. "Either stay here in Montana and die or go to Seattle and take a course of experimental treatment. Aplastic anemia is fatal."

She opted for the experiment. That was 1981. In the course of the treatment she was getting one or two blood transfusions a week. When that series was completed, she moved near her son. No one knew how long she'd live...a few days? a month? six weeks? six months? It's the stuff you don't talk about. When the subject comes up, you look down at your shoes, look back up, and walk away.

She lived to get to know and love her five grandchildren and four greatgranchildren. Plus two stepgrandchildren and three greatgrandchildren from them.

All these kids are growing up knowing the power of encouragement that she modeled. All will know her story, of conquering a fatal disease and living not days, not weeks, but 27 more years.

Virginia Barker died October 14, 2008 at age 90. She was preceded in death by her husband, Brentwood Barker, in 1968. She is survived by her daughters, Bernie and Cathy, and her son, Lee.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Anatomy of a Part

This might be boh-ring. I'll try for scalpel-like editing and terse sentences.

It was clear in the early aesthetic evolution of the Barker Bass that something needed to happen in the center of the lower bout. The tailpiece was the logical reference to the vaguely ancestral orchestral bass.

At the same time I had imagined a bass with extra long strings that went through a custom bridge and then were gathered near the top of the tailpiece, just as orchestral bass strings attach there.

That concept was a failure for a number of reasons, the most compelling of which was the bother of the longer strings. I wanted owners to be able to access the delightfully wide range of available standard length electric bass strings in order to plumb the depths of the sonic possibilities of the Barker body. (terse sentence score: -14)

Another downside of this string-gathering idea was the necessity to remove the tailpiece to change strings. Not attractive, as were the screws to allow that.

So along with the upside of the sleek tailpiece came the challenge of attaching it in such a way that, while the fasteners were invisible, the tailpiece itself could still be removed in the prelude to a refinish job sometime downstream.

It took a while. I keep a gallery of failures on my wall, silent sentinels reminding me of ways not to make a Barker Bass. They are indeed my friends, and the idea of relegating them to the dumpster was repugnant.

Poring over unlikely catalogs of fasteners finally yielded the answer: A "semi-permanent" (their words) two piece attachment device which, though inexpensive on a per each basis, required considerable development in the preparation of the mating surfaces and the eventual development of a purpose-built machine dedicated just to inserting the part into the tailpiece. (terse sentence score: -21)

The machine is named after Jim Erickson, longtime co-member of the Dry Canyon Philharmonick, who was helping me in the shop at the time. I will subsequently take a picture of the machine and back-post it on the blog (translation: the camera is at home).

Violin family instruments typically and traditionally have ebony tailpieces which match the ebony fingerboard and provide a nice visual completion of that strong central line. I preferred not to use ebony for the tailpiece and save that highly valued wood for fingerboards, its highest and best use.

The next deep challenge of the tailpiece was to make it look so much like ebony there would never be a question whether it actually was. Again, over time, the solution was developed to a measurable degree beyond my highest expectations. (TSS: -9)

Most think it's ebony. You are now on the inside! Maybe it was worth the unterse sentences!

Thus ends this brief exposition on the history and development of the tailpiece, a visual component of the Barker Bass unique to the B1 series. How it got there is still cloaked in a little mystery, but somewhat less than when you started this boh-ring post.

Not bad, eh?

I know, I can do better.