Here’s a subject I’m certain will be a rare occurrence to the Armchair Maestro pages. The capacity for storing more instruments in my apartment is practically non-existent, and I don’t think the others warrant as interesting a discussion. That could very well change if inspiration strikes, but for the time being I’ll introduce you to my Squier Vintage Modified Bass VI.
The beauty about a musician and their collection of musical instruments is that everybody has their own rationale behind their purchases. People have the right to do whatever they chose with their money, but when I look for a musical instrument, I want to go with something unlike what I already have. Heck, I’d love to have an arsenal of dozens of Fender Jazz basses in all the colors of the rainbow, but I’m not a gigging musician nor do I have that kind of disposable income. I think of an instrument as a tool, so while someone may think that a bass is a bass and one is enough, nuances exist that may justify additional purchases. That’s what makes the Squier (or Fender) VI so interesting to me.
While I had a vague understanding of the instrument, I first came across a black-bodied version in-person hanging up in the bass room of The Arts Music Store in Newmarket, Ontario a bit over a year ago. I didn’t want to make a hasty decision, but the temptation to walk out with it was strong. This was one of those instruments I’d often heard whispers about, but never seen in use in spite of hearing it on more than one occasion. Further product reviews teamed with my own fifteen-minute in-store experimenting lead me to ordering the pictured white version from the proprietors at Wilson and Lee. I’ve been frequenting the store since I was a teenager, and it felt proper to place the order with a business that has served my family well for nearly 20 years.
So I proudly added this gorgeous bass to my arsenal, which also includes a fretless Squier Jazz bass, a six-string Ibanez bass, a Seagull acoustic guitar, and a Yamaha electronic drum set (which I plan on eventually selling). Some may be wondering why I’d bother getting a second six-string bass. Doesn’t that go against my diversity policy? Not exactly. Six-string basses, in their most common form, are tuned (from lowest note to highest) BEADGC. The VI is tuned like the typical guitar (EADGBE) except the notes produced are an octave lower. Among other differences, the length of the neck has a 30-inch scale, which places it somewhere in between standard dimensions of a traditional guitar (25 to 26 inches) and bass (33 to 34 inches). It also features two knobs and four switches (three for pickup on/off functionality, and the fourth is apparently a bass boost). I’m still working on how to make the best out of each combination. I most often been setting with the left-most down and the rest up, allowing my pedal to get more of the sound variations. I also play it primarily with a pick unlike my other basses, but occasionally pluck with my fingers or strum with my fingernails.
Another aspect that makes this stand apart from other basses is the inclusion of a vibrato arm, commonly called a ‘tremolo bar’, ‘whammy bar’ and occasionally a ‘wang bar’ by the deeply perverted. The only bassists that I could remember making use of one are Les Claypool in the “John The Fisherman” video, and lesser known but nonetheless technically adept bassist Randy Coven. The tremolo bar is essentially used to temporarily detune or shift the pitch of the note played by the loosening or tightening of the string as you pull or push the bar. It can be an enjoyable feature, but I usually remove the arm when I play. I also still need to make a determination on what amplification is typically used for these instruments. My only option at the moment is playing it through my Peavey TNT 150 bass amp, and I’m not sure which guitar amps would be able to handle the lower frequencies. For the most part, I play my electric instruments through an effects pedal with headphones, so I’m not terribly concerned. There are several product reviews and videos online that can walk you through a demo of the instrument, so have a look for those if you want to get more of the technical aspects.
Once I decided to find a place for the Fender VI in my collection, I began to take inventory of my music collection. While I had recalled plenty of cases where one was used, I was tricked on a few occasions. I know the liner notes of the Anthrax album Sound of White Noise list both Frank Bello and Scott Ian as playing 6-string bass, but (at least in the case of Scott Ian) it turns out to be Jerry Jones basses in use. I also got a bit too excited when seeing guitarist Steve Von Till of Neurosis play what I thought was a Fender VI at a concert (it was a custom Warmoth guitar). There are also other artists, such as The Presidents of The United States of America and Buke and Gase, that use their own customized guitar/bass hybrid instruments to construct their own unique styles.
One could debate about whether the Fender VI is a guitar or if it’s a bass. I see it as both. It really depends on what the musician chooses to do with it. On that note, here’s a selection of musicians I’ve found in my own collection who have actually made use of the instrument.
Let’s get the most famous user out of the Fender VI out of the way. As influential as The Beatles are, their influence did not spread to elevate this instrument to the iconic status of Paul McCartney’s Hofner basses or John Lennon and George Harrison’s Rickenbacker guitars (more on that gear here). If the pic above looks foreign to you, don’t be too alarmed. From what I’ve been able to find, Lennon used a Fender VI mostly during sessions for their self-titled ‘White Album’. To be as complete as possible for Beatles fans, I’ve seen the VI as a credited instrument of Lennon’s on “Back In The U.S.S.R.”, “Rocky Raccoon”, “Helter Skelter”,“Dig It”, and “The Long and Winding Road”, plus Harrison used one on “Birthday”, “Honey Pie”, and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. While that’s a good number of songs the VI featured in, I’m not sure if either John or George ever took one on the road with them.
Of all the above, I’m going to focus on “Helter Skelter”. I’ve heard journalists refer to it as a proto-metal song, an early example of where heavy metal may have (at least partially) derived it’s sound. The ties the song has to mass murderer Charles Manson may be a contributing factor in the mystique and lending it an unintentionally darker meaning, I’d consider it to be more punk in terms of energy than anything. I’m not about to debate such statements too deeply, butknowing the uniqueness of the VI first-hand, I can now see the source of the track’s heaviness. While it’s already up front in the mix, here’s a link to Lennon’s bass track isolated. Rough around the edges in terms of execution, but I love the growl produced.
Joe Perry (Aerosmith)
Tom Hamilton may be the bassist of Aerosmith, but lead guitarist Joe Perry tried his hand at it with use of the Fender VI on “Back In The Saddle”, which kicks off their Rocks record. I couldn’t find a picture of Perry using one, but he is using another interesting piece of equipment here, the talkbox he famously used on “Sweet Emotion”. I’m not going to go into detail about that piece of equipment. I just wanted a photo of him from the 70’s, and didn’t want you thinking he was taking a juice break.
From the moment I had first heard this song, I knew Joe Perry was using a six-string, but it isn’t the one I imagined. What we know know as the typical BEADGC-tuned bass was even less-common than the Fender VI in the 70’s, with jazz fusion bassist Anthony Jackson being one of it’s earliest players. Listening to the song, it’s definitely what gives the song a sound all it’s own, but I must give credit to Brad Whitford and his admirable job at taking the lead guitarist slot. Perry and Whitford play well off each other, and the song grooves so hard that it was destined to become a classic of theirs.
I’ve seen plenty of Aerosmith performances, but couldn’t recall whether Joe Perry uses the VI when they play the song live. For most bands, it wouldn’t be very practical to bring an instrument that is used on only one song. Aerosmith doesn’t have such concerns. He may not play one now, but he does use a six-string Ernie Ball Music Man when this song comes up in their setlist.
Robert Smith (The Cure)
I’d love to expand my Cure collection, as it is sitting at three albums for the time being (The Head on The Door, Disintegration, and Wish). Robert Smith has used the instrument on several occasions since Disintegration, and even has a history of taking an interesting bass role going as far back as “Primary” off Faith, so is isn’t very difficult to see him making good use of the six-string bass. If you want to expand your personal research of the Fender VI with Youtube, play-throughs of The Cure songs will surely be among your most predominant findings. To go directly to the band, I’ll refer you to this live clip of “Pictures of You”, which gives a nice glimpse of how well the VI can lock in with a “proper” bassist. This is one of the first songs I ever heard by the band, and it quickly became a favourite of mine.
Much like Joe Perry, Robert Smith seemed to transition towards a different instrument when Fender models became more scarce. Smith has a custom instrument available from Schecter called the UltraCure VI that seems to share much in common with not only Fender’s bass, but Schecter’s Ultra and Hellcat lines. It’s worth pointing out these other models of six-string basses to know that other options do exist on the market.
Sergio Vega (The Deftones)
The tragic circumstances surrounding The Deftones’ founding bassist Chi Cheng brought a new voice into the band. Ex-Quicksand member Sergio Vega brought the band a much-needed boost, and enabled them to maintain an impressive streak of consistency. While I was a fan of the band in high school, I admit that I ignored the band’s output for a good decade when expanding my tastes in metal into more extreme directions like death and black metal. The transition of the bass role went as I was into that phase, and it wasn’t until the release of Koi No Yokan in 2012 that I dove back into Deftones fandom. This was not the Deftones I remembered from high school. There’s something about the sound that matured, evolving toward a less metallic sound yet is somehow heavier in a way that’s hard to describe.
When I was younger, I had a hard time figuring out bass lines in certain songs because Stephen Carpenter’s guitar was the dominant aspect of their sound to my ears. Sergio plays a VI on their latest album Gore, which I’m not sure makes deciphering the low-end fretwork any easier because I didn’t even know about it until I decided to write about the instrument. While Carpenter’s eight-string guitars can invade Vega’s bass frequency range, songs like “(L)MIRL” leave enough breathing room for the VI’s sound to shine through.
Being the latest release featuring the bass that I’m mentioning, any decent music store should have a copy of Gore, so excuses for not checking it out are hard to come by.
Roy Babbington (Soft Machine)
Roy Babbington may not have been the first bassist in Soft Machine, but he is the longest serving in that role. In fact, his history with the band extends years before he was named an official member. You can hear his well-rounded playing on their Fourth and Fifth albums, on which he provided some upright bass before joining them permanently. His first album as a member, Seven, doesn’t outright list what model of instrument he plays. However, a shot of him on the back of the record sleeve does show him holding the Fender VI, which he appears to have also used in his previous band, Nucleus.
Babbington’s technique is evidence that you don’t need to treat the instrument as a guitar. All the footage I’ve seen features him plucking the strings with his fingers, playing more traditional bass parts to serve as the glue that holds down the rhythm. For some context of Babbington’s role within Soft Machine, here’s a great performance of “The Tale of Taliesin” from their Softs album.
I’ll be seeing him with the band on their 50th anniversary tour next week. It would be quite the surprise if Babbington still incorporates the VI into the live show. However, considering the age of the remaining band members (he’ll be 78 at the date of the concert), I’ll consider myself lucky to have caught them live at all.
You may not think that you don’t know Bill Laswell, but believe me, odds are that you do. You can get lost exploring this man’s career, from his genre-hopping production work spanning from Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock, Mick Jagger’s She’s The Boss, and Motorhead’s Orgasmatron, re-mix work of songs by Peter Gabriel and Bob Marley, and as the visionary behind projects including Material and Praxis. If you still think you don’t know the man, one of his nearly 2,000 other credits has probably crossed your path.
The project that, to the best of my knowledge, he used the Fender VI on exclusively was Last Exit, an experimental super-group that also includes saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, guitarist Sonny Sharrock, and drummer/vocalist Ronald Shannon Jackson. Based off their self-titled album I own, I would refer to as “punk jazz” to put a label on them. It sounds too extreme sounding to be considered jazz in a traditional sense, but is a high in aggression art form that like most free-form jazz, cares little about labels and rules. Laswell takes up the bass chair, but as a result of playing the Fender VI seems to come across much of the time sounding as more of a rhythm guitar while Sharrock and Brotzmann run frantically over the top. Granted, there are definite occasions where Laswell’s prowess still shines through, such as “Crackin” and “Zulu Butter”.
Jack Bruce (Cream)
I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t have a Cream album in my collection at the time I purchased the bass, but that was remedied upon receiving Wheels of Fire as a Christmas gift. Prior to that, I did own three of his solo album, one of which (Things We Like) features exclusive use of the double bass, but perhaps Songs for a Tailor or Out Of The Storm features the VI in some form without giving it credit.
When contemplating the purchase of my Squier VI, I saw “Sunshine of Your Love” was used to demo it in one of the Youtube videos I watched to get more insight. It must be that you can get the crunch of the guitar in combination with the low end of the bass depending on how you play the iconic riff, that you can get the sound of two instruments in one, that made it an effective presentation. He doesn’t use it every time they play that song, and I don’t know if that song ever featured the Fender VI, but every instance in which I’ve seen Bruce with it was while he was in Cream.
There is no shortage of photos where Bruce is holding the VI. If you’re an educated enough fan, you can likely trace back one of them to a performance date or studio session. To provide at least one video example, here are Cream miming “Strange Brew” for the Beat-Club. In this clip, Bruce (like Roy Babbington) opts to pluck his VI with his fingers, which is a possible reason why I can’t determine by ear if that’s what was used in the studio recordings.
I have to mention Cocteau Twins. They are one of those bands that when you purchase their music, you’ve got a 99% chance that the store clerk will compliment you on your good taste. Their music is layered in a manner that feels both minimal and dense at once, and Elizabeth Fraser has a voice unique to herself. I only have two albums by these “dream-pop” innovators, Heaven or Las Vegas and a newly-purchased 180-gram vinyl reissue of Treasure, and unfortunately neither of them list enough info in the packaging about the musicians and recording session details. Their mesmerizing sound collages can make it can be difficult to tell what gear is being used, or even from what instrument the sound originated. I’ve seen credit on the internet given to both guitarist Robin Guthrie and bassist Simon Raymonde as using the six-string bass, but can’t find definitive proof that pin-points the tracks and albums on which they appear.
It’s a bit of a guess when it comes to this band. Most photos of Robin Guthrie he is holding a similarly shaped Fender Jazzmaster to add to my difficulty. However, with some digging, I believe I can spot Raymonde using one in the “Crushed” video, and I may have spotted it again in this performance of “Love’s Easy Tears”. I see the whammy bar, and can count six machine heads through the alleged 360p resolution. This is a work in progress for me, as I intended on getting deeper into their discography regardless of their use of the VI. One of these two places may be where I head to next.
If only there was an easy way to confirm that I’m seeing things correctly. And if the VI is what is shown, was that in fact what they used on the recordings or in video only? Any help out there?
Sveinung Hovensjø (Terje Rypdal Band)
I’ve saved the most obscure VI player on my list for the end. I list Terje Rypdal alongside bassist Sveinung Hovensjø in the title because it was through him that I inadvertently stumbled across him, who was a regular collaborator of Rypdal’s for five years. Rypdal himself is a guitarist who is overlooked in jazz fusion. He’s often described as stylistically similar to John McLaughlin, but there aren’t many 70s jazz guitarists that could escape such a comparison. You can see both musicians in the following televised clips from French TV in 1973 and on NRK-TV in 1978. It blows me away that there were channels playing this type of music on them at all. At least I can be thankful there are modern day equivalents such as NPR that showcase a variety of music with their Tiny Desk Concert program.
Hovensjø may not have used it in every project of his I’ve managed to locate, but that’s not to say his other work is not of any interest. While playing with a project like Bruno, I can appreciate seeing a whole other side to him. With that feel for the groove, I can envision him on certain gigs throwing some slaps in there that must have earned him the ‘Thunder Thumb’ nickname. I’ve got to keep my eyes peeled for that footage. But to get back on point, Hovensjø still plays the instrument to this day. Well, I’m not sure about the actual day you happen to be reading, but here he is as recently as 2016 with a band (or possibly a song) called Trio De Janeiro.
I non-apologetically play the broken record as I consider this yet another research in progress, as I anticipate getting more music featuring Rypdal and Hovensjø in my collection. It would also make things a lot simpler if I learn how to pronounce either of their names.
This list could go on for quite some time, so I’ll cut it off here. I know I’m leaving off several examples, so to get further details on this unique instrument and it’s noteworthy players, learn more straight from the horse’s mouth with this profile by Fender. The Wikipedia page for the VI also has an extended list if you wish to verify some additional uses.