Roy Babbington - Bass

Babbington’s bass line CV is impressive including work with Ben Webster, Keith Tippett, Tubby Hayes, Mose Allison, Soft Machine and Gary Burton. “I was 12 when father reckoned that I was at a loose end,” he says. At the time his father was playing bass in the local dance band. “He introduced me to the double bass, stood me on a little stool about six inches high, wrote out the scales of C and Db and pretty much left me to it.”
Clearly the kid showed promise and Babbington’s father took him to Charles Foot’s in London where he bought a blonde, birds eye maple plywood bass. “It was my choice,” says Babbington. “A young boy looking to impress the world. We were told it was an experimental instrument from the Leipzig music fair – the early days of laminates. As a musical instrument it was a failure.”

Babbington’s professional career started after reading the Melody Maker. “I saw two jobs advertised for bass players – one in London and one in Aberdeen. I was 17 and went for the one in Aberdeen at the Beach Ballroom.” From there he played the Locarno in Glasgow, which was followed by some work for Scottish television.

In 1968, Babbington bought the bass that was to become his regular partner over the next 40 years. “I was playing in Middlesborough at the time and saw this gorgeous instrument – £75 – made by Karl Hammerschmidt in Romania, apparently around 1910. It’s beautifully built and because of the wood and the carving, has become the envy of many bass and fiddle players.” Although the Hammerschmidt is clearly his favourite, Babbington has also owned five other basses. These include a nameless German bass from the 1920s – which he still owns. “It’s very good under the bow and very soft on the thumb. It has had many repairs to the front, but still comes back singing. I’ve also had a Hawkes Concert, which was very good for Philharmonic work. And then there was the one that came out of a scout hut – all taped up. I had that rebuilt by George Blackburn.”

So what’s Babbington’s string choice. “My first strings were Scandinavian steel Lycons. They were lovely to work with and didn’t tear your fingers to pieces – lovely and smooth – silk under the finger.” Babbington moved away from Lycon strings as the D string used to buzz as it got overworked – and this was no good for session work in the studio. So he changed to Thomastik Weich “which I still persist with.” And what about bows? “I use a Vickers bow with a silver frog – quite heavy and very well balanced. You can get right down to triple ‘ppp’ – right down to the tip without it bouncing off the strings as some lighter bows do. Play nice and slowly and it still pulls the sound out. You can also use the German grip as well as the French grip – which is quite useful if you want to play something forceful.”

I remember seeing Babbington’s credit on some early Soft Machine albums, and realise that he must also play bass guitar. “Yes, I do play bass guitar, but it was never intended. I really don’t like bass guitars. Whenever I picked one up, I thought horrible – and gave it back.” Babbington takes up the story. “In the early-1970s I was booked to support the New Seekers in Middlesborough and I asked a local player whether I could borrow his bass guitar and what turned up was a six string Fender. I became absolutely transfixed by this instrument. I enjoyed it so much that I didn’t want to give it back! So as soon as he demanded it back, I was on the next train to London to get myself a six string Fender bass. I got a 1962 model from Pan Music, which I gather is about the best you can get.” Babbington has subsequently extended his electric bass arsenal. “I also have a 1982 Squier Precision – I used that on a recent Soft Machine Legacy gig in Spain.”

So what strings does Babington wire these machines up with? “I used to have Rotosound flats on the six string, but I have recently gone onto D’Addario half rounds. You get a more gritty sound – and there’s no aggravation on the fingers.” And for the Precision? I started with Elites, but now it’s LaBella – they’re very wiry and pull up nicely.”

Babbington’s got business calls coming in, so we swiftly move on to amplification. “Back in the early days I carried around a massive Leak TL50 with a pre-amp on it and a Marshall 4X12 cabinet. That was my Soft Machine rig in the early-70s and I stopped using that when I stopped using the Fender six string.” These days he hires rigs for the big electric gigs. And for the Hammerschmidt? “I have an Underwood pick up on the bridge. It gives you a more fundamental note and less of what’s coming from the body, which of course contains more overtones and harmonics.” And the amplifier? “To begin with I used a Polytone, but now I use a Gallien Krueger MBE with a 12 inch. I also use this for small gigs on the electric – because linking it into speakers works really well.”

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