Danny Thompson - Bass

Thompson has worked with some of the finest British musicians and a host of top American stars including Art Farmer, Red Rodney, Joe Williams, Jimmy Witherspoon and Little Walter. “I always knew I wasn’t fit to share the stand with them,” he says with a magnum of modesty. “But I was an enthusiastic learner.... and still am!”

His very first musical experience was going along to his uncles’ band rehearsals in the school holidays, where they both played trombone. “When I was about 13, I started listening in to Alan Lomax on the Voice of America and immediately got the urge to be a blues player. I decided to make a T-Chest Bass that I could get stuck into playing with my mates in a skiffle band. At the same time I remember my music teacher at school telling me that ‘this (classical) music is beyond you’. If he had told me that nearly all the great composers were womanising piss artists it may have made more of an impact, rather than being told how sophisticated this music was, as opposed to ‘The Trash’ that I loved. Fortunately I was able to keep my sanity by playing most evenings in the skiffle group.”

Thompson bought his first ‘proper’ bass when he was 15. “It’s the same one that I play today,” he enthuses. “Victoria, that’s what I call her, is a French swell-back Gand circa 1860, which I bought for a fiver from an old man who I promised to repay at five shillings a week. I collected her and the same night did a gig in a Wandsworth pub for fifteen shillings [three weeks’ money!]. On the way to the pub it was drizzling and she got quite wet and when I started to wipe the rain from her, all the beautiful varnish came through making the trumpeter remark: ‘blimey it’s probably a Strad or somethin’!’ The next day he took me to Foote’s bass shop in Brewer St, Soho and they offered me £130. I took her back to the man and said ‘this is worth £130, not a fiver’. But he said ‘look son, if you want to play it, just give me the £5’. I think back to that a lot and think that it was meant to be, especially as it turned out that this was an extraordinary instrument that I now cherish. She’s been on countless recordings from the 1960s until now – and she is beautiful.”

“Did I go to music school?” he answers my question. There’s an obvious pause. “Well, I wanted to go to the Guildhall School of Music to study with Professor Merrett, but I was told that I had to have 5 GCE levels. I didn’t even have a spirit level, I just wanted to study bass and couldn’t understand why I had to have Classical Greek, Latin, Mathematics, History etc to study bass. So, as luck would have it I found Pete Blannin, a fine man and teacher and the Simandl book volume 1. He gave me a very important foundation to work on and I have very fond memories of those days and realise now how crucial it is for a young person to have an enthusiastic and generous teacher.”

I wondered whether ‘Victoria’ accompanies Thompson on his world travels given the new airline restrictions. “I have been flying with ‘Victoria’ since we used Bi-planes, BOAC and TWA. Now thanks to all the fuss and bother and the usual check-in epics I now possess two Czech–Ease travel basses made by David Gage in NYC. ‘Alfie’ and ‘Albert’ meet the weight and size requirements and are more importantly not the ‘compromise’ that I was fearing. I enjoy playing them and of course if one got run over by a bus I could get another exactly the same.”

Although Thompson has developed his technique and his sound in order to be heard in an acoustic setting, these days nearly everything is amplified. “I have been constantly searching for something that would achieve a true reproduction of the sound I was producing. As a teen, I used to strap tank commander’s crystal throat mics between the feet of the bridge. Then later I fitted a Di Armond pick up. Then came the Polytone and on and on and on. I finally came to the realisation that even if I had the perfect system, I was still going to be in the hands of the dreaded soundman. So after eventually getting an SWR Redhead I met the president of the company Steve Rabie and explained my problem and the question of what could I do to be in total control of my own sound. He said ‘I know exactly what you want’ and then went off and constructed the Raven Red-Box. After a few prototypes we had a great system which enabled me to put my two pick-ups into the Red Box, do my own E.Q. and then the soundman just took a feed from the box. I eventually bought a Highlander guitar piezo which Danny Farrington fitted into my bridge and a Shadow in the wing of the bridge – these work really well when mixed. For amplification I use the AER Bass Cube and it is the first time that I have had a system that reproduces my acoustic sound so honestly. As for volume, I don’t think I have ever gone past 1 – heavens knows what 11 sounds like!”

For the past year Thompson has been working with Elite Strings to develop his own ‘signature’ double-bass string. “It’s been a load of dedicated hard work to get to the point where I have a string that I am happy to recommend. It’s going to be called the ‘Danny Thompson Elitist’ – I’m really excited!”

Interview by David Gallant

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