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'Cornbread'By Cornbread

An aluminum bass? That's right—aluminum.

Aluminum bassThe first reported appearance of an aluminum instrument dates back to 1891, when Alfred Springer of Cincinnati, Ohio, was awarded a patent for an aluminum violin. Three years later, in 1894, the Aluminum Musical Instrument Company of Ann Arbor, Michigan, was formed under the guidance of Neil Merrill. The Aluminum Musical Instrument Company offered everything from violins and cellos to banjos and zithers. By 1898, the company had gone broke and subsequently disappeared from sight.

During the mid 1930’s American Aluminum Company (Buffalo, NY) produced aluminum upright basses. The entire body, neck and scroll were made out of seamlessly welded aluminum and often covered with a faux woodgrain finish. In a reprint from The Etude Music Magazine, May 1932 an article mentions that the United States was first to create an all-metal double bass.

Aluminum bassThere are a couple of stories about why these basses were made. Some thought that Joseph Maddy of the National High School Orchestra suggested aluminum basses be made for schools and orchestral camps to stand the test of time as opposed to their older brother the wooden bass that would often end up unplayable due to cracks.

The same article states “the aluminum bass has many advantages over the wood bass, in that it cannot crack, split or warp, and is made to last forever. It is as light in weight as a wooden bass, and has a tone that is deep, resonant and of cello-like purity. It is made in silver or gold aluminum finish, or natural wood finish, patterned after a fine old bass made by Stradivarius.”

The other belief is that Ford Motor Company produced a limited number of aluminum basses for the Navy as a wooden bass could not survive extended travels on the ships as they are resistant to humidity and moisture.

Aluminum bassThis leads us to the only aluminum bass I have seen, for that matter knowingly heard on a CD or live. The one played by Mike Graham of Hudson and the Hoo Doo Cats. I spoke to Mike and Hudson Harkins about the prized bass.

Both fellows were happy with the low-end response and agreed that the aluminum bass had more sustain and punch than the wooden counterpart they started with.

Mike purchased this bass in 2001, he said “it was tarnished, corroded and looked like a bucket.” The bass was originally set-up for blue grass and had remnants of the faux wood. Graham and Hudson believe its origin to be a late 30’s or early 40’s Ford.

Mike has been keeping a list of things asked or comments heard at every show, the list is (in no specific order):

• What is that?
• Is that a cello?
• Why did you paint your bass?
• Did you make that?
• Is that metallic?
• How did you get that metal over the wood?
• Is it heavy?
• How does the metal affect the sound?
• The top question the drummer gets – What’s that sound?

For all you in St. Louis I suggest you check out a live show and hear this bass for yourself, for everyone else, buy the CD’s.

Ciao’ for now, peace.


© 2005, Peter ‘Cornbread’ Cohen & STLBlues.net

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