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In Praise of the Plywood Bass

In Praise of the Plywood Bass

by Frederick C. Lyman, Jr.

Originally published in American Lutherie #4, 1985 and Big Red Book of American Lutherie Volume One, 2000

see also,
Building a Plywood Bass by Richard Ennis

It has been said that in order to produce fine wines, one must have had generations of alcoholics in one’s family. Only then can one approach the problem with the necessary patience, devotion, and understanding that will result in superior, classic vintages. Mere cleverness or mere industry will not suffice; one has to be locked into the project by the merciless and irreversible forces of destiny.

Similarly, those who are involved in the production of bass sounds seem to require a kind of demonic motivation. They must be attuned, in a special way, to the pulsations of the subaudible register, the tone-feelings that seem to arise from the nether regions. From this unholy obsession with the depths of auditory sensibility comes a fundamental understanding which will forever elude the fiddlers and flautists.

What we mean is that bassists have a deep need to make those sounds, and they will find a way to do it. It’s not a question of what is practical or expedient or wise: Bassists are driven. They have a pathological fascination with deep sounds; they are not well without them.

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In Memoriam: Frederick C. Lyman

In Memoriam: Frederick C. Lyman

March 7, 1925 – July 20, 2011

by Ken McKay and Tim Olsen

Originally published in American Lutherie #113, 2013

Fred Lyman wrote a column in the Journal of the American Society of Double Bassists for several years. I was given twenty or so back issues way back in 1988 by my bass teacher Paul Warburton. I wanted to make my own double bass, and I devoured every article.

I finally got up the nerve to write to Fred. I hoped he would maybe give me a few pointers, but he started an extensive series of handwritten letters. He was a practical man, more interested in the outcome than any one process, and he always encouraged my ideas, no matter how off-base. He would write things like, “That is as good a theory as any, but make sure to keep enough wood in the top so it doesn’t sink, years down the road.” I loved those articles and letters. They were nearly the only thing available at the time, and they turned out to be timeless. I found out later that he was even more generous with his time and knowledge than I had imagined.

We met only one time in 1993 when my wife, my year-old son, and I drove from upstate New York down to New Jersey to meet up and get some wood. I traded him an old church bass that I had restored which really had no value at the time for as much wood as I could carry in my station wagon. He even asked if I had ebony for the fingerboard. He just wanted to help me get started and have success. We stayed all day while he showed me his shop and jigs, and taught me what he could with the limited amount of time. We corresponded throughout the years that I made my first instruments. I really feel that a little bit if him lives in every instrument I have made since. Rest in Peace, Fred Lyman.

— Ken McKay

Fred Lyman at the 1980 GAL Convention in San Francisco, where he lectured on bass viol design. Photo by Dale Korsmo.

Fred Lyman was a constant and gentle presence in the GAL from the mid-1970s through the 1990s. He was a generation older than most of us Lutherie Boomers, being already an accomplished self-taught bass builder in his 50s when we met him. I learned from his obituary that he earned a Purple Heart in WWII, graduated with honors from Yale, and became an art painter. So he was too old to have been a hippie, but perhaps he had a beatnik phase; I don’t know. Sometime in the 1990s he sent me a long dreamy CD of free jazz by his band The Squealers, a quintet that included two bass viols.

Right from the start it was a constant stream of quiet generosity as he wrote letters and articles for our publications and attended GAL Conventions, sometimes as a presenter. Back in the ancient times when we offered paid lifetime memberships, he was one of the first to sign up.

I never visited his shop, but I came to imagine it as a sort of Wonka Chocolate Factory of a place, based on the evidence supplied by the stream of artifacts that flowed from it to the GAL Benefit Auctions, starting at our first auction in 1984. Boxes began to arrive from Port Murray, New Jersey — lots of boxes. I thought we must have cleaned him out. But the Oompah-Loompahs must have been busy, because that proved to be only the beginning. Several more Benefit Auctions benefited from Fred’s generosity, the last being a record-setting trove of lutherie treasure at the 2008 Convention, when Fred was already in his 80s.

Fred and his wife Charsie were true friends of the Guild in tough times, and the GAL staff remembers this with deep fondness and gratitude. Fred will surely be missed.

— Tim Olsen

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Letter: Sloane Bass Tuners

Letter: Sloane Bass Tuners

by Fredrick C. Lyman, Jr.

Originally printed in American Lutherie #66, 2001


Dear Tim and Deb:

Sorry to learn of the passing of Irving Sloane. I met him at a convention in Pennsylvania. He was displaying his precision guitar machines and I remarked that there was nothing comparable for the bass viol. He asked if there would really be a market for such. I said there really were no good bass machines and all bass players were agreed about that. I have been so out of touch that I have not seen his bass machines, but it appears that they are the new standard of the industry.

I drew pictures of strange imaginary instruments for years before I got Irving’s book and found it was really possible to build something. It’s great that you have been reaching a young audience that has the possibility of developing their work over a sufficient time to solve the problems. In retrospect I should have done many things differently. I did build a lot of the instruments that I was interested in, but it was not a really sustainable enterprise and I found myself too old and feeble to go on. In January I discovered that I had the same disease as Irving Sloane. I had drastic surgery and it seems to have been a success, but my overall vitality is not great.