Wal basses are hand-crafted bass guitars produced since the early 1970’s by Electric Wood in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire in the UK. Since then they have come to be regarded as the standard by which others are judged on concert stages and recording studios across the world.
This page gives a run-down of the history and development of these wonderful instruments. For more info on the design specifications of different Wal basses, photos of some famous (and just plain odd) Wals and other stuff visit our Wal bass facts'n'figures page including information on how to date your Wal bass.
The Wal Story.
The story began in 1973 when an amateur luthier called Pete (“The Fish”) Stevens began collaborating with Ian Waller, an electronics expert, to build what they considered to be the ultimate in bass guitars. Ian had been a respected bass player around the early '60s music scene in Manchester known as "Big Wal" - closely missing out on playing bass in chart-topping pop band, Herman's Hermits. When his band, "Remo Sands and the Spinning Tops", failed to make it big Ian made his way to London to exploit his other skills - electronics - working, amongst other things in the film industry. In his Manchester days he had regularly built pedals and other gizmos for his various band-mates and as a teenager he had built a very respectable P-bass copy with his father.
Pete had been working in the exotic fish importing business – hence his unusual nickname – but a downturn prompted by the early ‘70s oil crises and the temporary closure of the Suez Canal led to him working at the Farmyard rehearsal studio which was run by drummer Trevor Morais and driving the famous "Rolling Stones Mobile" studio. While working at the studio he met and became friends with Ian Waller.
working on a custom only basis they began building basses for some of
the best known players on the London session scene of the time under
the name “Electric Wood”. Trevor
contacts proved to be invaluable in building up contacts – at
time he was setting up the jazz rock band “Quantum
also featured later Rush producer, Rupert Hine).
Through these contacts the
first ever Wal bass
was commissioned by John G Perry, a session pro,
bassist for Quantum Jump, Caravan and later Curved Air and the in-house bass player for Redan
The first ever Wals.
The bass, dubbed W1111, was a short scale (30 ¼”), ash bodied bass loosely based on a Gibson EB3 bass, although with a more smoothly rounded shape reminiscent of a Fender Mustang (see right for examples of a Mustang bass and Jack Bruce's EB3). The hardware was culled from a variety of sources – bridge, switches and knobs from a Gibson, rewound Guild and Fender Mustang pickups and Schaller machine heads. It was also, like the Gibson basses that Perry favoured, a short scale bass. However, the most visually striking aspect of the bass was the scratchplate made of hand tooled leather on a metal screening plate. Clearly a prototype, many of the design elements which would go to make up the early “Pro” series and Mark I custom Wal basses were already in evidence. Although passive and suffering some matching problems between the two, very different, pickups. Even so, the bass has a very pleasing sound and has something of the sound of a Wal about it – presumably partly due to Ian’s hand rewinding of the pickups. This bass became one of John G Perry’s main basses for the rest of the decade and both its look and sound drew much interest from John’s bass playing colleagues. It can be heard on albums such as “Visionary”, “Perilous Journey”, “Fear of the Dark” and “Peacock Party” by the Gordon Giltrap Band (available from www.voiceprint.co.uk ).
As an aside, the W111 was stolen from John G Perry’s car in the mid 1980’s. However, in the early 1990’s Pete Stevens was able to reacquire it after a dealer in Cornwall recognized the real significance of a bass being offered for trade. Now it resides in its rightful home in the rack of basses at the Wal workshop.
John G Perry playing his "JP" short scale bass at a Gordon Giltrap session in 1978 and also pictured in some early Wal Pro Series promotional literature
However, Electric Wood’s next commission was, if anything, perhaps their strangest. Roger Newell had recently been recruited as bass player in Rick Wakeman’s band the “English Rock Ensemble”. He soon came to realize that to compete with playing for Journeys to the Centre of the Earth and King Arthur on Ice he would need a bass that was a little bit different. Ever the showman, Rick agreed. He knew that there were other progressive rock bans with twin-neck basses so his band would have to have a TRIPLE neck bass. In 1974 he commissioned Ian and Pete to build Roger a triple necked bass guitar. This bass would feature a conventional four-string fretted neck, a four string fretless neck (both tuned EADG ) and a short scale six string neck guitar neck (this has since been reset to feature three courses of double strings tuned ADG in octave pairs). Again the hardware came from a variety of sources, Schaller guitar and bass tuning pegs, custom made Fender style bridges and pickups with chrome covers culled from Fender Mustangs and a Fender Telecaster. Like W1111 it features the leather scratch plate which would be a Wal signature until the first production, “Pro” series, basses were launched in 1978. This bass was later given by Wakeman to Chris Squire of Yes (to Newell's understandable annoyance!) and the chrome bridge and pickup covers disposed of. If came to fame on the Yes track "Awaken" and it is currently on loan to the Hard Rock Café in New York. Strangely, although Squire still regularly plays a Wal triple neck on stage for extended versions “Awaken” that bass was not made by Wal but is, rather, a replica built for him by a Japanese luthier. The photo of Roger Newell above left is the original, those of Squire are the replica.
More commissions followed (44 custom basses in all). The next customers were John G Perry (again) and John Gustafson (of the Merseybeats, the Ian Gillan Band, Episode Six, the Big Three, Quatermass and Roxy Music) whose name was the basis of this series of basses - the "JG Custom" series, Pete Zorn, and a host of other session players. The first built was a 32" short scale version for Perry with the serial number JP1111. The JG basses featured a full 34" scale length. The basses were made on a semi-custom basis and were characterised by their distinctive leather tooled scratchplates. These scratchplates often featured flower designs as on John Gustafson's fretless bass (JG1131) pictured above. However, some featured plain leather scratchplates - as on the JG Series bass, JG1147, (pictured below) which was formerly owned by Gary Tibbs while he was in Roxy Music and now displayed at Bunnybass.
Above - Barrats of Manchester advert from 1979 for the Pro Series Wal basses featuring John Entwistle of the Who. Above right - Gary Tibbs' JG custom
Early users who all contributed to the technical development of the bass were players of the likes of John Entwistle, Pete Zorn, Rupert Hine and Percy Jones of the jazz-rock band “Brand X” (John Entwistle's photograph also featured in some early Electric Wood adverts). It was over this period that Ian strove to perfect the electronics which would form the foundation of the signature Wal sound.
his JG Customs live on
stage with the Gordon Giltrap Band (above)
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Percy Jones interview John Entwistle's JG Custom Bass
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Text: Trevor Raggatt © 2004