I’ve been a professional musician all my life, and traveling gigs are a big part of my income. This creates a real dilemma for upright bass players, owing to our large and fragile instruments. Like many fellow bassists, I was frustrated that the only options for fly dates were rental basses, travel uprights that didn’t play or look like standard basses, or the expense and worry of shipping my bass in a large ‘coffin’ case.
In 2003, after years of using rental and loaner basses, I decided to build my own travel bass, one indistinguishable from a standard bass, and would use no tools to setup or breakdown. I converted a bass so the neck was removable, and had a flight case made for it. By traveling with this bass, it became evident that removable necks were an inefficient way to solve the problem. The neck and fingerboard were large and needed a separate case to protect the tuners and keep the strings from tangling, and the setup time was too long to be practical. I kept thinking about the big empty box I was carrying around (the bass body), and wondered if I might be able to store the neck inside it, without affecting the sound.
Storing the neck and fingerboard inside the body presents a difficult problem. The distance from the top of the scroll to the bottom of the fingerboard is longer than the body of the bass. To store these parts inside the bass would require either the scroll or the fingerboard to be shortened. And the sound post, sitting nearly in the middle of the body, limits where the parts can go. Another problem was how to secure these heavy pieces inside, so they don’t come loose while traveling. The solution I came up with was to enter the bass through a narrow panel in the back (avoiding the sound post), hinging the neck joint, making the fingerboard removable, shortening the length of the neck heel, and using a shock-mounted holder to secured the parts inside while traveling. By storing the parts inside, vulnerable parts were protected, the case became smaller, and set up time was greatly reduced.
My folding bass design was completed in 2005. Believing the idea had commercial merit, I applied for and received a US patent. Many of my bass-playing friends asked if I’d make their basses fold like mine, but considering the time and labor involved, the cost would be far too high. My folding bass was easy to use, but not easy to build one bass at a time.
In 2008, I was playing my folding bass in Los Angeles at the Summer NAMM show. Sam Shen, the world’s largest producer of upright basses, took an interest in the bass I had modified, (it was a Shen). He really liked the folding design, and offered to make them for me. Reproducing the folding bass now became a possibility, since it’s pretty straightforward if done during assembly with standardized parts. I visited his factory in Suzhou, China, and after a great week getting acquainted, ordered the first 50 basses. I didn’t have anyone lined up to buy them, but I believed the design was solid, and the need was great.
Now, with hundreds of folding basses being played worldwide, I am proud of my part in creating a better option for traveling upright players. The folding bass is possible because of Sam Shen of Shen Musical Instruments, Paul Strelau of CSC Products, my shop manager Jay Studdard.
~ Charlie Chadwick