President and founder of Upton Bass String Instrument Company talks about bass building
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
August 29, 2011
Gary Birkhamshaw is the president and founder of Upton Bass String Instrument Company.
FBPO: Tell me about your musical upbringing?
GB: I started early with music in church, singing at first, then playing short-scale electric bass, drums, piano… anything I could use to make noise and express myself.
FBPO: What got you interested in the bass?
GB: I wanted to play drums in junior high, but having arrived late because of my family moving over from England, the drum chair in the band was already taken. Instead, I settled, reluctantly, for the trombone. In time, though, I actually learned to love the trombone. In fact, I still play it a bit to this day.
My 7th and 8th grade teacher, Lou Bocciarelli, recognized the love I had for electric bass and the aptitude I’d apparently shown for commanding an instrument that required good intonation. One day, he asked me to stay after class to check out the real bass, a blonde Kay. An all-out love for that amazing instrument was sparked that summer day in the after-school jazz band. And the rest is history! Now I was able to play an instrument that was both rhythmic and melodic. I guess you can have your cake and eat it too! Ironically, my favorite playing setting to this day is without a drummer. Go figure!
FBPO: What kind of career did you have as a bass player?
GB: I went to Western Connecticut State University for double bass performance, with a focus in jazz and jazz history. At around the same time, I started and ran Upton Bass, initially from my dorm, and began tinkering with used instruments and selling accessories. Soon I found myself playing gigs I had only hoped I would land! Somehow, though, I got this puzzled feeling of “This is it?”
To sum it up, I’d say my bass-playing career was “short and very sweet.” I learned that I play for the love of the bass, not at all as a job. For me and my personality, that took the fun out of playing. When you start putting a price tag on something you love, it takes away the charm. It does for me, anyway. How can one put a price on such passion, dedication and commitment? I suppose we do the same making instruments, but in some way, it’s more finite and definable.
FBPO: What prompted you to found a bass string instrument company?
GB: In school, looking for a bass, I thought I’ll flip a few till I find one that I can keep. Then it got going. Really going. Even then, I figured, “Hey, if all I get out of this is a bass, then…cool!” I went on for a good while, just casually running Upton Bass, but that wasn’t enough for my customers. Needless to say, we are way beyond that now, making, selling and owning basses I would have never dreamed of! Just the other day, we finished number 315 of our standard laminate bass. That’s just one model, number 315. I just can’t believe it! We’re at a point now where we are slowing down and phasing out of the entry-level laminated instruments. I would have never imagined that.
FBPO: What exactly does Upton Bass Sting Instrument Company do?
GB: In a nutshell, we make custom double basses, created specifically according to the wishes of the owner. All of our basses are built entirely in our shop, with a whole lot of passion, pride and care. Unlike a player trying this and that (or usually after they do a lot of that), we build a bass that’s designed, conceived and created for a purpose, a sound, a style and sometimes a budget.
Whatever the situation, with that direction and focus, we take a lot of the confusion out of getting people the tools they need. Think of it this way: A lot of players start bass shopping and play basses. Good idea, yes. Now lets parallel it to cars: They go out, try this and try that, drive a truck, an SUV, a two-seater sports car, a full-size Hummer, a sedan… Or let’s go by brand: A BMW, then a Kia, then a Ford, then a Lexus. Now I know you’ll say that’s crazy, but many players approach instrument shopping this way when it comes to basses.
I take the approach of getting to know what each player needs, how he or she plays, who they like, what sounds they like and what dimensions, setup, uses, etc., are needed in a bass. Then, typically out of many old basses, I might have one or two that fit the bill. Oftentimes, to really hit the nail on the head, we make something. If I can build something, then it’s a whole different story. The bass becomes purpose-built. I get to work with some of the best players and luthiers in the business. It’s just one more thing that makes Upton Bass what it is today.
FBPO: What’s your plan for moving your company forward? What’s next for Upton Bass String Instrument Company?
GB: Going forward, we’d just like to take a breather! Seriously, we love what we’re doing and we’re honing our company every day. Our never-ending quest to improve our instruments, streamline production and offer more options really just feeds forward movement for the company, which is exactly what our clients want. You can’t beat that combo!
I’m getting a lot of requests to make copies of priceless 18th- and 19th-century masterpieces as “road” copies of players’ basses. I find that kind of work fun and challenging. It’s definitely a direction I love for our company on many levels. Great basses and great players: You can’t beat having them around!
FBPO: How much playing do you get to do these days?
GB: Usually, I play between one and two hours a day at the shop, often non-structured, helping buyers or just for my own enjoyment. The latter is especially the case when we finish a special build or I have a great vintage bass, like my current Abraham Prescott from 1841. How great to reflect back on Scotty LaFaro playing “Gloria’s Step” while holding, playing and working on an instrument from the same maker with much of the same sound. That’s a treat, but they all move on to their new owners. That’s the hard part!
FBPO: I noticed there happens to be a competitive cyclist by the name of Gary Birkhamshaw. Coincidence?
GB: Me? A cyclist? In Spandex?
Yep! Work hard, play hard, that’s all I can say. Actually, this past season, I got on a local Pro/Am team and last year I won one of the biggest stage races in the area. Lately, though, I’ve been focusing more and more on Upton Bass, my true love and passion. Just like playing bass, riding is just for fun. I’m just working on it and enjoying the balance. I do love going fast, though!