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Barker Musical Instruments - January 2006

Barker Musical Instruments
Prior to designing his own vertical bass and subsequently founding Barker Musical Instruments, bassist Lee Barker owned and operated Redmond, Oregon-based Great Ned! Woodworks for 22 years. After performing gospel and bluegrass music for over three decades on a part-time basis, Barker began to develop wrist-related problems while playing the traditional electric bass. Being a creative problem solver, Barker utilized his experience as a custom woodworker and commercial cabinetmaker to develop a hybrid instrument that would combine components of an electric bass with that of an acoustic upright. The result of his research and design culminated in the release of the Barker bass, an ergonomically-friendly, 34" scale fretted or fretless electric bass that could be played in a vertical position through an adjustable endpin similar to that of an acoustic upright.

By repositioning the stance of a traditional electric bass from that of horizontal to vertical, Barker solved several problems simultaneously including relieving wrist-related strain often associated with playing an electric bass horizontally as well as eliminating shoulder and back discomfort experienced as a result of poorly designed, heavy instruments. Besides its attention-grabbing chambered body, another unique construction feature of the Barker bass is its free-standing design which limits the physical contact required to play the instrument and provides an unparalleled level of sustain.

Since 2002 when Barker made the transition from professional woodworker to luthier, he has been handcrafting his basses from the same shop that housed his Great Ned! Woodworks for so many years, and today, bassists such as Hussain Jiffry (Yanni), Trip Wamsley, Andrew Pfaff, and Todd Johnson, to name just a few, have become enthusiastic endorsers of Barker's work.

In this interview, Lee Barker, outlines the physical advantages to playing bass in a vertical position, making the move to a Barker bass, the sonic advantages of playing a free-standing bass, choosing woods, and forging a non-traditional path alongside standard electric basses.

What events led to your pursuit of creating Barker Musical Instruments?

There were two things. First, I was personally experiencing wrist pain and discomfort from playing a bass guitar. I tend to be a problem solver, so rather than give up playing, I decided to pursue alternatives. I don't have enough ear to play a fretless upright, but the idea of playing that way interested me. Hmm, frets on an upright. Bass guitar dimensions and electronics. Never seen that, but why not? I tried it, and it worked.

Secondly and the real epiphany, I thought the upright bass guitar sounded much better than its horizontal relative. I began to tinker with design and a chambered body.

Are there any physical advantages to playing an electric bass in a vertical position as opposed to a horizontal one?

There are several:
- No added strain to your shoulder due to the weight of the instrument
- Easier, more relaxed wrist position
- The left hand no longer has to hold the neck in position
- The fingerboard is much easier to see

To be fair, let's also look at the disadvantages of a vertical electric bass:
- Less mobility. While you can still "move and groove," you can't dance across the stage with a Barker. After thinking about this, I started watching conga players. They do very well with body movement and a stationary instrument.

What sets your instrument apart from other vertical electric basses?

As far as I know, the Barker bass is the only upright bass which utilizes the scale length, electronics, and bridge from the electric bass guitar.

Is your bass designed more towards being an alternative for electric or acoustic upright bassists or would you recommend the Barker bass to someone that is a beginner with absolutely no experience on a standard electric bass?

The best answer would be to ask a player who owns one. I have seen all of those possibilities amongst our owners. Acoustic upright players like the portability and the simple, reliable electronics of the Barker. Bass guitarists like the refreshing ergonomics. Beginners like the visual accessibility of the fingerboard. I'm thinking of one owner who, in part from the urging of his bandmates, put his bass guitars away and plays his two Barkers exclusively. If you quizzed those Barker owners, all would comment on the tone. It separates the Barker bass from all others.

How difficult is the transition in going from playing a standard electric bass or acoustic upright to playing the Barker bass?

I used to say it took me 20 minutes, but it might take you more because I had this thought about changing to vertical for a long time before I actually got to do it. Now I hear owners saying it took 5 minutes. To be safe, I'd say it takes about a day to transition from bass guitar. I know of no players who play just orchestral bass who went to the Barker.

To someone that has never had the opportunity to hear the Barker bass, would you define its sound as being closer to that of a standard fretted or fretless electric bass or an amplified acoustic upright?

I don't like to hear claims that any product "does it all." As a devoted student of woodworking tools, those words put me in skeptic mode instantly so you won't hear me say that our instrument "does it all." However, if you listen to Doug Mancini play his fretted Barker, you'll comment on how it is just a richer version of the Fender sound which he loves. Close your eyes while Andy Pfaff is playing his fretless, and you'd think he had an acoustic upright bass that was superbly amplified. Both these players have incredible hands so I can't say it's all in the instrument, but the potential is there for lots of shades of sound.

Stylistically, do you find that the Barker works better in certain situations than others?

Barker Musical Instruments First, let me speak about intent. I did not design and refine the Barker bass with any specific musical genre in mind. The way we sometimes tend to divide instruments and players that way troubles me. In the end, we're all playing the same notes, from the same scale, and doing the same job which is anchoring the chord and nourishing it in a meat and potatoes sort of way.

The Barker bass is currently being played in all the styles you mentioned. This is one of the many things that have surprised me as the instrument experiences wider distribution. I really attribute that to the players. I think their adapting to the bass and using it to give a new voice to their style is more about the resourcefulness of bassists than it is about the instruments. A good example would be Todd Johnson who is a master of the Zon six-string in a chordal style all his own. Todd uses his Barker on straight-ahead jazz gigs.

Are there any physical or noticeable sonic advantages as a result of the free-standing construction of your instrument?

Absolutely. For years, we have known that there were different sonic characteristics of different woods and construction styles for bass guitars. What we didn't realize was how profound those differences are when you set that wood free to vibrate and respond, unhampered by the damping of the human body.

Have you ever considered attaching an upper bout to the Barker bass in order to replicate a feel that is closer to that of an acoustic upright body or would that defeat the purpose of your concept?

Initially, I was not interested in that because I felt the physical advantages of the free-standing neck were compelling. I have altered that view, however, and as we have this conversation, I am in the "pencil on many pages stage" of experimenting with some design ideas. It's a demanding feature involving function, esthetics, convenience, and demountability. I'm loving the challenge. There is no projected date for a prototype though.

What do you say to acoustic upright purists who seem to be somewhat reluctant to try your instrument?

I treasure tradition and admire loyalty, but we're all playing the same notes. The Barker bass was not meant to supplant any other luthier's instrument, only to provide an alternative to what currently exists.

To modulate to an automotive analogy, driving from point A to point B in a hybrid car uses less petroleum energy than a conventional car. Playing in A minor or Bb major on a Barker bass consumes less physical energy than other basses require.

Besides the obvious difference in weight, are there any other benefits to playing a chambered bass as compared to a solid body instrument?

If I could possibly limit myself to a one-word answer it would be tone, but the answer limiter switch is off so let me press on. There are many characteristics that contribute to a material's response to vibration. Absorption would be one. That is why the best power tools are made of cast iron and lots of it because cast iron absorbs vibration, and now you know why there isn't a cast iron Barker bass. Porosity would be another, thickness, and on, and on. A chambered body, with an air space, is going to have different responses from a solid board of the same dimensions. That's the end of the science lecture. From there on, my choices in design were driven by my ears. If I liked it, I tried to make it better. If I didn't, I hung it up on the wall.

What options do customers have available in creating their own Barker bass?

I have made several custom basses, and those have involved other pickup configurations, custom neck options, and owner-specified body woods. These options of course take time, and at our current state of production, keeping up with the standard models is our number one priority.

Through your experience when building Barker basses, have you found that certain woods tend to project sound better than others?

If you visit the Barker shop, you'll see about 17 bass bodies hanging up high on the above mentioned wall. They are my friends, "the Failures." They are bodies that taught me something about how not to build a Barker bass. I finally settled on an alder back, alder core, and cherry front. It meets my standards for tone quality, aesthetics, and weight.

Do you use conventional electronics and pickups that are found in standard electric basses?

Yes. Knowing that I had a hybrid on my hands, I sought to make as much of it as possible in the standard bass guitar vocabulary. That is why I chose to use the passive pickups in a J-bass configuration. It's a signal that recording engineers love, by the way.

While I try to leave my biases outside the door of the shop, I must say I have never been a great fan of active systems from a practical, mechanical point of view. That is not to say we'll never do one, but for now it's passive. While you never have to worry about a dead battery on a Barker, you do have to remember to change the fluid every 4000 notes. Just kidding!

If a prospective buyer wants to test a Barker bass, what is the best way to go about doing that?

If you are interested in checking out a Barker bass, please take a look at the Dealers page on the Barker bass web site.

What is the current build time on a Barker bass?

It is 12 weeks.

Do you plan to expand the current Barker line and offer other designs in the future?

Right now we have Barkers in 6 different flavors including fretted, fretless, and lined fretless in both four and five-string configurations. That keeps a small, hands-on company pretty focused. However, we are very excited about a new model of vertical bass that will roll out in the spring of 2006. The prototype is in process as we speak so I'm hesitant to say anything else about it until I can be more specific.

We also have commemorative basses. We'll do something unique each year, limited to just a small quantity. You'll be able to read about these new additions on the Barker web site.

Barker Bass Features

Barker Musical Instruments
The Neck
(typical 4 string) 34" Fender Jazz Bass type, 1.5" at the nut
Select hard rock maple with rosewood fingerboard (ebony on the fretless)
5-bolt attachment to the body

The Body
2" thick 3-ply sandwich construction: Cherry front over alder core and back
Heavy cast roller bridge
Fully adjustable endpin to accommodate players to 6'4"

The Finish
Hand Rubbed Semigloss

The Stand
Heavy duty locking type with positive stud-and-socket attachment to bass. Solid gear-teeth locking head

The Luggage
Heavy padded gig bag with hand and shoulder straps and zippered pocket
Separate bag for stand

Contact Information

Barker Musical Instruments
1842 SE 1st, Unit F
Redmond, OR 97756
Toll-Free Phone: 888.899.8302
Web Site:

© 2006 The IIB