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Allen Woody

Of Short-Scale Basses and Long, Long Songs
 
Of Short-Scale Basses and Long, Long Songs

Like his bandmate, Warren Haynes, bassist Allen Woody is burning the proverbial candle at both ends, around the middle, and in between; he pulls “double duty” in the same two bands that Haynes does (The Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule). Accordingly, it took some time for VG to catch up with Woody, but the wait was worth it.

Allen Woody is a long-time guitar lover, and his collection currently numbers around 300 instruments. Details concerning his collection and his playing experiences (as well as his tenure as an employee of a certain Nashville vintage guitar store) were part of an extended telephone conversation while Woody was taking a few weeks off between practice sessions and performances. He was born in Music City (“Same hospital that Duane and Gregg were born in,” he noted), and such a beginning prompted the obvious first inquiry:

Vintage GuitarHow did growing up in Nashville affect your interest in playing music?

Allen Woody When I was a kid, Ernest Tubb lived down the street from my mom and dad; I used to watch him on TV. He had great players, and I think it’s fair to say I loved what might be called “Old Country.” I really liked Buck Owens and the whole Bakersfield thing; Don Rich and sparkle Teles.

There was a player in Nashville named Jimmy Colvard who played with a band called Barefoot Jerry; he also played the lead on Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road.” He was a monster guitar player; unfortunately he went the same route as Danny Gatton; he ended his life about 10 years ago. Barefoot Jerry was a country band that really rocked. They had Russ Hicks on pedal steel; Wayne Moss thumbpicking a Jazzmaster. For a while, the term “country rock” meant the Eagles, but these guys were the real thing.

So I liked traditional or “real” country music; Hank Williams Sr. was the real thing; so was Pasty Cline. Guys like Harold Bradley doing the Danelectro 6-string bass tic-tac thing; I found out later that those guys would take a doghouse bass and play the bass track, then double it with the 6-string tic-tac to get those sounds.

So it was a pretty natural progression to go from “real” country music to rock and roll, and it’s ironic that my dad was the one who turned me on to blues players like Muddy Waters. He’d been a truck driver, and would listen to WLAC in Nashville when he traveled; it was one of the last clear-channel blues stations, and it could be heard all over the United States. Billy Gibbons has cited that station.

And back then Johnny Cash was doing a TV show from the Ryman Auditorium, and he was featuring rock acts on some of his shows. My mother took me to see Derek & the Dominoes on the Johnny Cash show when I was 14; I was in Gruhn Guitars the same day and Clapton was in there buying a Strat. What was so cool was that after they taped the show, Derek & the Dominoes played for two hours for the kids that came to the show. I still have a cassette tape of that performance.

Earliest instruments?

My first electric guitar was a Kingston, which I wish I still had because it was a Hound Dog Taylor kind of instrument. I had a matching bass that was a Tuxedo brand name. When I was in the ninth or tenth grade, I went into Madison Music in Nashville, and they had a late ’60s Hofner bass. Raised logo on the headstock, pickup rings that resembled Gibson pickup rings; not quite a “Beatle Bass,” but real close. I traded in both of my Japanese instruments and gave them $100 for it, and I still own it. That was the first good bass I got.

As for my first good electric guitar; I was studying music in Nashville at Blair Academy, and my grandfather picked me up from school one day and took me to a Boy’s Club, of all places. Vox had given them 100 guitars; “Bulldog” and teardrop-shaped models. They were all sunburst except for one red teardrop and one white teardrop. I wanted the white one because of Brian Jones, of course, but the red one and the white one were factory seconds; the rest of the guitars were marked seconds but there was nothing wrong with them. Vox was going out of business so that’s why they were all marked like that. I sat there for two hours and tried out all 98 of the sunburst guitars (chuckles) and picked out the one I liked; my grandfather paid $60 for it, and I still have that one, as well; it was brand new when I got it, and even had the gray case and the cleaning cloth. I got the Hofner and the Vox around the same time.

By that time, did you consider yourself to be a guitar player or a bass player?

I was a guitar player first, but as for the bass players in bands I played in, I really didn’t like what they did. I found myself being heavily influenced at the time by Paul McCartney, and a year or so later I was into Jack Bruce and Berry Oakley; I think concentrating on being a bass player probably happened by proxy. I really wasn’t a “frustrated guitar player,” but I was a frustrated bass player, and I still am. I like my guitar playing, but my bass playing drives me nuts (laughs)!

I was never a big Fender guy; I own some cool Fender instruments and they’re wonderful tools, but back then I was a Beatles nut, and I was into their instruments. By the time I got into playing bass almost exclusively, I got into Chris Squire and John Entwistle in addition to Jack Bruce and Berry Oakley, but because of my “natural progression” as a Beatles freak, the next bass I got was a Rickenbacker 4001 – white with black binding and a black pickguard. I saw Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees, of all people, on an album cover with a white Rickenbacker and orange Marshalls, and I thought it looked really cool, and that he was finally getting hip! So I bought my 4001 in Nashville in l974; I still have that bass, too.

What about converting from short-scale on the Hofner to long scale?

Well, I put a set of Roto-Sounds on my Hofner and tried to get the tones that Oakley, Squire and Entwistle were getting, and I realized it wasn’t working. I looked at Jazz Basses, but at the time they were 3-bolt style, and the quality wasn’t there. The Rickenbacker had a nice neck, looked sexy, and sounded great.

You do own some Alembics, and a lot of those instruments are 32″ scale, which most people consider to be “medium scale.”

Most of mine are 34″. I played in a fusion band for several years, so of course I’d gotten into Stanley Clarke, and we did some shows with the Dixie Dregs; Andy West was playing an Alembic, and the sound just jumped out at me. Around Nashville, the music stores wanted the closest thing to Fender they could get, so any store that dared to get Alembic basses got long-scale ones. I bought mine in early l977. Alembics bring out all of the characteristics of your playing; you can’t “hide behind” an Alembic like you can with some other basses. I’ve played some medium-scale instruments; it’s enjoyable and in some respects it’s “the best of both worlds.”

Did you play with any notable combos prior to joining the Allman Brothers?

The fusion band I played in was called Montage; we were together for seven years and worked all over the Southeast. I did a lot of studio work, and in some respects I was young and stupid, because I thought I could eschew the usual procedures and play rock and roll my own way in Nashville, and I learned quickly that it couldn’t happen (chuckles).

I played with Peter Criss, and I was in Artimus Pyle’s band for five or six years; Artimus had a lot to do with me ending up in the Allman Brothers. He introduced me to Warren Haynes around ’85, and Warren and I would jam occasionally over the next few years.

Then one time, Warren told me he was going to be in the Allman Brothers, and at the same time we were cutting some tracks for the new Artimus Pyle Band album at Butch Trucks’ studio. I’d met Butch earlier; we were friends. He came up to me at his studio and told me his band was going to get back together; I said something to him like “Well, I guess you’ll be needing a bass player,” almost as a joke, but he said: “Yeah, that’s what I want to talk to you about.” I thought to myself, “Wow, he’s serious!

Did you have to audition?

Yeah, they went through 30 or 40 bass players; there might have been guys that were better bass players than me, but in terms of “better for the band,” there weren’t. As experienced as the band was, they knew what would be best for them. I played for five minutes, and they told me they were going to take a break and talk; I thought to myself: “I’ve ****ed up; I’ve blown it.” But Gregg came back a few minutes later and told me I was in the band. We’ve been married ever since (laughs)!

What studio basses do you use with the Allmans?

You know, that seems to vary a lot from album to album, and I’m really not sure why. I used my long-scale Alembic on the first record I did with the band, and a fretless Jazz-type bass that was custom-made for me by Chandler; it’s a powder blue color. I’ve had an affiliation with Chandler for years, and they’ve really been able to meet some needs for me. They made a 12-string Korina “V” bass with a Miller High Life logo on the front, with four Chandler lipstick pickups in it; they’re set up two-and-two with coil tap. That’s a beautiful configuration.

I also used a late model white Fender Jazz bass on the first record, and on “Gambler’s Roll” played a fretless Paul Reed Smith; they’re not making them anymore. I’ve got two of them; they’re a little unorthodox, but they’re killer.

On Shades of Two Worlds I used a Washburn AB-20 for the acoustic thing. Most of the other songs had the Alembic again, but for “Kind of Bird” I played a fretless 5-string Steinberger, of all things.

Warren Haynes observed in his own Vintage Guitar interview that Seven Turns was more of a “songs” album, whereas Shades of Two Worlds was more of a “jamming” album.

I agree; the first record was sort of like we were saying “…okay, we have to learn how to make a record together,” which I think we did very well. The second record was more along the lines of “…now we need to do what we do live,” and by the time we did the third studio album, it was definitely a “jam” situation. Where It All Begins was recorded on a sound stage at Burt Reynolds’ ranch, and we even had lighting trusses rigged up!

How long did the most extended jamming situation you’ve gotten into with the Allman Brothers Band last?

Probably about four hours.

Performance basses?

There’s one bass that crosses over a lot for me, and that’s a Warwick. But live, I pretty much go with Thunderbirds; I’ve been a huge Thunderbird fan for years.

Was that the Washburn AB-20 on the acoustic version of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” on the An Evening with the Allman Brothers Band: Second Set album?

No, and there’s a funny story about the bass I used. I collect Hofner copies; the ****tier the better (chuckles). I was in Japan, and Warren and I had been guitar shopping. In the magazines over there, a store will print pictures of its entire inventory. I saw an Audition violin-shaped bass for sale for $125. Audition was the Woolworth/Woolco house brand. I contacted the store, and an employee brought it to the show. It had a brown vinyl gig bag, and it looked great and sounded great, so I bought it.

Later, we had to do a performance for a record association in California. Only four of us were at the meeting; Gregg, Dickie, Warren and me. I had my Washburn AB-20, and I’d brought along the Audition along as a spare and for looks, as well; I thought it would look good for a cozy, intimate acoustic show. I figured I’d better tune it up, so I did, and I started noodling around on it. Our sound man, Bud Snyder, was out in the mobile, and he came in and told me the sound of the Audition was perfect for what we were doing. So the “Liz Reed” acoustic thing on the last live album had a bass that was a $125 Hofner copy.

Were you doing any thumb pops or pull-offs on that song?

No, but I was and still am a huge Larry Graham fan. I watched him play with George Clinton at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame concert, and he had the best bass sound there. I figured out how he got that high-fidelity sound of his; he had the gain way up on his system, and he was barely touching his bass. He got an incredible sound, with a big spongy low end, and a crisp high end. I love Bootsy, too, but Larry Graham’s the man; the original is still the greatest.

How does your setup differ when Gov’t Mule goes out?

It’s a different thing; my amp set-up with the Brothers is geared toward a high fidelity sound; lots of power amps, preamps, high-end cabinets, plus one SVT cabinet that we use just for “dirt.” Without the SVT, the sound would be too clean. But with Gov’t Mule, it’s all SVTs and Orange amps, and I’ve also been using the reissue Crossroad stacks; Bud Ross of Kustom fame made them; they’re even rolled and pleated.

I used a 1967 EB-3 on the demos for the Gov’t Mule record; when I found it, it had been painted flat black but Phil Jones at Gibson’s Custom Shop fixed it up for me. Live, I use EB-3s as well; I have three or four EB-3s, five EB0s, and two EB-1 “Pappalardi” models as well. I’ve got a ’56 and a ’71; the ’56 is the better bass but the ’71 is the one that goes out with me. I used a Hofner on “Temporary Saint” to get that real “Beatle-y” sound.

When we met with Michael Barbiero, the producer, he wanted to know what kind of a sound we wanted, and I said: “I want to sound like Felix Pappalardi.” Michael smiled and said that it shouldn’t be a problem. You see, Felix was Michael’s cousin, and Michael was in the control room when Mountain recorded “Mississippi Queen! ” If you look at the liner notes, you’ll see that I thanked Felix Pappalardi posthumously.

Another thing that affected the Gov’t Mule sound was the conversation I had with Tom Dowd, who was on the Brothers’ tour bus when we were doing some live recordings. Everybody had gone to bed except Tom and me, and I was thinking; “Here’s the man who engineered Cream records and produced Derek & the Dominoes later on.” So I sat there and talked with him for hours and played him the Mule demos. Later, when we went to the studio, we elected to do some of the things Dowd told me he’d done in his earlier sessions, like the way the amps had been set up. We knew he was right. He would know, wouldn’t he (chuckles)?

Well, do you use medium-scale or long-scale basses at all with Gov’t Mule?

At times. The Thunderbird is something that I can always fall back on with either band. A lot of players consider a Fender Precision to be their “Holy Grail;” it seems like the Thunderbird is always my “landing pad.” I know where I stand with it, I like the way they look, the way they feel, and the way they hang on me. I also like the fact that not every Tom, Dick and Harry has one.

I also have a 5-string Les Paul prototype bass Gibson gave me last year. It looks like a big sunburst Les Paul, and it’s a fine instrument. I play it all the time in both bands.

I’ve got the feeling that you’ve been collecting for a long time.

Yeah, the “bug” got me early; I started hanging out at Gruhn’s when I was about 14, around the time George’s store first opened. He had Flying Vs, Explorers, Sunbursts, pearly-top Martins; all of the fine stuff. By the time I was 20, he knew that I knew the guitars, and he offered me a job. I worked for him for some time; I’d get mad and quit then come back, then he’d get mad at me and fire me, then call me back. That happened four or five times, (chuckles) but George and I are really tight. I worked a lot of guitar shows when I was with Gruhn’s.

And currently your collection numbers how many pieces?

About 300 guitars, basses, mandolins and lap steels. I’ve got a lot of “David Lindley-type” instruments that are really cool. I collect jurangos, which have an armadillo shell for a back.

I’m going to cite a couple of brands and models, and let you comment about each. First, Thunderbirds.

I got my first Thunderbird from my mentor, George Gruhn. It was a non-reverse “IV” with double pickups and was gold. George told me it was the only gold one he’d ever seen. The headstock had been broken and professionally repaired; it was structurally sound for about five years then it came off again, and once again I got Phil Jones at Gibson to repair it; that guy’s a wizard. He’s made a lot of basses that I’ve used with the Brothers. I’d met Phil when we both worked at Gruhn’s; we were both “pups” there. He repaired that Thunderbird so well that it’s stronger than it was before it was broken. He’s a genius.

I’ve got a Heather Poly Thunderbird that’s somewhat of a hybrid. It seemed to be a ’60s bass that had been outfitted with ’80s electronics; now it’s been modified with nickel Thunderbird pickups that Paul Chandler found for me. Phil Jones found some nickel tuners as well, and we found a nickel bridge somewhere. I’ve got one of two Korina Thunderbirds that Gibson’s Custom Shop made a few years ago, and a Candy Apple Red Thunderbird with a black pickguard that’s a prototype. There’s two newer Thunderbirds; one black and one sunburst, and Epiphone has been making some new non-reverse Thunderbirds that are cool; I’ve got three of them.

Alembic.

In addition to the long-scale models I use live, I’ve got an 8-string model with a 32-inch scale; it used to belong to Rick Nielsen. I have a purple Stanley Clarke model, a long-scale fretless, a long-scale 5-string, a 20th Anniversary, and a John Entwistle-type, which is a Spoiler with an Explorer-shaped body.

Unusual basses?

There’s the Modulus 18-string, and a bass that Jaco used to own; it’s been authenticated. It’s still got two strings on it, and I started to refurbish it, then I thought about how Leo Fender’s workshop was sealed when he died, so I left Jaco’s bass alone.

I’m using some Epiphone EB-2 copies a bit in the Mule; those things feel like an old Rivoli; they’re pretty much “the real thing.”

What percentage of the basses in your collection are short-scale?

Maybe 40 percent; the Hofner copies I discussed earlier include Apollos, which, come to think of it, are more like EB-l copies. I’ve got a Ventura fretless which is the only one I’ve ever seen, and an Eko.

Other short-scale basses include a Mosrite hollowbody, a Messenger bass like the guitar Mark Farner used to own, a Fender Mustang Bass and a Musicmaster, a Dan Armstrong fretless, a couple of Harmonys and a couple of Kays. I have a weird, short-scale American-made B.C. Rich that was custom-made for me; it’s neck-through.

Other than custom-made instruments, what do you think the rarest piece in your collection?

(Pauses) Probably the Messenger bass, even though I’ve got other instruments that are worth a lot more. I don’t know why it’s so awe-inspiring, but it never ceases to amaze me how many people have heard of that brand and know about the instrument. It may have been ahead of its time; it had a metal neck that split into a tuning fork inside, but the instrument isn’t tuned to the key of the tuning fork! I’ve got lots of old Gibsons and Fenders that would probably be considered collectible, but the Messenger is probably the one when it comes to just “rare.”

In terms of modern innovations, I saw an endorsement ad in Bass Player for KYDD basses, which is a stand-up fretless bass with a 30-inch scale.

Those are made in Philadelphia; I needed something that I could consider to be an electric upright. I was never a legitimate upright bass player, and this seemed to be the best tool where someone like me could “cross over;” it’s a real “friendly” instrument.

How about the guitars in your collection?

I have a really cool Rick 325 that’s in the Tom Wheeler book, and a tulip-shaped Rick. There’s a lot of Vox stuff, including a Mark XII and a Phantom. I’ve got a Gibson Moderne reissue, serial number 007, a cool, white Gibson double-neck, and a Chandler Les Paul-type guitar that has a 251/2″ scale; it’s beautiful. Paul also made me a neat little Firebird-type travel guitar.

There’s one custom-made brand that I want to mention, the THCs made by Tom Holmes in Nashville. Billy Gibbons and I are big Bo Diddley fans, and Billy called me one day in the early ’80s, wanting some Bo Diddley guitars; he said: “The square ones are easy to copy, but I want me one of them Cadillac-fin guitars!” We both knew one of those was on the cover of Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger. So I started looking around, and I found a record shop that had a copy of that album. Tom built some guitars for Billy and me; he also made me a matching bass. I’ve used those a good bit, and I’ve been thinking it would be fun if Warren and I used them as a matching set with Gov’t Mule sometime in the future, because they’re very “thick-sounding,” “Cream-sounding” instruments. Tom also made square-shaped travel guitars for Billy and me.

Billy also gave me another guitar that he had custom-made for me; it’s called the Coyote.

Other fretted instruments?

A Framus lap steel that’s shaped like a rocket ship, and a Morrell 8-string, 9-pedal steel that used to belong to Little Roy Wiggins; I’ve got some Supro lap steels that I really like. One Silvertone I have looks like it was made by Gibson; it’s got Gibson electronics in it.

I also have some electric mandolins, including a Fender electric that my mom and dad bought me in Nashville; it’s a last-year-of-production model. I’d been on the road and wasn’t home for Christmas; when I got home it was lying on my bed. It looked like a sunburst Strat that had been left out in the rain (laughs)! Remember when Precisions made in the mid-’70s had black pickguards instead of tortoise shell? That mandolin was made the same way; black pickguard, but a brown pickup. I had it in Gruhn’s one day, just noodling around, and the store had a blond Fender mandolin that was 20 years older, but the serial numbers were three numbers apart! So I figured mine was one of the last made, and Fender must have run out of pickguards first, so they whipped up some black pickguards to finish things out.

I’ve got a Vox Mando-Guitar that still has the hang tags on it, a ’56 Gibson Florentine electric in mint condition, a Blue Star 5-string Tele-type mandolin, and a Kent electric mandolin shaped like a Hofner Beatle Bass.

I also have a guitar that matches the Kent mandolin; Gov’t Mule just did a track for a Hound Dog Taylor tribute album for Alligator Records. We were recording it in Macon, and I was going to play guitar instead of bass. My girlfriend and I were walking to the studio, and we went into a pawn shop to find a guitar for the session; I had Les Pauls down there but I wanted something crummy! Lo and behold, there sat a Kent guitar, and I gave a $125 for it. I’m looking for a matching bass to complete the set. Actually, those mandolins were called “electric violas;” I think they were marketed like that.

Future recording plans?

We’ll do another Mule album later this year, and I’d be surprised if we didn’t go back to Bearsville Sound in Woodstock again, and I’d be more surprised if we didn’t choose to use Michael Barbiero again.

As for the Allman Brothers, I’d be surprised if Tom Dowd wasn’t at the helm for our next record; I’d be nervous if he wasn’t. I think we’ll record the next album live in the studio, as was the case with Where It All Begins; probably another sound stage environment.

The last question is sort of a philosophical variant of the “desert island” type. Since you’ve got a lot of various instruments, what instrument would you like to have on a desert island if you could only have one? And if it was a bass, what scale would it be?

(Pauses) Hmmm….you’re making this difficult…

(Pauses again) Well, then let’s fine-tune a bit and assume there wouldn’t be any electricity on the island.

I’d probably want a Gibson B-45-12; they’re great guitars. I could sit there, eat coconuts, and play Byrds tunes and songs from A Hard Day’s Night (chuckles).

Allen Woody has the experience as a player and guitar lover (including his retail days) to have a keen perspective on music and fretted instruments. He’s accomplished a lot in both fields, as his recorded work and his instrument collection aver, and he can also be proud of his accomplishments in both areas. Other players and guitar lovers should have it so good, yet most of ‘em would readily give credit where credit’s due; that Woody purveys a lot of great music is a bonus.

This interview originally appeared in VG‘s Nov. and Dec. ’96 issues.

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