Active pickups in electric guitars and basses have been around for more than four decades; in 1962, British guitar builder Burns offered its TR2 model, which used a preamp that boosted bass or treble response.
But it wasn’t until 1969 that active electronics came into prominence, when the California-based builder Alembic began hot-rodding guitars and basses for the Grateful Dead.
Alembic was founded by recording engineer Ron Wickersham and his wife, Susan, who were soon joined by Bob Matthews (also a recording engineer) and luthier/guitarist Rick Turner, and they got their start modifying Guild Starfire basses for the Dead’s Phil Lesh and Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady. Ultimately, the company progressed to making its own bodies and necks, which led to Lesh’s Starfire ultimately becoming almost unrecognizable as a Guild, with its Alembic neck, low-impedance pickups, and 13 control knobs!
The first bass bearing the Alembic logo was made for Casady in 1971. A solidbody with a 32″ scale and neck-through design, it laid the foundation for the company’s approach – that is, creating hand-built high-end instruments with exotic woods, artistic inlays, and state-of-the-art electronics.
Turner departed Alembic in the late ’70s, and went on to make his own guitars and basses (see VG‘s December ’08 issue for a profile of his Model 1 bass). Before he left, however, the company began creating new models aimed at a lower-cost segment of the market. The Distillate, introduced in 1981, was one of the earliest of those “more accessible” Alembics.
A 1981 Alembic catalog hyped the Distillate by noting that it incorporated “…several of the most requested features of Alembic’s custom basses into a single, production instrument. The result is an instrument with an uncompromising look, sound, and feel that will satisfy the perfectionistic player while simultaneously impressing even the most discriminating listener.”
The Distillate was the first standard Alembic bass offered in mono only. Early examples, made for the Japanese market, were single-pickup models with top-mounted control plates made of brass. The two-pickup version, designated for the United States, came along in ’82.
Standard features on the Distillate included a five-ply laminated maple-and-purpleheart neck-through design, and a Honduras mahogany body topped by a choice of Maple (options included plain, flamed, quilted, burled, and birdseye), Walnut (plain, burled, and figured), Bubinga, Bocate, Coco Bola, Pinstripe Zebrawood, Erratic Zebrawood, Flame Koa, Tulipwood, Lacewood, Rosewood, Maccassar Ebony, or Vemillion.
The one shown here has a Flame Koa top and a multi-laminate headstock in the original/standard Alembic silhouette, topped with koa laminate. The neck has an ebony fretboard with the company’s standard oval-shaped inlays.
Alembic’s metal parts were intriguing, as well. The sterling silver headstock emblem is the company logo.
Not surprisingly, the nut, bridge, and tailpiece are all made of brass, part of the design that helped Alembics attain their signature sound, which was noted for being huge and resonant. Truss-rod adjustment was accomplished by removing the brass plate between the neck-position pickup and the end of the fretboard. Even the control plate on the back is made of brass.
The Distillate’s electronics included two hum-canceling active pickups controlled by a rotary switch as well as master Volume and master Tone knobs. On early examples, the rotary switch was on the treble cutaway, while on later versions, pickup switches were placed in front of three mini-toggles that controlled bass boost/cut, treble boost/cut, and a “Q” switch that converted the Tone control to an onboard wah.
The active electronics are turned on when a cord is plugged into the jack, and the LED near the jack illuminates red to indicate the battery is on. This LED wasn’t on later Distillates.
Alembic did, of course, offer special-order options on the Distillate. This one has a custom neck width, pickup location, and a deeper treble cutaway. Other options included various scale length, side-position LED markers, fingerboard LED markers, laser LED fret markers, and custom fingerboard inlay. It was available in four-string, five-string, six-string, and eight-string variants, and could also be ordered in a left-handed configuration.
The Distillate was discontinued as a production instrument in 1990, but remained available as a special-order bass. And as with most Alembics, the one shown here is one of a kind. While it was designed as a lower-priced model, it nonetheless has plenty of the unique elements that made the Golden State builder a legend in high-end luthiery.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s September 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.