Rick Kennell, bassist for ’70s prog-rockers Happy the Man, was one of the very first players to jump aboard the Paul Reed Smith bandwagon.
After learning to play bass on short-scale Fender Mustangs and Gibson EB-0s, in HTM Kennell used two full-scale models – a ’71 Fender Jazz and an early-’70s Rickenbacker 4001 – but because his hands were small for the instrument, both presented ergonomic issues.
About the time Happy the Man was preparing to record its first album, Paul Reed Smith had started building instruments in his shop in Annapolis, Maryland. Kennell was referred to him by members of another Washington D.C. area band called Artful Dodger. When he first visited Smith’s shop, Kennell admired a fretless bass made for Stan Sheldon, who was then playing in Peter Frampton’s band. Kennell decided to order a bass with a medium scale, and the instrument – just the seventh made by Smith – arrived with a natural-finished mahogany body outfitted with a Bartolini Hi-A Beast pickup near the neck and a Rickenbacker pickup in the bridge position.
“The Rick pickup was totally my idea,” Kennell recounted. “I wanted the crunch I got from my old Rick, and that was the best way I knew to achieve it.”
The bass was delivered to Kennell in September of ’76 while he was at A&M Studios in Hollywood, where Happy the Man was recording its first album. It arrived after basic tracks had been recorded with the Rick 4001, though Kennell did overdub one song using the Smith instrument. Unfortunately, its neck warped and in early ’77 it went back to Smith for repair and Kennell was loaned another bass. The original proved irreparable, and rather than wait for Smith to build another, Kennell held on to the replacement. “I felt bad because he needed to sell it to pay rent,” Kennell said.
The basses were virtually identical except that the replacement, which was Smith’s eleventh overall instrument, had just one Hi-A pickup. “The original was much lighter both in the color of the mahogany and its weight, and it had a much thinner neck – much flatter, more like a Rickenbacker shape. I think Paul was enamored with the way number seven came out and built number 11 as its twin, but shaped the neck more to his liking – it was much rounder.”
“Number 11” has a set neck and exemplifies the meticulous handcrafted elegance of early PRS instruments. Its neck and body are Honduras mahogany, the fretboard is Brazilian rosewood, and there’s a maple strip down the center of the back of the neck. The bird-shaped inlays on the fretboard and eagle inlay on the headstock are mother-of-pearl. Dot markers on the side of the fretboard are sterling silver. One of the more interesting details is the neck binding, which is made from the fretboard’s own wood! Kennell said Smith would, “…shave a sliver of rosewood from the length of each side of the fingerboard, mount the frets, then glue the strips back in so you couldn’t see the [tangs]. It is incredible craftsmanship, and has held up very well.”
The tuners on number 11 are by Schaller, and the strings anchor in a Leo Quan Badass bridge/tailpiece.
Again, number 11 began as a single-pickup instrument. But after Kennell and Smith reconciled over Kennell’s refusal to return number 11, Smith installed the Rickenbacker pickup that had been in number 7.
“Paul used to come to Happy the Man shows,” the bassist recalled. “A couple months after he installed the Rick pickup, he asked if he could rewind it, as he wasn’t satisfied with the sound. I said ‘Sure,’ so he rewound it to give a little less ‘clack’ and more upper mids.”
Controls on this bass include a volume knob and a nine-position rotary tone switch. The pickup switching system is unique; the three-position mini-toggle between the two knobs is an on/off switch for the Rickenbacker pickup only, while the Hi-A can be cut by pulling up on the Volume control.
On the second album by Happy the Man, Crafty Hands, Kennell used number 11 exclusively. The band broke up after that album, and Kennell says he played it on subsequent demos and live material.
Happy the Man regrouped in 2000 and in ’04 released The Muse Awakens, on which Kennell played two custom-made Keith Roscoe medium-scale basses with piezo pickups. He also owns a medium-scale Fender Stu Hamm signature bass and a short-scale Rob Allen Mouse he uses for songwriting. For sentimental and monetary reasons, number 11 no longer leaves his house.
Now more than 30 years old, this instrument was a harbinger of the finely crafted instruments that would ultimately make Paul Reed Smith one of today’s most recognized guitar makers.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s July 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.