Eight-String Basses

Sonic Niche
Eight-String Basses
Hagström H-8/Fender VII courtesy of N. Redding.

Emerging in ’60s catalogs from Hagström and Framus, eight-string basses occupy a distinct place among musical instruments – their potent, dense sound used to add texture or color.

An all-mahogany solidbody with a short-scale 21-fret rosewood fretboard, Hagström’s H8 was best-known for being played by Noel Redding of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, who used one on Axis: Bold As Love and in concert. It also served as a prop for a promo video of “Burning of the Midnight Lamp” from Electric Ladyland. Other users included Andy Kulberg of the Blues Project, Danny McCulloch of Eric Burdon and the Animals, and legendary studio musician Joe Osborn, who played one on Richard Harris’ 1968 hit “MacArthur Park,” which peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart that June. In ’79, Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister bashed a sunburst H8 on an episode of the BBC’s “Top of the Pops.”

Labeled F-800 in the U.S., like other guitars and basses from the Swedish maker, the bass’ tone was highly manipulable – a ’68 catalog from U.S. distributor Unicord touted its High, Low, Tone and Mute switches, as well as a Volume knob and Standby switch. It was available in Mahogany Sunburst or Cherry Red.

Framus’ 5/153-8 Caravelle was an eight-string variant of the 5/153 bass, using a classic thinline body with one sound hole, maple neck, and rosewood fretboard with 26 frets on a long scale. Its electronics included two Bill Lawrence/Billy Lorento humbuckers with separate Volume and Tone controls and a pickup toggle on the upper bass bout.

Each string on this ’68 Hagström H8/F-800 (left, in Cherry Red) has an accompanying string tuned an octave higher. Note the different-sized tuners. Framus’ circa-1970 5/153-8 sported a five-over-three tuner arrangement on its Strat-like headstock. Rickenbacker’s ’93 4003S/8 had “toaster top” pickups, while Hondo’s 1981 H-1182 was two basses in one.

Its offset tailpiece resembled Epiphone’s Frequensator. Framus offered it in natural finish as well as Sunburst, Brown Shaded, Red, Black Rose, and Brown.

Interest in eight-string basses evolved through the ’70s, when acclaimed luthiers started to custom-build them for famous musicians. Alembic offered one with neck-through construction and complex controls that was used by Greg Lake to record Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Peter Gunn,” “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and other songs.

Mid-decade, Rickenbacker debuted an eight-string in its fabled 4000 series; the 4008 was initially a special order, but by the mid ’80s the 4003S/8 was listed in company brochures, the “S” indicating Standard/base model with dot markers and no binding. Some had black hardware, and some were given Hi-Gain pickups while others had vintage-style “toaster tops.” An eight-string variant of the 4005 hollowbody was also offered (4005-8), and in ’88 the company made a run of 125 4003SPC Redneck models with red fretboards, some of which had eight strings.

In the mid ’70s, the upstart Hamer company was touting its “modern vintage” instruments, influenced by classic shapes and styles. Co-founder Jol Dantzig recalled that a Hagström eight-string brought in for repair with a bowed neck and intonation problems sparked their interest.

A custom-made Alembic eight-string in a 1981 catalog (left); based on the Series II instruments, it has the “Omega cut” at the end of the body. An ’82 Kramer Stagemaster Deluxe 8 and ’83 Stagemaster Deluxe 8 in custom-order purple. Note changes in the toggle array. Ibanez eight-strings in a 1980 German catalog.

“It seemed obvious that the thin neck was a problem, and of course, only having four saddles on the bridge compromised the intonation completely,” he said. “I immediately started thinking about how to make an eight-saddle bridge for it.”

Hamer’s model, the 8 String Bass, actually followed the 12 String Bass that put the company on the proverbial map (reportedly conceived by Cheap Trick bassist Tom Petersson in 1973, it was built in ’77 with three E, A, D, and G strings).

“After building the 12 String Bass, it was clear that it wasn’t for everyone because thesound was too radical.” Dantzig said. “So we came up with a logical regression. The specifications evolved rapidly in those days.”

The 8 String Bass had a double-cut mahogany body (a nod to Gibson’s earliest EB-0), one pickup, and a mahogany neck with a 21-fret rosewood ’board. The scale was 30.5″. The earliest examples had Rex Bogue pickups, followed by DiMarzio X2Ns and DiMarzio Bass One models. Most had active circuitry, and there was a two-pickup version.

1981 Kramer XL-8 in walnut with maple stripes; a reverse configuration was also available, as were Cherry and Black finishes. Circa-’79 Ibanez ST-980. From Hondo’s 1981 catalog, an H-1015-8.

Hamer picked up an important endorsement from songwriter/singer Nick Lowe.
“Nick had a great quote in the press about his, saying it sounded like ‘dinosaurs eating cars,’” Dantzig recalled. “So we put him in an ad.”

And while Hamer did advertise the 8 String Bass, “They were custom-order pieces in that they were made on request, even for dealers.”

Summarizing the 8 String’s place in Hamer history, Dantzig said, “They’re usually used like hot sauce in the studio, so I’m always hearing from artists who’ve owned them for years but didn’t necessarily wear them onstage. The eight-string was always a part of the mix; it just didn’t get the spotlight like our 12s did.”

A 1977 brochure from up-and-comers B.C. Rich proffered an eight-string Bich maple neck-through with a koa body, rosewood fretboard with cloud inlays, and a challenging control array. It may have been the first cataloged eight-string with four tuners on the head and four behind the tailpiece. In ’81, a doubleneck Bich debuted with eight- and four-string necks. Both were cataloged through ’85.

From ’83, Mark Egan’s first M.V. Pedulla Octobuzz bass, and from the ’80s, a Washburn B20-8.

Paul Reed Smith also experimented with the concept and built a fretless example in ’77.

The late ’70s also saw the introduction of two Asian-made Ibanez eight-strings – the affordable, well-made ST-980 and MC-980. A ’79 catalog cited the ST-980’s laminate body with maple center section, mahogany sides, and walnut top plate. Its neck was laminate maple and was attached with the company’s Quadra-Lock neck mount. Its rosewood fretboard had 24 frets and was inlaid with abalone position markers. The nut was bone and brass, and scale for the four-string Studio was 34″, while the eight-string was 32″. Electronics included two sealed humbuckers and active circuitry.

The Ibanez catalog also included the neck-through MC-980, with identical dimensions, scale, tuners, and bridge/tailpiece, a center portion of five-ply maple and walnut on a mahogany core, and bookmatched-ash top and back. The fretboard was ebony, and it had the standard bone-and-brass nut. Pickups were two active Super 4 single-coils, also sealed in epoxy.

A 1980 German catalog showed the MC-980 (called the MC980DS) and the ST-980 (ST980WN) on separate pages, along with photos of bassists John McVie, Sting, and Alphonso Johnson; Sting’s was fretless and he used it extensively. Other names on the page included Greg Lake, Cheap Trick (not Tom Petersson), and Stanley Clarke.

A custom-made Alembic eight-string in a 1981 catalog (left); based on the Series II instruments, it has the “Omega cut” at the end of the body. An ’82 Kramer Stagemaster Deluxe 8 and ’83 Stagemaster Deluxe 8 in custom-order purple. Note changes in the toggle array.

Pro bassist Mark Egan endorsed Ibanez at the time, but not in America.

“During a tour of Japan with Pat Metheny, I met one of their bass designers, who introduced me to the four- and eight-string basses,” he recalled.

Egan’s eight-string is “…very comfortable, considering it’s tuned in octaves. It has a full, clear, and powerful sound with very versatile double soapbar pickups and Bass, Treble, Volume and pickup-select features. The body has a good feel, similar to an Ibanez four-string, and the neck was playable in all positions.”

In spite of their laudable sound, Ibanez eight-strings couldn’t establish a foothold in the market. When the ’81 catalog was published, eight-strings were gone.

A custom-made Alembic eight-string in a 1981 catalog (left); based on the Series II instruments, it has the “Omega cut” at the end of the body. An ’82 Kramer Stagemaster Deluxe 8 and ’83 Stagemaster Deluxe 8 in custom-order purple. Note changes in the toggle array.

At the same time, Hondo II was set to grab the torch. Its 1981 Professional catalog included the H-1015 and its octo-sibling, the H-1015/8. Both had symmetrical cutaways, a maple neck with a 325/16″ scale and 24 frets, an offset pickup, and a satin brass bridge/tailpiece. While the H-1015 was available in four finishes, the H-1015/8 was offered in Brown Sunburst only. The “Longhorn” series doubleneck four- and eight-string bass (H-1182) was advertised in the same catalog, but not illustrated. Longhorn necks were given brass nuts.

In the early ’80s, several eight-strings were offered by the feisty young Kramer company, which was making electric guitars with aluminum necks embedded with wood inserts and topped with ebonol fretboards.

Sporting a trendy silhouette that rivaled B.C. Rich models, Kramer’s XL-8 appeared in 1981 with four tuners on the headstock of its aluminum neck and four mounted along the body, behind the bridge. Its scale was 30.75″, as was the case for later eight-string Kramers.

Another early Kramer was the limited-production XL-9, which was offered as an eight-string variant even though it did not appear alongside the four-string in an ’81 flyer or price list. And while Kramer was moving away from aluminum necks in the early ’80s, its ’82 and ’83 catalogs showed them on the Stagemaster Deluxe 8.

Ibanez eight-strings in a 1980 German catalog.

Also in the early ’80s, Egan began collaborating with luthier Michael Pedulla on an eight-string fretless called the Octobuzz. His first one dates from 1983, with neck-through construction (flame-maple center and maple wings). Electronics are active Bartolini pickups.

“It inspired many compositions,” he said. “The fingerboard has an acrylic finish that gives the instrument a lot of sustain, which makes it great for melodies and soloing.”

The ’80s, of course, saw MTV and hair bands dominate the decade, emphasizing flashy visuals as much as sound – and influencing guitarmakers. One trendy example was Washburn’s B20 Stage, with a body that resembled a Gibson Explorer and neck-through construction (laminated maple) on an ash body with a figured-maple top and a P/J pickup configuration. Like the Kramer, its eight-string variant (B20-8) had four tuners on the headstock, four on the body.

Still offered today, eight-string basses are some of the highest-quality instruments no matter their builder or country of origin. Still, collectors will likely never see them as more than a curiosity.

Retro Redux

Tom Petersson’s Gretsch Round Up 12-String Bass

Tom Petersson onstage with the Round Up 12-string.

Credited with inventing the 12-string bass (especially by bandmate Rick Nielsen), Cheap Trick bassist Tom Petersson collaborated with the Gretsch Custom Shop on a one-off 12-string that pays homage to the renowned Round Up.

Introduced in 1954, the 6130 Round Up was a dressed-down version of Gretsch’s 6121 Chet Atkins, with a pine top. The specs for Petersson’s bass are based on a 2013 reissue of the guitar; its headstock has a maple overlay, script Gretsch logo, a steer-head inlay, and Gotoh tuners. The neck was carved from a three-piece quartersawn maple blank, and the ebony fretboard has block markers with “cows and cactus” etching.

“We used the same pine as on Round Up guitars,” said Stephen Stern, head of the Gretsch Custom Shop. “The top is a laminate, and plies on the back and sides are curly maple.”

The top is bookmatched and has a clear pickguard as well as a G brand on the lower bass bout.

Like Petersson’s Falcon 12-strings, the Round Up’s bridge is a Space Control variant designed by Fender/Gretsch luthier Chris Fleming. The tailpiece is a Cadillac G style crafted specifically for 12-string basses, pickups are Seymour Duncan CSTM Supertrons, and the scale is 30.5″.

The leather side trim is patterned after the original Round Up, the work done by Bill Silverman of El Dorado Guitar Accessories, who examined old photos and, with Stern’s help, collaborated with a die maker to produce a replica.

Petersson was delighted with the finished instrument.

“I always wanted an orange 12-string, so why not go all the way?” he said, recalling the inspiration and noting that at Cheap Trick shows he often uses only this instrument, including for his solo, which is a medley of Lou Reed songs.

Petersson thoroughly enjoys working with the Gretsch Custom Shop.

“Steve does all the hard work,” he said. “All I do is come up with something I like and convince them to go along with it. So far, so good. They’ve been fantastic and supportive.”
“We were excited about this project,” Stern noted. “It’s always great to work with Tom; he’s easygoing and has a wonderful sense of humor. Gretsch guitars are an excellent platform for different ideas.”

This article originally appeared in VG’s September 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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