History of the Earthwood Bass–
“The bass that set the pace!”
Ernie Ball reasoned that for all the acoustic guitars out there, there should be an acoustic bass. In 1971 he bought a guitarrón in Tijuana, and with the help of George Fullerton, they started experimenting with it. George had worked for years with Leo Fender in developing the electric guitar and you can see his influence in the use of a Fender-style screw-on neck, unusual for acoustic guitars. They took the top dimensions of the guitarrón but cut off the vaulted back and replaced it with 8” thick sides and a flat back that is equally deep at the heel and the tail of the bass. This is the only guitar built this way. It may have been devised to simplify construction of the enigmatic vaulted back of the guitarrón and yet maintain as much volume of air possible.The other acoustic bass guitars at the time were the 1965 Harptone from and the Maton “Bindarra” from Australia, being perhaps the only two. The Harptone company supplied the back and sides made of a laminate of Walnut/Holly/Walnut for the Earthwood. (Ernie didn’t use the Harptone’s arched back but later Guild did pick up this feature for their bass.) Harptone also supplied the hardshell cases for these huge basses but only 13 were ever sold, according to Dan Norton. Ernie’s design called for no plastic parts to be used–a rather unique feature at the time. I asked Dan Norton at the NAMM show about the unique radial design top bracing unique to the Earthwood. He said, “they just started gluing popsicle sticks until the top stopped moving and then they took some off!”
Production started with the 8” thick series at the #500 in 1972. After a year and a half, Ernie was not pleased with the quality of the instruments. The bridges tended to pull off as no bridge pins were used. An attempt to fix this was tried by putting a screw through the bridge and then covering it with a Maple trim. The problem was later remedied by loading the strings from the bottom of the bridge through the soundhole. Collapsing tops was another issue. At first the workers were gluing the braces but did not clamp them. So on a Sunday in 1973, Ernie locked up the plant and closed production. He instructed Dan Norton to let everyone know they would no longer be needed to work.
Some time passed and Ernie asked Dan to find someone to help him re-open the factory. Ron Saul was chosen. Ron’s recollection of walking into the ghost-like, closed factory is still clear. It was eery to see how it was left—brushes still in glue pots, guitars in all phases of completion lying about—as if the people were sucked up out of the place and everything was left untouched except for the cobwebs. They were instructed to get rid of everything and make a clean start. He recalls that there were about 200 (Dan, a skilled luthier in his own right, remembers about 50) bodies that had been partially made. Ron stood on a chair and jumped down on bodies to break them up and then threw them in the trash! (I cried when he told me that! As hard as these are to find today and they just trashed several dozen?!! Ouch!—Editor’s note.)The first thing they did was to re-evaluate the thickness of the bass. They prototyped several instruments and decided that a 6” thickness would still produce the great bass tone that they were looking for while making the instrument much easier to hold and play. They deleted the huge, thick, double pick guards (which were made out of Brazillian Rosewood!) and made the strings loadable from the sound hole. This style was introduced in 1973 and continued until production stopped in 1985. The first 8″ bass was numbered #500 and the last 6″ bass was probably #1052. That should be a total of 552. I know of several that were made “extra” so the Estimates of a total of 500 to 600 is probably accurate. How many remain out there? 300? 400? Join our registry and let’s find out! Owner Registry.
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