Bass, Interviews — July 11, 2011 7:21 am

Interview with Alvin “Snake Bass” Harrison

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My newest article on Bass creators is with local artist Alvin Harrison. I met Mr. Harrison at Larry Hartke’s Bass Lounge in Manhattan. Not only does Alvin sculpt beautiful one of a kind basses, but also produces fine paintings. No detail is overlooked, as is evidenced in not only his basses but his paintings as well.

With a military upbringing, traveling abroad, Alvin found himself constructing his first bass from a crutch, kite string and portable stereo player. This is a far cry from the beautiful works he has made in years of late.

JS – Can you tell me a little about your history?

Alvin – Well I’m a Southern boy, born the oldest out of four from Portsmouth Virginia, thats two sisters my brother and myself. My mom and Dad are still together and supportive as they have always been concerning my art, both still live in Virginia. My Dad was career service in the air force. My mom for a while worked as a nurse, then moved on to stay at home mom status, keeping us kids in line.

We went to different schools throughout our schooling days due to my dads service obligations, I struggled throughout my schooling efforts simply because I was never the academic sort and still not to this day. I passed for the most part but always by the skin of my teeth, before attempting college where my luck ran out from that point on, actually I wound up in boarding school in Massachusetts for a few years before moving on to high school. Prep school was where my appreciation for woodworking kicked in. Looking back to high school I do recall taking a shop class, finding myself making a cobra handled afro pic after having been inspired by an old man who’s cane had a cobra carved around it.

After graduation from high school I made the repeated mistake of trying my hand at college. Trust me I’ve got no bizness sitting in anybody’s classroom… I had a strong thing for basketball but found my self injured one summer and had to be on crutches for a while. It was during that time I had plenty of time to notice something about music and one particular sound that turned out to be my favorite of all the sounds, Bass! I was fascinated once I realized what instrument was making it. Prior to that I had no idea what was making what. After that I went on to slap together a makeshift convertible bass out of my crutch which allowed me to use it as a crutch when I needed it and a bass when I wanted it. It never worked of course because it consisted of kite string and a portable stereo speaker. I could clip the speaker on to the crutch to get the sound and vibrations from the stereo which help me to feel the notes I was faking with the kite string rig up. To me it was the next best thing to air bass guitar.

JS – Can you tell me about your training?

Alvin – I never had training for what I do in making basses and still don’t. Everything is trial and error, getting advice from guitar techs once in a while, check out a book or two etc and basically hack my way from level to level.

I was calling myself a wood burning artist for quite some time because I like doing wood burning art. It’s like painting with fire for those who aren’t familiar with the medium. You use a hot tool like a soldering iron to create images in wood. I would also carve my own picture frames to go with my work. and I’ve always drawn since I was a kid, stayed to myself doing that and making things like robots, cars, trucks and space vehicles out of cardboard boxes. I wound up on the BBC TV news one time in England for making a robot from the popular Doctor Who series that was on at the time.

JS – Can you tell me a little about your playing history, bands and styles that you’ve played, any memorable shows?

Alvin – Though I haven’t really had a real opportunity to work in a 70s band playing 70s music I basically pride
myself on being a throw back from the 70s. You might not know it from the situations most see me in but it’s true.
In my hideaway I’m playing funk stuff mostly made up feels and grooves which has helped me in perhaps the most unlikeliest ways, primarily when performing other styles of music.
I’ve for the most part worked in a lot of blues, classic rock, folk, singer song writer type projects, christian rock, modern jazz, jam band stuff, and local projects with a tad of r&b, and country. I could use some Latin, Reggae, and frankly more country music to add to my portfolio once the opp comes, oh yeah and a lot more Funk.
I just recently returned to my Church gig situation but desperately wanting to do more and get into situations where there is a touring opportunity, needless to say the money has got to at least be practical which has always been a challenging subject from my own experience. I’m still hoping and staying active though. I love what I do and am doing so I’ll keep moving toward those things.

JS – What is the make-up of your basses? Woods? Hardware?

Alvin – I tend to use basic hard woods with a couple of odd choice woods here and there in todays designs, primarily maple, Oak, and or walnut. I like to experiment. My choice of woods really varies with density dryness, rigidity color grain patterns and texture, also weight. it depends on the design I want to use it for as well too. My hardware is usually borrowed from basses I no longer use or want or ordered from Stuart McDonald guitar magazine which is a magazine that cators to anyone making guitars etc.

JS – How do you carve out your designs?

Alvin – I think what I use is rather basic in typical home shop tools. I don’t have heavy duty stuff or a CGI machine or nothing like that. Think Belt sanders, band saw, table saw, Dremel, router, drill press, roto zip, etc. Nothing heavier than that. everything after that is like files, sandpaper etc, etc.

JS – Most of your tuning pegs are down at the bottom end of the bass, is there a reason for that, where did you get the idea?

Alvin – I always credit the Stienburg guitar design for that be cause it fit in perfectly with my design concept.
Though I was never a big fan of the headless guitar, I did see the benefit and recognize the genius in the overall Stienburg design.

JS – How do you add the color to your necks?

Alvin – I’m an artist, so in all my experimenting I tend to mix concepts in exterior imaging and applications which include wood-burning, wood staining and even color pencil. A lot of the strong contrasting colors are acrylic paints from your average art stores. I’m sure I’m not the first to play around this way but to me I feel like I’m pioneering. I’m more interested in creating something with impact than I am about being the first to do it. Though being the first has it’s benefits. I love the results of some of my gambling, for me thats what it’s partially about being an artist. I usually like to finish most of my guitars with coats of clear lacquer to seal out moisture, protect my work and add more rigidity to the finished project. But some in the past I left with a very thin coat deliberately, again exploring approaches and effects.


JS – Who inspires you in art and music?

Alvin – Who inspires me? I have to be honest and say there are quite a few across the board really, in both art and music. For art I’ve always loved Norman Rockwell’s work, then there is Boris (Vallejo), Frezeta (Frank) and of course, Thomas Kincade. As far as bass players again it’s the same story , too many to credit. The ones who come to mind are Victor Wooten, Stanley Clark, Marcus Miller, Jaco Pastorius, John Pattitucci, Billy Sheen, Mark Egan, Les
Claypool, and even more I can’t remember. Even local guys here in New Jersey.

JS – You have a lot of snake designs, is there symbolism here?

Alvin – There has never ben any symbolism behind my designs for the most part, maybe a story image but nothing so deep you have to be cloaked in a black hooded cape to get it. I tend to be playful and enjoy laughing at myself with humorous concepts that point at a variety of things really. I’m not big on promoting or celebrating death despite what folks may percieve of my serpent basses. I’m just an artist who loves creative concepts.

JS – How many basses have you made up to this point?

Alvin – I finally counted only twenty to my credit so far believe it or not. Unfortunately, I wish I could say I’ve made more… I only have eight out of that number, between the couple I’ve actually sold and the ones I’ve disassembled or trashed all together. I do own three factory basses from other companies but they stay in storage while I use my creations. I have two Peavey and a Fender Jazz four string. One of the Peavey basses is a five.

JS – Do you have an idea for building the perfect bass?

Alvin – I don’t really believe in the perfect bass really. even for my self I like for my basses to feel just a little different per bass. It makes then more unique and adds more personality. Having said that, I still strive for a particular look and feel but like to leave space for happy coincidences as long as it does something to enhance my final creation. I think based on favorites there is still a tie. I find that I use different ones for a stretch of time before switching off to another that winds up being what I keep thinking is a favorite, I’m kinda glad I can’t really adequately answer that question. If I had the money. for me It wouldn’t be what bass would I make because I get brain storms coming and going left and right. If anything I would be investing in tools and creative situations that help my creative environment for refining my craft. I love looking to make each one somehow better than the one that came before it. I love that. I would take better time using better tools, woods, techniques, Oh wow what a dream that would be and living in an environment where the cold is no threat or an inconvenience.

And that my friends is Alvin Harrison, a humble, talented and creative man with some beautiful pieces and nice perspectives to share, Thank you Alvin!

Enjoy your BASS!!!

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