THE ASHBORY BASS
FROM THE BASS CENTRE • LONDON • ENGLAND
In 1985, Englishmen Alun Ashworth-Jones and Nigel Thornbory created the original Ashbory Bass, a revolutionary 18" scale, silicon-rubber strung instrument with a piezo-electric transducer that, when amplified, produced a low, resonant bass tone that emulated a plucked double bass with astonishing clarity and accuracy.
In its second incarnation, Ashbory worked with The Bass Centre to create a version with an ergonomic body shape influenced by the Steinberger 'stick' basses of the day. These instruments instantly found favour with international players and recording artists including Tony Levin and Doug Wimbish.
Now, 30 years on, The Bass Centre is pleased to announce a brand new generation of the Ashbory brand, featuring a travel-ready choice of solid body and bass uke style instruments - defiantly small in stature but built to deliver big crisp, expansive bass tone.
THE ASHBORY STORY (1985 - 2002)
The development of this remarkable instrument as recalled by its originators, inventor Alun Ashworth-Jones and designer Nigel Thornbory.
In The Beginning
It all started back in 1985 when Nigel Thornbory had taken a couple of days to visit his old mate, Alun (Al) Ashworth-Jones, in Cornwall. Such visits always involved, and still do, plenty of sea air, sunshine and beer! It was following lunch and a few beers in the local pub that Al mentioned he had discovered, almost by accident, that a rubber band stretched over one of his guitar transducers produced an impressive bass note when plucked. He had gone so far as to produce a device to test this.
Following a demonstration of this 'big bass sound', it seemed that the concept would be worth pursuing further. Now, it is possibly a slight exaggeration, but rumour has it, that the only tools Al possessed were a needle file and a soldering iron! Such tools are not quite up to the task of fine luthiery, so a few preliminary scribbles were made on a scrap of paper, and a couple of days later Nigel came up with an instrument. 'Instrument' was actually a rather grand title for the shape which was roughly sawn from an old floorboard - but at least it had tuners and a bridge on which to hook the rubber bands!
As it happened, both Al and Nigel had booked an exhibitors stand at the Barbican Guitar Exhibition which was shortly to take place in London. This was for the purpose of advertising their more usual products (Alun's Ashworth transducer pickups and Nigel's acoustic guitars). More as a 'bit of fun' than anything else, they decided to take the bass along to the show. However, it was felt that the odd bits of rubber that currently served for strings should be improved, so a quick look through Yellow Pages revealed a local supplier of silicone rubber 'O' rings (sealing gaskets). These sounded much better!
Business was brisk on the first day of the show and it wasn't until a lull during the afternoon that the bass was finally, and somewhat apologetically, brought out... Well, the response was phenomenal: Within moments a disbelieving crowd had gathered - disbelieving because it was difficult to equate the enormously full bass sound with the little dogbone shaped stick of wood that appeared to be responsible!
One person who was impressed by this sound just happened to be Chris Martin IV - so impressed, in facthat he promptly commissioned the making of prototypes for evaluation by the Martin Guitar Company.
This was the point at which the real work started...!
The bass did not have a name, but this was nothing that a bit of serious thought and a few more beers couldn't solve! Just about every combination of 'Alun Ashworth-Jones' and 'Nigel Thornbory' was tried - and of course there was heated discussion about which part of which name should come first... 'Thornworth', 'Albory', 'Jonesbory', 'Nigal', etc... but finally, it was Al's wife, Lesley who suggested 'Ashbory'. This seemed to trip off the tongue quite nicely, so 'Ashbory' it was!
Quite by accident, this name proved to be an extremely good choice for a reason which nobody could have thought of at the time. Its unique spelling means that a search on the Internet yields only references to the Ashbory Bass!
First 'Serious' Prototypes
Chris Martin had commissioned prototypes in two styles: One was to be in the style of the 'Fender Precision Bass' and the other shaped similarly to a headless 'Steinberger'.
Neither Al nor Nigel were too keen about this because it seemed that such an approach would prevent the instruments being taken seriously, and there was a danger that they might be dismissed as 'toys' (the scale length of each bass was only 18 inches - approx 46 cm.). Accordingly, although Chris hadn't asked for it, it was decided that Nigel would make a third prototype for the Martin Guitar Company, but in the shape which Chris had first seen. It was, after all, a good example of design following function which so often proves to be the best solution.
Note that shape of the "dogbone" Ashbory in the centre of the picture has now been reversed. It was also felt that, because there was very little tension in the strings, that banjo style friction tuners would be preferable to geared machine heads (this subsequently proved to be a big mistake!). By this time Al had designed an active pre-amp which served to enhance the bass response, and there had also been considerable research into the silicone rubber strings...
There were three big problems with the early strings :
A book could be written about the development of the strings alone! Suffice it to say that help was enlisted from some of the biggest names in the silicone rubber business. Remarkably, everybody was very patient and helpful concerning the strange requirements of "that crazy Ashbory pair"... although, never having been faced with the musical application of their material, they could never quite come to terms with the oft repeated phrase, "Yes, yes, but they just don't sound right". Until then, silicone rubber 'O' rings had not been known for their abiliy to produce musical sounds!
Optimism & The Media
With the possibility that the Martin Guitar Co. might soon be making Ashborys, the future for this weird instrument was starting to look quite rosy... "Weird" seemed to be the favourite word used to describe the Ashbory by those seeing it for the first time - but although people were apt to smile strangely whenever it appeared, they could not ignore the sound that they were hearing.
A demand for the Ashbory was growing in the UK as more bass players got to hear about it and, although Nigel had started to hand-make a few to satisfy individual orders, there was still the other work to be done - he still had orders to fulfil for customers awaiting Thornbory acoustic guitars, and Al similarly had a living to earn making Ashworth transducers!
To ease the pressure a little, they commissioned a local woodworking company to make thirty five Ashbory bodies which were then lacquered by specialist guitar finisher, Clive Cherry (Clive later plays an important role in the Ashbory story). Al was still individually assembling all the electronics and the transducers, and Nigel was responsible for the hardware and the final assembly.
Some of these basses were sold to individual customers, some were given or lent to interested bass players for evaluation, and a few were distributed for sale via Andy's Guitars and The Bass Centre in London. It's not easy to get new and innovative products into the shops, and Al and Nigel owe a lot to these two outlets, particularly to Barry Moorhouse of the Bass Centre (more about Barry later). The remaining basses were despatched to the media for general appraisal...
The media were not slow in seizing the opportunity to get their hands on review models, and there was rarely a problem in persuading people to write about this peculiar intrusion into the music industry. The reviews and comments of the time were enthusiastic :
"The sound that actually emanates from the Ashbory is quite something. In short - it's damn good" – International Musician
"The range of sounds and effects is staggering. Tape it, and you'd be hard pressed to know that it wasn't a full-sized string bass at work. I have no doubt that the Ashbory Bass is a major new contribution to bass sounds and playing techniques. This instrument is a step in a new direction, and affords a new dimension of sounds and ideas to the creative player" – In Tune
"This instrument really is totally addictive – Folk Roots
"Playing it is an unadulterated joy - and you can play it for hours without fatigue. The Ashbory is an oddity with real class. Whoever invented this thing is a truly original thinker and has produced the most innovative re-thinking of the bass since Ned Steinberger did his magic a few years ago" – Music & Sound Output
"The Ashbory creates a distinctive sound that falls far outside the mainstream of metal strings over a magnetic pickup" – Guitar Player
"I was amazed, amused, surprised, puzzled and strangely pleased. It sounds good - it's really amazing. Every bass player should own one" – The International Society of Bassists Journal
"In the bass end there's a crispness and definition that's so often lacking from a conventional solid bass" – Melody Maker
"This remarkable little thing is capable of sounding like a full scale double bass, with all the sustain of an electric bass, and a very wide range of available tones" – Guitarist
"It does represent the first major innovation in guitar technology since Les Paul, and as such deserves to be checked out" – One-Two-Testing
Praise indeed! Yet it wasn't only the music press that was sitting up and taking notice: The Ashbory featured in "Tomorrows World" on prime-time BBC Television. Could there be a bass player left alive in England that hadn't heard about the Ashbory?!
Uncertainty – Expense & Impatience!
In many ways, it seemed that the Ashbory was destined to succeed, but often things are not as simple nor as certain as they seem - and Al and Nigel had a lot to learn...
Selling the handmade Ashborys was not difficult, but making enough to satisfy the demand was a different story. Simple arithmetic revealed that it was just not possible to make enough basses to cover expenses without setting up a factory to produce them on a large scale - and such a venture in England at that time would have certainly not have represented a particularly secure investment. Costs mounted as Al and Nigel set up a limited company (Ashbory Ltd.), registering the name 'Ashbory' as their trade mark, and Al's original invention was patented half way round the world but, unfortunately for them, it seemed that the only people making any money out of 'Ashbory' were lawyers, patent agents, and other official organisations. You wouldn't believe how much it costs to get a couple of words altered in a legal document!
Meanwhile, Al went to Germany: The Martin Guitar Company was exhibiting at the Frankfurt Music Messe, so the trip provided an ideal opportunity to both meet and talk with Martin personnel, and also to show off the Ashbory in front of the more international public which the Frankfurt show attracts. The response was becoming almost comfortingly predictable; this time Al was told politely by the management to "put it away" as the sea of onlookers was creating a blockage which clogged the aisles and prevented others from getting past.
It had become vital to secure a licensing deal before the Ashbory sank without trace, and it was worrying that as yet, no deal had been finalised with the Martin Guitar Company, although in retrospect this is hardly surprising: There are so many aspects that a reputable company must consider before making such a lasting commitment and certainly, if things went wrong, they would have had far more to lose than Al and Nigel who didn't have much to start with - apart from a few sticks of wood, lengths of rubber and bits of wire!
Had the Ashbory pair been endowed with a little more patience, who knows where the bass would be now...? However, by this time there were other companies starting to show more than a little enthusiasm and it seemed appropriate that Al and Nigel should not ignore these avenues. Discussions were underway with a company in England which were so very nearly finalised - but then came the phone call from a totally unexpected quarter...
The phone call from George Gruhn almost certainly proved to be the single most influential event in the Ashbory Story so far. His store, Gruhn Guitars, in Nashville is one of the most renowned fretted instrument dealerships in the world, and there is little that George doesn't know about guitars and the guitar market. At that time he was working closely with Guild Guitars and his feeling was that Guild should become acquainted with the Ashbory without delay.
A meeting was arranged between Mark Dronge (then president of Guild) and Al, which necessitated Al taking a day trip to New York. The day also involved touting the Ashbory round many of the city's music stores thus allowing Mark to witness first-hand, the response from both the dealers and their clients. That clinched it! All that remained now was to iron out the design considerations pending manufacture at the Guild factory in Rhode Island - and of course, a great deal of serious talking before finalising the licensing contract.
During these negotiations, the company was undergoing some major changes with the result that Guild Guitars was taken over by Avnet and became 'The Guild Guitar Corporation' under the leadership of Jerre Haskew. Mark Dronge was no longer involved although, from the Ashbory point of view, this was not a factor as Guild was still pushing ahead with plans for its manufacture.
In September 1986 Al and Nigel visited the Guild factory in Westerly, Rhode Island, and spent several days liaising with those who would be nurturing their 'baby' from now on. The agenda for the Westerly visit included, design implications, manufacturing considerations, marketing strategy and further progress with the contract which was still pending final approval from both parties. George Gruhn's influence was vital, and it was largely the impetus of his dedication and enthusiasm that drove the whole project forward, culminating in the launch of the 'Guild Ashbory' at the NAMM show in Anaheim, California in January 1987.
Ashbory & Guild Music Corporation
The Guild Ashbory was officially launched in January '87 at the NAMM show, California. Guild had done a good publicity job and had succeeded in acquiring some influential musicians to endorse the product. These endorsements along with some well-placed advertising and a string of reviews in the music press led to an encouraging number of orders. At last the Ashbory had come of age.
At times it had seemed like a long journey from the rubber band experiments in Cornwall to the fully-fledged instrument that was now being offered to the world by an established American guitar company, although in reality it had made it in under two years which is actually quite fast for any new invention. The initial production run of two thousand instruments was now well underway, and it looked like the Ashbory was here to stay.
There was one aspect of the design, however, which proved to be a problem; the tuners were just not man enough for the job. The tuners used were actually a modified version of a ukulele friction peg made by Schaller which had been more than capable on earlier prototypes - but now the strings being used were of greater tension and it became evident that a geared tuner was necessary. The trouble was that Guild had invested in eight thousand of the uke pegs and was not keen to correct this fault until stocks were exhausted. This would not have been a huge problem under normal circumstances but there were now other more pressing matters arising within Guild which meant that Ashbory project had become less important.
Guild's parent company, Avnet, had lost interest in its brief flirtation with the musical instrument business, with the result that the Guild Music Corporation was sold to a group of investors who then sold the company to the Faas Corporation in 1989. The Faas Corporation became the US Music Corporation with the acquisition of Guild Music Corporation. Just prior to this acquisition, Ashbory terminated the licensing contract as those currently involved were not those with whom the original deal had been struck, and the future for both Guild and Ashbory was looking rather precarious. At that time, Guild had made approximately 1,500 Ashbory basses.
Back to the UK - The Mark II Ashbory
After Guild, the whole project was shelved - Any money that the Ashbory had earned for its creators as a result of 'the American experience' had mostly been soaked up by patent fees, etc. and once again, the only people wearing smiles were those men in suits collecting legal fees and taxes. Still, looking on the bright side, Al and Nigel had gained a couple of trips to the US out of it and - after all - had they not been in California for the NAMM show, they would have never experienced the Disneyland 'Star Wars' ride... That dates it, for the initiated!
So now they took the sensible option and forgot about the bass in favour of the more stable living to be earned from their usual businesses. That is, until their telephones started ringing again!
One thing that the Guild venture had successfully achieved was to introduce the Ashbory to a much larger audience than Al and Nigel could have reached on their own and this now prompted flutters of interest from other companies including Hohner and Gibson. Back in the UK too, there was still a demand - small perhaps, but a demand nevertheless, from English bass players for this impudent little 'rubber bass' that they had heard so much about.
Barry Moorhouse & The Bass Centre
Al and Nigel still reminisce about the strangely benign smile which had lingered on the face of the Managing Director of London's Bass Centre when first confronted by their funny little 'rubber bass' - for, surrounded by possibly the largest collection of basses in England, the Ashbory had appeared almost ukulele-like. Yet from those very early days Barry Moorhouse had been consistently supportive and enthusiastic, and was now about to demonstrate his faith still further by "putting his money where his mouth was"...
By this time, The Bass Centre had been responsible for more UK sales of the Ashbory, in all its various forms, than any other British outlet and, as a result of this, Barry had received a great deal of feedback and comment from the general bass-playing public. His enthusiasm and insight were considerable, and thus it was agreed that if Al and Nigel could organise and finance the manufacture of the bass, he would undertake the marketing and dealer distribution from The Bass Centre. Lessons had been learned from the design problems of the Guild instrument, so a major re-think was necessary and there followed a great deal of discussion regarding the form the new Ashbory should take. Barry felt, despite the proven sound, that the overall appearance should be less radical and more in keeping with bassists expectations of how an instrument should look.
It was 'back to the drawing board' for Nigel, and thus the new Ashbory was conceived. Out went the dogbone shape in favour of a more 'high-tech' body and an increased scale length of 22" / 56cm. The friction tuning pegs were discontinued in favour of geared machine heads, and the rest of the hardware, where economically possible, would be injection-moulded from glass reinforced nylon. Colour options would be black, black... or black!
There were other significant modifications too; While Nigel was re-designing the Ashbory's 'public image', Al was busy tweaking the electronics and searching for the perfect string. The strings became much heavier and the greater tension meant that the 'sticky feel' associated with the previous strings was lessened. Also, they were now blue! This was not a decision taken for cosmetic reasons, but rather that the blue pigment used in the manufacture of the silicone rubber actually contributes to the strength, feel and sound of the strings. At one stage there were samples of red, green, yellow and blue and each colour had its own sound! This was a phenomenon that the silicone rubber boffins were never able to grasp, but then, until the Ashbory reared its head, they had never had to consider how their material should sound!
UK Production of the Mark II Ashbory
Having designed the 'new, improved' Mk.II Ashbory bass and tested a couple of hand-built prototypes, all that remained was to somehow get it made. Nigel had neither the time nor the resources to make the bodies in quantity so the first job was to find a company, preferably with CNC (Computer numerical control) machines to churn these out in one go...
This is where Clive Cherry came in. Well actually, he had been involved from the start as the person who had been given the job of lacquering all the Ashbory bodies so far. Not only that, but Nigel had for many years been using Clive for the finishing of his handbuilt acoustic guitars. Most English makers had employed Clive's expertise at some time or another - in fact, if you are the owner of an English acoustic, electric, or bass guitar, then the chances are high that it will have passed through Clive's hands. At that time, as luck would have it, in addition to running his own business, Clive was also working as a machine shop manager for a company that just happened to have a CNC router - so that solved the problem of getting the bodies made!
All in all, it was not the most satisfactory nor efficient way to get the basses produced - there were so many people involved that the logistics of getting everything to happen in the right way and at the right time were a nightmare. But somehow, miraculously it all finally came together, and Al and Nigel drove over to Barry's house late one night with the first six Mk. II Ashborys - just in time for the forthcoming Frankfurt Music Messe.
The Bass Centre
It had been four years since the 'dogbone' Ashbory had first appeared at the Frankfurt show, and now in February 1990, here it was again, this time hosted by the Bass Centre and in a very different incarnation.
It was anticipated that the more 'high-tech' appearance would appeal more to 'macho' rock bassists. In some ways, this assumption was correct but "you can't please all the people all the time" and, inevitably, there were many who still preferred the original size and shape. However, "nothing ventured, nothing gained" and, once again, the media were kind to the Ashbory.
The reviews were no less enthusiastic than before:
"The wide and clean tone is very evident. The character of the bass remains very close to a double bass though I must say smoother than any I've ever recorded.... I can't enthuse enough about the EQ in active mode, it's totally noiseless, there's no buzzes and I couldn't get a duff tone out of the thing." – International Musician
"It is, however, the sound of the bass that is quite remarkable. Generally it's very much in the double bass mould; certainly the sustain is quite short, yet the tone is very smooth. In the bass end there's a crispness and definition that's so often lacking from a conventional solid bodied bass." – Testing Testing
"It stands alone in a class of one, in terms of both design and technology, and I strongly recommend that open-minded bass players (guitarists too, for that matter) should give it a try. I guarantee that if you don't love it, you'll probably hate it." – Guitarist (nb: the reviewer concerned must have 'loved it' - he bought one!)
Reviewers liked it, bassists liked it, Barry liked it, Al & Nigel liked it - so why were only about eighty made?
When the time came to order the next run of bodies, the machine that made the first ones was busy night and day with another 'more important' job, and to get a repeat run of Ashbory bodies would have cost twice as much and involved a long wait.
Other possibilities were explored, including having the whole body moulded - but the cost of producing the tools would have been astronomical. England was not the place to risk any more time or effort on the Ashbory: Manufacturing was too labour-intensive, costs were too high, money was too short, risks were too great, and... Al and Nigel had had enough!
Well, that was the end of that! There's no point in "flogging a dead horse" and Al and Nigel learned how to say, "No".
"Excuse me, do you know where I might obtain an Ashb.."
The trouble was, the Ashbory refused to lie down and die. People were still out there playing it and wanting strings for the wretched thing, and even worse - people still wanted to talk about it...
"Sorry, we're not hearing too well today, GO AWAY"
But of course, the Ashbory wouldn't entirely go away, and neither would its devotees. As far as its production went, there were a few nibbles including Gibson yet again - this time the president of Gibson went off back to Nashville, Ashbory in hand, to "run it past a few people". It must have run too fast and ended up in a cupboard somewhere, because the net result was that it was never heard or seen again, and Nigel lost the last Mk II Ashbory in his possession - and would still like it back please. Fortunately Al still had a much earlier Ashbory and, in the true spirit of innovation, had come up with a different use for it! (see picture).
Cynical? Well, maybe just a little. Then - a proposal from Clive Cherry.
The Ashbory & Clive Cherry
There wasn't too much that Clive didn't know about the Ashbory by this time. All the UK made instruments, from the first prototypes for the Martin Guitar Company, had passed through his hands for spraying - and he had written the CNC program which produced the Mk II bodies. He also happened to be a bass player, so he knew first hand, something of the mysterious workings of the bass player's mind!
Just when Al and Nigel had resigned themselves to the fact that the Ashbory was well and truly dead, Clive decided that he could make them without too much difficulty: He owned the necessary workshop facility and had all the machinery and expertise to do the whole job from start to finish without involving anybody else. This was the ideal situation. The main reason it had failed the last time round was because there were too many people involved, but now Clive wouldn't need to rely on anybody.
With each new appearance of the Ashbory, there had always been some discussion about the price level at which it should be pitched. One approach advocated going for the mass market with a 'no frills' basic product that most players would be likely to afford. The other option would aim straight for the top end, using the best materials and hardware and, adding a few classy cosmetic touches. Until this time the former approach had always been followed. Now Clive opted for the latter.
The result was a classy instrument by any standards. The body was made from Brazilian mahogany with a book-matched flamed maple front face and headstock. The body was bound with a black edging to match the black fingerboard and hardware, the machine heads were of the enclosed gear type with large bass butterfly buttons, and the final finish was a very slightly sunburst honey-gold translucent polyester lacquer. The final instrument certainly looked and felt 'the business'!
Clive's plan was to make them initially in fairly small batches of ten or twenty at a time and sell directly to the public rather than going through the usual trade/retail chain. In this way the final cost would represent good value for money at around five hundred pounds. The first batch of ten Ashborys was made, and then, alas, no more!
This time the reason for its demise came completely from out of the blue and had nothing to do with the bass at all. Clive owned his own workshop premises and, although the idea of selling them had never previously entered his head, he was unexpectedly "made an offer he couldn't refuse" for the whole lot. He'd certainly worked harder than most people for the past few years and the prospect of suddenly reaping a comfortable financial benefit from the assets he had built up was extremely attractive.
It was understandable that Clive should take advantage of the offer,which he promptly did, and subsequently went on to devote his time to improving his bass playing and building a recording studio - good news for Clive, but not so good for the poor orphaned Ashbory bass!
Maybe the Ashbory would fare better as a board game! "Do not pass GO, Do not collect £200, Go back to square one, etc."
By this time, Al and Nigel had consigned the Ashbory to the filing cabinet under the heading, 'Life's Experience' and, as somebody once so perceptively remarked, "Experience is something you get when you don't get what you want"! There had been so many promising opportunities, any one of which could have succeeded but, even with the most carefully laid plans, luck still plays a big part and, in this venture, luck had run out.
It was now twelve years since the Ashbory had made its first appearance and, although there were many satisfied Ashbory owners around the world, it was clear now that it was not destined for the history books as a typical success story. And yet it was still to re-emerge, this time helped along by an unquestionable success story - the Internet.
This miracle of communications was barely in its infancy when the Ashbory was conceived. Oh, how useful e-mail would have been when dealings were underway with Guild in the early days! Now, of course, it is commonplace and anybody can quickly and cheaply announce themselves to the world and leave a permanent record in the form of a website for all to see. Almost imperceptibly, references to Ashbory were finding their way onto websites and newsgroups around the world, particularly in America which, thanks to Guild, boasts the greater number of Ashbory owners. Public opinion and recognition are extremely influential and Al and Nigel owe a debt of gratitude to all those who have kept the Ashbory name alive in this way. There are homepages devoted entirely to the Ashbory, hosted by individuals who each have their own unique way of publicising, praising, promoting, or in some cases, ridiculing the Ashbory. Depending upon one's point of view, it has been described as; brilliant, absurd, musical, non-musical, freaky, innovative, weird and wonderful - but one thing is certain, whatever the motive, the result is that it continues to get more exposure!
Even though Al and Nigel had given up the project, even though the media had found something else to write about, and even though the Ashbory had, to all intents and purposes joined the ranks of "interesting failures", there were still people out there who believed in it - people who had no vested interest other than their enthusiasm - people who, quite simply, just enjoyed using it to make good music, and didn't want to see it disappear for ever.
These people, whether or not they realise it, have played - and are playing an active role in the further development of the Ashbory.
To illustrate the continuing interest and enthusiasm, this chapter closes with an extract from an e-mail sent to Nigel from Brock Frazier, Pittsburg (curator of the Ashbory fansite LargeSound.com).
"The work of yourself and Alun Jones has added enjoyment to my life. Other than the excellent tone and portability, the Ashbory brings out additional characteristics in my playing. I've been inadvertantly promoting the instrument since 1996 (I was fifteen and didn't play when they were introduced in 1986) just by talking about how great it is."
Thanks, Brock! - and to all the others who have been "inadvertantly" working so hard on behalf of the Ashbory.
The Ashbory & Fender
The Ashbory bass continued to bubble along just under the surface, with only the occasional murmer, prompted by somebody wanting advice or strings or sometimes - just a chat. One such person who was in communication with Al from time to time was Jay Pilzer of New Hope Guitar Traders in Tennessee who would, now and then, order strings for those of his customers who owned Ashborys. During the course of conversation, it came out that he had a few connections with Fender and, more particularly, he was a friend of Fender's Bill Acton whose role is that of marketing manager for Guild. So it was that Jay, acting as intermediary, put Bill and Al in touch with each other.
Guild, of course, now comes under the Fender umbrella, having been purchased by the Fender Musical Instrument Corporation in November 1995 from US Music. Through all Guild's problems and ownership changes of recent years, the name had been kept alive in Westerly by those who continued to build fine guitars in the American tradition and, now once more, Guild is finally back on course, this time under Fender's competent leadership. Willie Fritscher, Guild's plant manager of many years, is optimistic: When asked about Fender's acquisition of Guild, he said, "We finally hit a home run".
Following his initial telephone conversation with Al, Bill Acton went off to do some costings for a production run of a thousand basses, the reasoning being that if such costings could be made to work for a thousand, then further quantities would become even more viable. The sums made sense, which meant that Ashbory was in business again!
Fender also owns the DeArmond name which now applies to instruments made firmly in the Guild tradition, but manufactured in Korea under Fender's control. It was the DeArmond name which was now to adopt the Ashbory bass.
The DeArmond Ashbory
It was just like old times again: Out came all the dusty boxes full of bits and pieces from past incarnations of the Ashbory, the telephone lines hummed between Cornwall and Oxfordshire as Al and Nigel got back into full swing, and e-mail carried Ashbory info and draft contracts back and forth across the Atlantic.
It has to be said that the licensing contract, this time around, was a much more manageable document relying more on goodwill and good intent, rather than the incomprehensible legal jargon which is the stuff of most contracts, using up a lot of paper and still leaving loopholes anyway. The original Guild contract back in 1987 was the size and complexity of War and Peace, yet it still failed to cover every eventuality.
Tim Shaw, R&D Manager for Guild/DeArmond, had the task of gathering all the information necessary for the Ashbory's design and construction and, in turn, liaising with the factory in Korea that would be making the basses.
Interestingly, although not surprisingly, it was decided to opt for the original dogbone shape rather than the later Mk II version. The reason for this was quite simple: The Mark II never reached America (apart from the one which lurks somewhere in the Gibson factory, and maybe one or two other stowaways that managed to flee England) therefore little is known about it in the USA. The Ashbory which had created all the interest was the first Guild version and it is to this that the DeArmond remains faithful, albeit with new improved geared tuners!
Speaking of Bill Acton and himself, Tim Shaw jokingly remarked to Nigel (in confidence) :
"We'd like to be described as men of uncommon vision and spirit, who brought musical instruments out of a period of hackneyed similarity and into a new Golden Era..."
Oops! Sorry Tim (motto: never write anything down, nor open your mouth when the person next to you has pen in hand), but... maybe that's fairly close to the truth after all. Certainly, the general feeling amongst those in the music business seems to be, "If anyone can, Fender can". We'll see... Watch this space!
The new improved DeArmond Ashbory bass was launched at The Nashville Summer NAMM in July 1999 - and here are four people who are very happy about that!
From the accompanying promotional flyer :
DeArmond re-releases what Guild's 1987 literature called "the epitome of originality... the most innovative bass guitar ever created."
The 18 inch fretless scale and super light weight of the Ashbory make it easy to create the growl of an upright or the punch of a standard electric bass. The patented Ashworth transducer and the silicone rubber strings are a major part of what makes the Ashbory so unique but the sound for live and recording applications is what makes it a necessity for any recording studio and a treat for any live stage performance.
Artists around the world, famous and unknown, have performed and recorded with the original Guild Ashborys. They have loved and cherished these very collectable instruments. They have struggled to find strings and parts for their beloved Ashbory basses, but replacement strings and parts will soon be available again as accessories from DeArmond.
Now available for all the world in Black, Frost Red Metallic and Moon Blue, and all with gig bag included."
In England, the Mark II has perhaps proved to be marginally more popular, but really that has more to do with familiarity. The smaller dogbone shape scores from having the bigger bass sound, while the Mk II is maybe a little friendlier to those making the transition from a conventional bass guitar. Who knows? - maybe in the future there will be room for both versions!
At the time of writing (2002), the Ashbory is fourteen years old and relinquishing its childhood. If you should happen to bump into Alun Ashworth-Jones or Nigel Thornbory don't be put off by the strange lumpy feel of their handshake - it's just that they are keeping their fingers firmly crossed in anticipation of a blissful and untroubled adolescence!
A small selection of international musicians renowned for owning or played the Ashbory Bass
Jack Bruce • Alec John Such • Pino Palladino • Doug Wimbish • Nathan East • Tom Hamilton • Mike Watt • Tony Levin • Rudy Sarzo • Paul Westwood • Chris Cross • Billy Sheehan • Vivian Stanshall • Guy Pratt • Bootsy Collins • Brad Lang • Simon Edwards • Peter Gabriel • Martin Simpson • David Gilmour • Les Claypool • Jair-Rohm Parker Wells • Gary Fletcher (The Blues Band)
© 2002 Nigel Thornbory - Huge thanks for permission to reproduce the official Ashbory story (the original web version is archived on Wayback Machine HERE).
More information available at LargeSound.com – a huge online Ashbory Bass resource.