My New (Old) 1960s Bob Swanson 3/4 "Italian 1850s Style" Bass!!

Discussion in 'Basses [DB]' started by TheDellow, Jun 11, 2021.


  1. TheDellow

    TheDellow The Recovering Guitarist Supporting Member

    May 19, 2021
    Hey all. I have the opportunity to buy a 1960s Bob Swanson bass, modeled after an 1850s Italian style bass, I guess. It has kind of a gnarly neck repair, but I've heard amazing things about Swanson basses and the price is too good for me to pass up, so I'm picking it up this coming Monday (6/14)--does anyone have any experience with Swanson basses? This particular one looks like it has very deep ribs, a carved top, walnut sides (not sure about the back--maple?) and at some point in its life, a C extension (which leads me to believe it was played by someone who knew what a good bass sounds like). I'm super stoked to get this bad boy in my possession and start gigging with it! Sorry the images are so blurry, it's the best I could do with the pictures from the advertisement.

    Apparently, Swanson basses have very thinly carved tops, and I have a gut feeling that this bass is going to be incredible for what I need in an instrument.

    Screen Shot 2021-06-11 at 09.58.13.png Screen Shot 2021-06-11 at 09.58.47.png Screen Shot 2021-06-11 at 09.59.10.png Screen Shot 2021-06-11 at 09.59.37.png Screen Shot 2021-06-11 at 09.59.59.png Screen Shot 2021-06-11 at 10.03.46.png
     
  2. salcott

    salcott Supporting Member

    Aug 22, 2007
    NYC, Inwood.
    What's a "too good to pass up" price? That neck "repair" would put me off immediately unless the bass were to be examined by a bass luthier who was of the opinion that it's worth spending a couple grand to do it properly.
     
  3. LouisF

    LouisF Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2003
    Los Angeles, CA
    swanson bass info

    If you have questions, pm me - they can be great, if idiosyncratic, basses
     
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  4. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    Be very, very, very, very cautious with any Swanson. I've seen several that sounded good but the construction was a disaster- like it came from a middle school crafts program resulting in a lifetime of endless headaches such that I refuse to work on them.....
     
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  5. LouisF

    LouisF Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2003
    Los Angeles, CA
    James' comment is exactly why I gave up the Gullwing - after about a year of ownership all sorts of nightmares were developing, which, I have to say, I would have paid good money to fix if I also hadn't had serious neck and shoulder issues that led to downsizing all my basses for smaller instruments.

    Just to recap the story as I know it: Bob Swanson made the bulk of his instruments for players in the Pittsburgh symphony to use outdoors, schools etc; He literally built them from the neck down, starting with really nice German necks and then improvising from what he had in the shop at the moment. Some basses were part carved, part laminate; some had two sound posts, etc etc. The more "normal" the build shape (gamba, Italian violin cornered), generally the safer the construction was (generally!). When he got "creative" with huge bodied basses etc, then there were more problems.

    Upton had one for sale, as did Bob Beerman: Swanson No 63 Swansons Fiddle Shop, Pittsburgh PA

    Having said all that, the only two basses I ever played that sounded "better" than the Gullwing (attached) - in that Italian-orchestra-chocolate way, were the Karr/Kousevitsky bass and the Swedish Brock/Maggini in London.

    Brace for heartache!!
     

    Attached Files:

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  6. LouisF

    LouisF Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2003
    Los Angeles, CA
    A friend of mine just sold his 1974 5-string Swanson (one of Bob's more conventional builds). A floor-shaking monster, with 9 inch ribs and 22" shoulders, it was meant for more manly men than myself!
     

    Attached Files:

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  7. jsf729

    jsf729 Supporting Member

    Dec 12, 2014
    Central Maryland
    Interesting. Slightly off topic, but I acquired a No Name laminate bass a few years ago. I call it a Frankenbass as it was obviously pieced together. The seller said that he took it to Mike Shank who told him that that the neck was a 1920's Czeck neck. It was assembled -like James mentioned- like a middle school project. It is a flatback and the back brace drilled out so the sound post contacted the back! I posted on TB in particular about the hole in the brace which I assumed wasn't kosher, and James among others mentioned about this "guy in Pittsburgh" but didn't mention names. Additionally, they basically said "Run!!!!" I plan to reshape the baseball bat neck and replace the brace which is so long it extends between the back and the ribs. I'm not kidding! But here's the thing- I was able to fill the hole in the back brace through the F holes (wife pissed that I stole her spatula), and the bass sounds pretty darn good! Louder than my Kay. I figure properly repaired I might have a decent sounding bass.
    Then I have to remove the God awful faux tiger maple finish. A bass only a mother could love...
     
  8. LouisF

    LouisF Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2003
    Los Angeles, CA
    "A bass only a mother could love..." -- I believe that is the textbook definition of a Swanson.
     
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  9. james condino

    james condino Spruce dork Supporting Member Commercial User

    Sep 30, 2007
    asheville, nc
    Sooooo....

    In no way do I want this to turn into a damning thread about Swanson the maker. He clearly did some things that created basses with huge voices that impressed may seasoned players and he had a curiosity beyond tradition that I encourage with all of my students.

    But....as a builder and restorer of double basses and hundreds of other instruments across the spectrum, the Swanson built basses that I have seen show construction methods and materials that are often very non traditional. That means that when you bring them to someone with traditional training and skills looking for help, they can be at a loss how to work with the bass. My first interaction with one had a LOT of issues and the only way I could vision correcting those was to remove all of the Swanson idiosyncrasies. Doing so basically meant a complete teardown and rebuild of half the bass. The entire back was laminated with what looked like faux wood paneling out of a 1960s cheap public lawyer's office. I politely passed and since then I have run into several others that had the same Pandora's box of chocolates.

    I make no attempts to hide my curiosity and pushing the limits of design and instrument construction. I try to do it with intent and a plan. Owning a Swanson tends to be more like owning an experimental aircraft. They can be very powerful but when the time comes to work on it, there are no rules and your best bet is to be your own mechanic. Be ready for a wild ride with a half century experiment, but also know that in between those luthier's tears, there will possibly be moments of greatness for your ears.....
     
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2021
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  10. jsf729

    jsf729 Supporting Member

    Dec 12, 2014
    Central Maryland
    I'm glad that I peeked in on this thread. Considering what has been posted so far, I'm convinced that I have a Swanson. Now I can put a name to it instead of "Frankenbass" (no- I don't name my basses/ equipment as a rule, although when I was strong enough to carry around my original MIA Eden 2x10 cabinet I fondly referred to it as "Thumper"- man that thing would move some air! ). James previous post nails my thoughts on this bass. Fight or Flight! I'm going to see it through though. In a strange way, it kind of deserves it. Mismatched front and back so ribs are not attached symmetrical. Nice blond top with real purfling. Refinish top, reshape neck, deal with oversized rear brace and paint sides, back and head stock gold metallic and put back in service with my swing dance band. I may be biting off more than I can chew on this on this one though...
     
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  11. GretschWretch

    GretschWretch Supporting Member

    Dec 27, 2013
    East Central Alabama
    No; no. James, please forgive me for "correcting" you, but in this instance I think the more applicable analogy is "Forrest Gump's mother's box of chocolates."
     
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  12. LouisF

    LouisF Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2003
    Los Angeles, CA
    jsf729..... photos??
     
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  13. jsf729

    jsf729 Supporting Member

    Dec 12, 2014
    Central Maryland
    Here ya go Louis. Waddayathink? Am I the proud owner of a Swanson?
     

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  14. No. That’s Czech.
     
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  15. GretschWretch

    GretschWretch Supporting Member

    Dec 27, 2013
    East Central Alabama
    You just need to write a book. Most people (Ken Smith aside) would just say European or Eastern European. You specify the country and probably could nail the time frame too. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if you could name what the worker ate for lunch that day.
     
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  16. jsf729

    jsf729 Supporting Member

    Dec 12, 2014
    Central Maryland
    Thanks. That's what the seller told me. He took it to Mike Shank in Philly, but he mentioned only the neck being Czech. The tuners are the same ones essentially on my early 60's Paul Safron German (I believe) carved shop bass. Do you think it's about the same age? Curious, what is the predominate feature identifying it as Czech?
     
    Last edited: Jun 13, 2021
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  17. jsf729

    jsf729 Supporting Member

    Dec 12, 2014
    Central Maryland
    Here's the money shot of the faux curly maple. And no- that wasn't me that tried sanding the finish off on one of the side pictures
     

    Attached Files:

  18. LouisF

    LouisF Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2003
    Los Angeles, CA
    +1 on Czech/Bohemian etc... Sorry, the build isn't UGG-LEE enough to be a Swanson!
     
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  19. It’s a bunch of factors. The cheap tuning machines, the style of flat back, the worn fake flame (which was done by laying strings soaked in acid on the wood before varnishing).

    I would date it around 1920. No clue what the builders had for lunch that day. Maybe a cold sausage sandwich.

    I’m autistic, so my brain doesn’t work like yours. Facts and stories just stick with me.
     
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  20. GretschWretch

    GretschWretch Supporting Member

    Dec 27, 2013
    East Central Alabama
    An eidetic memory (which I seem to have) will do this for you, too. Stuff just stays with you.
     
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  21. Primary

    Primary TB Assistant

    Here are some related products that TB members are talking about. Clicking on a product will take you to TB’s partner, Primary, where you can find links to TB discussions about these products.

     
    Jun 22, 2021

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