By J.M. Garcia
Bass player Dave Marr ran a hand over the instrument, stepped back and turned to his friend of 40 years, Dave Millard.
“Feel that, I think it feels good,” he said on a Thursday morning.
“Feels good,” Millard agreed.
Nearly 10 years after they started work on it, years that were interrupted by the “stuff of life” as Marr put it, he and Millard have nearly completed a hand-carved double bass — a task they had somewhat serendipitously decided to take on in 2006.
That year, Marr, a furniture maker, had bought an eight-foot piece of claro walnut. The board — a variety of intermingling browns, reds, black, purple and yellows –– caught his friend’s eye.
At the time, Millard, a musician and a luthier, had been building and restoring stringed instruments for more than 30 years. He had never, however, built a double bass.
“Dave had this big board,” Millard, 75, recalled. “When I saw it, the curl in the board, the wave, it was just inspiring. It was wide enough for a bass. I’d been thinking of building one for a while. I thought, ‘Maybe it’s time to step up and do this.’”
Marr, 61, agreed. “Let’s do it,” he said.
Marr wanted an instrument with a design similar to an 18th-century French bass. He liked its look — the elegantly cut scrolls and f-holes and sloping shoulders. It was also smaller and easier to play. Millard designed it. Marr’s shop, set up for furniture, had the equipment to cut the board. Since meeting in 1980, they had hung out and played in bands together. But they had never taken on a project like this.
It took them until 2009 to get started. Marr was spending up to 14 hours a day building furniture and Millard had his own work as a luthier. Then the landlord of the house Millard rented decided to sell it, causing Millard to lose his home and his shop. Both men were also caring for their aging parents.
“You know what happened,” Marr explained, “Life just got in the way. We’d do a lot of work on it for a few months and then set it aside.”
Finding time was one challenge. The bass itself presented many others. It took them a year to build the machine necessary to shape the wood into the form of the instrument. The hard board took hours to bend.
“The sides of the bass are three pieces and it all had to match so it looks like one uncut piece,” Millard said, “and then there’s the back and it has to slightly bend. Everything had to be done in a certain, precise way or it wouldn’t sound right.”
For the scroll — the decoratively carved beginning of the neck and one piece of the instrument used to judge a luthier’s skill — Marr and Millard chose the head of an owl after Millard decided Marr’s first choice of a cat was too difficult to carve. Some scrolls depict the head of a woman or a lion. No bass player they knew had an owl. But the glass they used for the eyes broke when Millard cut it. He reached out to a German company for glass he could shape.
“Nothing, not even the smallest thing, was simple,” Millard said from his new shop on E Street. “I had to make it up as I went along.”
As the years passed, they wondered sometimes if they’d ever finish.
“I thought, God, if aliens landed there will be so much confusion I won’t have to work on this bass anymore,” Millard joked.
However, they persevered and this year, on March 13, as Millard looked on, Marr held the bass for a trial run. Neither had any idea what it would sound like. They could guess, but they would not know until Marr played it. All that work, he remembered thinking. What if it sounded terrible?
Marr leaned into the bass, placed his fingers on the strings and began to play. A clear, resonant sound filled the shop.
“The sound was very clear with a little edge to it, a clear round sound,” Marr recalled. “I was ecstatic. Dave nailed it. I was so happy for him.”
They still have to apply another layer of varnish and make a few modifications, but their 10-year effort has come to an end. Marr intends to bring the bass to Cafe Bar Europa where he and Millard play at 6 p.m. the first two Sundays of the month.
“After all that had gone down and the barriers I had to overcome, it was a relief to finish it,” Millard said. And then with a laugh, he added, “It’s like having a kid except this was an extremely long gestation period.”
— J.M. Garcia is a freelance writer/photographer in San Diego. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.