Musician Steve Shain Taps into an Unconventional Double Bass
A stand-up guy takes a stand for aluminum basses
After years of playing with orchestras and ensembles around the country, Steve Shain of Petaluma, California has been branching out a bit. An acclaimed double-bass player, he's been doing more improvisational gigs, frequently as a back-up for theatrical productions and live poetry readings. This nontraditional trajectory in Shain's musical career is mirrored by his choice of instrument: Though he owns several conventional basses, his favorite is a double bass made almost entirely of aluminum.
Steve Shain proudly displays his aluminum double bass whenever the opportunity arises. He can be reached at email@example.com.
On the cluttered front porch of the rustic cow-country shed—or is it a shack?—that Shain rents as an office and practice room, the tall, soft-spoken musician unzips the canvas case in which he carries the bass, the only nonaluminum parts of which are the fingerboard, tailpiece, and bridge. He stands it up and with his knuckles, raps on the front of the instrument. It sounds like someone knocking on a big metal door, or wrestling a heavily laden cookie sheet out of the oven, or an astronaut shutting the hatch on a space shuttle.
"I love the way that sounds," Shain grins.
He acquired the bass in 1977, purchasing it from a small music store in Teaneck, New Jersey. According to his research, the American Aluminum Co. of Buffalo, New York, built the instrument, most likely in the late 1930s. But the first reported appearance of such a product dates back to 1891, when a tinkerer from Cincinnati, Ohio, one Alfred Springer, was awarded a patent for an aluminum violin. In 1894, a fellow named Neil Merrill began producing a line of aluminum instruments under the name of the Aluminum Musical Instrument Company, offering everything from violins and cellos to banjos and zithers. By 1898, Merrill had gone broke, and subsequently disappeared from sight. In the 1930s, the aluminum instrument made a sudden reappearance. It was during the next decade or so that Shain's instrument was likely produced. Marketed for their indestructibility and sold chiefly to schools and conservatories, the instruments were touted as the next big evolution in music.
According to the May 1932 issue of Philadelphia's fabled Etude music magazine, the aluminum bass was highly approved of by the standing principal bass player of the Chicago Civic Opera Company (who is quoted without being named), and was predicted to become a mainstay of classical orchestras. Clearly, the prediction was optimistic at best; stringed instruments made of aluminum failed to catch on in a significant way, and today only a handful of the contraptions still exist.
Regarding Shain's instrument, one would have to look closely to realize that it's not made of wood. "It's got a nice faux-wood finish," he says, proudly adding, "but you can see where the paint is wearing off."
While it has been suggested that aluminum instruments are lighter than wooden ones, Shain believes that his is actually a bit heavier than a wooden double bass. "The weight's never been a problem though," he says. "It's not that much heavier."
What Shain appreciates most about the aluminum wonder is its versatility and durability. "Basically, the thing is built not to break, so I can play it anywhere. Double basses are expensive to repair. These days, with the escalating value of wooden instruments, it would be almost prohibitive to play one in an outdoor park. But this is aluminum," he says, giving it another affectionate pounding, "so I never worry about it getting hurt."
Aluminum instruments, additionally, are almost entirely resistant to the kinds of changes in humidity that can adversely affect a wooden instrument. In the end, though, it all comes down to sound. "My sound, as a player, is really rhythmic," Shain explains. "I do a lot of different rhythms, so this instrument is perfect for me."
Here he launches into a rapidly accelerating series of notes—Shain’s got a distinctively percussive pizzicato—which he alternates with bongo-like drumming on the metallic side of the bass. "Sometimes I use a superball mallet, which makes the bass sound like a big steel drum. It's got a nice ringing sound."
On the string-side of the instrument, Shain praises its quality of sound. "It's got a lot of sustain," he says, demonstrating with a few mighty pulls at the strings. There is one downside though to playing an aluminum instrument. Says Shain, with another grin, "On a hot, sunny day, this thing can get really warm."