A Personal Welcome from Lee
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Lee Barker of Redmond starts upright electric bass business

Article appeared in the Bend Bulletin on 04-18-04
written by David Jasper

If you want custom cabinets, don't bother calling Lee Barker.

After 22 years as a woodworker, Barker called it quits last year.

"I sold all my cabinet-specific tools," he says."Sorry, I can no longer build your project." I had to reinforce the need to say "No"

The 59-year-old still works in the same, 1,800-square-foot Redmond shop that housed Great Ned! Woodworks.

He's still working with cherry, poplar, maple, walnut and fir, too. But Barker's on a different mission now.

At a time when his friends are starting to retire, Barker has started a new business: Barker Musical Instruments.

Same space. Different drummer-make that different bassist.

Reinventing himself professionally as a luthier, Barker is on a straight-up quest for perfect tonality.

It started a little more than two years ago when Barker, a bass player for 40 years, realized that playing a standard electric bass was hurting his wrists.

"I postulated that it was the position in which they were being asked to do all this stuff," he says. "So I imagined that if I played in an upright position they would be less bent. "

Barker knew just the man with the tools to build an upright, fretted electric bass. He bought a cheap electric one for a hundred bucks, mined it for parts, and went to work.

"I had the good grace where I'm in a profession where I could try (to build) one," Barker says.

He experimented with woods he was familiar with, then winnowed down the materials to woods that facilitated the process.

Across from the desk where Barker tends to the business of marketing and selling, a rack displays some of his recent creations. The instruments have a sensual, elegant figure-eight symmetry and solid wood body that makes them a pleasure to look at.

The prototype, however, was an ugly duckling next to these swans.

"I still have it, and it's ugly as sin, hanging in the bathroom. It's just really awful, but it's a reminder of why I did it."

Barker works alone in his shop. Once he constructs the body and neck of the bass, he passes the instruments on to a Redmond subcontractor, Lou Brochetti, who does the electronic assembly and finishing.

It takes a history lesson to explain why Barker decided to make his own fretted upright, rather than just buy one of the others on the market.

It's a lesson Barker, who taught woodworking and was once Central Oregon Community College's Adult Education Instructor of the Year, is happy to give. He seems electrified himself as he jaws reverently about the development of the electric bass.

The acoustic bass, orchestral bass, double bass, dog house bass . the various names by which the upright, acoustic bass is known . "descended as a fretless instrument and (they) are traditionally a 42-inch-long scale," Barker explains.

"In 1951, the electric guitar had been invented by Les Paul. And Leo Fender said, "I wonder if I could make an electric bass"" says Barker.

"But instead of only adding electricity to the upright bass, he said, "Ah, I could make it in the shape of a guitar, and it would a) be more affordable, and b) a guitar player could double on this instrument."

And lest guitarists think their instrument of choice (aka "the hammer of the gods") deserves credit for rock 'n' roll, it's really the electric bass, says Barker, that gave birth to rock.

"It was the electric bass. Because at that point, they were beating on the acoustic basses trying to get enough sound for Elvis' recordings. They couldn"t get that feel that he was after."

To make the electric bass playable as a shoulder-slung instrument, the scale was shortened to 34 inches. Jazz purists balked at the con densed bass.

"They were snobs, as all musicians are at some point," Barker says.

But there was something about the smaller basses that made the musicians take note.

"They noticed that these Fender guys were getting on a plane or a train carrying their instruments, and they didn't have to buy an extra seat," Barker says, laughing.

Barker pulls out a catalog to show how his instruments differ from others. Of the basses advertised in The Guitar & Bass Buyer's Guide, Barker says, "Mine's the only one with frets, and one of the very few with a 34-inch scale. If you add those two things together, I am unique in the purest sense of the word. There's nothing like my instrument, precisely."

Playing fast on a bass with a 42-inch scale is more difficult, says Barker. Further, many have arcing necks, a design that allows each string to be played individually by bow but make finger plucking more of a challenge.

At first, Barker attempted to wed the instrument business to his woodworking career. "It didn't work," he says. More time and money were needed to make the business fly.

He went home to his wife, Linda, and told her, "I want to do this. I don't want to die saying, "I had a good idea and I didn't try""

Barker, who will turn 60 this year, adds, "People my age are retiring. My best pal from college that I have lunch with every Friday is retired."

Not so Barker, who says he went into hock to pursue his idea: "Retirement, life insurance, second mortgage and going from there," Barker says. His wife, who designed the decorative logo for the Barker Bass, is "very much an emotional partner in this." Barker speaks frequently of his supportive family.

"The Barker Bass didn't just happen," says Linda Barker. "It's a combination of Lee's problem-solving abilities, musical talent and woodworking skills. I think it started when Lee was a little boy, trying to figure out how things worked."

"I don't know what I enjoy more, sharing the dream with Lee or standing back and watching him live it. Both are exciting. We've just opened our lives to experiences we never dreamed we'd be involved in."

Confident and candid, Lee Barker is also philosophical about the undertaking. "Assumptions cannot be labeled naive until you look back at them. And I had this naive assumption that these would just be rolling out the door. And they weren't."

In January, he took the Barker Bass to California for a large professional trade show attended by musicians and dealers. He hoped to learn more about finding dealers and distributors and, if successful, "let the games begin," he says.

That, or he might conclude with finality that the world just isn't ready for the Barker Bass, good idea or not.

As he watched professional players try the instruments and saw the way they reacted to the tonal range, he had an answer. "We have to keep trying," Barker says.

One of those players who sampled the Barker Bass was Hussain Jiffry, bassist for New Age artist Yanni.

Jiffry was seeking a bass with more sustain, which refers to how long the note resonates, says Barker. Within a month, Yanni had purchased one, and Jiffry is playing it on Yanni's spring Ethnicity tour. Barker tracks the tour and the bass's travels, on a large wall map in his office.

According to Barker, Yanni's first response was to the looks of the bass: "It's feminine, but it's got a little masculine to it," Barker says. "It's striking. I'm not bragging, but there's a different artistic line to it."

It was only after Barker had drawn the shape that he noticed in his wife's garden a terra cotta plaque that depicts a kneeling nude woman from the back. "(The bass) is very similar to the shape of her torso. I think that was in the back of my head in some fashion. But people look at it and often comment, "How very feminine""

Barker is in the process of lining up a dealer network, getting the business end in order. The basses retail for $4,000 and up. Each one weighs about 18 pounds.

There have been discouraging days, Barker says, moments where he thinks he should go back to cabinetry.

But it's at those points that his wife tells him, "Remember that you're living your dream," he says.

"I should add that my 86- year-old mother, who's my bookkeeper, just thinks this is the coolest thing."

Meanwhile, Barker continues to make basses at the rate of 10 a month.

"So order nine," he says.

Should someone who buys a Barker Bass purchase an extra seat on the airplane? To protect the investment?

"I hope so," he says with a smile. "It better not go up that conveyor belt."

David Jasper can be reached at 541-383-0349 or djasper@bend bulletin.com.

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