Philthy Thoughts

by Phil Maneri

All too often, musical instrument makers are forced to pander only to commerce and modify their vision based on market forces or bean counter sensibilities. This has the effect of watering-down the original concept to the point where they often blend into the background noise of everything else available.

I’m used to this. It’s the status quo for the musical instrument business. You can imagine how shocked I was while wandering around the 2019 NAMM Show floor when I encountered the Brummbass by Oliver Jaggi. This bass was such an original piece of work that it stopped me cold in my tracks. First of all, it’s huge. It’s not “double bass huge,” but way bigger than “guittarron huge.”  It’s a fully acoustic instrument with respectable acoustic volume. Not acoustic volume like the acoustic bass guitars that can’t keep up with anything else, and not like a double bass that can fill up an auditorium, but somewhere in the middle. It can hold its own without an amp. 

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Its design is gorgeous and organic and well-considered from every single angle. The lutherie is impeccable and completely original from the ground up. The fanned-fret neck elegantly flows into an open-frame peghead with a lovely deco-esque circle at its apex. The bridge is spruce with laminated rosewood cap all around, using an unusual piano-like saddle and takeoff point structure. The neck comes off for more compact travel (and also allows for adjusting the action). The body is huge, but it’s angled and curved to hug the body of the player, defying its size. Its venting near the ear is a great modern move to bring the sound to the player more elegantly. Every surface and joint and construction point has been crafted with attention to detail.

Those things aren’t unusual in high-end lutherie. What’s unusual here is such attention and singular-minded focus to one instrument that has no clear practical purpose. People aren’t clamoring for this instrument. It’s not something someone buys and goes out to gig with later on in the day. It’s a singular artistic statement that requires a musician to consider how it fits into their musical voice, then practice with it, then find a way to incorporate it into some musical niche, or create an entirely new one with it. This is an instrument born out of a single luthier’s vision without regard to market forces, construction or manufacturing concerns, or any kind of marketing vision; truly a work of art in and of itself, simply because he could. 

Nobody does that these days. I stood there looking at it and admired it all the more. It’s brilliant and irrelevant and singularly unique in design vision and application. Art for art’s sake.

What made it even better is that’s the only thing he was selling at the NAMM Show. He rented booth space, spent the time and money and effort to get to the sales floor, and endured four days of sometimes unpalatable din – often so loud it drowned out any ability for someone to play this instrument and hear it. This was his entire focus. Build this one thing. Come to NAMM. See if anyone wants this, or custom build yet another for them. That’s insane, and seriously gets my respect. Complete dedication to a singular vision. It’s foolish and brilliant.

It’s a lovely instrument. Everyone who locked themselves in an iso-booth with it emerged smiling and shaking their head in disbelief at how good it was. It was a unanimous choice for a best of show award for the magazine, with no dissention or discussion. That’s unheard of; and it totally deserves it. 

I hope he sells them. Lots of them. They are brilliant. I wouldn’t bet that he will, though. It requires the buyer to take a similar leap of faith to bring it home as it did for him to build it in the first place. At $12,500, it’s worth every penny, but it’s not a leisure purchase for someone to take home and maybe see how it works. It’s a commitment to discovery and future possibilities that are yet unclear.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope he gets swamped with orders. He is doing something nobody does: conceive of a completely original vision, execute it at a very high level, without regard to anything but its own existence. It restores my faith in creative pursuits as art for art’s sake in a business and cultural environment that does everything it can to punish people who do so.

Bravo, Oliver Jaggi! This is a beautiful thing you’ve created.