Saturday, April 10, 2010

Bootsy Collins' Space Bass

Syd Nathan holding a King record
William "Bootsy" Collins was raised in Cincinnati Ohio. As a kid he and his brother, Phelps, "Catfish" Collins used to hang out at Syd Nathan’s King Records.

Sydney Nathan started out in 1940 when he opened Syd's Record Shop, which mostly sold used juke box records. Most of his clientele were poor people that grew up in the South, but immigrated to Cincinnati to work in factories.

The King Record Pressing Plant
By 1943 Nathan had established King Records with the intent of recording Hillbilly music to stock his juke boxes. Nathan hit gold. Country singers were driving to Cincinnati to record at King Records.


It wasn't long before he became aware of the demands of Black teenagers for rhythm and blues music. So King Records became an odd, diverse mix of stars from the Grand Ol' Opry and ground breaking singers like Hank Ballard, Wynonie Harris and James Brown.

Originally Nathan sent off the masters to be pressed in Louisville, Kentucky. Being unhappy with the quality, he decided to open his own pressing plant.

Syd Nathan and Hank Ballard

King Records featured not just a recording studio, but a complete record plant that could cut masters, print vinyl records,photograph artists, print covers and package the product. The all-in-one record plant was a plus for artists that hawked their own records at their concerts.




Nathan used the pseudonym of Lois Mann in order to maintain royalties of records. This way if a song became a hit, he would own a piece of the revenue. This was all back in the days of vinyl and most recording studios had to farm out printing and packaging. Not Syd Nathan. He did it all.

In 1968, along with his elder brother, Phelps aka Catfish, Bootsy formed a funk band called The Pacemakers.

Most people are not aware that most of James Browns hits were recorded in Cincinnati at King Records.

James Brown with Bootsy and Phelps
In 1970 James Brown’s entire backing band quit over a pay dispute. Brown needed a backing band right away. By then some members of Bootsy’s band were doing back up work at King. Bootsy was the go-to rhythm player.


Right on the spot, Brown hired Bootsy, Phelps and other members, including Kenny Poole (who went on to become an excellent jazz guitarist). The band played on four of James Brown’s hit tracks and were known as The J.B.'s

From the Cincinnati Enquirer
My understanding is that James Brown was a difficult guy to work for. Bootsy clashed with him over a pay dispute and quit working for Brown after only 11 months.

Bootsy moved to Detroit for a while. He came back to make his home in Cincinnati.


During 1972 a friend introduced both of the Collins brothers to George Clinton and they agreed to join up with George as players for the Funkadelic and Parliment Albums.

Over the years, Bootsy went through a series of bands and cranked out some great funk recordings over the next two decades.



During the P-Funk years, Bootsy adopted his trademark Space Bass which he used on many recordings.

Nineteen year old Larry Pless and a friend drove to Warren Michigan to a music store named Guz Zoppi’s. The store was known mostly for it’s accordians. It was run by Mr. Zoppi, his wife and son. Larry Pless had built a V shaped guitar. Half of it was made of maple and the other half was made of mahogany.



The guitar had a maple neck. Pless was hoping that Zoppi would be willing to sell his guitar on consignment. He got more than he bargained for since the store's owner was looking for a guitar tech. Pless was hired on the spot.

A few years later, Larry Pless was repairing guitars for Guz Zoppi Music and had made a few more of his own instruments which were displayed for sale. As Larry Pless tells it, one day a customer named Bootsy came in the store and wanted to speak with the repairman that made those guitars.



He states this Bootsy was an interesting person, dressed in rhinestone embossed leather and having a gold tooth. Bootsy then produced a hand drawn picture of a star shaped bass guitar with a star shaped headstock and a mirrored pickguard. The two men discussed other details such as pickups, wiring, hardware and color. They agreed upon a price of around $900.

Pless had done his best work in shaping the instrument, but says he had to make some modifications to the headstock for practical purposes.

The guitar was only half finished when Bootsy called and said he needed it for a photo shoot in Los Angeles. By then the guitar had a coat of white paint and the pickguard, but it was not finished. This was for Bootsy’s Rubber Band album, Stretching Out.

The bass was soon finished after that and Larry was sent an airline ticket to fly to Cincinnati with the bass. Bootsy was playing at the Colleseum and wanted to use his new bass guitar. There were problems with the cord that hooked to his bass amp. But Bootsy was so happy with his new bass guitar that he had another one made.

Bootsy Space Bass was stolen and Pless was asked to make another one. The first bass had a mahogany body and a maple neck. Pless make the 2nd with a basswood body and a maple neck.

Bootsy preferred the first bass. This instrument was later found in a Cincinnati pawn shop and returned to Bootsy.


Bootsy kept bringing the basses back to Larry Pless for adjustments and to add additional rhinestones. Pless also made a double neck 6/12 string Space Bass for Collins.



Pless says that Bootsy plays all over the neck and his bass is bright enough to cut through the mix.

In 1998 Bootsy commissioned New York luthier Manny Salvatore to build a new Space Bass. Pless states this new bass looked more like a star than the ones he had designed and built.

Sometime later Bootsy has also signed an agreement with the Washburn Guitar Company to produce a line of Bootsy Collins signature Space Basses.

In 2012 Warwick guitars built the Bootsy Collins Space Bass.  This was a limited edition of 100 basses. These were top quality instruments that had built in LED's. (click on the above link for more information)

At the 2014 NAMM Warrwick unveiled it's updated Bootsy Collins Space Bass.

Perhaps as a tribute to his past at King Records, Bootsy collaborated with bluegrass legends Del McCoury, Doc Watson and Mac Wiseman in a group called The GrooveGrass Boyz.



You can see some of the pickup variations this instrument has gone through, starting with two pickups and now having five J-style pickups.  The one on the left has two P-bass and two J-bass pickups.

These days Bootsy spends his time at his home music studio in southern Indiana. For a while he had a restaurant in downtown Cincinnati. Since I first wrote this article it has closed.

From checking out his calendar, these days Bootsy Collins stays very busy touring around the country and playing his unique brand of Funk.










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