Ca. 1960 D. B. Original Bass

The Dopyera brothers were inveterate tinkerers. Through the various incarnations of National/Dobro/Valco, John, Rudy, Emil and Louis brought a number of innovations to guitars and other instruments. Their efforts resulted in three different types of acoustic resonator, the first electric instruments with multiple pickups, the first guitars made from fiberglass, and any number of unique pickup and wiring ideas. Not all of their ideas were musically or commercially successful, but even the relative failures show a unique perspective on design.

In the late 1950s, Louis Dopyera was still the creative force behind Valco. His brothers were no longer involved with the company directly, but they lived together in El Monte, CA and never stopped coming up with new ideas and building on old ones. John, Emil and Rudy began building spider-bridge guitars on a small scale, but since the Dobro name was still owned by Valco, their headstocks bore the name DB Original. They also set up Zorko Musical Instruments to build electric upright basses; the Zorko rights were sold to Ampeg in 1962, which had much more success with their version: the famous Baby Bass. The money paid to them by Ampeg allowed the Dopyeras to keep building DB Original guitars, most of which were fairly conventional Dobro-style instruments.

Most, but not all. This bass is unique in just about every way possible, clearly a one-off instrument that never came close to mass production. The body is constructed out of fiberglass; unlike Valco’s res-o-glas models, it was constructed in one piece and uses a different weave of glass matting. The neck is made of maple with a rosewood board, and its carve bears strong similarities to the Dopera Original banjos of the late ‘60s. There is an unusual lamination of maple that runs from the heel to around the first fret, where it suddenly stops for no obvious reason. The bass has a 25” scale, perhaps showing the influence of Valco’s early basses (first introduced in 1960). Valco probably kept the scale short because their magnesium-core necks would require a whole new casting design if they were lengthened, but this bass’s neck is all wood so the reasoning is less apparent. The screwed-on brass nut actually resembles Danelectro instruments more than anything else. The body shape and the plastic cavity cover under the bridge look like they were designed specifically for this bass, as does the home-made pickup.

Ultra-short-scale basses were not uncommon in the 1960s: Danelectro, Mosrite, Valco, Carvin, Kay and a few Japanese builders all made them. They eventually faded into obscurity as players settled on 30” and longer necks, since longer-scale basses give greater sustain and better intonation. By the end of 1966, after it purchased Kay, Valco had acknowledged reality and begun building 34” basses – using conventionally-built necks from Kay. Given the unpopularity of the design and the quirkiness of its creators, it’s likely that this bass was built as an experiment; it’s far less probable that someone actually commissioned it from the Dopyeras.

While there are no similar instruments to use for comparison, no parts on this bass are obvious replacements. There is a bit of spider checking and the odd ding and flake in the body, but no cracks. The Grover Rotomatic tuners and the neck bolt cover suggest a connection to the Valco factory, even if El Monte is seventeen hundred miles away from Chicago.

 

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