By Leslie Pugmire Hole • The Bulletin
Catch the Barker Bass on Art Beat
Oregon Public Broadcasting is celebrating the 15th season of Art Beat, a television program that profiled Barker in 2009, with an art show. A now-iconic Barker Bass is part of the show, which runs from April 19 to June 15, at three galleries located in Pioneer Place Mall in downtown Portland. For more information see www.opb.org/artsandlife.
REDMOND — Lee Barker is a low frequency kind of guy.
His appearance is affable and ordinary, his wit comes at you from the side, sneaky-like, and his musical instrument of choice is the bass guitar, which provides the rhythmic foundation for ensembles.
It was just over 12 years ago that Barker, a longtime Redmond master woodworker, began toying with the idea of designing his own electric bass, an instrument that would provide a more comfortable playing position and satisfy his sense of aesthetics. Now nearing 70, Barker is walking away from his dream, the Barker Vertical Bass (“Play it Straight” is the company tagline), in pursuit of perfecting his musicianship, delving into his new hobby of metalwork and increasing his grandfather time.
Fond of quips, Barker calls his invention “bass on a stick.” It’s important to differentiate the vertical bass from upright electric double basses, as seen in orchestras.
“We’re looking forward to being able to jump on the train and be in Sacramento in the morning, see the kids,” Barker said. He and his wife, Linda, have four children and six grandchildren between them.
Barker’s introduction to low-frequency music came early, when a grade-school music teacher in his native Montana thrust a tuba into his scrawny lap, which was so small a large stand had to be devised so he had a place to rest the large instrument. In the end tuba paved the way to college for Barker, who received a music scholarship and graduated with no debt. While in school he stumbled into a rock band that didn’t need a tuba but lacked a bass player.
Eventually, becoming a rock god gave way to life as a family man, as Barker started his decade-long career as a “radio personality” — which he insists is very different than a disc jockey. By the early 1980s Barker and his first wife, Diana, were in Central Oregon, where the young couple hoped their two children would have unlimited access to grandparents and great-grandparents.
Initially Barker worked framing houses, but a back injury sidelined that career. Instead he opted to be a stay-at-home dad, a choice that allowed some time for woodworking projects on the side. He got a break when Tektronix Inc.’s Redmond facility hired him to build numerous custom office furniture and cabinet pieces. Slowly, Great Ned! Woodworks was born, a business that offered fine furniture and custom woodworking projects.
Somewhere in the middle of building his three-decade woodworking career, Barker stumbled back into playing bass after discovering musical soul mates at a neighborhood block party.
“My neighbor was LeRoy Newport, who was at that time finance director for the school district,” said Barker. “He is also a banjo player, and he was jamming with some other musicians at this party and when the bass player had to leave I sat in. We played and magic happened.”
The party was the genesis of the Dry Canyon Philharmonhick, a Redmond-based roots and bluegrass band that played both casually and more seriously, with various members, for nearly 20 years.
Many years of weekend and summer tour gigs, as well as a lifetime of left-handedness, eventually led to some repetitive stress pain in Barker’s wrists that prompted him to think about the possibility of changing the shape — and therefore the playing angle — of his electric bass.
The first vertical bass attempt was ugly, according to Barker, and heavy as sin. But he kept at it, trying different wood types, electronic pickups and styling. As he learned more about “subtleties of tone,” Barker explained, he opted to add hollow chambers to the body, a move that led to the rich sound Barker Basses have become famous for. Barker calls it a “bigger signal.”
According to U.K. professional session bassist Simon Goulding, when other musicians see his Barker Bass, they never fail to be impressed by the sound but tend to be leery about the playing position — until they try it. “After using it on countless sessions and live shows the sound always fits just right into whatever music I’m playing. Plus it never ceases to turn heads,” Goulding wrote in an email.
The original Barker Bass, dubbed the B1, was followed by the sleeker — and less expensive — Brio. The Brio was Barker’s attempt to attract interest from musicians other than the first adopters who purchased a B1 in its early years. Barker credits his son, Joel, with the idea of producing a more affordable bass; the average price for a B1 is $4,000, while Brios are closer to $2,500.
While Barker feels sure he’s been the only active luthier — or stringed-instrument craftsman — making upright basses using electric bass technology, he doesn’t claim to be the first.
“Some years after starting the Barkers, I was so disappointed to find another musician online who had designed a standing electric bass years ago,” Barker said. “It really let the air out of my tires, but I corresponded with him and we agreed that we had both had good ideas, independent of each other. Plus, he wasn’t a woodworker so his … weren’t very attractive.”
When the economy tanked after 2008 and sales lagged, Barker returned to furniture-making while still trying to market the basses. He considered walking away from instrument-making — never a big profit center — but opted against it.
“If I were 40 I might have changed direction but I thought, ‘Why not? I’ll just ride this one into the sunset,’” he said. Although retirement was contemplated and pushed away numerous times over the years, it took a more definitive push to get Barker out the door.
In what Barker’s 37-year-old stepson, Joe Post, jokingly calls a “coup d’etat,” two years ago the younger man suggested moving his custom wood box and packaging/presentation product business into the workshop, thinking it would give Barker an excuse to phase into retirement. In 2013, Barker did just that. He packed up his luthier equipment, moved his few remaining finished basses into his adjacent office and gave the place over to Post, who named his business Nedson Woodworks in honor of his stepfather.
“I get tears in my eyes when I think about it,” Barker said. In a perfect world, the bass business growing enough for him to bring in young woodworkers, train and build their skills, then sit back and watch gleaming Barker Basses head out the door would have been nice. But the knowledge that Post is continuing the family business of woodworking, in his fashion, has been gratifying.
“I never seriously considered learning the bass business,” said Post. “It’s a very skilled craft and one very much associated with Lee. This way he will always have a bench in my shop to come play with the toys.”
For musicians, Barker’s retirement is bittersweet. Goulding said he thinks Barker made the right choice, not allowing his instruments to pass to someone who might opt to mass-market them. “I’m quite (and possibly wrongly) selfish when it comes to my Barker Bass. I do think it’s good the market isn’t flooded with them … but there is a choice group of musicians who chose these instruments, a select few who saw the light.”
— Reporter: 541-548-2186, firstname.lastname@example.org