By Toni Sicola
Owner of Los Angeles Bassworks, Lisa Gass, has thrived in the musical world her entire life. Enjoying the benefits of a musical father and an early band teacher who cultivated her talents and interests, Gass tapped into the generosity of spirit found in so many creative communities. When one person connects to another, offering a bit of guidance, an apprenticeship, or even some 80-year-old wood and handmade clamps for bass-making, creative individuals thrive, even inventing solutions to previously unsolved problems and paying it forward down the line.
Gass got her musical start on the piano at the age of five. Her father, a seasoned musician in his own right, started her and each of her siblings this way as they reached their fifth year of life. By age 12, she’d moved through piano to violin, finally landing on the bass, somewhat by necessity. “The high-school band director (who had also been my dad’s band director) clued me in that a bass seat would be open in the stage band by the time I reached high school. I figured I’d give it a try,” Gass says. “I ended up winning an award—best bass player on the Eastern seaboard. I was one of two upright bass players in the competition, though.”
It was around this time that she began taking lessons from Wes Fisher, one of only two teachers from whom she’d ever receive formal training. A lifelong friend of her family, Fisher knew she’d loved woodworking since she was a kid, so when helping her consider her options for a summer job, he suggested she consider either bass repair or horse-drawn carriage repair. He connected her with a former student who might be able to help her get a foot in the door at an instrument-repair shop, but she soon learned that she’d have to have at least one year of formal violin-making education under her belt before any repair shop would let her near their instruments.
With Fisher’s help, Gass secured an apprenticeship with a bow maker in New York, then landed a gig with Chet Olsen in Philadelphia repairing basses. She worked there for a couple of years, gaining hands-on experience, but was still curious about violin-making school. In 1980, she took a leap of faith, moving out to Salt Lake City to take the exam for the Professional Violin School of America.
Gass made her bass on the back porch of her school apartment, finishing it just in time to play the Capuzzi Concerto at her graduation ceremony.
The leap paid off. She was accepted and ended up staying the full four years, becoming not only a repairer of instruments, but a maker. “Knowing I was interested in bass, my school director connected me with Paul Toenniges in Los Angeles to see if he would sell me some wood to make one. He sold me some wonderful 80-year-old wood and gave me a closing clamp so that I could figure out how to make my own.”
As a rule, manufacturers don’t make clamps for bass repair and all professionals end up making their own or acquiring them from others who have made them by hand. Gass guesses that there just isn’t enough demand for large-scale production of bass clamps. To this day, she still uses a number of clamps from Toenniges, as by the time she moved out to L.A., he had lost interest in bass repair and wanted to pass his tools on to a new person on the scene who could take his place.
In the last year of her violin-making program, Gass crafted her very own bass, a copy of the one Neal Courtney played in the Philadelphia Orchestra. She’d worked on Courtney’s bass in Chet Olsen’s Philadelphia repair shop and, finding that it was the best bass she’d ever played, decided to make one of her own. She made her bass on the back porch of her school apartment, finishing it just in time to play the Capuzzi Concerto at her graduation ceremony.
After completing her education, Gass moved to Los Angeles, where she was hired to expand the repair offerings at Metzler & Rivinus (now Thomas Metzler Violins) to include bass repair. After 13 years, she ventured out on her own, founding Los Angeles Bassworks in 1997. Her shop, now located in the Granada Building in the Westlake district of downtown Los Angeles, offers personalized repairs and tune-ups for players across the spectrum of experience.
“We have classical players, jazz players, and film-studio luminaries coming in,” Gass says, “but I love when a new-ish player comes in, and I have the chance to show them how to set up their bass to fit them better.” It’s part education, part encouragement when someone sees the difference a better set up can make to their abilities as a player. “That’s especially gratifying,” she smiles. It’s one of the ways she helps keep the cycle of generosity going in her musical community.
Gass’ latest project involves teaming up with Eastman to offer her signature C-extensions as a custom add-on to their bass kits. Through trial and error over the course of 20 years, Gass developed her own style of C-extension, improving upon previous iterations to create a tunable, capoed extension with the added advantage that the player can tune it by hand without a tool—something unique to her design. This partnership will help expand the reach of her invention. And it might save some future basses from being unnecessarily cut up to accommodate other styles of extensions.
While Gass’ extension is “non-invasive,” she’s always happy to help repair an instrument that has been cut or damaged by a different type of extension. “I love doing repairs on scrolls that were cut to accommodate the older mechanical extensions because I get to do some wood carving,” Gass explains, harkening back to her violin-making days. “You don’t do much of that in day-to-day instrument repair, but I really enjoy it, so I’m always happy to do it.”
She anticipates a close working relationship with Eastman, ensuring that the installation and tuning is done to her exacting specifications. “This setup is too complicated and specialized to sell as a DIY kit. It’s easy to get wrong, and it only works on certain instruments,” she says. Her plan is to help with quality control so that every player is happy with his or her finished product.
When asked if she obtained a copyright for her specialized C-extension, Gass laughs. “No, I didn’t get a patent. People are already copying it,” she says. “It’s an intuitive design, so it doesn’t surprise me to see similar ones out there. It does bother me a bit to see an almost exact copy being presented as someone else’s extension design, but I really don’t mind if other people are making them—I’m happy for everyone to get to use them.”