Heard at the Shop: Histories and Stories About Double Basses
Matthew Rybicki's Hawkes & Son Concert Bass
For this month's edition of "Heard at the Shop," we're pleased to present jazz bassist Matthew Rybicki and his Hawkes & Son Concert model Bass, built circa 1910.
Matthew is an accomplished performer, educator, composer, and author. He teaches at The Juilliard School and Davidson College, and performs frequently. He was an artist and educator for Jazz at Lincoln Center, and authored three books for publisher Hal Leonard. Matthew received his Artist Diploma graduate degree from The Juilliard School in 2004 and his Bachelor of Music from Berklee College of Music in 1995.
Check out Matthew's website for his full bio, publications, and recordings: Jazz Bass | Matthew Rybicki
Hawkes & Son was founded in London in 1865 primarily selling woodwind and brass insturments made in France. By the 1880s, the company was also selling stringed insturments. They supplied two models of basses, The Professor (a flat back) and The Concert (a round back - or "swell back"). During the 1890s, they developed a model based on a Vincezo Panormo bass, and production moved to Markneukirchen, Germany (where Josef Rubner worked) and Mirecourt, France.*
BVS: How did you come to own your bass?
Matthew: "This Hawkes belonged to one of my instructors at Juilliard, Ben Wolfe. He knew that I liked his bass and let me know when he was ready to part with it."
BVS: What do you know about the history and lineage of your bass? Where has it lived? Do you know who else has played it?
Matthew: "As mentioned, it belonged to Ben Wolfe ([who has performed with] Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr., Dianna Krall, and many more) for at least 20 years, and then before that it belonged to the great Canadian bassist Neil Swainson, who played with jazz masters Woody Shaw and Joe Henderson. Before that I don't know its history, other than apparently being built in 1910."
BVS: Are there any particular genres or composers you especially enjoy playing with this bass?
Matthew: "Well, it's been a "jazz bass" for so long, and that's my passion, so it's a good match. I haven't used it in other styles, but it's power may or may not fit in an orchestra, for example. I think it would be difficult to blend with a section, and its large size does make getting around the instrument a challenge. But the natural sound of the bass is fantastic."
BVS: Do you have any advice for players searching for their forever bass? How did you know you had found a bass that is right for you?
Matthew: "While "brands" of basses are not usually very reliable to know what is a good match for a player, I did start to pursue Hawkes as instruments after hearing Ben [Wolfe], Reginald Veal, Buster Williams, and many other great players use them. So, I would keep my eye out and did in fact own a concert model before this one. So my advice would be to try and learn at least some things about great sounds that a player loves, keeping in mind that the individual musician that you are emulating has just as much to do with the sound as the instrument itself.
One interesting thing that David Gage told me, was that when Ray Brown would come into the shop to try out basses, he judged them quickly based on the response of the open E string only! If it wasn't "fast" enough or too weak he would move on to another instrument.
I knew that this was the bass for me because I had heard it on many recordings, in many performances, and lessons with Ben. I was happy to have the chance to try and continue in the lineage of playing great music on the instrument.
Part of the reason I chose this bass and sold my other Hawkes was that this bass "speaks" faster and is slightly smaller. My older Hawkes was just too "spread out" and while it had a huge sound, it was often too diffuse to cut through in a rhythm section."
BVS: Are there any idiosyncrasies, or anything peculiar or mysterious about your bass that you'd like to share?
Matthew: "My current setup with Pirastro Perpetual strings is the first time it's been strung without gut strings in maybe 35-40 years! (I've also used guts for years too, and may return again)
Additionally, the back button has a peculiar inscribed letter. Often, certain Hawkes had the letter "H" on the back, but this appears to have an "F". It's unclear to me or the luthiers at BVS or elsewhere what this means precisely (or if it even is a "F")."
BVS: Tell us about your preferred playing gear.
Matthew: "Right now I'm using Pirastro Perpetuals on this bass, though I've had years playing Pirastro Chordas on the bass too. I use a Pirastro Oliv G and Thomastik Superflexibles on my other bass. I have two carbon-fiber bows, a Glasser and an unnamed model. My preferred rosin is the Kolstein standard brand, and I occasionally use Pops as well. I have a Gaines wheel (that I needed much more often traveling the NYC subways!) and while I prefer to mic the bass when possible, I do use a Gage Realist Lifeline pickup when necessary."
*History on Hawkes & Sons from The English Double Bass by Thomas Martin, Martin Lawrence, and George Martin, an incredibly beautiful and thorough book published by Arpeggio Publishing in 2018