We’ve been called “one of the most knowledgeable aluminum bass dorks in the country”, and take that as a compliment. These old AlCoA and Pfretzschner tanks from the 1930s and ’40s say it all; bombproof and cool as an old airstream. Checkout American Lutherie magazine #89 for the full article we wrote on the history and details of these unique old basses. Below is an extract of the story we’re continually updating.
Call us first if you have an unrestored vintage ALCOA aluminum bass that you want to sell!
A Brief History of Aluminum Instruments
The Paris world trade show of 1855 unveiled the first public display of a pure aluminum ingot. Within a decade the means to electrically extract the pure metal generated large interest and widespread availability. Just like today’s high tech composites and titanium alloys, there was tremendous interest in all aluminum applications. In a short time, luthiers of the day began to put it to the test.
By 1891, a Mr. Alfred Springer was awarded a US patent on an aluminum violin. Springer’s violins had an aluminum body that was made from pressed sheet stock. The top, back and ribs were attached with very small rivet like pins that were flush with the sides. These pins also attached the bass bar to the top. The “purfling” around the top and back was a fine detail tooled etching into the aluminum. The neck and fittings were wooden and of good quality German manufacture. A traditional spruce soundpost was used; I’ve also seen an oversize coiled metal soundpost. There is often an aluminum name plate on the back of the scroll with a “Springer violin” engraving, serial number, and patent number or application date. Thanks to Paul Schubach of Portland, Oregon, I had a nice opportunity to examine serial number 208. It is overall very high quality and light construction, having a very modern, almost high tech or industrial look with reasonable volume and tone.
In 1894, Neil Merrill founded the Aluminum Musical Instrument Co. to create and sell aluminum mandolins, violins, cellos, banjos, guitars and zithers.
Merrill’s mandolins fall into the hybrid category with a traditional spruce top and wooden neck fitted to an aluminum bowlback mandolin body. The backs are shaped from one piece of aluminum, some elaborately adorned with beautiful hand tooled etchings, and they have an inlaid “The Merrill” mother of pearl logo at the top of the headstock. When I wrote the original article for American Lutherie, I’d only heard about Merrill’s guitars in old advertisements, but had never seen one. I contacted most of the big name vintage guitar dealers around the country and none of them had ever heard of Merrill; a couple gave me quite a lot of attitude about them never existing. A few months later, a private collector sent me the photos on the left of Merrill’s aluminum guitar and banjo, both in good working order.
By 1898 records indicate that Merrill was broke and his company disbanded.
The Aluminum Company of America (AlCoA):
In 1928, The Aluminum Company of America manufactured 50 aluminum double basses at their Buffalo, NY plant for Carl Fischer, who owned a musical supply house in New York. The AlCoA Buffalo facility was a “skunk works” where they manufactured experimental aluminum products. There was enough interest in these instruments that a January 1934 patent was issued to John Burdick and assigned to AlCoA. By the time the plant closed that November, AlCoA had made and delivered a total of approximately 500 basses. These were sold as “The Collegian” model and later as “ the Joseph Maddy All Aluminum String Bass”. They were available in the following standard finish and price:
Natural (Faux) wood finish: $220
Silver (unpainted) aluminum : $230
Gold painted aluminum : $240
The faux natural wood was a 50 step patented process whereby the top had graining and color close to that of a dark varnished tight grain spruce and the back / ribs / scroll have a curly figured grain patterning. From the distance of a bandstand or stage, you’ll have trouble identifying it from a wooden instrument.
To the left is an AlCoA bass I owned a few years ago; serial number 72, which would put the manufacture date approximately 1929.
Before the AlCoA Buffalo plant closed in 1934, they joined with Dr. Joseph Maddy, who had a teaching position with the Interlochen School of Arts. He and AlCoA redesigned a 1928 aluminum double bass in a smaller scale in order to market aluminum violins in which the violin, bow, and case retailed for $50. The Buffalo plant did the assembly and finish work while Maddy did the setup and sales from the following address:
Aluminum Musical instrument Co.
P.O. Box 403
Ann Arbor, MI
Maddy’s operation was to set up and supply Aluminum violins. AlCoA records indicated that 435 violins were delivered to him. Basses were marketed and sold under the name Joseph Maddy and sold through distributors, not the Aluminum Musical Instrument Co. Often the other distributors, such as the G.C. Conn company, would attach their own name or label to the instruments. Conn continued to sell aluminum basses until 1958. On the lower left, you can see an old Conn ad for a Pfretzschner aluminum bass with an AlCoA pictured. As a distributor, they sold both and the ads occasionally got mixed up; I’d gamble that the same thing sometimes happened in shipping.
The close proximity of the Anne Arbor address to the Ford Motor Company has lead many people to refer to these instruments as a “Ford Aluminum Bass”. As far as I can tell, no record of Ford actually producing one has been found, but stories abound. They are also claimed to have been manufactured by Grumman and or Coleman for the use by the US Navy and the USO in response to the fact that wooden bases could not survive a life at sea. No documentation can be found to verify this. I’ve talked with a lot of old veteran musicians who never saw any in use during long careers, and I never saw any in use during my years in the service giging and checking out every source for instruments on every base I visited.
AlCoA made basses are easy to distinguish. The entire back, ribs, top, neck, and scroll are welded into one continuous piece of aluminum. All of the seams and transitions are well executed and nearly flawless; first rate construction and attention to detail. I’ve only seen AlCoA basses with round backs; nothing flat. With a little bit of regular care, these instruments should easily last 1000 years.
At the time of manufacture, these instruments were the pinnacle of low maintenance in a double bass. The top and back plates on a bass can be over 26” wide; solid wood tops can present a lot of seasonal fluctuation in both width (1/4 “ wide cracks!) and arch height. As such, they regularly feature a bridge with adjustable wheels or the player has several bridges configured for the different seasons. With an AlCoA aluminum bass, all of these ideas disappear. Instead of worrying about the fragile top or a broken scroll during the loading in and out of vehicles for transport, my concerns changed to trying not to chip the paint on the car door during transportation.
AlCoA basses have several notable features: All of the seams and F holes are rolled into strong radius curved edges approximately the same diameter as a wooden pencil. There are no sharp or protruding edges anywhere. Internally, the bass bar is a welded and shaped section of T-stock that maintains structural stability and voicing. The spruce sound post sits on a small shelf welded to the back. The serial numbers were usually hand painted in blue machinist ink somewhere near this shelf and along the inside of the neck. You can sometimes also find a stamped serial number on the inside of the scroll near the nut. There are no blocks or linings and the interior is quite clean.
The neck consists of a one piece cast scroll and exterior aluminum shell. The working range of the neck has three threaded inserts welded to the inside; if you look at the outside of the back of the neck, you can usually see three small dark circles of discoloration from the weld. Fitting into the neck shell is an individually hand shaped wooden insert that is screwed onto the aluminum. Using this as a stable and repairable platform, the ebony fingerboard was hide glued to the insert. Occasionally you’ll run into an old AlCoA bass with an internal rattle that is impossible to track down; I’ve seen the welded inserts break lose on several, causing the rattle and necessitating a complete fingerboard removal to fix. If the fingerboard has taken a big hit or broken during a fall, that is enough force to release one of the old insert welds.
Some AlCoA basses came with a commercially available adjustable three point aluminum bridge and a factory cast aluminum tailpiece, but most had standard wooden European fittings and tuning machines.
When I first received AlCoA number 72, it had been in the repair department of a high end Florida string shop. It was traded in on a finer wooden instrument and was an eyesore to the owners who tucked it into the corner of shame. After a bit of haggling, it made the journey across the country to my shop in Portland, Oregon. They claimed that if it didn’t go out to me, they were going to strap a big outboard motor to it and see how well it would work as a boat. I’ve thought about gathering a couple of dozen examples in need of restoration and using them to create either a sort of bass stonehenge or lining the shop driveway in a bass Cadillac Ranch theme. I know of a professor of music studies at a midwestern university who has an old AlCoA half planted in his garden. I also recently heard from a couple of old former students from the Interlochen program that at least one school bass was taken out on the lake and floated around; they also claimed that one somehow showed up back in the music room with a bent neck after a long winter night and a fresh snowfall when it was used for sledding down one of the local hills!
The other common model of aluminum double bass was made in the workshop of G. A. Pfretzschner in Markneukirchen, Germany. The earliest one I know of was ourchased in Ames, Iowa in 1930. I see these basses with much more frequency than AlCoAs, with a high concentration in the midwestern US. Pfretzschner basses have a very different construction from the AlCoA instruments that is easily recognized. In basic form, they consist of an aluminum body fitted with a production wooden German neck and fittings, produced with both roundback and flatback designs.
The body is constructed from three distinct parts. The arched top has a folded outside edge that is screwed onto the sides. The back is completely folded around a lip on the end of the side. Often there is a green felt separating the layers, along with a sealant-like adhesive that was intended to keep the entire mass solidified and lessen rattles. Internally there are a wooden neck block, tailblock, corner blocks, bassbar, and back cross braces, all screwed to the aluminum plates. Inside there is a dull rust colored primer paint. Many luthiers are fond of the fact that you can undo the screws, open the seam, and perform repairs. There are hundreds of these small screws throughout the box.
Over the years many of these basses have been taken apart in some form and then put back together without using any thread lock agent to keeps the screws and parts from rattling. They can be prone to unidentified rattles. Pfretschners came with a factory cut German neck, so they retain the warmth and feel of a wooden instrument. It also makes common repairs, like broken scrolls or grafts, part of regular life.
How do these aluminum instruments sound?
Well…..like an aluminum bass. They don’t sound like a ply bass or a fully carved bass, but they are not supposed to be a wooden bass. They represent everything a wooden bass is not; both styles have a balanced, even response, with little overtone irregularities. They are easy to eq and work great in front of monitors at high volume. A simple contact pickup and a Baggs Para acoustic DI plugged directly into the board provide a reliable gigging sound. Both have a tendency to amplify any string noise-especially if you like to double slap and get on the strings hard; gut strings help take the edge off.
The AlCoA bodies are waterproof. As a result, you can get some amazing “African water drum” swirling effects and bow sounds if you fill up the lower bout (not for the faint of heart). I find that they like to be played hard, so they are not as well suited to the timid. On the temperature side, the necks are not as friendly as a wooden neck. On a cold day, they feel like the metal column post on my old Walker Turner drill press. Similarly, an outdoor stage in the sunshine during the summer can get the instrument very hot!
Which one is my favorite? It is a tie between the Pfretzschner and the AlCoA. The AlCoA is incredibly tough and well constructed. I once did a band promo photo with four people standing on the side of one. I like the rolled seams and the rattle free factor. The down side is the cold neck with a large profile that you cannot change or tinker with.
The wooden neck on the Pfretzschner wins hands down for warmth, feel, ability to change the profiled shape, and the overall construction is lighter than the AlCoAs which I think translates into a slightly warmer sound. The AlCoAs are better suited to a player with a heavy touch that is not afraid to cut into them hard. The Pfretzschner’s lighter design means that while they are more durable than a plywood bass, they are more fragile than the AlCoAs. The removable neck appeals highly to my sense of the luthier’s ability to tinker with things.
I have seen a couple of Pfretschner aluminum cellos out working in the trenches; one that tours with a very well known player who has an interesting double bow technique.
What are these basses worth? Prices have been syrocketing over the last few years. In general, figure about what you would pay for a working laminated Kay Bass, to get an unrestored carcass of an aluminum bass in need of full restoration. Excellent cosmetically restored and professionally setup and functioning highly polished and custom examples of these instruments have been selling for double or triple the cost of a nice vintage US plywood bass with a current strong interest from overseas buyers.
I cannot stress enought the difference- a poorly restored and setup anything is just that- a poor example; someone’s dream like an old car up on blocks missing the engine, drivetrain, and pain, but still a cool model worth saving. An excellent restored example is able to respond to any style of music with a professional grade setup such that a professional working musician of any level can confidently take the instrument on tour anywhere in the world and it will perform to the highest expecatation. To go from an unrestored carcass to a high grade working model usually involves about $700 or more at the polishing shop, complete disassembly and rebuild of the body, close to $1000 in materials and fittings, and 160-300 hours of work….but they represent something completely different in the bass world and fascinate us and somehow are worth it.
The Underground Revolution….
You’ll notice Johnny Atomic’s pimped out polished and pinstriped Pfretzschener in the photos. That is a good example of a quiet little underground revolution taking place with these basses right now. They are coming out of basements and barns and attics and some very talented people are approaching them like an old hotrod, making bold visual statements. I’d like to be able to turn a synthesis of the two designs into a new model: The solid smooth construction of the AlCoA body, the removable wooden neck of the Pfretzschner, and the chopped and lowered look of a hot rod 34 Ford. Contact us if you find a likely candidate or you’ve already done it. You’ll regularly see high profile musicians like Ira Dean sporting Pfretzschners on stage that have been heavily modified to include multiple headlights, fancy custom paint, and instrument clusters complete with tachometer and speedometer that provide quite a high flash stage presence, pushing the old basses to new levels of fun and creativity. On the other end of the spectrum, there are some unbelievably roadworn “ratrods” showing all the battle scars you’d expect from 80+ years of nonstop touring and giging in less than ideal conditions that would turn a wooden or ply bass into splinters decades ago.
Special thanks go out to countless people who have helped with information and research on these interesting old instruments. If you’ve got anything new to contribute, drop us a note and if you find something here you want to pass on to others, give us a little plug and tell them where you found it.
Major sources of information and research:
Gary Sturm of the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.
Patent information, photographic plates, and historic research on the AlCoA company
Company records and history.
Strings Magazine, No. 108, February / March 2003
Aluminum Foil, David Templeton author.
The Etude Magazine, May 1932, ”An Aluminum Double Bass
Schubach Violins, Portland, Oregon
Christian Steinbrecher, Merril mandolin images
Jim Garber, Hutchins mandolin images