“If I wanted to play like Geddy Lee I’d play a black-and-white Rickenbacker”: Les Claypool on his bass collection, and the Rickenbacker he bought from John Entwistle

Les Claypool
(Image credit: im Bennett/Getty Images)

Primus frontman, novelist, film director and bassist Les Claypool isn’t your average musician. For starters, he doesn’t think like you and I do. As he says: “I don’t necessarily think of my bass as a bass. If I got a gig with Booker T and the MGs, I would approach it differently. I would do my job. But for me, the bass just happens to be the crayon I pulled out of the box. I would still be drawing the same kind of picture if I was playing an accordion or a guitar.”

Claypool has the added luxury of a studio in his house in northern California. “My studio would make some engineers cringe and some engineers ejaculate,” he told BP. “It’s just a room full of crap, but I’ve got an amazing collection of old vintage gear. For the bass guitars, I have a plethora of boxes all wired together, and every now and then I hit a button and a sound comes out.”

Bass-wise, Claypool is still using his famous Carl Thompson 4-string. You know the one – it has the funky scrolled-up horns and the bit of wood bearing Geddy Lee's autograph nailed to the headstock. Asked if manufacturers ever approach him about a signature bass, he replied: “Most people know that I play a Carl Thompson. If I was to play a production bass, I’d probably play a Fender Jazz.” Like Geddy Lee? “Actually, if I wanted to sound like Geddy Lee I’d play a black-and-white Rickenbacker.” 

In 2022 Claypool got his chance, as Primus stepped out on their A Tribute To Kings Tour, playing a set of original material before covering the 1977 Rush masterpiece in its entirety.

“The thing about those basses is that they all sound different, depending on what year they were made. I have a really old Rickenbacker 4001 with the herringbone binding signed by John Entwistle. I bought it the week before he died. It is a spectacular-feeling and sounding bass, but then I have another one that I got from Alex Lifeson that doesn’t play as well and doesn’t sound as good. So they’re not that consistent. I love the tone, though – it’s super cool.”

You probably know Claypool as a highly technical bass player, squeezing off flurries of notes from his bass guitar like there’s no tomorrow. However, this isn’t all he can do: on his 2009 solo album, Of Fungi And Foe, he threw all notions of technical playing for its own sake to one side, specifically on jammed tracks such as A Bite Out Of Life. As he explained: “I recorded that song after a night out of vodka debauchery. I just accompanied the guitar part – and what came out was almost like an old Bow Wow Wow bassline.

“On the song Booneville Stomp I played a Dobro bass – just a cheap thing made in China. I picked it up and de-tuned it, and had EMG stick a pickup in it, and it’s great because I can bang on it and not worry about it. EMG told me that it was a total piece of crap, but sometimes these little finds have a lot of personality.”

The off-the-wall nature of Claypool’s various activities have led to him being labelled as an eccentric maverick, but it’s all part of taking the path less travelled, he insists. “You can apply what I've said about bass to many aspects of existence on this planet. We're all taught and encouraged to conform and fit in, and wear the same style of collar and hair and shoe, and the people who raise a few eyebrows are the ones who change things.”

As well as the Carl Thompson and the Rickenbacker, Claypool has employed a range of other instruments during his career, including the famous Whamola. “It’s a one-string instrument with a handle on it, and I hit it with a stick. It’s basically a percussion instrument, the way I play it: it doesn’t have a lot of tonality to it, but I tend to pick up whatever’s handy.”

As bass players, perhaps the most important thing we can learn from Claypool is to place ourselves within the music and not worry about the details so much. As he says, “I’ve always tried to be pretty casual about the way I approach things. Because I have so many different projects going, I just start assembling songs, like making a junkyard sculpture. Y’now, like there’s an old gas tank over here and a bit of tractor over there… so when it comes time to record, I look and see what lyrics I’ve got and start building. It’s like doodling on a scratchpad.”

Of Fungi And Foe is available to buy.

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Joel McIver

Joel McIver was the Editor of Bass Player magazine from 2018 to 2022, having spent six years before that editing Bass Guitar magazine. A journalist with 25 years' experience in the music field, he's also the author of 35 books, a couple of bestsellers among them. He regularly appears on podcasts, radio and TV.