Les Claypool: “The Pachyderm bass has one knob on it, a volume knob: I don’t want any tone”

Les Claypool of Primus performs at Day Two of the Bonnaroo Music And Arts Festival on June 10, 2011 in Manchester, Tennessee.
(Image credit: Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

Best known as the voice behind Primus hits such as Jerry Was A Race Car Driver and Tommy The Cat, cameoing for Generation X in the second Bill And Ted film, running a vineyard and ranting wherever possible about his love of fishing, Les Claypool is one of the most recognisable figures in the bass field. 

Despite slapping down the years on a variety of bass guitars, most of which have been custom jobs from Brooklyn luthier Carl Thompson in various string and fretted/fretless configurations, in 2011 Claypool made the switch from Carl Thompson basses to his own model, the Pachyderm. 

“I basically designed my own bass,” he tells us. “It’s everything that I always wanted out of a bass. It’s amazing, it’s fabulous, and it’s called the Pachyderm.” 

We assume that Claypool himself didn’t cut the wood and file down the fret ends, so who did the actual building? “A buddy of mine who made my banjo bass and one of my uprights. I’ve known him since high school, he built it for me: his name is Dan Maloney,” he says. “I did the design and he cut the shape, and I went in and used Japanese planing tools to fine-tune the shape. Basically I created what I feel is the most comfortable and easy-to-play bass in the world, with tonality that I like, which is a very punchy sound.”

Simplicity is key, Claypool tells us, with the Pachyderm bass as with everything else. “It has one knob on it, a volume knob (we're told a second knob controls LEDs inlayed in the neck). I don’t want any tone, I don’t want anything else on it,” he laughs. “I want it to just turn on and turn off. I pick up basses these days – sometimes super-expensive basses that my friends have – and they have 50 knobs on them and multiple pickups, and I don’t like it. I don’t like the sound and I don’t like the feel. Electronically, my bass is very simple.” 

Les Claypool of Primus performs on stage at the Melbourne Big Day Out at Flemington Race Course on Friday January 24,2014 in Melbourne Australia.

(Image credit: Photo by Martin Philbey/Getty Images)

Unusually for a man whose studio contains basses which vary from a one-string instrument – the famous Wham-Ola – to the six-string fretless beauties that Thompson made for him, the Pachyderm has your average number of strings. 

“I’m mainly playing four-strings anyway,” he says. “On Primus records like Green Naugahyde there’s actually nothing but four-string and upright bass, apart from a Dobro bass which is pretty spectacular. Why do I call it the Pachyderm? Well, that name has become somewhat associated with some of the stuff that I do: my wine label is Purple Pachyderm. It has some elegance, yet some girth to it!”  

What on earth is Naugahyde, anyway? “There’s a song on that album called Lee Van Cleef, which looks back at my childhood, and one of the lyrics refers to a ‘Studebaker with green Naugahyde’. That was my dad’s pickup truck when I was a kid. 

"Naugahyde was basically fake leather made of vinyl, but they wanted a fancy name for it. There was a company that sold luggage made of this stuff, and if you asked ‘Hey, is that leather?’ they’d say ‘No, it’s Naugahyde!’ and you were supposed to go ‘Whoo, that sounds cool!’ 

"Growing up in a long, lower middle-class line of auto mechanics, a lot of the furniture I saw around was Naugahyde, because people thought ‘Why get leather when you can get Naugahyde?’” 

Green Naugahyde is available on Amazon

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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.