The truth behind Lee Sklar's custom 'producer's switch'

Musician Lee Sklar perform at The Drop: Judith Owen at The GRAMMY Museum on October 8, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
(Image credit: Photo by Duffy-Marie Arnoult/WireImage)

Having survived five decades on the road with James Taylor, Phil Collins and just about everyone else on the planet, Lee Sklar is a living legend of the bass guitar. You’ve heard his bass parts on a huge number of albums in a wide variety of musical genres, from film to stage to stadiums and beyond.

Sklar recalls the path that led him to become a bass player. He tells us: “When I was four or five years old I took piano lessons, and I became something of a child prodigy – I was a classical snob and a real asshole! But when I went to junior high at 12 years old the music teacher told me that there were 50 kids who played piano and that he would give me lessons on string bass if I wanted. So he pulled out this old, blonde upright and showed me a few things, and within a week I was in love with it.” 

Nowadays the world and its sales rep want Sklar to endorse their products, including German-based manufacturer Warwick, who built him one of their Star Basses, but with a one-off custom switch. “I call it my producer’s switch,” explains Lee. “If I’m on a session and the producer asks me to get a different sound, I make sure he sees me flip this switch and then I just change my hand position a bit. There are no wires of anything that go to this switch. It's a placebo, but it’s saved me a lot of grief in the studio.”  

Lee continues: “I’m involved with Sheldon Dingwall too, who I met at a NAMM show 25 years ago. He walked up to me and asked if I wanted to try one of his basses. I normally don’t bother with that kind of thing because I’m pretty happy with my old stuff, but I looked at the fan-fretting and said, ‘Explain this to me.’ So he told me the whole concept behind it."

Sklar’s signature Dingwall bass will either enthral or terrify you depending on your fondness for the Ralph Novak fan-fretting system that it employs. "One of the issues that I have is that a tremendous amount of my recording work is replacing programmed synth-bass parts. Now, inevitably when guys are recording synth-bass they love to go down into reaches that usually don’t read well, so when I tried this bass, suddenly I had a 37" B string, and the bottom end was still punchy. I said, 'This is for me,' and it became my main touring bass."

As for the fan-fretting, which spooks some players so much that they literally can’t bring themselves to look at it, Sklar laughs and says, "I had a friend who came by the house and played it before he looked at it, and he loved it. Then he looked at the frets and he couldn’t play it anymore! I got used to playing it in about five seconds. If you look at the angle, especially at the bottom end, it lines up ergonomically with your wrist joint. It’s actually very comfortable."

Bass heroes don’t get much bigger than Lee Sklar, yet for all his achievements to date, there’s a new sense of urgency about his latest project, The Immediate Family Band, which is the modern iteration of a legendary L.A studio ensemble known as 'The Section'. For over five decades, Danny Kortchmar, Waddy Wachtel, Leland Sklar, Russ Kunkel and Steve Postell have collectively logged studio time with the likes of James Taylor, Carole King, Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan and David Crosby. “We are very proud of the people we’ve gotten to work with,” says Kortchmar, “but we’re also thrilled to now be playing our own music.”

A rendition of the Sparks song ‘The Toughest Girl in Town’ is the first single from the band's forthcoming album, Skin In The Game. The Immediate Family kicks off their fall tour this Friday, November 11, in Santa Clarita.

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Nick Wells

Nick Wells was the Editor of Bass Guitar magazine from 2009 to 2011, before making strides into the world of Artist Relations with Sheldon Dingwall and Dingwall Guitars. He's also the producer of bass-centric documentaries, Walking the Changes and Beneath the Bassline, as well as Production Manager and Artist Liaison for ScottsBassLessons. In his free time, you'll find him jumping around his bedroom to Kool & The Gang while hammering the life out of his P-Bass.

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