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Thomas and George Martin, double-bass makers
John Robert Brown
Double-bass maker George Martin
Four of the LSO double-bass players play Martin basses. John Van Lierop in the Scottish Symphony owns three. The Martin testimonials web page is impressive, particularly when one realises that Martin senior, Thomas, didn’t begin to make basses until thirty-odd years ago.
Thomas Martin was born in 1940 in the United States. “My father was a successful lawyer,” he says. “He didn’t want me to go into music. I didn’t do well educationally, because I was dyslexic. They didn’t know what dyslexia was at that time. They gave me tests, then said: ‘If you’re some kind of genius, how come you can’t spell?’ How did I know?
“I found music early on. Dad was away in the war. Mum was a great music lover. I was hooked by the time I was five. I used to get my Gran to take me on the trolley into town, Cincinnati, to find records by different composers. At the age of twelve I went to junior high school. The man said: ‘Who wants to play these two new double basses we’ve got?’ My hand shot up. I would stay after school to practise. I took the bass home during the summer holiday. The next year I got a proper teacher. He was a wonderful person, I couldn’t have had a better education.
“When I was 19 I joined the Buffalo Philharmonic, under Josef Krips. He was director from 1954 to 1963, a great conductor who helped me a lot. I ended up in the military service in Washington, playing in the White House. When I said: ‘I’d like to play better,’ they said: ‘You find a teacher, and we’ll pay.’
“I found Roger Scott at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. I studied with him the whole time I was in the Military, over three years. Because of his help, I’d become good. Then I went as co-principal in the Israel Philharmonic for a couple of years. Zubin Mehta, took me to Montreal. I stayed there for a number of years, until I came to the UK, forty years ago, to the LSO, during the André Previn era. We were like film stars. Everywhere the orchestra travelled, people went wild.”
At my mention of the highly esteemed LSO recording of Walton’s First Symphony, Thomas says: “Walton was there, making sure we got it right! I went with the English Chamber Orchestra for a while, then back to the LSO, first under Michael Tilson Thomas, then with Colin Davis.
“I taught for 35 years at the Guildhall School. For the past three years I’ve been at the Royal College. I seem to have clicked as a teacher - I don’t know why. It’s been one wonderful student after another.
“Luckily, I’ve always been in a good orchestra, so I’ve always been around good instruments. Thirty years ago, I went to a fellow who had been teaching instrument making in Cremona, Andrew Dipper. He used to charge me, but he was worth it. I had a friend in Germany who made basses. He said: ‘I know how to make, but I don’t know what to make exactly. Could you help me make some models?’ I used to help him make instruments. I made four basses my own way. I copied my own bass, one by Vincenzo Panormo, probably the greatest of the bass makers.”
Unlike his father, George did not begin as a bass-player. “I’ve always been around the workshop,” says George. “My earliest memory is of my dad planing a front. I’d crawled underneath his work bench, which was two trestle tables in his bedroom. I got some sawdust in my eye, and was unhappy about it. So I’ve grown up with bass-making. I used to do a few hours in the workshop when I was young, to earn pocket money. My father had so many orders for basses that I said, ‘You should go and make basses now.’ I remember him making the decision when I was about fourteen, that he was going into bass-making.
“Like many young people, when I left school I wasn’t sure what I was doing. Then, when I was twenty-four or twenty-five, I got more into bass-making. Now, I wouldn’t want to do anything else. At school I made a music stand for my GCSE woodworking project. I got an A* for it. They wouldn’t return the stand for a while. They wanted to show the examiners what to look for when awarding an A* grade.
“A lot of the wood we use is from Eastern Europe,” he says. “For bass-making, a tree has to be a metre across, which means that it has been growing for 60 to 100 years, some for 200 years. A tree that has grown in a warm, wet, climate, will have grown quickly. The next one can have come from up a mountain. Then the grain is narrow. Because the growth has been slow, the wood is hard. English sycamore is softer, because it grows much faster. Consequently, it gives a softer tone. We’ve started buy the odd tree from around England. The basses we make tend to have a warm, rich, tone, which you can adjust with the strings you fit.”
I mention that there appears to be an openness at the Martin premises, with no apparent fear of industrial espionage. “We’ve got nothing to hide here,” says George. “Although I never tell anyone about the varnish!”