Les Claypool Bass Rig – Primus (1/2) “Know Your Bass Player”

Just what defines the Primus sound remains a mystery until this day. This Les Claypool Bass Rig however will provides some of those well kept secrets kept from fans. His music does not blast straight and narrow into the ear; its collusive blend of progressive rock, funk, metal, punk rock and psych is aggressive and left-field, yet fun. If you look deep enough into the heart of it all, you just might find the soul of some hillbilly trapped inside.

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Les Claypool Bass Rig Prior to Primus (1980-1988)

The first bass to start the Les Claypool bass rig was a Memphis Precision, typed copy.

Mentioned in interviews Les always wanted a Rickenbacker and saved up to buy one. Unfortunately he was was talked out of it by the sales clerk and instead bought an Ibanez Musician EQ
which he used before the debut of Primus.

  • Ibanez Musician EQ

Basses used in Primus (1989)

Primus in one form or another rose to popularity in the San Francisco bay area during the mid 1980’s. Les Claypool was seen in performances at this time using a 4 string Carl Thompson Piccolo bass.
For the duration of this post we will refer to it as “The Main Bass”.

The main bass was primarily used during live shows like 1989’s Suck On This* and 1990’s Fizzle Fry*.

  • Carl Thompson 4 string Piccolo bass (Made with walnut and mahogany, one soap bar EMG pickup) – The Main Bass
  • Carl Thompson 4 string (Made with maple and one soap boar EMG pickup) The Back up Bass

Les also had a second 4 string Carl Thompson made of maple. It is primarily used as a backup during the same period. For the duration of this post it will be referred to as “The Back Up Bass”.

Black Kahler tremlo and updates to the Main Bass

Over this period you’ll notice that the bass had a few minor updates.

Like the addition of a black Kahler tremolo bar* and a modification to the headstock. It looks like the head-stock was replaced most likely due to damage and also includes a piece of flamed maple signed by Rush’s Geddy Lee.

This was added somewhere between 92 and 93.

Carl Thompson and the 6 string bass

In 1991 Les made the decision to play a 6 string bass. Stating he “wanted to do something totally different” after taking influence from King Crimson’s Tony Levin who played a Chapman Stick.

Les then put in an order with luthier Carl Thompson and halfway through the construction he decided that the bass should be fretless.

This explains why it has lines in the neck as the frets were pulled out during its construction.

Les describes the instrument as “more of a challenge” but it was a bass that opened a lot of doors for him.

Unfortunately this bass was not ready for the Les Claypool bass rig by the time Primus recorded Sailing the Seas of Cheese in January 1991.

Basses used to record on Sailing the Seas of Cheese (1991)

As a result Les bought a Tune 6-string bass and used this to record on the album Sailing the Seas of Cheese*.

The Tune 6 string can be seen in the feature film “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” as well as live shows at this time.

Les has also stated this bass too eventually had its frets pulled.

  • Tune 6 string bass

The Carl Thompson fretless 6 string finally made an appearance later in the Les Claypool Bass rig in 1991 on the music video “Tommy the Cat”.

  • Carl Thompson 6 string fretless bass (Named the Rainbow bass)

Carl Thompson named this bass the “Rainbow bass”, due to the fact the body contains strips of walnut, curly maple, padauk, purpleheart, ebony and cocobolo wood.

Sailing the Seas of Cheese tour (1991-1992)

During the Sailing the Seas of Cheese tour from 1991 to 1992. A Zeta Upright Electric bass was used for the song “Over the Falls”.

This Zeta is believed to be custom built by high school friend Dan Maloney.

Basses used to record Pork Soda (1993)

The Rainbow bass was used in tandem alongside the main bass to record 1993’s Pork Soda*. Which returned in the music video “My Name is Mud”.

Following this, the video for DMV was released and featured backstage footage from a show dated October 1993.

In these clips you can see you see all of Les Claypool Bass rig, including a brand new 6 string fretted Carl Thompson with 2 EMG soapbar pickups.

  • Fretted Carl Thompson 6 string
  • Fretless Carl Thompson 6 string
  • Carl Thompson main bass (fretted)

The final music video from Pork Soda was “Mr Krinkle” and shows Les playing a Kay M1B upright acoustic bass.

  • Kay Acoustic M1B upright bass

These basses were also used on the record of 1995’s “Tales From The Punch Bowl*“. Also included at this time was;

  • Zeta upright
  • Bassjo (custom made bass banjo by Dan Maloney)

Les Claypools Fender Jazz

“Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver” was the first video to air off of “Tales From The Punch Bowl”. In this video Les is playing a 70’s Fender Jazz in red with a maple neck.

This bass was seen fairly regularly in live and studio segments in the 1998 home video “Videoplasty”.

On the same note, a creamy/white Fender Jazz was also shown and most likely a back up to the Red Jazz.

Les Claypool and the Holy Mackerel (1996)

Straight after Punch Bowl, Les then took advantage of lull in Primus schedule to go through a bunch of ideas he collected. The sessions were released as a solo album performing under the name
Les Claypool and the Holy Mackerel in 1996.

As a result most of the Les Claypool bass rig remained the same. There were a few new additions to his collection.

  • Eko 995 Italian made fiddle bass which is an alternative to a Hofner bass.
  • Ned Steinberger 4 string upright bass (which replaced the Zeta)

Mentioned in an interview at the time, the 6 string fretted Carl Thompson was used as well.

Basses used on the Brown Album (1997)

Furthermore this configuration was extended into the Brown album* period as no additional changes were reported to the Les Claypool bass rig.

In video releases from the album we see the 6 string fretted Carl Thompson and the Kay Acoustic Bass. The same set up is reflected in tour videos of the same time period.

Antipop and the Back Up Carl Thompson (1999)

Antipop* was the sixth studio album and released in 1999. Les said in an article with Bass Player Magazine;

That “No fretless basses are on this record. Most of it is just straight-up 4-string.”

Les explains further;

“I was going to use my Jazz Bass, but I have this Carl Thompson I’ve always used as my backup (the back up bass)
I just started playing it a lot, and it sounds and feels awesome.

…and I called Carl and told him I wanted to retire my main 4-string. But it takes Carl a long time to make a bass.
In the meantime I used my backup bass and my fretted 6-string.”

Bass Player Magazine – Karl Coryat – Antipop till you drop 1999

Having missed the recording sessions and following the release of Antipop. The brand new Ebony Carl Thompson was revealed in the music video for Lacquer head.

  • Carl Thompson Ebony bass

This was the band’s final release before their hiatus in the year 2000.

Primus hiatus (2000-2003)

Les at this point in time goes to start several side projects. But we’re going to finish off the Primus gear and keep it simple before muddying the waters with different bands and crossovers.

Primus reunion (2003-2010)

In mid-2003, after a three year hiatus. Claypool reunited with Primus to record a DVD/EP called Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People*.

Following this in 2004 a DVD Hallucinogenetics* was released, giving way to Les debuting his seventh Carl Thompson.

  • Carl Thompson Piccolo bass (with Jazz style pickups)

The band continue to tour up until 2010 where may of Les side projects came to a natural break.

Primus and the Green Naugahyde (2011)

Primus return to to the 21st century in September 2011 with their album Green Naugahyde*.

During the recording of the album a “Letter From Les” was published on his website providing a brief update of progress.

In this letter Les addresses the speculation and interest in a bass he used during a New Years Eve show December 2010.

Pachyderm bass prototype (2011)

Consequently, Les explains he was using a prototype bass that he designed and was built by high school friend Dan Maloney.

Having had the idea of building a bass for quite a while. He was able to incorporate elements of some of his favorites basses and fanciness.

It’s part Fender Jazz, Precision, Rickenbacker, Carl Thompson, a Jaguar E-Type car and a little bit of Dr. Seuss.

Anticipating questions regarding Carl Thompson, Les continued.

“Some may wonder why I didn’t have Carl make the instrument and the answer is that Carl is a unique artist and his designs stand on their own. “

Letter from Les – http://lesclaypool.com/ – 2011

This bass would be named the Pachyderm bass and only a handful of these basses have been made so far. Two of which have been auctioned to charity over the years in aid of Les’ nephew Matthew who suffered with (and unfortunately succumbed to) leukemia.

Primus & the Chocolate Factory with the Fungi Ensemble (2014)

Primus & the Chocolate Factory* was a re-imagining of the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory soundtrack*. Primarily It features

  • The pachyderm bass
  • Ned Steinberger 5 string CR-M5 upright bass
  • Michael Kelly Bayou 4 resonator bass.

Desaturating Seven (2017)

By the time Desaturating Seven* was released in 2017, Bass Player Magazine reports Les primarily using a Pachyderm on most of the pieces but still hauling out his rainbow bass and a 5 string NS when he needs to.

This equipment is also seen during live shows of the same period and looking at live videos from 2018 this still holds true.

Les Claypool’s basses and side projects (2000-2016)

Oysterhead (2000)

Starting where Primus originally left off in 2000. Les started several projects which eventually lead up to the Primus reunion.

During this time he formed supergroup Oysterhead which featured guitarist Trey Anastasio of Phish and drummer Stewart Copeland of The Police. They had a small tour and released an album The Grand Pecking Order* in 2001.

Les was seen on stage at this time using his Back up bass and his newest Carl Thompson bass made of Ebony.

Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade

These two basses were also used in the subsequent band Colonel Les Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade on both live albums and studio release. In addition to this a 5 string Ned Steinberger upright bass was used on Hendershot.

Notably another instrument introduced at this time was the Whamola. A one string washtub style instrument with a pickup.

Les Claypool Bass Rig on 5 Gallons of Diesel DVD

A retrospective DVD “5 Gallons of Diesel”* was released including shows not seen by the public. In one of the performances with the Frogs Les is playing a 8 string Kramer on the song Buzzards of Greenhill.

The deepest depths

Les also appeared in a second DVD with Govt Mule in 2003. He played a Rickenbacker. Given to him by Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson.

Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains (C2B3) (2002)

After the frogs, a second supergroup was formed in 2002 and named Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains* (C2B3). Featuring, guitarist Buckethead and drummer Bryan Mantia as well as the late keyboardist Bernie Worrell. They recorded 1 album and toured in 2004.

Again in the Les Claypool bass rig he used his Carl Thompsons’ but also pulls out his Bassjo during the set.

Les Claypool and the Fancy Band (2005-2009)

By 2005 Les had moved on to the Fancy Band which sees the return of the Main Carl Thompson and the Rainbow bass. The Bassjo and the upright NS also make appearances.

The Fancy band then evolved slightly adding a few more members and recording Les’ second solo album. “Of Fungi and Foe”* in 2009.

It’s around this time that the Michael Kelly Bayou 4 resonator bass made its first appearance.

Duo de Twang (2012)

A few years later in 2012.  Les, partners with highschool friend Bryan Kehoe.

Duo de Twang* comprises of just one bass, one guitar, and a whole lot of foot stompin’ . Les primary uses a Michael Kelly Bayou 4 resonator bass and switches between an early model distinguishable by its pearloid block inlays and an a recent version. With a tobacco burst body and dotted inlays.

Claypool Lennon Delirium (2016)

Finally, Claypool approached Sean Lennon (son of Beatles John Lennon) about a recording project.

From the bands bio;

“Sean said he didn’t have plans for this next year, we started… making an old-school, psychedelic/prog record. Next thing I know, he’s staying in my guesthouse,
drinking my vino and banging on my drums.”


Les uses the following basses;

  • Pachyderm
  • Ned Steinberger  CR-5M upright
  • Michael Kelly Bayou 4
  • Eko 995

Les Claypool’s Amplifiers and Effects Pedals (Part 2)

In view of Les Claypool’s Bass rig, Part 2 of the series covers the Les Claypool Amplifier and Effects Rig. Starting with Mesa Boogie and some trials with Ampeg, we get into the history of his Amplifier rig.

We also discus is how he gets his funky tappy tones through the use of effects pedals.

More from Know Your Bass Player

After the Les Claypool Bass Rig series there will be another bassist lined up and soon to be released. If there’s a bassist you want to see, then get in touch!

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