We Made It: Double Bass Maker Laurence Dixon

Double bass maker Laurence Dixon has solid oak floors in his new shop-front in Herne Hill, south London. The solid oak door which leads to the workshop behind has three (not two) solid bronze hinges and settles into its solid oak frame as softly as a cloud and as solidly as a slab of marble. In an unguarded moment, he refers to his favourite hand plane – a tool of cast iron, bronze and razor-sharp carbon steel – as “my baby”.

It is no surprise when he later drops in to conversation that he has “always had an obsession with things doing what they’re supposed to do” and gets “the heebie-jeebies with things that look pretty and don’t function properly”. His daily work is a testament to that feeling: double basses may be delicate compared to, say, a chest of drawers but, bar a few decorative flourishes, they are entirely functional: their size, shape and materials chosen for the task at hand. And like any working object, they are subject to wear and tear; they require maintenance, new parts, setting up for a new owner, rescuing from an unfortunate accident. That’s when you need Laurence Dixon.

How did you get into this business in the first place?

I don’t know whether to tell you the beginning of the real story, because it would be embarrassing in print, but a friend of mine lived with someone who did auctions. I went round and there was a double bass with a broken neck standing in the corner, and I literally fell to my knees in front of it and refused to leave the house until he sold it to me. So he sold it to me and I woke up the next morning with it in my bed next to me. That was the beginning of a long romance.

And how did it turn into a profession?

That was about 18 years ago. Then I put myself through college, I did an HND in violin-making at what used to be the London College of Furniture, then part of London Guildhall University. It was a very academic course with dissertations and theory and all those kind of things. Then there was a City & Guilds diploma which is a vocational course with the absolute minimum amount of paperwork, spending as long as possible at the benches working and learning the trade. So it was two years plus three years.

In the last year of college I did some work experience with a company called Stentor – they have their own workshops in Reigate where they upgrade the higher-class Chinese instruments with a professional set-up. That was an invaluable experience – what it’s like to be at a bench and have four instruments that need to be done by the end of the day, rather than in a college environment where you take your time. Then I worked with Roger Dawson in Greenwich, so I knew by that time that I was going to specialise in basses. Both of the colleges are violin making and repair, simply because it’s hard enough for a college to maintain those courses: it would be insanity for someone to suggest a double bass making course. So as soon as I left college I contacted Roger, who is indisputably the best bass luthier in the country – and I’d probably widen that out.

Were you a musician? When you fell in love with the broken double bass, was it as a musician?

Yeah, but not as an orchestral player really. I played guitar since I was a teenager and at the time was studying music on electric bass, and then fixed this double bass and converted immediately onto double bass, but then the career of repairing and restoring hijacked any kind of musical aspirations. You make a choice early on.

How soon did you have a viable business? Was it straight away?

Roger was very supportive when I first started. Like myself now, he’s done a lifetime of six-day weeks working until nine o’clock at night, so because he was confident of my work he was extremely happy to offload all of the student work and other stuff that he would rather not do. We all aspire to be making instruments all day, and you probably don’t get to it until you’re about 60. My current work is probably 95 percent repairing and restoring and five percent making.

I’ve always got a couple of instruments that I’m making on the go. In 2012 I made the house bass at Ronnie Scott’s, modelled on the Amati bass played by Ray Brown [bought for him by his then wife Ella Fitzgerald]. It was an absolute privilege for me to make it for them. It’s got to be the busiest bass in London. It’s getting hammered every night by all the bassists in the world. Sam Burgess, who’s the house bassist there, has asked me to make a sister bass, because he misses the Ronnie’s bass when he’s not playing it so he wants one of his own. That’s sitting 80 percent done, but has been in the process for about a year. You start a week on a Monday feeling quite organised and you’ve got your work mapped out and then by the time your phone’s gone five or six times and so-and-so’s just come in from Italy on a plane and they’ve broken the neck out and someone else has fallen down the stairs, you’re always working with other people’s deadlines.

A musician’s relationship with an instrument is incredibly close. Does it feel like a big responsibility?

Musicians put a hell of a lot of work in and they’re very critical of themselves, their technique, and all those sort of things. But you can change somebody’s life, you can change the way that they express themselves, by making really straightforward physical changes. Often you get people in here that are a bit stressed and uncomfortable about not being able to achieve what they want to achieve, and they think it’s them and they think it’s the strings and they think they haven’t spent enough on an instrument, they think all sorts of things – and like a good mechanic you just drop the engine, take the wheels off, start again, and it changes the way they express themselves.

Do you take pride in being a craftsman? Standing back and looking at the quality of your work?

Being of rather simple stock, something about this job is immediately satisfying. Barely a day goes by that András [his assistant] and I don’t remark how fortunate we are: you put your labours into something and when that job is completed, you’ve improved something that’s measurable and visible, that’s going to go out and do things.

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