Les Claypool is known as a modern bass-playing powerhouse and a punk-rock virtuoso. His mastery of the bass has made him genre-defying. He is as well-versed in jazz fusion as he is in heavy metal or progressive rock. His band Primus mixed funk, metal, and other genres to create something unique. Known for his crazy playing as well as his crazy style, this virtuoso is also known for his unique sound and equipment.
There might not be a single genre or word to define this musician, with a humorous touch and unique groove, Claypool covers a vast amount of textures and is usually a hard-to-miss presence in any song or recording he might be featured on.
Ever since his breakout tenure with Primus, Les has become a gray area between a pop-culture behemoth, and a cult adored cartoonish figure that features on some of the most beloved shows and movies of the 90s all the way through the 2000s and into the present day.
The parallel definition of a guitar hero, not only through his playing style but also with the basses he uses. It comes as no wonder that the sound follows his eccentric look. He has been known to use a variety of basses. Let’s have a look at some of his favorites.
What Bass Does Les Claypool Use?
Les Claypool is most known for playing his unique line of Carl Thompson Bass Guitars. While it’s not technically a signature line of models, he’s adopted the boutique brand while bolstering its status and renown. Claypool has also been known to own and play other eccentric bass guitar models including his own designed Pachyderm maple bass, a fair share of upright Kay Basses, and others. See the full list below.
Carl Thompson Piccolo Custom
Years Used: 1989-Present
Finish: Walnut Mahogany Natural Finish with Stripes
Perhaps Les’s first main bass after a few years with his first Memphis Precision, and Ibanez EQ. Reportedly this was the first bass he wielded for his early tenure with Primus, it was regularly rotated with his Ibanez as he got around the tweaks and specs on this CT bass. Nevertheless, it took the spotlight as Primus grew in popularity in the San Francisco Bay area, soon enough Claypool would become a trademark player for this cult instrument line.
As for the specs on this 4-string Piccolo, it only features a single EMG soap bar pickup and the rest is history. Les cited his first encounter with the CT Piccolo Custom, as he thought to himself that this was “the ugliest thing I’d ever seen”. But, instead of fixating on its looks, he would learn that it would be the most comfortable piece of gear he’ll ever lay his hands on.
Primarily, the use of this bass was for live performances, but soon enough it became his main instrument for Primus’s 1989, Suck On This and its 1990 follow up Frizzle Fry. Over the years this 4-string saw a fair share of upgrades and installments like a Krahmer black tremolo bar, and a replaced headstock with a piece of flamed maple signed by Rush’s Geddy Lee.
This bass has proved more than reliable 30 years after its first appearance on stage, and it remains on Claypool’s hands as one of his few proud catalog pieces. It is said that he used it to record South Park’s intro theme song, that’s just a fun fact.
Carl Thompson Rainbow 6-string Fretless Bass
Years Used: 1991-Present
Finish: Natural Padauk, Maple, Wood with Custom Stripes
One of the most iconic of Les Claypool’s basses his 6 string fretless bass, which was custom made for him by, once again, Carl Thompson. The Rainbow 6-string is a piece of Carl Thompson’s history, talent & inventive design. Designed after Claypool’s original CT bass, Thompson took the challenge after Les told him he wanted in fact “a challenging” and completely different instrument.
This one was drastically different from his Walnut 4 string. First of all, it had six strings. There have been rumors that this guitar was originally built as a fretted instrument and later had its frets pulled after Lesley’s request.
The bass was made with a beautiful all-wood bridge assembly with wooden saddles to keep that natural tone Les was so famous for. After you plug the bass in you can hear the amazing tone. Having the pretty matching colored fret lines inlaid in the ebony fretboard makes it easy to play. The strings are threaded through the back of the rear extension – near where the strap pin is. They’re stretched over a one-piece, hand-made wooden bridge and anchored by Schaller tuning machines. The basic part of the neck is made of quarter-sawn hard rock maple. The center of the fingerboard is Indian ebony, with 1/8-inch-wide strips of padauk, cocobolo, and ebony on either side. Although the neck width is the standard for Carl’s 6-strings, Les uses a tighter string spacing and therefore has a little room on either side of the neck to play with. It originally had a single EMG-45DC but now has a single EMG-J pickup with the early angled coil.
It is nicknamed the “Rainbow Bass” because it has strips of walnut, curly maple, padauk, purpleheart, ebony, and cocobolo. Rumor has it that Les recently may have bought another 6 string bass to retire the original Rainbow Bass.
Les received the bass just in time to tour following the recording of “Sailing the Seas Of Cheese”. But being one of the most memorable pieces on his catalog, there are more than a few tenures under Claypool’s belt with this bass, some of the most memorable ones include his guest cameo on Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey and the music video for Tommy the Cat. This is one of my favorite Les Claypool Bass guitars of all time.
Pachyderm Bass Maple 4 String
Years Used: 2011-Present
Finish: Glossed Maple
This particular bass has been used by Les for some time. Designed by Les, and handcrafted by Dan Maloney, this hybrid unique piece fits some of Claypool’s favorite basses into a single Maple piece. A little bit of Rickenbacker, Fender Jazz, and Precision, and last but never least, some of his signature Carl Thompson features.
Claypool worked with luthier and longtime friend Dan Maloney to form the company and create his idea of the ultimate bass. This bass is a fog cutter of an instrument with its forward punch and growly finish. With its birds-eye patterned maple and dark chocolate marbled cocobolo wood pickguard. This maple bass has a very forward attack and it is a punchy bastard. The bass is incredibly lightweight and zingy, with perfect balance. It has one knob for volume and a switch for the fingerboard side markers. Not only are the dots LED-illuminated, but they’re also slightly raised giving tactile cues that help Les navigate the neck without having to look.
The bottom end is solid yet has a knocking hollowness to it when the low E is struck with the thumb. The upper pluck is bright and when playing pizzicato the notes leap off the fretboard. The bass’s birds-eye maple body, which is accented with a marbled cocobolo pickguard, gave the instrument its name as well as its unique tone with Its fitted EMG PA pickup. Claypool’s latest Pachyderm has the EMG pickup moved a bit closer to the fingerboard compared to previous iterations. Other features include raised LED fret markers with a dimmer, a Kahler Whammy bridge, and a bronze Pachyderm medallion.
“My idea was to incorporate the traits of the instruments I have loved over the years and throw in a few innovations of my own,” Claypool writes. “I wanted the basses to be incredibly easy to play and feel comfortable in the lap as well as on the strap.”
Les said that he used this bass on specific songs that needed a bit more edge during the Primus tours, needless to say, it’s seen some extensive action in both studios as well as on stage.
As one of the highlighted pieces of Claypool’s catalog, there’s only a handful of these in the world, two of them, however, have been auctioned online for roughly $75.000. The proceeds from these basses would go to Jacob’s Heart Charity.
Years Used: 2003-Present
Finish: Red/White Pickguard
Although the brand has thousands of fans, there are equally many bassaholics who simply can’t warm to these basses’ features or tones. What is unarguable, however, is the number of bass legends that have used one to great effect. Les Claypool is one of them. The list does go on and on! This particular bass isn’t a new model, but it is an example of the quality coming out of the Rickenbacker factory. This classic staple in red, and sunburst was originally given to Les by Rush’s guitarist, Alex Lifeson, and it debuted on his hands in 2003 with his side project Government Mule.
The 4003 bass guitar is an iconic bass in visual terms – and this example in Midnight Blue is no exception. The deep, rich coloring sits very well alongside the white scratchplate, truss rod cover, and white outer edge binding. The almost orange hue of the 20-fret gloss-coated rosewood fingerboard adds a natural element to the visuals, while the Sharktooth mother-of-pearl position inlays add a vintage vibe.
The bass’s body dimensions are broad but slim, and although the instrument is a little weighty, it has a substantial feel. However, certain elements seem a little fragile, particularly in the hardware department, although this is a minor concern. Having said that, this is a design that has stood the test of time; despite some of its idiosyncrasies, the 4003’s components and construction should be up to handling some force, from even the most heavy-handed of players. Overall, I really like likes bass, and it’s one of the coolest looking Les Claypool basses in my opinion.
NS Design NXT 5 string electric upright bass
Years Used: 1995-Present
Finish: Natural Wood
The NXT Series Double Bass opens up a new horizon for the serious bassist looking to play a great instrument on a limited budget. Les is no exception. He used this upright on many occasions starting on Primus’s 1995 Tales from Punch Bowl as the band retreated to their newly found headquarters at Claypool’s home studio, Rancho Relaxo. This instrument is crafted in the Czech Republic by the makers of the renowned CR Series. It exemplifies flawless workmanship. No wonder Les liked it.
Pizzicato and arco techniques have almost unlimited expressive potential, thanks to the Polar Pickup System. A convenient switch allows the selection of the traditional arco mode for percussive attack and dynamic bowed response, or pizzicato mode for a smooth, sustained tone. Equipped with single volume and tone controls, the passive electronics deliver unlimited overhead for the ultimate sound without cumbersome batteries. The adjustable bridge and truss rod allow for low, fast action, or for higher string settings that encourage the traditional acoustic player to ‘dig in’ with gusto.
NS Electric Strings and most traditional acoustic strings fit all NS Double Basses, allowing the player to select from a wide range, each with a unique sound and feel. In combination with the easy adjustment of basic set-up parameters, the NXT Series Bass is adaptable to many different styles of music. This feature Les used well in his style of music.
To this date, Les brings up this NS electric bass on stage, even when the setlist doesn’t cover any of the designated songs, Claypool doesn’t cease to amaze with some eccentric antics and experimentation.
Les Claypool’s Whamola
Years Used: 2001-Present
Finish: Natural Wood
Introduced mainly on stage, Les showed his keen nature on exploring new sounds when he built himself a Whamola and popped it out on jam sessions during his first hiatus from Primus. While it may not be his main instrument, he’s made some fair use of this simplistic “chunk of wood”, as he likes to call it in his first studio album with Les Claypool’s Flying Frog Brigade, notoriously in the song Whamola.
A Whamola consists of a modified long piece of wood with a pickup and a jack wired to it. A single tune peg for a standalone string and a pulling wheel to generate tension, thus finally changing the notes you can deliver with it. In a sense, it’s much like an upright single-stringed bass with a leaver instead of a headstock.
Throughout the years, Claypool has seen this as his “fun” go-to instrument, and while it may lack notoriety it certainly makes for one of his most emblematic pieces on his catalog thanks to his proven virtuosity.
Table Showing Which Basses Les Claypool Played at Each Point of His Career
|Carl Thompson||Piccolo Custom||Walnut Mahogany Natural Finish with Stripes||1989-Present|
|Carl Thompson||Rainbow 6-string Fretless Bass||Natural Padauk, Maple, Wood with Custom Stripes||1991-Present|
|NS||NXT 5 String Electric Upright Bass||Natural Wood||1995-Present|
|Les Claypool||Whamola||Natural Wood||2001-Present|
|Pachyderm||Pachyderm Bass Maple 4 String||Glossed Maple||2011-Present|
Les Claypool Amps and Effects
Les’s amp and effect setup is an element that is constantly evolving, oftentimes even during a tour. You’ll see a video from one show and his amps will be one thing and then a week later they will be different. However, some common pieces of gear have routinely been in the mix through the years.
Les’s weapons of choice in the amp world have bounced between Mesa, Ampeg, and Gallen Kruger. Specifically, he uses Mesa Boogie 400+ the most. These were almost always used with an ADA MP-1 Preamp that had been modded by Tod Lange, according to an interview with Les, Tod did something to the EQ circuitry so the lows pass through better, and he also did something with the compressor to give me more bottom end.
Les used the MP-1 until 1995 when he switched to the MP-2. This is allegedly a big part of his tone. He has also had a pedalboard that has always been in constant flux. Recently, he has been using a Fractal AX8 along with a bunch of other effects. One of the more interesting things is an Access Virus II controlled with a Roland PK5 which he uses for MIDI.
Les is often seen using either 2×15 or 4×12 cabinets made by either Mesa or Ampeg, during the classic years of Primus, it was usually a combination of the two.
Mesa Boogie 400+
Years Used: 1991- Unknown
Being the linchpin between rhythm and melody Les loves to use this amp. Having the essential ingredients of great bass tone there is no shortage of pitch, punch, and power with this amp. Every frequency of the note Les plays is identifiable and accurate, not the flabby rumble often heard by other players. The attack of each note is a precise event in time. Having the power to deliver what he wants with authority Les can disembowel the first five rows!
Artists often call to rave about the Bass 400+ after switching from bi- or tri-amped rigs of up to a thousand watts. Les likes exclaiming the joy of stepping forward in the mix to the point of leading the band as he usually does. String definition so articulate that the rhythm section locks together and becomes a machine of unstoppable momentum.
This amp head has made quite a few appearances with Les throughout the years but it appears that the cabinets have always been a rotatory feature during live shows. Since 1991, this seems to be a must to Claypool’s pitch, but as mysterious as this man is, it would change many times. Nevertheless, it was used on Suck On It and all the way through the Primus’ discography during the 90s.
Other features include a 600-ohm XLR Balanced Out, Slave Out, blendable FX Loop with dual patch points front and rear, and a three-way switch for fan speed.
This thoroughbred stud has been a mainstay in Les Claypool’s rear rack for a long time and remains a classic in its own time…for good reason. It produces a great tone and musical power that never go out of style.
Years Used: 1989-Present
Fractal Audio System’s rackmount Axe-Fx units awakened many players to the possibilities of modeled amps, cabinets, and effects. Fractal expanded into the pedalboard format with their FX8, which provided Axe-Fx effects minus the amp and cab modeling.
The AX8 amp modeler and multi-effects pedalboard are almost a pedalboard version of Fractal’s flagship Axe-Fx II modeler. The main difference: less CPU. That means the sound quality is identical, but you just can’t pile on as many simultaneous models. But there’s plenty of juice for the sound Les wants.
Despite its size, AX8 offers comprehensive connectivity, with 1/4″, XLR, and S/PDIF outputs. A USB jack lets you connect to a computer. There is a MIDI in and out jack. Les connects four or more pedals to this thing to get his crazy sound out. The thing has a programmable stereo effects loop for inserting external hardware. AX8 can save 512 presets but I doubt Les uses any of them as he has his sound.
The build is beautiful. Steel and aircraft aluminum form the rugged chassis. The silent relay footswitches have no mechanical connections to fail. The knobs feel substantial. A folded steel bar doubles as a handle and protection for the surface hardware. The power supply is built-in. Perfect for gigging.
AX8’s sounds are superb, thanks to a great-sounding signal path and ultra-detailed models. The fat, three-dimensional tones have a stunning dynamic range. Metal, prog, and shred guitarists are among Fractal’s biggest fans so it is no wonder Les uses it. AX8 is adept at clean, rooty, and lo-fi tones. The fine-sounding effects can match most sounds Les wants to create with an analog pedalboard.
Line 6 DM4 Distortion
Years Used: 1994-Present
Following in the footsteps of the Line 6 DL4 Delay and MM4 Modulation boxes comes the DM4, a heavy‑duty floor unit in gleaming gold, which is capable of digitally modeling 16 different types of distortion pedal. No wonder Les uses it in his performances.
Like the other boxes in the series, the effects are selected and controlled from the front‑panel knobs, and four-foot switches provide easy storage and recall of four user patches. Because many of the original pedals had only two or three controls, Line 6 has provided additional tone control whenever any of the DM4’s front‑panel knobs are otherwise unassigned. The DM4 can be run from a wall‑wart PSU or battery.
Most of the distortion boxes emulated here are solid‑state devices dating from the mid‑’60s to the present day. Only the Tube-Driver emulates a valve preamp, and can thus produce a more subtle overdrive. Because vintage distortion pedals are often noisy, Line 6 has added a noise gate that may be switched in or out. With none of the footswitches engaged, the unit is bypassed, with a relay providing a direct connection from the input to the output to avoid any audio thump. A nice performance feature of the DM4 is that it allows you to morph between two different settings of the same model using an attached foot pedal — this can be used to vary the sound in several expressive ways.
Les loves to use basic overdrives. Jet Fuzz, for example, combines overdrive with flanging to produce that very dated whooshing‑jet effect. Weirder still are the two octave‑fuzz effects, one of which produces a sub‑octave and the other of which adds a tone an octave above the original before fuzzing the result.
Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler
Years Used: 1993-Present
The Line 6 DL4 Stompbox Delay Modeler came out well over 10 years ago and has built up a reputation for being the go-to delay pedal. Les Claypool has been using it from the get-go.
The DL4 has 15 effects modeled on popular delay gear as shown on the knob to the right.
They advertise 16 effects, but the loop sampler should be considered separately. The chances are if you hear delay used in a song, the DL4 can replicate it. The DL4 processes in 24-bit true stereo which mean that the left signal stays left and the right signal stays right.
As is common with feature-filled delay pedals, the DL4 has an inbuilt looper. It’s also worth mentioning that the looper works in mono so both inputs will be taken simultaneously. Les has been known to use the DL4 in a stereo setup as well as mono.
The first three footswitches allow storing different presets which is a very handy feature for Les as he used to play live often. The fourth footswitch is dedicated to tap tempo, again a super useful feature that’s often missing in delay pedals.
With three decades in and no signs of stopping, Les Claypool has made clear that he has no allegiance with particular projects. Much like every other virtuoso in the industry, the final goal is to make music, whether it is as Colonel Claypool or as a member of his initial band, Claypool is one of the most distinguished players on the rhythmic section, with no room for debate.
It’s been often said that he’s the one to credit for Primus’s success, and while this might not be entirely true, Les is certainly the raunchy highlight of the act. As a solo act, Claypool is a prolific author, and producer, and as understated, a critics darling. Perhaps what has aligned Les as one of the most influential figures of modern music besides his humorous approach and antics, would be his boundary-pushing quality, one that extends from his gear and into his abstract expression.
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