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James Ham

Location: Victoria, BC

Award: Innovation Award

Category: Music

Year: 2001


Created the Ham Double Bass, a hand-crafted concert instrument that is "player friendly" with unmatched sound quality. Read the News Release and Media Backgrounder for additional information .

News Release

Hand-Crafted Bass Sounds Perfect Note with Concert Musicians

Instrument maker's innovations win prestigious Manning Foundation Award

Calgary, AB - Each Ham Double Bass is a unique hand-crafted masterpiece, with innovations that make the bowed string instrument remarkably "player friendly" and unmatched in sound quality. Now the builder of this newly designed bass, virtuoso instrument maker James Ham of Victoria, B.C. has received a prestigious Manning Innovation Award.

Ham, 52, is a luthier and violinist who has repaired string instruments such as violins, guitars, cellos and basses for 30 years. He started constructing his own double basses after realizing the big concert instrument, with a reputation for being very difficult to play, could be dramatically improved.

The standard of bass playing has risen tremendously in the past few decades, Ham says. But due to the way most old double basses had been designed, built and repaired, "There isn't anything harder in the world than playing a bass well."

Ham's many innovations include an adjustable neck that allows bass players to easily lower or raise the string height to accommodate ever-changing environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity. He also designed new mechanisms that enable quick string changes and more precise tuning.

Each Ham Double Bass has a streamlined body shape that gives the player easier access to the fingerboard. The instrument's sides are made of two wafer-thin but very dry and pliable maple veneers, with a layer of silk sandwiched in between. This innovation produces a bass whose sides are only half the thickness of many other basses, yet which resists cracking and projects a magnificent sound. Ham always uses locally available wood, such as British Columbia's big-leaf maple and Sitka spruce.

"It might be one tree in 100,000 that has what you need," he notes.

Ham spends more than 500 hours crafting each double bass. He has built 10 on commission and has a waiting list. Each instrument sells quickly for about $38,000 to the world's finest musicians.

Gary Karr of Victoria, acclaimed by Time Magazine as "the world's leading solo bassist," commissioned the first Ham Double Bass. Karr was so impressed, he toured the international concert circuit with his Ham instrument, choosing it over his rare double bass built in 1611 by Amati brothers Antonius and Hieronymous, the father of Nicolò who taught violinmaker Antonio Stradivari.

Karr says Ham has created "not only a double bass which has a sound that compares favourably with the great instruments of the past, but is the first truly user-friendly double bass on which I have ever played."

Ham, who plans to write a textbook on how to build the double bass, says: "I want these ideas to be used . . . I'd like some day to have instruments like this in all of the schools."

Ham has won the Edper Foundation $5,000 Manning Innovation Award. The annual awards program has recognized leading Canadian innovators since 1982 with $135,000 in prize money each year. The Manning Innovation Awards Foundation will announce all five of this year's recipients, including the $100,000 Manning Principal Award, throughout September prior to the annual awards gala Oct. 1 in Calgary.

* For more information about the award-winning Ham Double Bass, visit www.hamstringsmusic.com, call James Ham at (250)-216-7300 or e-mail jamespeterham@shaw.ca

* For more information about the Manning Innovation Awards Foundation, please contact Donald Park, Executive Director, at (403)-266-8288 or visit the Foundation's website at www.manningawards.ca

Media Backgrounder

$5,000 Manning Innovation Award: Ham Double Bass

James Ham took careful note of many bad double basses during 30 years of repairing every kind of string instrument. As a violinist with a keen appreciation of musical history, he knows it takes not only talent and practice to produce excellent music - it also takes a topnotch instrument.

The double bass got its name because it originally "doubled" the bass line, one octave below, in an orchestra. Unfortunately, the instrument also acquired a reputation as the "black sheep" of string instruments, Ham says. "It's tremendously difficult to play, just from a physical point of view."

To make matters worse, many old basses were built fairly crudely of materials inferior to those used in then-more popular stringed instruments, such as violins, violas and cellos. Aging basses are prone to cracking due to wood shrinkage, and many were damaged as they were lugged around.

"Most old basses these days have the insult of poor-quality repair work, which makes them that much harder to work on. That makes the best craftsman even less interested in working on them."

As a luthier (French for "lute maker") or maker of string instruments, Ham decided the double bass deserved better, especially since more and more musicians, such as contemporary bass soloist Gary Karr of Victoria, were taking the music to new heights.

Ham handcrafted a newly designed double bass for Karr in 1995. Since then, Ham has developed at least seven major innovative features that aren't found on standard double basses.

Perhaps most significant, especially to players, the Ham Double Bass solves a constant problem of the instrument's tone changing, as the top swells or shrinks due to fluctuating temperature and humidity. In the past, bass makers have tried to overcome this problem by making the instrument's bridge adjustable. "Unfortunately, the bridge is probably the most critical single piece of wood there is, in terms of determining the quality of sound that the instrument will produce," Ham notes.

Karr, with a curriculum vitae that includes performances with the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the London Philharmonic and the Paris Philharmonic, has likened playing on a bass with the old style adjustable bridge to "washing your feet with your socks on."

Ham moved the adjustment function away from the sound-sensitive bridge, to the bass's non-resonating rigid upper block, which he also redesigned and strengthened. He devised a screw mechanism that slides the neck up and down, the way the tiny wood and metal "frog" slides along a string player's bow. The player can adjust the bass's string clearance in seconds, by inserting a key in a small hole in the instrument's back. "You just turn (the key) and change it and keep on playing."

Karr says the innovation "is such a major contribution that I predict it will eventually become as common a part of the instrument as a bridge."

Mary Rannie, principal bassist of the Victoria Symphony Orchestra and proud owner of the second bass built by Ham, says: "Playing Bach on lowered strings is completely different from Beethoven or Tchaikovsky on higher strings, and both are possible on the Ham bass."

Basses are notorious for the time it takes to change just four strings - at least half an hour of "hard labour." Ham redesigned the string-holding rods in the instrument's peg box, enabling a player to change a string in a few minutes without working up a sweat. He also reconfigured the traditional tuning mechanism, incorporating more teeth in the gear wheels. "The resulting innovation allows for much more accurate tuning and a mechanism that is much smoother to handle," Karr says.

Ham also crafted a more elegant, height-adjustable end pin (the metal shaft projecting out the bass's bottom). He strengthened the back of the bass's body and streamlined its awkward "shoulders.

The design makes the upper register (the part of the bass that requires leaning over and reaching the left arm over as well) easily accessible, Rannie says. "The low shoulders make this bass suitable for both solo and orchestral music, because the entire range of the instrument is so easily performed."

Another Ham innovation is hidden in his bass's "ribs" or sides. They are constructed of two wafer-thin but very dry and pliable maple veneers, with a layer of silk sandwiched in between. This produces an instrument whose ribs are only half the thickness of many other basses, yet resists cracking and projects a magnificent sound.

Ham always uses locally available wood, such as British Columbia's big-leaf maple, and Sitka and Engelmann spruce, to build his instruments. "The properties of the maple and spruce that we have in this part of the world are, I think, as good as if not better than wood from anywhere else in the world."

He faces a constant challenge, however, in finding just the right wood that captures all those properties, such as colour, figure and size. "It might be one tree in 100,000 that has what you need."

Ham grew up in Augusta, Ga., but moved to Canada with his family in 1965. He has been fascinated by the way things work since he was a child. "I took apart a lot of things . . . bicycles, clocks, radios, anything I could get my hands on."

He studied industrial education and mechanical engineering, but is essentially self-taught as an instrument maker. He learned bow making and bow repair from cellist Francis Rutherford.

In his workshop, where he utilizes a collection of rare handmade Haida native tools, Ham takes the trial-and-error path to innovation. Sometimes he makes a sketch of an idea he has been pondering, and "occasionally a vision comes to me and I just start visualizing how to do it in my head."

Ham spends at least 500 hours handcrafting each of his double basses, a meticulous process akin to sculpture. "The most difficult part is to make the little decisions along the way, about the choice of wood or the graduations or a number of other little details that have everything to do with the sound."

His creations sell quickly, for about Cdn$38,000 to the world's finest musicians. He recently left Victoria's Old Town Strings shop, where he did instrument repairs, to focus on building his basses.

Since he can only construct two to four double basses a year, he plans to share his ideas by writing a textbook on building the bass. "I'd like some day to have instruments like this in all the schools," he says, so children are encouraged to play rather than discouraged by not having a decent instrument.

For now, Ham gets his greatest satisfaction from seeing and hearing his double bass being played. "It's getting the sound and seeing the response of players when they find they can do things that they couldn't before. The instrument becomes an extension of their musical mind, as opposed to a barrier."

The Manning Innovation Awards Foundation

Each year, Manning Innovation Awards presents $135,000 in prize money, distributed among four leading Canadian innovators, as well as $20,000 among eight Canada-Wide Science Fair winners. During the past two decades, the Foundation has awarded more than $2.75 million to encourage and recognize Canadian innovators.

Media contacts (photos available):

James Ham

Xylem Cantabile Musical Instruments Ltd.

Phone: (250)-216-7300

email: jamespeterham@shaw.ca

Donald Park, Executive Director

Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation

Phone: (403)-645-8288

Website: www.manningawards.ca