The quest for Berry Oakley's "Tractor" Bass

Berry Oakley would have turned 71 today, April 4, 2019. We’d like to honor Berry’s memory with a post about his legendary tone!

The Allman Brothers Band was famous for dueling harmony lead guitars, tandem drummers and a huge Hammond B3 sound. Fans and critics of the band, particularly the original lineup, have heralded the raw power and deeply soulful grooves this combo provided. At the heart of this sonic beast was Berry Oakley’s “Tractor” Bass. The Tractor was a highly modified Fender Jazz Bass.

In his search for the tone and feel of that original sound we all love, Freestone Peaches’ founding member and bassist, Jeff Faust, recounts the process of creating a replica of Oakley’s original one of a kind instrument.

I set out to convert my ‘74 Fender P Bass to a Tractor Bass replica.  I was the third owner and the first owner had cut into the body to add another set of P pickups at the bridge, so it wasn’t as painful to rout into the wood of such a classic bass.  He had done a good job but the bass needed help and was not adequate for an Allman Brothers Band tribute.

Berry Oakley’s Tractor Bass was made by converting a Fender Jazz Bass but I already had a P Bass that needed resurrecting and I was able to buy jazz pickups during the process to replicate that part of the build. Berry used a Bisonic Darkstar pickup that was made by Fred Hagstom for the Guild Starfire Bass.  Berry moved the neck jazz pickup down in between the bridge and bridge pickup. He then put the Bionic pickup where the neck pickup was.

The pickups I found were made by Curtis Novak and he custom built them to be the exact specs of the ones Berry had in his original Tractor Bass (there were several versions made after the original with several variations done to things).  Curtis also built the 2 Jazz Bass pickups that were critical for this as well.  The cool part about getting jazz pickups made versus using ones from a Jazz Bass is that they are a bit shorter and fit better in the bridge location of my P Bass, which means they fit the strings better.

Scot Elkins of The Elkins Group (TEG) did the routing, installation and wiring.  Scot researched the specs Berry used and spoke with Curtis, who had seen inside the original Tractor Bass to make sure it was done as close as possible to the original.  It is mono wiring with a separate volume and tone knob for the Bisonic, separate volume knobs for each of the jazz pickups and a tone knob that controls both of the jazz pickups.  He also used flat wound strings, which was also rumored to be what was used during some of those early recordings.

The end result is an incredible replication of the settings and tone that Berry used during the Fillmore East recordings era, which is when he used the Tractor Bass.  I can say from playing around with this thing that is it extremely difficult to control but amazingly fun and it can rattle every bone in your body!  And I understand now where the name comes from. I heard rumors why it was called The Tractor but having played with that tone, I know for sure why!  It is wildly powerful with all the different combinations and it is the only instrument that can carry and cut through a huge band that has 2 lead guitars, 2 drummers and a Hammond B3!  But, you can easily find yourself way off in deep mud with that thing.  No fret though, it’s a Tractor!!!!

Here is a pic of the before and after as well as a pic side by side with the original Tractor.

Before and after photos of Jeff’s “Tractor” bass

Berry Oakley’s Tractor bass (left) and Jeff Faust’s “Tractor” bass (right)