Bootsy Collins’ first Space Bass was made in 1975 by a guy named Larry Pless at Gus Zoppi Music in Warren, Michigan, which was an accordion shop. Bootsy’s current signature Warwick star basses have five pickups with four outputs, each wired to different amps and cabinets. Photo by Ebet Roberts

When did you get your first star-shaped “Space Bass?”
The first Space Bass was made in 1975 by a guy named Larry Pless, at a place called Gus Zoppi Music in Sterling Heights, Michigan. I took a drawing in there and he was a young and up-and-coming guitar maker. Wouldn’t nobody make it. I was up on 48th Street in New York—all up and down there—and I was telling them about this star bass that I wanted, and nobody was interested. I had to find somebody that would do it because, first of all, I didn’t have no money [laughs], and second of all, nobody was interested because it wasn’t hot on the market. Nobody had a star bass. Nobody was talking about a star bass. I was like, “I’ve got to find somebody that’s just into doing stuff.” And Gus Zoppi Music store was an accordion store—it wasn’t even a guitar store where I found this guy. I just happened to go in there, I started talking to the owner, I asked him if he had any suggestions, and he said, “Yes. I’ve got a young guy that’s working for me in the back that might be interested because he’s always been wanting to make guitars.” So that’s how I found this guy.

Is the neck modeled after the Fender P?
After the Fender, yeah.

What about the pickup configuration? It has both the Jazz bass pickups plus other things. How did you design that?
That was designed originally off the Fender Jazz. Then I added the P-bass pickups—that and a couple of other pickups as well. It had a combination of the Fender P bass and then what I threw up in there that I liked myself. But it’s been a lot of upgrading since then.

What about the multiple outputs?
That multiple output allowed me to not use so many cables. It was just one cable that went to the pedalboard and that’s where the signal got split up. When I first did it, it was just 2-way out. Then it became 3-way and until, I would say, up until the ’90s, it became 4-way out. That’s what it is now. Every pickup has an output. There is one pickup unit in there that has two on one output, which is designed like the Fender Jazz bass. So, the guitar actually has five pickups.

Those outputs go to different amps?
Yes. They go to different amps and different cabinets onstage. It’s a whole wall of different tones, different sounds. The pedals go to different amps as well. It kept growing. It started with a small, maybe 3-foot pedalboard case, and then it grew up to around 6 1/2 feet. That’s where it’s currently at.

“Here I was from the James Brown school and we didn’t know nothing. I didn’t know how to read. All I knew how to do was hear these sounds and I wanted to play them.”

What’s on there?
I got everything and its mother [laughs]. You got maybe four to six pedals on what I call the high end and the same thing on the midrange. They’re different pedals, but they’re the same amount of pedals. You got three rows: you got ultra-high, you got high end, you got mids, and then you got the low end that goes direct, which goes to my sub-woofers. It’s a lot of configurations. People said, “Can’t you just plug the thing in and play?” But I was hardheaded and I wanted to always be “in search of” and “let me find these different sounds,” you know? I’m glad I did. It was very confusing to the engineers that started recording me first, because nobody was used to that. All they were used to was, “Plug that thing in and let’s hit it.” And, I don’t know, that era was changing. Synthesizers were coming in—it wasn’t in yet—but it was coming in. I guess I wanted something different. I didn’t want just the same old bass sounds that everybody got. So, I took a dive for it.

In the studio, do you use that whole pedalboard or do you just isolate what you need?
When I do outside studio work, that pedalboard goes with me. Whatever is in the pedalboard pretty much stays. When I’m recording myself in my own studio, I got the pedalboard plus a gazillion pedals if I want to throw something in or take something out. It’s easy for me at my studio where I can record things the way I want to. But when I go out doing stuff in other places, I just take the main pedalboard and those are usually the sounds I usually use. But on this new album, I was reaching for different things on different songs. I had access to any and everything, which was great. It helps fuel me as well. Uplifts me. Give me different sounds—when I hear different sounds, it motivates me. Either they’re good—they do something good to you—or it’s, “I don’t like that sound, let me try this other one.” Those are the kind of things I like to deal with. It’s kind of like painting. It’s like, “I don’t like that color. Let me try another color.” That is part of my creative process and it’s been that way forever.

Do different pedals and sounds inspire different types of riffs or make you play differently?
Yes, and that goes mainly for bass. But I found out even with Bernie Worrell—who was the keyboard player—I noticed any time he would do a different sound, it would make him play different. So, I didn’t feel so bad when I saw him doing it because he was really legit [laughs]. [Editor’s note: Worrell studied at the New England Conservatory of Music in the 1960s and was awarded an honorary doctorate just before his death in 2016]. Here I was from the James Brown school and we didn’t know nothing. I didn’t know how to read. All I knew how to do was hear these sounds and I wanted to play them.

Nowadays, do you experiment with computer modeling, plug-ins, and things like that?
I don’t. But I don’t knock it. It just seems like everything is kind of “pre-” now. I like the fact of having to find my way through different things. You can compare it like this: You know how they used to tell you to get lost? Well nowadays, you can’t even get lost because you’ve got the GPS. But getting lost was part of the experience. That was the part where you had to figure out how to get back—or how to get there. That’s being taken away and, to me, that was the fun part. I don’t want to take that away. All those old pedals, the old stuff, I love it—anything you can step on.

Check out one of Bootsy’s Rubber Band’s earliest concerts from 1976.

This is the mother lode for Bootsy fans. Collins takes a film crew on a tour of his home studio and shows off his huge collection of classic instruments.