Alembic was founded in 1969 and is a manufacturer of high-end electric basses, guitars and preamps.
Ron Wickersham and Rick Turner designed low-impedance pickups and electronics with greater bandwidth than the high-impedance pickups typical in electric guitars and basses of the time. To boost the low output of these pickups, Wickersham designed an active onboard preamp. In 1969, the first active electronics designed by Alembic were installed in instruments owned by Phil Lesh, Jack Casady, Bob Weir and Jerry Garcia. These were the first true active electronics to be installed in musical instruments. (UK manufacturer Burns introduced active tone controls on its TR2 bass in the '60s, although without the low impedance pickups essential to modern active electronics.)
Alembic became quite busy installing these new active electronics in players' guitars and basses. Instruments modified with these electronics were also often retrofitted with new necks and hardware. This work led the company to begin producing its own line of instruments, incorporating the improvements the company developed during this period. The first Alembic instrument, serial number 72-01, was a bass made for Jack Casady, then a member of Jefferson Airplane. This bass incorporated a massive electronics suite, with super-filtering capability, and had pickups mounted on brass tubing so that their position could be adjusted.
The first production Alembic instruments were less ornate, and incorporated the PF-5 electronics circuit, later replaced by the PF-6. The pickups were single-coil, with an active hum-cancelling coil mounted between the pickups. This configuration gave the player the fidelity of single-coil pickups without their inherent noise, and is used to this day. The basses and guitars built using this configuration would later become known as the Series I and II, and were available in a variety of scale lengths and body shapes.
In 1976, Alembic made the world's first graphite neck basses with necks supplied by Geoff Gould, who subsequently founded Modulus Guitars. During this period, Alembic also delivered one of the first 5-string basses equipped with a low B string to Jimmy Johnson. Production of graphite-necked instruments ceased in 1985.
In 1978, Rick Turner left the company.
In 1979, the Distillate, a more affordable model, was introduced in bass and guitar versions.
Through the 1980s, Alembic introduced several new models. These included the Spoiler, Elan, and Europa basses, and the Electrum and California Special guitars. Alembic's model line has continued to expand to the present day, with models such as the Epic, Orion, Excel, and Darling being introduced.
Most Alembic basses and guitars are constructed around a laminated through neck, using various combinations of maple, purpleheart, walnut, cherry and ebony. This construction technique, combined with the laminated body wings found on most Alembics, inspired the "hippie sandwich" nickname commonly associated with instruments built this way. A popular configuration is a maple and purpleheart neck, a coco bolo top and back, and a mahogany body.
A variety of body shapes have been introduced throughout the history of the company. The Standard Point, the iconic Alembic body shape, was conceived to force players to put the instrument in a stand, as headstock repairs resulting from falls were the most common repair performed by the company in its early days. Newer body shapes have been introduced to improve ergonomics and to designate new models.
Alembic instruments can be ordered with a wide variety of custom features, including complex inlays and LED position markers in the neck.
All Alembic instruments incorporate the proprietary Alembic active electronics, with various options for tone controls and pickup configurations available. All Alembic instruments are made in Alembic's factory in Santa Rosa, California.
As a result of such high-profile users, Alembic's fame soon spread.
Greg Lake (Emerson, Lake and Palmer) played a number of Alembics, including an eight string bass (four pairs of strings, each comprising a regular bass string and another lighter string tuned an octave higher) ordered in 1976. This instrument was subsequently sold to John Entwistle of The Who.
Entwistle switched from his custom "Fenderbird" basses to "standard point" Alembics for The Who's 1975 and 1976 tours. He then worked with Alembic to develop the Exploiter body shape – a cheekily named derivative of Gibson's Explorer - which he used exclusively from 1977 to 1985. Entwistle ordered 4 Series II Exploiter body basses over the years in a variety of woods. Most had note names inlaid as position markers on the fingerboards and sterling silver spider web inlays on the body. Prior to his death in 2002, Entwistle was working with Alembic on a limited edition replica of his guitar which was subsequently released as the "Spyder". On a very few dates of The Who's 1979 tour, guitarist Pete Townshend played Entwistle's zebrawood standard point bass during the song "Trick Of The Light".
By the late '70s, John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin had also converted to Alembic (from Fender) and drove the development of the Triple Omega body shape. Jones can be seen using both 4 and 8 string Alembics in the Knebworth concert on the Led Zeppelin DVD. Jones also used his 8 string on the song "Achilles Last Stand", from the 1976 Led Zeppelin album, Presence. Chuck Panozzo of Styx used Alembic bass guitars during Styx's 1979 to 1984 heyday. Their use in heavy rock continued into the '80s, with both Cliff Burton and Jason Newsted of Metallica playing Alembics at some point in their respective careers.
Funk players were quick to pick up on Stanley Clarke's percussive playing style, to which the clear, extended high end response of the Alembic electronics was well suited. Legendary funk bassist Louis Johnson can be heard playing an Alembic Series 1 on classic tracks by the The Brothers Johnson. Lequient Jobe (Rose Royce), Jermaine Jackson (The Jacksons), Rodney "Skeet" Curtis (Parliament-Funkadelic) and Wyzard (Mother’s Finest) also played Series 1s. Brown Mark played an Alembic Spoiler on several hits recorded by Prince.
During the 1980s, Mark King, of Level 42 fame was perhaps the most visible Alembic player in the funk scene.
Many famous guitarists have also played Alembics, including Jerry Garcia, Carlos Alomar, Adrian Belew, David Gilmour, Jimmy Page, Johnny Winter, Steve Miller, John Entwistle, Neil Young, Chet Atkins, Dean Borso, and Stanley Jordan.
Alembic has made two exceptions to this rule. The first occurred when they presented Stanley Clarke with a specially inlaid instrument to celebrate 30 years of working together. The second occurred when [a representative of Alembic] approached Mark King at a gig on the Stevie Winwood tour in 1986 with an offer to build him a bass. Mark received two 34" scale Series 2 basses initially and then ordered two more in identical woods with 32" scale.