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April 2012SOLD: Rare 1972 Rickenbacker 4001 Bass 15% Discount Off All Products (20th-22nd April Only). Finally Revealed: The Best Bass Guitar In The World! Build a Bass Guitar in 7 days (Pt. 6: Day 7) Build a Bass Guitar in 7 days (Pt. 5: Day 6) Build a Bass Guitar in 7 days (Pt. 4: Day 5) Build a Bass Guitar in 7 days (Pt. 3: Day 4) Build a Bass Guitar in 7 days (Pt. 2: Day 3) Build a Bass Guitar in 7 days (Pt. 1: Days 1-2)
So, if you followed the background and introduction to this exercise in our previous blog – to build the perfect bass guitar – then you might be ready to start work with me and actually build the thing!
In Part 1, I had already sketched and designed the bass, and did a very basic outline specification of the materials and woods I was going to use. Now it was time to actually start the build.
If you’re going to do this, you’ll need a few things: Endless patience, a lot of beer, some sturdy plasters, and the understanding of your family (you’re going to be working late nights and swearing more frequently). Oh yeah, you’ll also need some tools.
To give you a brief recap: I’d decided to try and capture as much of a pre-CBS Precision sound as I could. That dictated most of the wood choice – Alder for the body, Canadian Maple for the neck, and Brazilian Rosewood for the fingerboard.
The only other wood I needed to find, was something unique and distinctive for the face, or ‘top’ of the body. I wanted something with a dense grain, in dark hardwood. Originally, I’d intended to produce a very Retro, 1980’s inspired bass, with sandwiched woods and a central ‘through-body’ stripe (to mimic a ‘straight-through’ neck). Heck, at one stage, I’d even entertained the notion of gold hardware. Had I not been ‘manually inept’, and had this not been my first bass build, I might have actually attempted a straight-through neck. However, I’m no fool, and I know my own limitations!
In the end, I found a wood so beautiful, that I abandoned the original idea of an ornate and fussy ‘sandwich’ design for the front of the bass. And this is a good lesson to emphasise: Be flexible. By all means, plan as much as possible at the start, but don’t allow those plans to make you too blinkered to new ideas. The wood I found was covered in dust and hidden at the back of a wood-store, but it just sang out to me – and made me make a detour in my original plans.
What I eventually found – which worked beautifully – was Cocobolo. This is a Mexican hardwood. It’s a true Rosewood, that’s incredibly slow-growing. As such, it’s both desirable – and outrageously strong and dense. The 7mm thick veneer that I chose for the body fascia cost around £150 on its own, and weighed pretty much the same as the entire Alder body! It’s also really hard to sand by hand, but when you spend the time with it, I discovered you get the most beautiful glassy finish, with lush, reddy-browns and rich grain markings. As I found, it really takes patience to work with Cocobolo, and sand it, because most of your sanding efforts don’t actually release any saw-dust or wood… instead, the Cocobolo just gives out an orange oil… which also makes both sanding and gluing tricky (the inherent oils simply repel glue). But again, the end result is well worth it; trust me.
STAGE 1 – Sketch out the body shape:
To start, I took a scrap piece of MDF (Medium-Density-Fibre) board… which was Oak-veneered as it turned out, so quite posh by ‘scrap’ standards). I then placed a Fender Precision body on top of the MDF, and put six quick pencil marks along the extremeties of the Precision body: one at the butt of the bass; one at the neck pocket; and the other four at each front and rear/upper and lower body bouts. This was because I knew that the basic Precision proportions balanced beautifully, and were aesthetically pleasing.
The only other imposition I had on the design – and this is important – was that the top bout, or ‘horn’ of the body, had to overhand the twelfth fret on the finger board below. This was purely so that the bass would balance, when worn with a strap and played whilst standing.
Having got six pencil scratches into the MDF, whilst constantly referring to my original sketched design (on A4 paper) I approximated that bass shape – totally freehand – in pencil. I resolutely refused to use guides or French-Curves for two reasons: (1) Whenever I’ve used these precise methods, I’ve found that it robs your work of spontaneity. The results might look good from a technical perspective, but I prefer to let my hand run-free and loose… if you can get a direct connection – from your heart to your hand – then the resultant shape will be much better (in my experience), even if it isn’t 100% precise. After all, who really wants perfection? Perfection can be dull. (2) The shape was going to be cut by Band-saw anyway, so all the perfect draughtsmanship in the World would be wasted once unleashed on the brutality of an industrial tool.
After around 15 to 20 minutes of sketching, and then organically rubbing out; re-sketching; standing back, assessing and ‘squinting’ at my work, I found a shape I was really happy with. By the way, the trick of ‘squinting at my work’ was something I learned at Art College, and it really works: By half-closing your eyes whilst gazing critcally at your sketches, the eye naturally ‘masks-out’ clutter and objects around you, and really seems to make you focus and mentally ‘zoom-in’ on your work. That might sound like a load of old tosh to you – but it works for me – although it will give you premature wrinkles over time…
STAGE 2 – Cut the Body:
Once the shape was done, I used an industrial band-saw (‘The Band-Saw Of Death’), to cut around the MDF. I kept my hands well clear of the lethal blade, along with a healthy margin of around 2-3 millimeters outside the edge of the pencil line. Afterwards, I used sand-paper to smooth that shape to perfection. This shape would now act as the Master Template for the rest of the build (and if you love the final results, it means you can build duplicate basses in future).
The cut-out MDF shape was then placed atop a slab of solid Alder (which had been through an industrial Plane). I let a professional put the Alder through the Plane, as a guy had lost a hand a couple of weeks previously on this very piece of equipment, and I didn’t fancy my chances with it… which is another tip; if you feel there’s a possibility of losing a limb, then let a responsible adult take momentary charge of your task.
Once the Alder had been planed on both sides, and the shape traced onto one side of it, I used a Band-Saw to cut it vertically down the centre. It’s advisable to have a two-piece – or even a three-piece body. One single slab of wood initially seems like it would be best, but the grain just isn’t up to the stresses of being a bass guitar – it’s too unstable. Ironically, it’s best to saw your body in half, glue it in the centre (with Titebond Glue), and then clamp it all round tightly. Then just leave the glue to set rock-hard overnight. The mis-matched grains will prove much more durable, in the same way that staggered brickwork produces a more sturdy building.
STAGE 3 – Cut the ‘Top’ for the Body:
This exercise was repeated with the Cocobolo (take it from me; if repetition is your thing – you’ll love guitar building… there’s a whole boat-load of repetition involved. If I’m being honest, that part of re-doing, repeating, constantly checking and double-checking measurements drove me utterly mad). The Cocobolo was cut vertically, and then ‘bookmatched’ (once a large cut of wood has been sliced through, you flip one of the planks over and butt it exactly up to the piece it’s just come from, so that all the knots and grain patterns are mirrored, to provide a striking, symmetrical design. The Cocobolo was also glued along it’s thin, 7mm return, and similarly clamped and left overnight.
This last section of work didn’t take long, which was a shame, because any opportunity to fiddle with a plank of Cocobolo was becoming unnervingly addictive; the wood feels precisely like slate, and even in its untreated state, is a joy to look at and hold. But I’m digressing dangerously into ‘wood-pervert’ territory here…
STAGE 4 – Prepare the Neck:
Everything that has been explained thus far (for day three), took around six hours. So by now, we were at 3 o’ clock, and nearing the end of a ‘standard’ working day (although admittedly, due to my obsessive nature I was taking bits of wood back home to sand whilst watching TV. Yep, it all got pretty sad, really).
Similar to the body and Cocobolo top; a neck was drawn out on an MDF board, cut by band-saw, and then hand-sanded to form another master template. At this stage, we’re only concerned with the outline of the neck, so neck profile and depth is not an issue – nut width is. And this is where a self-built bass – or guitar – really starts paying dividends: It’s the only time in your life you’ll get to be unfeasibly fussy and demanding about dimensions and ‘feel’. You can be utterly selfish, and sand and trim this thing to your hearts content – and I did.
Even though I’d always been a committed Fender Precision fan, deep down, I’d always preferred the feel of Jazz necks; thinner at the nut, slimmer and more svelte, with better, shallow ‘C’ profiles. In fact, I’d often toyed with the idea of copying John Entwhistle’s project, when he created the notorious ‘Frankenstein’ Bass, from various smashed Fender parts (the ‘Frankenstein’ moniker stuck, after he’d built the bass in a hotel room, after a particularly savage drink and drugs binge. Apparently, after it was bolted together, and he plugged it in, to find that miraculously, it worked – he proceeded to run around the hotel suite shouting “It’s alive! It’s alive!”). At any rate, I never did end up marrying a vintage Jazz neck to a Precision body, as that would have felt sacrilegious. However, this was a new build, and now was my chance: The neck got cut 1 millimeter thinner at the nut than a 1970’s Jazz, and it felt great – even in template form. I was on the right track already, and the first day of build wasn’t even done yet.
The next ‘problem that I gave myself’, was this: I’d reluctantly caved in to doing a straight-through neck (rightly deeming it to be too adventurous for a first project), but I really wanted an angled-back headstock on this bass. And that carries its’ own problems. The reason I wanted the angled back headstock, was because I loathed the site of ‘string-trees’ on mass-produced basses (String Trees are used to distribute string pressure evenly across the nut). Gibsons tend to use this old-style of angled-back headstock, and arguably, are much better quality than their Fender counterparts (though it grieves me to say so).
An angled-back headstock is much more difficult to make, because at the nut, you have to make up an angled piece of wood, at around twelve degrees to the neck, and then glue that onto the end of the neck – exactly at the nut – with what’s called a ‘Scarf-Joint’. Not only is this much trickier to make and cut, than a one-piece, straight neck, but the angled-back headstock is notoriously brittle, and prone to snapping if dropped, or knocked hard.
To get the angle of the glued-on headstock just right, a really Luddite solution was used: An old piece of furniture was smashed up, and two identical, sloping wedges were made, and screwed to a flat board. The angles were exactly 12 degrees, and this formed the guide for our Wood-Routing Machine to go down the slope in gradual increments. Essentially, the spinning circular blade at the end of the Router was used to shave 5mm sections away, before being re-set fractionally lower, and the process repeated... And then the Router would be run along another 5mm section (with the two ramps either side of the headstock guiding the procedure).
But for the end of day three, the angle was made – a block of maple much bigger than the headstock – was glued to that angled neck, and the two pieces were glued and set in place with clamps, to be left overnight to set – along with the body and body-fascia.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that (for reason that I can’t quite explain), I’d decided to do an ‘Upside Down, Reverse-Lefty’ headstock design. This meant that all four machine heads were positioned on the bottom edge, pointing downward towards the floor, and angled back. Quite a few friends asked me why I did this, and at the time (possibly in an unnecessary bout of post-rationalisation), I’d told them it was something to do with highlighting the plight of left handed guitarists and bassists the World over, who had often had to adapt right-handed guitars to their uses, due to the fact that there was such a shortage of good quality left-handed instruments. This was how Hendrix famously played an upside down Fender Stratocaster.
I think it was in my mind that I wanted to create a quirky image whilst playing this bass, that would make people look twice… a right-handed bassist who’d inexplicably started using a left-handed bass. The truth is probably that I just wanted something different – and this design feature seemd to feel right with the visual ‘attitude’ I was attempting to create with the bass. Either that, or I was drinking more than usual when I designed it.
Anyhow, speaking of drink, that’s where day three ended, and I retired home… via the pub, whilst I eased and assuaged the effects of the sawdust that had been coagulating in my throat all day… with a cold pint of lager.
If you’re still interested in building your own bass or guitar, bookmark us and drop by Junk Male again within a couple of days, and we’ll have some tales and yarns of cut knuckles, mistakes and triumphs aplenty for you. In the meantime, happy playing.
Finally, why not take some time to view our expanding collection of high quality, rare and vintage bass guitars, right here: The very best Fenders and Gibsons are here, with stock being continually dded to.
by Junk Male on April 12, 2012