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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)
For those that would like a recap, you can read Part 1 of our bass-building project here, and Part 2 here. To summarise this project in one sentence: I set out to design and build a bass guitar from scratch, that had a single-minded Fender Precision style sound and tone (but ‘bigger’), and with a more aggressive aesthetic style – and unique shape.
I allowed 2 days to sketch out the design and arrive at a shape that I loved – a shape that seemed to possess the right attitude. However, I’ll let you into a little secrete right here: I had the design done literally in minutes. In truth, it’s pretty difficult to nail down exactly how long ‘an idea’ actually takes in gestation. It’s such an ethereal thing that can’t be forced, and you certainly shouldn’t put any time-constraints on this part of a project.
Once I’d had the initial idea to design and build a bass, I was going through a mental development and tick list for weeks, even before I committed pen to paper. Without actively trying or making conscious effort, once the idea was on my mental radar, I naturally started looking for inspiration whilst out walking around, or browsing magazines. By the time I eventually came to do the sketching, my hand instinctively knew where to go. Aside from that, I find that my first ideas are very often the best, and we can sometimes be so spooked by that, that we waste hours afterwards seeking to better what’s already right.
In summary: Go with your gut and don’t relentlessly fuss over something, you’re probably over-complicating things if you do.
During the previous two days, I had begun to discover that building a bass guitar is repetitive, and takes extreme levels of Jedi-Knight concentration. I’d started off with an idyllic mental snapshot of Luthiers and Boutique Guitar Builders sitting in wooden cabins with stained glass windows, gently chiseling at a gnarled mahogany plank, whilst all manner of assorted wildlife periodically peeked curiously in at the door. My vision had a rose-tinted Disney feel to it. The truth is far removed from that. I ended up on a windy industrial estate, protected by a lovely Rotweiller called Ruby, repeating a great many tasks, time and time again; sanding wood until it had the same properties as glass, all the time removing more and more skin from my knuckles during minor industrial accidents. On the way home, I’d collapse into the winged leather armchair at the local pub, and drink until my fingers stopped leaking blood. Take it from me: Being a Luthier is not glamorous.
So, on with our work, and the entirety of the third day would be spent on just one component: The fingerboard. I’d chosen a fairly standard Brazilian Rosewood for the fingerboard (and Maple for the neck), so the first task was to accurately measure out the twenty frets, ready for cutting. I chose just twenty frets, because I rarely venture past the fifth fret anyway. In my (admittedly blinkered) view; bassists who frequently find themselves past, say the ninth fret, really ought to consider taking up lead guitar!
Naturally, I’m joshing… but there is a semi-serious point to this: I see bass as the backbone of the band. Yes, you can be melodic and inventive, but keep it low and punchy; give the song and the band what it needs (which more often than not in bass terms, is something simple, metronomic and powerful). The bass is usually a supportive role, so I didn’t see the need for double-octave necks and fripperies that would see me hitting the higher register.
First of all, the Rosewood was continually put through a small Belt-Sander (see second picture down on the left), to make it just the right thickness – and uniform all the way along its length. This is one of those repetitive – and let’s face it – dull aspects of the build. You can only get a perfectly flat fingerboard with machine-assistance, putting fractional amounts of ‘even sanding pressure’ across the entire length of the fingerboard. Periodically, you then use a handle (on the side of the sander), to lower the circular sanding drum by infinitesimal and fractional amounts. When things are looking almost clinically flat, you sketch a zig-zag pencil line along the length of the board, and repeat the exercise for another half hour, until that line is sanded off. Then you repeat the exercise... again and again.
To actually score the deep grooves into the fingerboard, and to ensure that they were all perfectly parallel, I used a pretty rudimentary but highly effective piece of kit: I’d describe it as a butchered and hacked about kitchen unit. Metal drawer-runners were used to ensure a smooth and uniform action back and forth, whilst a circular saw, poking through a slot in the flat-bed of the unit, did the cutting to a uniform depth in the fret-board, ready for the nickel frets to be embedded later (see third picture down on the left – in the top set of pictures). It’s a fairly Luddite way of working, but does the job admirably.
After that, I’d decided to have Mother-Of-Pearl Block markers (as used in Fender Jazz basses), instead of the more common circular dots. In truth, I was slightly wary of whether this would actually look good or not, and was intrigued to see the final result. The reason I had some vague misgivings, was because the deeper into the project I got, the more uncertain I became (this happens when you’re ‘too close’ to something. It can be difficult to be objective and impartial).
It felt like I was trying to build a bass with a very contemporary and modern silhouette... but with a 1980’s-style dark wood fascia (like Aria or Westone basses); with retro-chrome hardware… topped off with vintage block markers. I wondered whether my bass might just look like some weird Seth-Brundle Time-Machine accident – like it had been bolted together from parts that were sourced from at least 4 different decades.
However, onward I plundered. A Router was used (with a small circular drill-bit), to ensure all the blocks were drilled to a uniform depth into the Rosewood (remember, you’re dealing with a slab of wood that’s only a few millimetres thick to begin with, so the tolerances are non-existent, and any mistakes send you right back to square one, with a new plank). To make life easier, and to remove the potential for mistakes, yet another template was used. This had square blocks, already cut and spaced to the correct sizes – as the blocks reduced in both width and depth – as they go down the neck. The ‘Block Template’ is the far left picture, in the horizontal strip of three pictures above).
Once the recessed areas had been dug-out, and the fret slots cut, the rounded corners (left by the circular drill-bit of the Router), were chiseled and cut square, by hand (centre picture in the horizontal strip of three pictures above).
Once again, the cutting and preparation of the Rosewood fingerboard alone, is a good full days’ worth of work. So as I was drawing to the end of another long session, the final thing to do, was to cut the ‘Mother-Of-Pearl’ blocks. In reality, this was an Acrylic substitute, that is much easier to cut and work with, and looks exactly the same as the Pearl alternative.
This is a really fiddly ‘trial-and-error’ part of the process. Again, there is no tolerance for even the slightest error here. The blocks have to have just a little resistance, before being pressed home into their recesses. Gaps of even a fraction of a millimetre, will make the entire bass look awful. Further exacerbating the fiddly nature of this job, is the fact that once the ‘Mother-Of-Pearl’ blocks are cut to near – but fractionally bigger than their actual size – you have to trim the remaining hairs-breadth slivers off the edges using... ‘The Belt-Sander Of Death’ (top right picture).
This heinous device features a long belt – which is around five feet long – with an extremely abrasive sanding belt, rotating at phenomenal speed. It’s ultra-noisy, and it pushes out a terrifying draught, the nearer you get to it. The job is then to hold small blocks of Pearl against this lethal device, with your fingers held less than a quarter of an inch from being ripped off.
I really didn’t enjoy this part.
The first five blocks I tried to trim, ended up being torn from my hands, and fired at lethal speed across the work-shop. You have to hold the blocks firmly, in order to get the most miniscule widths shorn from the Pearl, but not held too tight, otherwise the block flies out of your hands. The whole process is counter-intuitive to staying alive, in my opinion.
This part alone, took hours, after which, I still had just three blocks trimmed, of debatably correct proportions. By this time, the evening was drawing in, I was getting tired – and losing concentration – and rather than lose an eye or a finger, I decided to call it a night and retire. Besides, the pub was calling and I certainly needed a drink to steady the old nerves.
Tune in for more fun with lethal equipment soon. Junk Male blog readers may also be interested to know that we now sell exceptional quality, rare and collectable bass guitars here.
by Junk Male on April 16, 2012