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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)
As anyone who has been following these in-depth blogs will now know, my opening habit is to refer new readers (who may have just stumbled upon this latest installment), to the previous blogs in this series (just so they can become as overloaded with information as you, dear reader).
So far, I’d been totally taken by surprise, at just how exacting and emotionally exhausting this work could be. The concentration levels, and patience needed for this work, are simply phenomenal. I really have a new-found respect for Luthiers and Boutique Guitar Builders. Having experienced the repetitive and demanding work they do – at such a slow pace – I now admire and appreciate their efforts much more than I ever did.
This whole project ended up being quite a voyage for me. This was the very first time I had ever attempted a project as complex as this. My manual skills and technical knowledge are non-existent. Up until now, I had been taking my basses and guitars to music shops – even to have rudimentary jobs such as the intonation sorted – to be done by others. OK, I’ll admit it… there had even been times when I’d taken a bass to a music shop, and paid them for a ‘set-up’ (which is code for: ‘I can’t even be bothered to change the strings… this lot have been on for three years now and they’re making my bass sound like an elastic band played through a megaphone. Can you just change the strings please? £45? Yep, that sounds reasonable, here’s a fifty… keep the change’).
I made loads of mistakes and learned a lot too. In sharing my experiences here, the only thing I’m hoping to get out of this cathartic exercise… is to inspire you. I’d been playing bass for over 20 years, and had always wanted to design and build my own bass – something that was perfect for me. But I’d always found a litany of excuses and other distractions, rather than follow my heart and do what I really wanted. Building this bass has therefore been a real discovery and an utter joy. If you’ve ever thought of doing this yourself, I wish you the best of luck, and urge you to grasp the Nettle. You’ll never be sorry, and will have something deeply personal to show for your efforts – the rest of your life. If you do build a guitar after reading this, please do email me and let me know how you get on.
OK, enough side-tracking, back to the build...
The body, which had had a 7mm thick veneer of Cocobolo hardwood bonded to the top, had now been cut to shape and was ready for further preparation. Yet another template had been made from scrap MDF (Medium Density Fibre Board), which once correct, gave me an accurate cutter guide for both the neck, and pick-up pockets. As there was to be no outer scratch-plate or further embellishments, the measuring and cutting of these channels was critical… there would be nothing to hide any unsightly gaps, which is why a cutting template is such a good idea.
With a hand-held Industrial Router, the cavities could be dug into the body. The circular drill-bit, has a non-cutting guidance-bearing above it, which follows the exact path of the MDF cutter guide. The drill is then introduced to the bass body, and the recesses gouged. The drill bit is then lowered in small, 5mm amounts, and the cavities are gradually cut deeper. The fractional lowering helps to stop the wood from splintering, and also stops any burn marks on the wood, caused by the drill-bit heating up too much (by trying to cut too much at once and suffering from the build up of friction). Yet again, this was a case of ‘softly-softly, catch the monkey’, with plenty of patience – and a steady hand required.
The body still had sharp edges and the overall shape and silhouette now needed to be chamfered, contoured, and softened overall. The first stage was to use the Router once again, but with a curved-radius drill-bit, to shave rounded corners all around the bass. The bass was clamped to the edge of a bench, and the Router was once again taken around the body shape (with the MDF template made on the very first day, still being used as a master guide). The Router was again lowered fractionally (to keep the wood protected), and the exercise repeated. The bass was then unclamped for the other (bench-facing) edge to be done, and then flipped onto its back, and clamped and chamfered in a mirror image. I’d chosen the exact radius of a Fender Jazz for the rounded edges, as I knew this to be an aesthetically pleasing starting point.
Having completed these stages, the bass was beginning to ‘come alive’, but still looked clinical, as much of the work completed thus far had been machine-assisted. I now wanted the bass to look much more organic, and I really wanted to feel as though I’d ‘moulded’ the wood. After all, this was a primary reason I’d opted to build something from scratch rather than to buy something mass-produced: I wanted to make the experience of playing this bass very personal; to make the whole process organic and tactile, and to get a real connection with my instrument.
I have a pre-CBS 1963 Fender Precision, which is a dream to both hold and play. There were a fair few things I wanted to copy from the ‘feel’ of that bass. In pre-CBS days, during the early to mid-1960’s, Clarence Leo Fender was in constant negotiation with CBS about the proposed sale of Fender. Because of that, Leo decided not to replace or update any tools or machinery, guessing correctly that the sale would eventually go through. Because of this, the factory deteriorated gradually, and the tooling became blunt and loose. This affected the quality – and dimensions of the basses. Even those pre-CBS examples – that are so revered by collectors – are more often than not poor quality, because of Leo Fender’s scrimping on unnecessary costs before selling the factory – and the brand name. A by-product of the jigs wearing out, was that the outer dimensions of the basses got smaller, and the contours got deeper, which for me at least, resulted in a really comfortable, sculpted bass, that was also much lighter than usual. However, the downside, was that neck and pick-up pockets got bigger, resulting in poor fit when the necks were bolted in place.
I liked the aggressive, deep contours on those Fender basses, and that was the part I wanted to emulate. First of all, I turned the bass onto it’s back, and drew an exceptionally rough, freehand pencil mark, forming a deep ellipse in the back of the body. This would form a deep ‘belly-pan’, which I find extremely comfortable for live and stage work. The bass can be played ‘off the hip’ nicely, and flung comfortably around the body. This always makes me feel like the bass is actually a part of me, so this was going to be a really deep and ‘body-friendly’ gouge – I estimated to hack at least half the width of the body here!
Some of you may have noticed me frequently referring to the ‘feel’ of a bass, and the ‘organic’ nature of what I was trying to accomplish. More than any other instrument, bass is about ‘feel’, and playing is so much easier if there’s a genuine harmony and ‘trust’ between you and your chosen instrument. This was another reason why I chose a natural wood finish. I wanted to feel the natural material and grain of the wood under my fingers, and that also dictated the decision to finish the bass in a really light satin lacquer. Ideally, I wouldn’t even have lacquered the bass, I would have just oiled it and left it completely natural and untreated. However, beautiful as that would have been, I was also looking for a work-horse: Something I could occasionally treat disrespectfully; to play it hard and not worry about it. By oiling it, this would have necessitated frequent repeat treatments of oiling, and ongoing maintenance. I just knew that I was unlikely to be that disciplined fastidious! You can also call me sentimental, but I liked the idea of this bass outlasting me, and being played by my daughters, and kept in the family. A more robust finish would definitely suit that. But I’m getting ahead of myself: I was still a day away from lacquering the bass.
Cutting the belly-pan, I used a combination of circular-blade rasp, but mainly a flat file with exceptionally abrasive edges. I used the freehand pencil line as a guide, and kept changing direction of planning frequently, whilst cutting deeper into the bass. Alder is a fairly hearty wood, so it was a good couple of hours before I ended up with the angled shape I liked.
The bass was then turned back onto its front. Another feauture I wanted to copy from my beloved ’63 P-Bass, was the deeper-than normal angled chamfer right at the top-rear of the bass; where your arm and wrist wraps around the body to hit the strings at the bridge end.
Initially, I was frightened of cutting into the body here: The machine tooling I’d done, with the radius-edges to the body, actually looked really good, and of course, was perfectly uniform. I was about to hack a really aggressive angle into the body – precisely where the 7mm thick Cocobolo veneer was. This would mean that the much lighter colour of the Alder body underneath, would be revealed, and would no longer follow the body outline. After much agonizing, I just picked up the file and went for it, reasoning that the resultant crescent shape would at least look unique! Naturally, all of that assumed that I could-hand-plane and hand-sand that perfect crescent shape, because once started, there’d certainly be no going back.
Once again, I wanted to remove the body to at least half way into the body thickness. A pencil line was drawn again as a rough guide (freehand-drawn, I have a loathing for using precise instruments here, such as French Curves). The other thing I wanted to do, to increase the organic and hand-built aspect of the bass, was to ensure that the chamfer I cut into the front, blended and wrapped naturally around the back, and into the belly pan, to produce one long, blended ‘wave’. This would make the body exceptionally thin at the intersection point, but as that’s where my torso interacts most with the bass, it was exactly the feel I was after.
As I’ve mentioned before, The Cocobolo wood, whilst beautiful, is notoriously hard to work with. If you close your eyes when touching it, it feels exactly like slate. It’s that solid. It’s immeasurably tough to sand down, and produces copious amounts of orange oil when you sand it – rather than sawdust. This just makes you eat your way through sand-paper. But it’s one of the slowest growing hardwoods out there (from Mexico), and because of that, has the most beautiful, dense grain and rich reddy-brown colour.
After another 2 hours of planning, rough sandpaper was taken to all the radii and curves around the guitar to soften them. Decreasing grades of sandpaper were used as the shape got more and more even. I’d decided to take the bass body home with me that night, armed with a shed-load of sandpaper. I would spend until just gone midnight, sitting cross-legged on a sheet on the floor, watching TV whilst sanding the body to within an inch of its life. Sad, isn’t it?
Having decided I’d effectively do a further days’ worth of sanding that evening, I did one last job on the body, and then turned my attention to the neck. Using another MDF template, I cut a standard-sized control-cavity into the back of the bass. This would hold the electronics, and needed to be drilled within an exceptionally fine tolerance: All the way through the body – and right up until it met the underside of the 7mm thick Cocobolo fascia. There was zero margin for error here, so the hand-held Router with rotating drill-bit was lowered in even smaller increments, to avoid disaster.
At this stage, the neck was still very rough in outline, so the same radius treatment, using the Router took place again. A ‘squared heel’ was left at the base where the neck would slot snugly (hopefully), into the neck pocket that had been cut into the body. After the machine-radius had been applied, I left the hand-sanding until tomorrow, where I estimated that I would spend at least the entire day sanding the neck alone.
For tonight, the only job I wanted to complete, was to put a camber on the fingerboard, and start placing the frets. As the Rosewood fingerboard had spent hours being repeatedly placed through a circular belt-sander over a period of 2 days (the belt of which which had been continually lowered by fractions of a millimeter), it was now perfectly flat. The Mother-Of-Pearl block inlays were also now flush with the surface. To get a good camber, there’s no substitute for good old-fashioned elbow grease. To do this, you use a wooden block – like an old school blackboard eraser – but with a very gently cambered, concave inner surface. This surface has sandpaper glued to the underneath (with industrial double-sided tape, so that it can constantly be replaced, and reduced to a finer grade as the job progresses). Being a hardwood, the Rosewood doesn’t give in easily, and despite the mounds of sawdust building up, the job still wasn’t complete – even after three hours. Even though this is a repetitive manual task, you can’t lose concentration either: Pressure has to be applied evenly down the length of the neck, to achieve a constant radius. At the beginning and ends, you also have to be very careful how you introduce the sandpaper to the wood, so that those areas don’t reduce more, or less, than the centre of the fingerboard.
After around four and a half hours, with evening drawing in yet again, and I was finally happy with the feel of the neck, and the depth of the Rosewood board. The grooves for the frets had been cut days ago, so now it was time to unravel a coil of the nickel, ‘Ultra-Slim’ Fret Wire. Again, I chose ultra-slim fret wire to echo the feel of the pre-CBS Fenders. You use cutting pincers to trim lengths of the nickel wire, making sure they overhang the fingerboard very slightly (but not too much, or you’ll be unable to crimp them cleanly afterwards).
Once all frets are cut to approximate length, it’s a case of gently introducing them into the grooves and tapping them home with a lightweight jewelers’ hammer. There is a knack to this: When striking the frets, you need to be quick and firm, but not too harsh, so as to flatten the frets unnecessarily. The trick is to not let the hammer bounce up on the up-stroke, and keep it even across the fret width. As every fret is driven home, you’re crouched low, looking low across the length of the fingerboard, looking for inconsistencies.
As I would be sanding the body during the evening (for a further 6 hours), I downed tools and left things there for the day. Tomorrow would hopefully see completion: Prepare the frets that so far, had only been driven into the fingerboard and not finished; plus finish sanding the body and neck… lacquer the body, cut a plastic plate for the control cavity… install the hardware, and solder all the electronics. I suddenly felt overwhelmed again.
Hope you’re enjoying the bass-building blogs, drop by again soon for the final part (maybe over two final blogs), and in the meantime, take a moment to browse our fantastic, and growing collection of rare and vintage bass guitars for sale right here >>>
by Junk Male on April 17, 2012