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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)
Initially, I considered the headline of this blog to be a little bit too punchy. After all, that’s some bold claim, right? But then I looked deep into my heart and asked whether it was true or not. And it is. So the headline stays.
Here’s the background to the project: Building The Best Bass.
During a period of more than two decades, I’ve played literally hundreds of bass guitars, and today, have a collection of more than fifteen guitars, which is just nuts for a recreational player. The reason I have so many basses, is because in all that time, I’ve never found the Holy Grail: The Perfect Bass.
So, to stop me endlessly buying more basses and chasing an unattainable dream, I set myself a challenge: To build the best bass guitar in the World… for me. And those two little words at the end are the important bit, or the caveat, if you like. What I discovered, was that it didn’t matter in the least how much you spent on an instrument. What it boiled down to, was a simple word: ‘Feel’. Those of you that have taken the time to read my previous blogs about the bass I built (and it will take you some time to read them all), will notice that word ‘feel’, cropping up a lot. A bass has to feel right in your hands; you have to connect with it; it has to feel as though it’s part of you. And the simple truth is: You can’t mass-manufacture that.
Here’s the sketch where it started:
The closest I’d come to the perfect bass, was with two Fender Precisions (a pre-CBS 1963 in Lake Placed Blue, and a 1969 in Sunburst). I love the basic sound of Precisions, so was happy to emulate that. But I wanted the sound to be… just bigger. In this instance, the choice of pick-up – the ‘heart’ of the bass, was simple: A set of single-coil Seymour Duncan SPB-1’s. A lot of people can get snobby about pick-ups, insisting that a true Boutique Bass should have its own hand-made set. I understand their point, but Seymour Duncan (and other specialist pick-up manufacturers like them), have been in business since 1976, specializing in the manufacture of pick-ups – nothing else. With their investment into Research & Development, isn’t it reasonable to expect they know a thing or two about what they’re doing? After all… we’re talking about some enamel wire and a magnet here (please insert your own ‘smiley’ emoticon here; I can’t bring myself to use them).
The SPB-1’s were perfect for me: Great fat bottom-end, with enough grit and growl to punch a hole through the song when the occasion demanded it. They’re a faithful reproduction of Fender’s 1957 dual-coil design: The same hand-fabricated forbon bobbins, same enamel wire; same hand-ground and sand-cast magnets; all delivering that great warm and woody tone
Aesthetically, I wanted a much more original, and aggressive style to the bass than you’d get with many mass-produced models. I really liked the ‘Rock Attitude’ of Gibson Thunderbirds, and also the Alembic Explorer (as made famous by John Entwistle). But the trouble with those shapes is one of imbalance: The aesthetic drives the bass, which is the wrong way around, and as a consequence, they don’t balance right on the body. The Gibsons, in particular, suffer from ‘neck-dive’, and to exacerbate things, when worn with a long strap (as they should be), they tend to tilt away from the body – and your natural eye-line – so you end up playing the notes almost blind.
With that in mind, I knew that the there had to be a prominent ‘bout’, or ‘horn’ to the top of the body. It would also have to reach and overhang the twelfth fret to balance correctly (I already knew this from all the useful and free R&D work that Leo Fender had done for me!). I wanted a non-symmetrical design, with a twist on the famous Fender Jazz shape at the rear (which I believe they refer to as the ‘Offset Waist Contour’): My shape would angle backwards – the reverse way that you’d expect. I was then going to produce an outsized and aggressive rear bout at the top – sweep that down into the waist, and then end that in a straight line as it rose back up to form the front bout.
One thing I’d especially loved about the early Fenders (after they progressed from slab-bodies in the 1950’s), was the deep belly-pan contour on the reverse of the bass, and the angled chamfer on the top, rear bout, where your arm and wrist curled around to strike the strings by the bridge. But I wanted to make those deeper – much deeper. I planned on hacking nearly halfway into the body, and then hand-sanding those contours so that they became fluid and organic. The aim of all of this, was to have no edges to the bass, and make it both ultra-comfortable to play – and to throw around on stage.
The main choices on wood were also easy: I just copied the best Fender specifications: Alder for the body, Maple for the neck, and Rosewood for the fingerboard. The only thing that I really agonized over, was the top, or fascia. I wanted a natural wood finish, with Satin Lacquer, so the wood quality had to be excellent. I ended up finding a brilliant wood in a timber yard: Cocobolo. This is a Mexican hardwood that’s exceptionally slow-growing. As such, it’s incredibly dense and hard wearing, but it was the benefit of the intricate and dense grain that I was struck by. When I found my slab of Cocobolo, I abandoned the original idea of making up a ‘sandwich’ of different woods (to give the effect of a ‘straight-through’ neck). Instead, the Cocobolo was spliced in half; one half was then turned around, and then glued back, to make a symmetrical ‘book-matched’ fascia. Admittedly, the Cocobolo is a tough wood to work with, it won’t sand easily as it feels exactly like slate, and only releases orange oil when sanded – it just doesn’t erode well. It’s also not really suitable for gluing (as the oil repels the solvents), but I didn’t care: I wanted it.
I’d also decided to have Mother-Of-Pearl inlaid block-markers for the frets. This was another feature I’d admired on Jazz basses I’d owned (and Rickenbackers, with their diagonal-cut versions). Given the choice, I would have bound the fingerboard too, but this was a first build for me – and I’m a novice builder, so I decided to rein the ambition in a little). I also chose Ultra-Fine nickel fret wire in yet another bid to emulate the slender feel of some of my beloved Pre-CBS Fenders.
I also decided on what I refer to as an: ‘Upside-Down, Reverse-Lefty’ Headstock. I can’t really explain why. I just thought it would look groovy. The traditional headstock shape was spun through 180 degrees, and all the tuning pegs were mounted upside down, and angled-back, so that when the bass was played standing up, the pegs would more or less be pointing straight down, parallel with my torso. I also opted for a head-stock that was angled back at 12 degrees from the neck, which necessitated a two-piece neck, with a ‘Scarf-Joint’. This distributes string pressure evenly across the nut, and helps the bass stay in tune much better, and for longer. And it looks awesome! Yes, it’s more brittle because of the join, and more prone to snapping if you’re really heavy-handed and drop it, but the benefits are definitely worth it.
I wanted a simple electronics system too: I hate messing around, trying to get a sound at rehearsals and gigs. That’s one of the reasons that I love Fender Precisions so much: Having tuned them and plugged them in, I just whack the volume and tone controls to maximum; roll off a little of the tone (so you have some ‘cut’ in reserve), and then just play. I love Rickenbacker 4001’s, but it takes me an age to fathom a sound, with two volume knobs, two tones, and a three-way pick up switch. It’s just too many permutations for my simple brain.
I had also read that Tony Butler (the bassist for Big Country – and one of my all-time bas heroes), actually had the tone controls in his Precisions bypassed so they simply didn’t work. I liked that, and I then read that Les Claypool of Primus had started doing the same thing. When you think about it, the EQ controls on any amplifier really ought to give you all the variety you need. With that in mind, I took the brave decision to only have a single volume knob: No tone controls at all.
The final decision was hardware. I’d chosen Gotoh parts for the Bridge, Volume Pot, Jack-Plug, and Machine Heads. They were chrome finish and heavy duty. Gotoh are great quality, and the only real decision I had, was whether to go for chrome, brass, black or gunmetal finish. I nearly went for brass, for both its qualities of sustain, and the fact that it could have made quite a striking, retro-1980’s finish (especially next to the dark, Cocobolo wood), but decided against it. Gunmetal came a close second, and in many ways, I wished I’d opted for it, but it doesn’t wear as well as chrome. The current fashion with Luthiers seems to be for black hardware, and for that reason alone, I didn’t choose it (it would ‘date’ the bass in future)! Chrome seemed to be a good, all-round, classic choice. I chose the smallest machine heads possible, as the neck really slender, with an elegant headstock design, so I wanted to accentuate that.
So what does it sound like?
Freakin’ awesome. I’m utterly delighted with the choice of pick-ups. I could have gone for much ‘hotter’ output versions, but I’m a vintage man, and was hell-bent on capturing that old-school sound, that would compliment the Ampeg SVT valve rig I play through. It’s impossible to describe sound accurately, so you’ll just have to trust me on this one.
The important thing, for me, comes back to ‘feel’. This bass feels right; it ‘speaks’ to me; and it finally means that I’ve got the best bass in the World, no contest. I think that really could only have been achieved by the organic – even spiritual – experience of building it myself. The gradual moulding and hand-sanding, the obsessive rituals of going backwards and forwards, repeating tasks until I was 100% happy.
The quest of buying basses has now finally stopped, in fact, I can finally start letting go and thinning the bass collection out, because I can’t possibly play that many basses. If you feel like assisting me in letting those basses go to a good home, then check these rare and vintage beauties out >>>
If you missed the blogs, detailing and illustrating the entire build of this bass, then you can skip to any part of the 7-day process right here:
by Junk Male on April 19, 2012