Friday, December 21, 2012

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Summer Guitar Project 2012 Part III

I'll probably post some pictures once I get everything. I'm going to try and assemble it all in one day. Hopefully. I don't foresee any big difficulties, but there are a few things that may be tricky:
  • Neck fit
  • Drilling holes
  • Soldering electronics
The neck pocket is about 1/16 of an inch too narrow. I'm not sure if that's due to the paint, but I'll have to sand the pocket to allow a nice tight fit. On top of that, none of the holes are drilled for any of the hardware. The plate, pick guard, strap buttons and bridge need to have screw holes drilled. I also have to drill a channel for the bridge grounding wire.

I'm no soldering master, but I'm going to put it all together myself. I apologize if this is boring or the terminology doesn't make sense. Google it.


When you think of Jazz basses, there's a distinctive sound that has evolved over the years. Fender Jazz basses usually employ two single coil pickups, with one toward the neck and one located toward the bridge. Two volume knobs and a tone knob adjust the sound. Pickups are comprised of some sort of ceramic or alnico magnet and wrapped wire. Looking at vintage Fender Jazz pickups the DC resistance of both the neck and the bridge pickups come in between 7.0-8.0.

Single coil pickups have a 60 cycle hum. Turn up that volume and the hum is apparent. That's why they invented humbucking pickups with dual coil wire wraps to eliminate the hum. It isn't a bad thing though. That's just part of the sound of the bass. With proper shielding and grounding, the hum isn't so bad. Some players prefer that sound, and pickup makers continue to reproduce pickups to vintage spec.

That vintage sound is hard to come by unless you have vintage gear laying around. Spend the right amount of money and you can approximate the sound of a vintage bass. Who cares about vintage sound? It all depends on the music you play, and that vintage tone would be inappropriate for certain styles of music. Jazz pickups are made with all sorts of materials these days, in any configuration possible. Some musicians have made a name for themselves based on the sound of their recordings.

I wanted to find some pickups that were split coil humbucking pickups. I don't care for the hum, from all those years of playing an active bass. Looking around the best pickups are probably Nordstrads. They are hand wired and can be set up to replicate the real deal. They're expensive but high quality pickups.

Then I came up on the Dimarzio Model J pickups. I haven't seen a bad review for them, and from what Ican tell, bridge the gap between vintage and modern sound without losing the low-end. I don't want a super hot pickup, and I don't really want something that will be unjazz sounding because this is a fretless. The magnetic poles look.. adjustable? Getting the pickup height is important to be able to get the correct volume for each string.

So I got the Model J's. Other folk's on the internet have said that they are really good for fretless. That's cool. What's better is these pickups have a four wire configuration that will allow me to wire them to push/pull pots in the future. That way I can switch from series to parallel whenever I want, altering the tone.


Then comes the wiring.

It seems like there's probably four or five different ways to wire a Jazz bass. They all work, and I can't really decide what the difference is. I can't read a schematic. It's all nonsense to me. Here are a few ways to wire this... and they all are very similar, but the differences with grounding and some other soldering locations puzzles me.

Fender Jazz Wiring
So I went to Fender's website and looked at their basic Jazz wiring diagram. It looks different from the others, but if it works for Fender... it should work for me. I hesitate to seriously solder anything, but here goes nothing. If it doesn't work, I'll try another diagram.

I also want to shield the inside cavity with copper tape, just in case. It's always a good thing to do even with the humbucking pickups. 

Next time: Finishing up and strings!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Summer Guitar Project 2012 Part II

This is Part II of my incredible Summer Guitar Project 2012. I talked about necks and tuners before and now we go down the list to some other hardware that makes up a bass guitar. In the search for perfect tone, players go to great lengths to find the best hardware. 


Bridges are one of the contact points on a stringed instrument that hold the string in place, and can be set to improve playability or intonation. Adjustments made to the saddles on a bass can increase or decrease the scale length of an individual string. Bridges for guitars and basses come in all shapes and sizes, each with their own claims to increased sustain and tone. Every player wants to zero in on the perfect tone, and the bridge is a good place to start. 

Bridge design on most Fender basses is pretty consistent: a big bent piece of brass holds the string to flimsy spring loaded saddles that probably will buzz, and move around after awhile due to vibration. Fender hasn't deviated from this design in sixty years, so why would they stop now? I dislike those bridges just because the tiny parts tend to move around too much. It isn't as solid as I would want it to be.

Early Fender bridges have threaded saddles which probably help if the player wanted to adjust string spacing. Here's a bridge from an early 1960's bass and you'll see what I mean:

I looked around for alternatives and saw some interesting designs by Hipshot:

Look at any boutique/custom bass and you'll probably find one of these heavy brass Hipshot bridges. A lot of musicians endorse them, and luthiers like the no nonsense adjustability of the saddles. Probably an awesome bridge, and my Ibanez bass has something very similar. But it seems like every bass under the Sun uses them: from F Bass to Xylem. I wanted something a little different. 

Leo Quan has been making brass bass bridges (say that five times fast) since forever, and their bridges are often the first thing people turn to when they make upgrades to their instrument. Their Badass bridges I-III are common, but something about the pointy saddle bugged me. I've heard reviews that suggest the pointy saddle contact point can damage strings or cause spacing problems without filing a notch. Other musicians swear by them. Who knows. Overall, it didn't seem like much of an improvement from the original Fender design. 
I eventually settled on a new bridge designed by Babicz. They say their bridges provide a solid contact point for each string, increasing sustain, tones, whatever. I was sold when I saw that their bridges are not only fully adjustable, but you can lock those setting into place and forget about it. Every time you change strings, you have to spend time to adjust the bridge, saddle and spacing. This bridge locks it down so that isn't a problem. This bridge had good reviews and the price was right, so I went for it. It is surprisingly light and looks incredibly solid.


When I talked about tone earlier, I said that guitarist believe that anything from the nut, bridge, finish, and wood of the guitar has a great effect on sound of an instrument. Perhaps on an acoustic instrument... but on solid body guitars... I think that the pickups and amplification have more to do with the initial reception of how it sounds. You could honestly slap a pickup on a hockey stick and make a crazy guitar out of it.

And it would probably sound good.

I don't know how tonewoods really effect the sound, but I was looking for a solid body that didn't weigh a ton, and was prepainted. I don't feel like painting another guitar. I don't have the room, or the time to paint, wet sand between coats, and then spray a hard lacquer that has to cure and harden for a couple of weeks. There are many places on the interwebs that do all the work for you... with good results. I chose a lightweight palouwnia body that is really light. I'm amazed how light it is. Black. No nonsense. 

The routing for the pickups and neck looks good. I'll have to drill holes for the hardware, grounding wire, and pickguard, but that's ok. If everything fits together it should work out.

Next time: Wiring and Pickups.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Summer Guitar Project 2012 Part I

This Summer I thought that I'd try my hand at building my own bass guitar. I have tinkered around with guitar stuff in the past, building a Telecaster style guitar a few years back. This time I wanted to make a bass because I consider myself a bassist first and foremost. My main bass that I've played for over 10 years is an Ibanez 5-string that I picked up in High school. A great instrument, but I've always wanted a fretless bass. I love the sound of a fretless, the woody mwah tone that I've heard on many albums. I also wanted to go back to a four string bass, just for simplicity sake.  With some talk of jamming with some work friends in a bluegrass type of thing... a new bass would really be interesting.

My original idea was to find wood, glue it all together and actually make a through neck style bass guitar. But then I remembered that I didn't want to turn my kitchen or office into a woodshop. I'm too impatient anyway.  Woodworking takes time if you want to do it right, and the thought of sanding and carving without the proper tools just wouldn't work right now. I hate sanding. Someday, when I have the room and the time, I will clamp together a bunch of exotic hardwoods and build a bass... but that won't be for a while.

So I'll assemble the perfect bass guitar. I didn't want to break the bank, but I did want quality parts. I went with a Fender Jazz design, because, let's be honest, aftermarket parts are plentiful throughout the internet.

I broke it down to eight core elements:
  • tuning machines
  • fretless neck
  • body
  • bridge
  • pickups
  • wiring 
  • miscellaneous hardware: strap buttons, screws, wiring plate, pickguard
  • strings

Bass tuners range in size and their ability to hold the string securely on the headstock. On any string instrument, tuners that turn easily and stay in place are the best because they keep your strings in tune. Imagine that.

For the tuners, I wanted the traditional "elephant ear" or "clover leaf" style Fender tuners, and I found that there are a wide variety of vintage and modern-style tuners. I'm not sure about the tuning ability of most makes, but in general I wanted that classic Fender look. I always liked the big beefy chrome or nickel machines on the back of the headstock, so I looked around for 70's style tuners.

1970's Trapezoidal Fender Tuning machines 
Then I found that the early 1960's reverse style tuners looked even more massive, and in general pleased my eye more when lined up. They probably aren't the best tuners, but to me getting the look right was more important. I found a set. 

Fender Reverse Tuners (reissue)
Then I stumbled upon an even rarer version of these tuners: the 1966 Jazz Oval reverse tuners seen here:

Totally rare, totally awesome, and totally peculiar to the 1966 Fender Jazz model, as you can see in this photo of Paul McCartney using that bass in Abbey Road studios during the making of the Beatles' White Album. I've seen these tuners go for about $600 on eBay. 

Maybe I'll make a fretted Jazz someday... depends how this build turns out though. I may retire from guitar making all together if I can't figure this out. 


The next thing I needed was to source out a fretless neck. There are many places that have licensed fender necks on the internet: Warmoth, Allparts, etc. But I know where they probably source all their products from: China. So why not go to the source? There are lots of quality builders in China these days.. and after some deep searching of the internet marketplace, found a parts place that produced fretless versions of their bass necks: 

They've since increased the pricing which makes me happy that I got my neck when I did. I can tell these necks are just the unfinished fretless versions on of their regular necks because the side dots markers are in the wrong place: in between fret positions instead on being exactly on the position. The fingerboard is unlined, and I like that. I'm going to make subtle fret line markers in between the dot markers to help with fingering intonation. The neck is nice, and there were no flaws in the design that I can find. The nut looks suspect, but that is easily fixed. The tuning holes line up nice, and the overall feel of the neck contour is nice. 

Since there are no frets on this neck, where my finger makes contact with the fingerboard is essentially where the "fret" is. If my finger is off slightly, the result will be a note that is out of tune. Practice is important to develop the right muscle memory to hit the right place on the fingerboard to stay in tune. 

That's it for now. I'll talk about the body and bridge next time. 

Monday, April 16, 2012

New childs

I've got a daughter now.

Friday morning we went to the hospital and my amazing wife had our daughter, Allie. Everything worked out perfect, and it couldn't have gone smoother.

It seemed better than when my son was born. I slept better the first night, and endeavored to eat food outside of the hospital this time. Nat ordered room service and the little girl was content with her new parents.

Lots of family visited and I was wondering how my son would take to having a new sister. He seemed to not even notice. He was more inclined to push buttons, crawl under the bed, open drawers and doors, and scream every time we tried to take a picture. So it worked out.
We drove home a couple days later and have had terrible sleep ever since.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Morning Rush

Working nights has a weird effect on me. I've been doing it for 2 months.. and since I've started I've found that the little time I have in the mornings to watch my son and do things around the house are all I really get... by the time I come home at night, I'm so tired that I can't stay up to get all the things done that I'd like to. My art has fallen off, my podcast died, video games are hard to play, and thinking of things to blog about is a distant memory type of thing.

I need a better schedule to figure things out... and just get out of my house. Or I get sucked into a time warp where I don't know where my time goes. So I propose the following schedule:

Sesame Street.
Time at the park with my son and dog.
Naps (if necessary)
Clean up.
Get ready for work

I'm going to have to find time on the weekend to catch up on art projects and everything else. House projects, cleaning, and finally organizing myself. I'll probably have to figure out a weekend schedule as well.


I don't know if this working evenings thing will last forever. It probably won't and I'll have to readjust again. Maybe I'll start to enjoy it. Who knows. I like where I'm at but I wish I could do more.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Name Game

I can't decide on a name for my kid. We are having a girl in April and she doesn't have a name. I'm not worried though, because I don't decide until I actually know it is a child and not some space monster. Until then, I'll just have to veto all the bad names. My wife believes that this is heresy and that a name must be chosen to ensure our unborn child's ultimate success in this world. I don't really see the problem. We've still got time.

How do you name someone? I just don't like deciding things that are permanent. It's like getting a tattoo or LASIK or something. You could mess it up and that kid has to live with the name forever. A tattoo I can hide, but calling your kid some yuppie name is unacceptable. Do I live with weird name guilt because I've been harassed my whole life because I share the same name as a former frontiersman who died in the Alamo? I don't know. It's a strange situation.

I just don't want to be the guy with weird named kids. That's all.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

blog neglect

Blog neglect. It's a terrible thing.

At work today I was looking through old yearbooks again and this time I found a couple from Rice University from the early 50's. I was surprised to see some promotional artwork from Walt Kelly's comic strip Pogo. I looked around the internets and wasn't able to figure out this connection to Rice. It may have been during the Pogo for President campaign. Even though Pogo was before my time as Sunday morning Comics reader, I've enjoyed Kelly's cartoon art style. He worked at Disney before going into comics, and his art definitely shows that style. I still think his influence is seen all over daily comics today.

Volume 1 of the Complete Pogo Daily and Sunday Comic Strips was released in December. I would love to get my grubby drawing hands on that.