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.