Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Chocobass is Delicious (the build and radical voicing)

OK, this took way too long to post, but seven months after this build and almost endless adjustments at least I have clarity when it comes to the (very happy) ending of this story. All I have to do is review the photos in order to step back and remember it all.

When we left off LAST YEAR, Chocobass was ready for assembly. All of the parts certainly looked delicious, but you NEVER know how an instrument will feel, play and sound until it's done. There's a certain magic involved in this, regardless of skill level; the randomness of the Universe, where, like a great band, the individual parts come together and - hopefully - combine to make something greater and unexpected. Or at least something playable.

No, playable isn't enough, I have plenty of those. Chocobass needs to be something SPECIAL.

All of the routed areas are shielded with copper tape.

Even the electronics were as vintage-style as possible, including a .1MFD 150VCD repro vintage-style "phone book" oil-in-paper capacitor. The electronics was so basic that this huge capacitor fits under the plate with no problem.

Gorgeous when assembled - too bad the rounded bottom of the neck will require a pickguard to hide the square neck pocket route.

The vintage-style plastic bridge saddles are also beautiful; too bad they will remain hidden under a bridge cover plate.

I decided to reshape the Squier pickguard to fit Choco's contours as best as possible, which will ultimately be used as a template for a hand-made pickguard.



































 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

Yes, She's Pretty, But Can She Sing?

Upon completion of this bass, I took it for a spin on my next Zeppelin Live gig, careful to take all my guitar tools along with me in order to tweak as needed. My immediate reaction - what happened to the bottom? This thing is physically the heaviest bass I have ever played, but the E string just disappears, especially from G on down! This brought home one of the problems described earlier - the first P-Basses had a much more defined curve across the front of the fingerboard, so the custom single pickup I had ordered reflected this, with very high A and D pole pieces, which are NOT adjustable.

Well, with the help of Mr. Dremmel and some radical voicing, now they are...


I also found my thumb constantly fishing around for a comfortable place to sit while playing. All original Fender Basses had a "tug bar", which we now refer to as a "thumb rest", installed below the strings on the face of the body. This was NOT designed for the thumb - it was designed to rest the hand and/or fingers on, using the thumb to pluck (or tug) downwards on the strings (early electric bassists were trying to reproduce the sound of a thumpy acoustic bass). Only later in the 60's or 70's did bass players insist on these things above the pickups, so they could rest their thumbs on them and use their fingers to pull/pluck upwards on the strings. I sometimes find myself conflicted when building a vintage-style bass - the thumb rest looks correct below the pickups, but is thoroughly useless to me unless it's above. For Choco, I went for utility instead of correctness, and made a thumb rest from scratch using a walnut scrap from the body, taping it on until I found just the right distance and height for my playing style.


 
OK, so now it feels better, and the pole pieces are basically all the same height, pretty much matching the shallow curve of the neck. But the E string STILL seemed weak.

My next thought turned to the strings. Maybe I just had a bad E string, like a recent set of rather expensive Pyramids I installed on a Hofner club bass (which they happily and quickly replaced, solving the problem)? I contacted La Bella, and even sent them an audio file of the bass. They insisted it sounded fine to them, but I know what I felt onstage. This was the first time I had tried their Low Tension flats, and perhaps the E gauge was just too light to balance with the other strings. So at the next Zep gig I brought the bass, my tools, and a heavier E string from their Deep Talkin' flat set, and switched the E string during a set break so I could try them both on the same night, with all the same gear.
This was me (with an onstage friend) trying Choco with different low E strings that night. I was smiling because I like dinosaurs, not because I liked the bass - yet...

Conclusion? The heavier string was a bit louder, but the low end was still bad (actually unusable compared to the Jazz-style bass I also played that night). I was finally forced to accept that it was perhaps the pickup that was to blame - at least I tried everything else first.

This pickup, as had a few sets installed and written about here before, was hand made for me by a pickup builder in Santa Fe Springs, CA. I have loved his P and J pickups, so I asked him to build me a '51 single coil bass pickup, which he said he had never done before. I don't know if his first stab at this just didn't turn out great, of if the problem is the pickup design in general (remember, I never liked the other two Fender Japan reissue '51 P Basses I owned), but this was just not cutting it. I tried repeatedly to get in touch with Mark to see if he could remake it, or even try a split or stacked-coil version (which would also be noiseless), but since mid 2015 I have been unable to reach him. He has either moved, or changed his number and email address, or went out of biz, or...

Remember Sting's '54 P-Bass? I read up on it, and his guitar tech had installed a Seymour Duncan Custom Shop stacked-coil in it (which is not only quieter, but with more traditional P-Bass low end and tone). I spent sometime searching for an affordable stacked pickup option (unlike the SD Custom Shop pickup, I am VERY cheap), but luckily found a used Custom Shop SD for about $150 shipped. With all the time and $$ invested in Choco, I decided now was not the time to cheap out on the pickup, so I bit the bullet and went for it.

Note that the SD Custom Shop pickup pole pieces are pretty consistently flat, not raised in the center like the vintage-style single coil. 


After installing this pickup and plugging in - BAM - everything sounded GREAT! La Bella, please accept my apologies, your Low Tension flats are as amazing as your other strings (it's very buttery and balanced), and this bass has so much low end now that, well, it almost has too much bottom. I was able to readjust the string heights to a playable level, and even drop the pickup back a hair so the bass is vintagy warm without distorting.

Last but not least, I purchased some glossy black single ply pickguard material. Using the altered one, I cut a final and perfectly-fitted pickguard that hugged the bottom of the neck, closing up the unsightly gaps (not unlike cosmetic dentistry).





























































And so, my build of what was originally a simplest/primitive bass guitar design is complete. Instead of simple, it was probably the longest and most complex build I have ever attempted, considering all of the fixes and tweaks required to finally dial it in. In the end, it is a true hybrid of the simplest and most advanced instrument materials and technology, with a heavy single piece wood body and oil finish complementing a state of the art modern pickup and graphite composite neck. It plays incredibly easy and smoothly, has very low tension, and has a huge full tone. The only drawback might be the weight, but it hasn't been a problem for me as I rarely use the same bass all night anyway, and when it comes to tone and mass - with basses - you usually get what you pay for (so to speak). I look forward to recording with this beast someday.

One More Thing: Just In Case...

Cases are very important to me (to protect and transport), and I really felt that Choco deserved a special home to live in. A local Craigslister had posted a few of these oddly-shaped fiberglass bass cases, and I offered to trade him what was my first acoustic guitar, given to me by my parents on my birthday when I has probably 15 or 16 years old, but with which I have absolutely no use for these last couple of decades (I have a wonderful Gibson J45 I purchased new sometime around 1998). I have tried selling it so that another young budding guitarist might play it, but could not even find someone to give it away to. Hopefully this case dealer (he had so many cases!) will sell it to someone looking to learn guitar, and I now have a fitting (and well-fitted) retro-looking but very protective case for Choco to reside and be transported in, when it's not sitting on a stand right next to my desk for easy and regular noodling. A lesson in patience and perseverance, and an instrument to cherish.

More Salted Chocolate

We recently watched a bio pic of the writer/director Nora Ephron, which included her list of favorite things she will miss (written while she was slowly dying of cancer). Aside from the argument that, once dead, you are not actually capable of missing anything, my list must include salted dark chocolate. Although my sweet spot (pun intended) for great dark chocolate is in the 65-70% range, I got an online offer to try Godiva's web store, and ordered their 3-bar Dark Chocolate Lover's Tasting Set. The 72% was OK if slightly more bitter than I prefer, and the Dark with Almonds was OK as well, but the set also included a 50% with Sea Salt.


Bingo!

This chocolate bar is super smooth and surprisingly now one of my very favorites, and I say that knowing quite well that it's from a very mainstream, large corporate chocolatier (originally Belgian, but still made in Germany). As their flavors tend to be a bit darker than I expect, the 50% turns out to have the right amount of sweetness to go with the salt. This 3-pack sells on their site regularly for $13 plus shipping, but they periodically offer free shipping along with other deals. The first time I ordered this, it costs me about $2 total, and arrived in a ridiculously large box packed with ice. It occurred to me that maybe that's how they ship just your first order, in order to convince you to buy again, and although the next time I ordered this same 3-pack it came in a smaller box with no ice, all other orders since have been over-packed the same as my initial try-out.

As I only really love the 50% w/salt, I have emailed asking if they would consider ever putting that one on sale (as a 3 pack, or whatever). They said they would keep it in mind, but I'm not holding my breath. I occasionally reorder this sampler pack and put up with the other two bars in order to be able to enjoy this one, but just a few weeks ago I saw the 50% w/salt on sale at Walgreens for $2.50 each/4 for $10, so I'm sure it will grace my chocolate drawer again in the future.

Yes, I have a chocolate drawer. I shares the space with my forks and knives, but make no mistake - it's NOT a cutlery drawer. It's a CHOCOLATE drawer.

Chocobass Pt. 1, Jaguar Bass V3.0, and Chocolate Crack

(originally posted August 2015) It's been a while since I've posted anything new (disappointing both of my readers, I'm sure), but it's not because I have not been building/rebuilding/contemplating basses - and chocolate, of course. The Swiss Army Knife Jaguar bass I built in 2014 has morphed two times already; lacking real presence on the bottom end, I first replaced the active EMGs with a nice new set of passive P/J pickups courtesy Scott Wunschel at EMG Pickups, but it still lacked something compared to some of my better basses. Next I replaced the custom Moses neck with a very nice (and reasonably priced @$120) bound vintage tint Japanese-made Jazz bass neck, a bit more in line cosmetically with Jaguar basses. 

 Applying my Funster decal to the bound neck

The Hipshot Lollipop tuners also get moved over to the new neck.




























At home on my little amp it still seemed to lack a strong E string, and I'm of the opinion it's because of the lightweight basswood Squier body. I went on eBay and found tonewood supplier Classic Tonewoods (and classictonewoods.com) who had listed a solid one piece Walnut guitar blank. It was just big enough for a Jaguar bass body, so I thought I would try it. He planed and cut the body shape for me, and it's a gorgeous piece of wood:



























Walnut on my mind

This brings me to the topic of Walnut (and, to me anyway, it's relation to chocolate). I grew up in a carpenter/builder's home, and would spend many hours in my dad's shop working with woods, occasionally ruining and/or losing his tools (I still have a couple to this day, but I've made it up to him by occasionally buying him a new ones). Other than Pine or other similar soft woods, the only hardwood I had regular access to was Oak (I can still remember the Oak paneling in the first home we lived in, which we moved out of when I was 4 or 5yrs old). I started working with smaller pieces of hardwoods by the time I got into wood shop in high school, where I made one of the first basses with a nice piece of Ash the shop teacher was squirreling away for his own uses (he was NOT happy). Three of my earliest home-made basses, one fretted and two fretless, were made all of Oak. I still have the fretted "Flinstone bass" and an unfinished fretless, but regret having sold off the other finished fretless decades ago.



















Once in college and playing in my first real band (a Rush tribute with a generous helping of Zeppelin, The Police, etc), I acquired a very nice Fender Jazz neck (to this day the neck width and profile I am most at home playing), and made a body out of Walnut. As I remember the body shape was kind of a cross between an Explorer and a Rickenbacker, but no photos of it exist that I can find. I still remember the smell of the Walnut dust, and the dark brown color of walnut, stained and sealed, is to me the ultimate delicious brown (I built much of my current kitchen cabinetry and counters out of Walnut):


It's also a rather heavy and dense wood, which is SUPPOSED to translate into more mass and deeper bass; one of my best and fullest sounding basses is the 13lb Precision featured in the header image with the chunk of chocolate. I'm trying to remember the tone of that college Walnut-bodied bass, but as it was early in my playing career I didn't have much to compare it to. All I can remember is that it played very easily, and I played this bass exclusively for 4-5 years, before taking out my first ever bank loan to purchase a Steinberger L2 bass (mentioned briefly in a past post, and to be featured in one in the near future). I still have the L2, but the Walnut bass with the Jazz neck must have been sold soon after, because I no longer have it. The Steinberger was essentially my only bass for the next almost 20 years, simply because there was no way to improve on it, which I realized the second I played my first one. Only until I joined a Who tribute in the mid-aughts did my full blown Bass Lust emerge, and I became interested in having and/or making many other more traditional (wooden) bass guitars.

The extra weight and mass of Walnut, along with the beautiful dark brown color, makes the wood a very attractive alternative to the lightweight basswood Jaguar body, and might just solve the problem that still plagued this bass. But it also seemed to me that, along with the now available black Moses neck, an oil-finished Walnut body could make a very aesthetically pleasing P Bass, in the style of the original 1951-4 Fender Precision (now sometimes called a Telecaster Bass), but with a more organic contoured body like Fender started offering by the mid-1950's.

An original 1953 Fender Precision bass, THE original electric bass guitar. 

 
Sting's beat-to-shit '53 Sunburst Precision Bass, all original except for the bridge and pickup, an updated split-coil Seymour Duncan model. 

I have owned two of the Japaneses Fender re-issue 51 Precision basses, and even with some pickup and bridge mods they were ultimately disappointing. The neck seems needlessly chunky, and to me the tone was never great, neither full nor bright enough, so both were traded/sold. But Sting has used one of these basses as his ONLY go to bass for more than 20 years, so there must be something to them (there certainly must be something about THAT one). Maybe this combo of a Jazz profile neck (even though it has a Tele-style headstock) and Walnut body, with the right pickup, would give me both a dark, warm tone and the visual equivalent of a nice dark chocolate.

I tracked down a Walnut P Bass body on eBay, but when it arrived I found too many problems with it, including being thinner than advertised, with edge routing too extreme for the pickguard, etc. While processing the return, I again checked with Tyler at Classic Tonewoods, and he had this beautiful 1-piece blank:


I was informed by the shop I was going to use to route and drill the Walnut Jaguar body that they needed an uncut blank to put it on the CnC machine, so although I was SOL with the Jag, I could (hypothetically) get a precise, computer-controlled cut, routed and drilled Precision Bass body from this Walnut board. I called the grower and made the deal, and took delivery of this beautiful one piece Walnut blank.

Knowing that this project would move forward, I consulted the bible of early Precision basses for details on parts, builds and finishes, Detlef Schmidt's FENDER PRECISION BASSES 1951-1954:
This book is awesome bass porn!

Finding this book ruined me. After giving up on two of these basses (albeit reissues), I never thought I would care about this model again. But this book reignited my interest in the original electric bass, and although I will never be a high-dollar collector, of course I was bound to build one. The great thing about the book are the photos and descriptions of many of the earliest models, giving this copy monkey everything he needed to either duplicate, or if I chose, deviate from the original design. It also meant I would be able to better recognize the manufacturing errors and problems with all of the parts assembled for my build, making it a much longer and more tedious process than I could have anticipated, but theoretically and ultimately correct.

In Part 2 we will see just how many problems, inconsistencies and mis-fitting parts there can be in one build, and the patience required to overcome these challenges. 

Chocolate Crack

Ok, it's a trite phrase, and since I've never actually done crack it's difficult to really compare, but I have heard the crack is "really wonderful"...

On my most recent gig trip through Tokyo's Hamada Airport, I found this chocolate in a refrigerated case at Duty Free:



Oh Nama! This stuff is very similar in textured to very fine fudge, but much lighter and devoid of all that dairy. It's triple packed inside, comes with a sort of wooden serving knife, and is supplied with ice packs to keep it cold until you get it home. 


Needless to say the first box barely made it home (I had eaten most of it during the 13 hour delay and 11 hour flight back to Los Angeles). But after trying the first piece at the airport, I purchased a second sealed box to open later. The texture is incredibly smooth, and the flavor is EVERYTHING I could possibly ask for from both chocolate and bass guitar tone. It's so rich that a couple of small pieces per sitting is more than sufficient - very dark chocolate, but extremely smooth and not at all bitter - and keeps for weeks in the refrigerator. We chocolate snobs would never consider putting good chocolate in the refrigerator, because it would ruin it (mostly by separating the oils from the solids), but whomever came up with this confection deserves a Nobel Prize in Chemistry (my apologies and congrats to actual Nobel Laureates).  

Finding this while in the middle of my Walnut bass build, which I was already going to name Chocobass because of the dark brown finish I planned for the Walnut body, now presented a challenge. As careful as I am while building a bass, selecting the neck and body, accumulating complimentary parts, and patiently assembling the instrument, I never really know if the end result will actually be what I have hoped for until it's completed. I know Chocobass will look delicious, but could its tone also have the same deep, dark and rich (without bitterness) flavor as this amazing Japanese chocolate?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Chocobass Pt. 2: Prepping the Parts (and drinking your pudding)


Choosing the right parts for the correct bass build is one thing; prepping and getting them to fit together should be easy, but is usually just the opposite. I suppose if I bought only Fender or Fender-authorized parts, then they would all fit perfectly, but even that is not true. Fender's specs for the same bass made in the US, Mexico, Japan or elsewhere in Asia can vary wildly, and after-market parts manufacturers can copy specs from any of these, or make up new ones, without even knowing the difference.

Something as simple as the correct bridge for this bass required parts from three different sources. The original 1951 P Bass bridge had Bakelite saddles, an early type of plastic very common in 1920s-1950s manufacturing. This material affects the sound of the bass, as well as the sustain, and was regularly replaced with metal saddle pieces as they aged, cracked or worn out (even Fender switched the bridge design within a few years to all-metal).
An original 51 P Bass bridge with old, worn-out Bakelite saddles. 

But I have enough bright P Basses with long sustain and perfect intonation... The whole purpose of building this bass was to get something with a different visual and aural character, including an authentic vintage sound. I started with an Asian-made bridge, a correct 2-saddle model, but with metal saddles. I then ordered off of eBay plastic saddles (not sure if they are actually Bakelite) hand-made to match the originals. After stamping the bridge with similar (if not perfect) markings based on vintage photos (FUNSTER instead of FENDER, and for the date 2015) I aged the metal along with the rest of the metal parts in muriatic acid fumes. 



After a day, the finish surface of the parts is eaten away; cleaning them up with a brush and steel wool gets the gunk and rust off. New repro parts now look 60 years old, but still function as new, ready to install.
Of course, it's never that easy. The new saddles required different and larger adjustment screws and fatter springs, which I found amongst my spare parts. The final bridge looks quite old, but with new plastic saddles. Even though I also aged the correct bridge and pickup covers and may never see the bridge, the Art is in the details.  


The Moses neck I am using was originally made to my specs for a different bass (my Swiss Army Knife Jaguar bass), which, on a whim, I ordered with a 51 P Bass headstock profile. It looked fine on the Jag, but it's perfect for this bass (and the Jazz Bass neck profile will be much more comfortable for me to play). But the shallower, more modern radius (the curve on the face of the neck) and the rounded butt-end of the neck (where it fits into the body) would create more problems with the fit, assembly and voicing of this bass.

Three attempts at replacing the gold Funster sticker with white ones ended in disaster, so I went back to my last gold one, still not perfect, but since I can no longer get a hold of the guy who printed them for me, it will do have to do. 

Then the relic' vintage style Grover tuners needed to be installed in the neck head. These things are huge, and I would have never used them if the body wasn't so heavy. They were also a very tight fit in the back of the headstock, requiring some elongating of the holes and some aluminum tape inside the front ferrules for a tighter fit.

These graphite necks are also very difficult to screw into. It proved almost impossible to get any of them flush into the back of the tuners without snapping off the screw heads. Eventually, I figured out the proper length to cut them in order to hold the tuners with a flush fit. With wood, this is SO much easier...


The Body

The only part of this bass that has to be built from scratch is the body. The whole point of this build was Walnut, and after receiving the one-piece Walnut Jaguar body mentioned in Pt. 1, my mind was made up. My first shot at this was purchasing an already-cut Walnut body from eBay. Unfortunately, they planed it a bit too thin, and tried using a router to contour the front and back, but used too large of a bit, and the edges were way too deeply rounded.

I returned it, and instead ordered the new, one-piece Walnut blank from the same tonewood who sold me the Jag bass body. This time I needed the uncut rectangular piece In order to get it CnC'd. I have all the tools to cut and route it myself, but I didn't have all the correct templates. I also wanted perfect placement of the neck pocket, pickup and bridge that only a computer could provide. Unfortunately, there were still more variables that I had not considered. 

After getting the bass body cut and routed, I realize that all of these basses were originally matched with a square-end neck. Even though I brought the Moses neck with me to confirm the neck pocket shape, there was still an unsightly gap between the bottom corners of the neckand the body. It was tight and usable, but it was not the perfect neck pocket fit I had hoped for, and dashed any chances I had of eliminating the need for a pickguard (which would now be needed to hide the gaps).

I expected the Squire pickguard I had to need some modification, but bad end route also meant I'd have to cut a custom pickguard for a cleaner fit. At least I can get glossy black pickguard material to match the original - for some reason the Fender Japanese reissues and Squires come with a black matte pickguard.

The other detail I was not asked about before routing and drilling was the rear body string ferrels. All of these basses originally had the string-through the body type bridges, which could also effect the tone and resonance.
The back of an original 51 P Bass body. 

The original Fender string ferrules were large 1/2" diameter cups, but all of the later reissues of this bass used smaller 3/8" ferrules. Of course, I was not asked which I was using, and when I got the body home I found they cut and drilled for the smaller ferrules, even though I wanted the larger ones (on further thought, perhaps the neck pocket also matches the reissues, but still not correct for my neck). I hesitated re-drilling them for a couple of weeks, afraid I would ruin it somehow, then finally mustered up the courage, fired up my drill press, and the results were fine.


I wanted to contour the body myself, to make it a bit rounder and organic than the 2nd generation P Basses (Fender only started offering a contoured body around 1953 after complaints from players). I figured that eliminating more wood than normal for this model would still not significantly affect the density and weight, since Walnut is already heavier and denser than either Ash or Alder, the original P Bass body woods. After confirming the neck fit, I used some files to create a slot for the truss rod adjustment hex wrench. Then the rough filing, power sanding and hand sanding commenced.

A standard late 50s-style P Bass body served as a guide for the contouring. 





The shaping process is more like sculpting, and brings back all of those sense memories of the flavor of Walnut dust in the nose and mouth. 

For the finish, I wanted a beautiful dark chocolate brown. After reading about and watching many YouTube videos dealing with different Walnut finishing techniques, came upon a group of postings from rifle owners and refinishers about Walnut rifle butt refinishing. Thanks to American's well documented love affair with firearms, there are enough rifle rebuilding enthusiasts to warrant a pre-packaged kit for just staining and sealing Walnut.

This Birchwood-Casey Tru-Oil kit is all about using natural oils instead of either laquer or poly finishes, and I have heard a lot about how oil finishes allow more of the natural wood resonance of musical instruments. All of my basses have paint finishes, so this would be the first bass I have purchased or built with only stain and oil to seal the body (and the neck, being made of graphite composites, also has no clear top coat finish as well). It took quite a few coats of stain and oil, then fine and wet sanding, and finally three steps of buffing to get a finish that, although not flawless, was glossy with a gorgeous rich from brown color tone, with more than enough grain showing through.





Next up in Pt. 3: assembly. 

Drink your Pudding!

In my 2013 trip to Europe, I searched for drinking chocolates in various cities in Italy and France, as well as in Barcelona. Drinking chocolate, although usually warm to hot, is NOT the same thing hot chocolate as Americans know it. In Italy it can be like a thick pure chocolate shot; the motherland for this is the Cafe Rivorie in Florence, directly across from the museum that houses Michelangelo's David (I managed three mornings in a row there). In France, there is much more (too much?) milk in their drinking chocolate, but in Barcelona it's so thick that you can leave your churro upright in it without it falling (I had one in Venice and in London very similar). In a quick trip to NYC taken while still shaping Chocobass's body, I got in a couple more European-style drinking chocolates. The first, from the Jaques Torres Cholcolates in Rockefeller Center, was not too thick and very nice, but costs $9 (tried it once, that's enough thank you)! 

The other I tried (on the same day no less) was at Eataly in the Flatiron district. The dark chocolatta from Cafe Lavazza was as thick as the ones I had in Barcelona. 


It needed to be eaten with a spoon. I ordered the large, but a little goes a long way, and my stomach regretted the decision a few hours later. Hopefully, when Eataly opens their Los Angeles location in 2016, Cafe Lavazza will be there as well. 

And so will I. But I'll just order the regular.