Thursday, October 10, 2013

Balance, Neck Dive and Playability (and chocolatability)

I have finally gotten around to some maintenance on a couple of factory-made basses that had great potential, but for me were all but unplayable because of what I consider bad design - unbalaced neck dive. If you need to hold up the neck WHILE you are playing, it makes it that much harder to move your fingering hand around and actually PLAY the thing. I try to remember that goal is to play music, not notes, but unless you have a super wide, frictiony strap and/or you plan on sitting down the whole time, and it's a chore just to make the notes, then how do you make music with an unbalanced bass guitar? 

The first offender was a beautiful, almost new US-made Gibson Reissue SG/EB-style bass:
I got this bass in trade for a CIJ '51 Fender Precision/Tele bass (I've owned two of them, and even when I upgraded the little pickup I never liked the sound or feel). I had a shot at two different Cream cover gigs, and saw this short-scale mohagany beauty listed for sale or trade on Craigs. Besides being the real thing (not an Epiphone) with my favorite finish for this model (a chocolatey Walnut stain), it had been seriously upgraded: a pair of nice Dimarzio humbucker pickups, a solid HipShot replacement bridge (a great heavy block of aluminum replacing the notoriously bad 3-point Gibson bridge), and black vintage-style Gibson tuners (I know they were also not stock; look at the photos below). Black metal knobs completed the darker look.
The only two problems: roundwound strings (not a problem for every player, but for this bass?) and a pretty severe neck dive. SInce I don't know for sure what tuners were stock, I can't be 100% sure the original hardware made the bass more balanced, but I seriously doubt it (knowing that this bridge is heavier than the original Gibson, and the stock tuners were probably about the same, only maybe chrome). Neither Cream gig came thru, so the bass went in a nice new Mono Vertigo guitar bag (it fits!) with a used but minty set of Pyramid Gold flats I took off an Epi Beatle bass I sold (without my set of $70 holy grail short scale strings, thank you very much). I then started researching tuning machine weights.

Note:  I just played an open mic gig where a bassist showed up with a vintage 60's Gibson EB bass, and although he would not let me touch it, he says they all have terrible neck dive, so this IS an original design problem.

Although I love HipShot tuners, Gotoh made a set of black ones that were actually lighter. I had to track down a US dealer and wait almost 2 months for them to be shipped from Japan; even though I prefer traditional clover-stryle tuners, esp. on classic models like this one, these pretty much matched what was on there already - from the front, anyway:

The stock Gibson tuners (they say Gibson, but they were not original because...

Look at the extra screw holes:

As you can see from the photo above, the Gotohs are much smaller and not at all vintage/stock looking from the back, but playability trumps 100% correctness here. As it turned out, they were not even the correct size tuners; these were for 3/8" holes, but this bass had 1/2" holes. But with patience and a bit of luck, they fit well - I left the original tuner ferrules in the front, and these slipped right in there with a decent fit, thus avoiding a potential nightmare trying to get the current glued-in (no idea why!) ferrules out without damaging the wood (with the added accidental benefit that they probably weigh even less than the 1/2" versions). I admit I am less sure about the whole "1 screw" thing - it just does't seem as snug and secure, but Gotoh has been making these for a while, so I guess they know what they are doing.

After lining them up properly, I strung it up and - AMAZING. Now it's pretty balanced (though not as much as a Fender Preceision, but WAY lighter). It plays and sounds great, and I hope I get a chance to use it on gigs and recordings in the future.

The next neck-dive nightmare was this beautiful gold top Epiphone Jack Casady Bass:

I had one of these a number of years ago, a black model that I had upgraded with a custom active pickup made for me by Rob Turner at EMG (with help from Jim Rosenberg at Epiphone, who sent him two empty Casady Bass pickup housings). That bass sounded great (active electronics with seperate bass and treble controls, but it is horribly balanced, something Jack Casady does not seem to mind, as every video I have seen of him playing this bass is with him sitting down. As I am not yet that old, and my gigs require me to stand anyway, I found it a chore to wrestle this long-scale neck - even with my long arms - and eventually stopped using it while playting Who music in favor or a short scale Danelectro Longhorn, which got a very similar sound with La Bella flats (one of the things in this photo is very pretty, and it's not me):
Even in the photo above I am putting weigh from my right picking arm on the top front end to stabilize it, but that just makes the head further out of reach. I eventually sold the black Casady bass, but kept my eyes open for a gold model at a good price. By the time I finally found one, cleaned it up and strung it with La Bella flats, and actually liked the sound of the original passive pickup, something I very much hated on my black model (funny how ears change over time). But the neck dive thing was still a deal breaker for live use, so I put aside a new set of HipShot Ultralites and waited for the time and focus to deal with this beast. 

Again, the original open back chrome tuners are much larger on the backside, plus this being a 2x2 configuration, I had to reverse two of the tuners, which took some time a 4 different hex wrenches to find one that fit well enough to unscrew the nut (I thought I almost stripped a couple of them). Like the Gotohs, these tuners were single-screw types, but Hipshot threads the ferrule, so they lock in nice and snug, lending a more solid feel:

Once installed they look stock from the front:

With the flats back on, the bass was still way too top heavy. It does not help that the body has no contours so as to lean back a bit horizontally, which I rely on to see the front neck while playing. But it's also a hollow body with a full-scale 34" neck, which means the body is light and the neck is long, throwing the balance way off. My next trick was to install a stainless steel bar, designed by an eBay seller, which is intended to correct some of the problems with the famously horrible Gibson/Epiphone 3-point bass bridge (see above). This bar was designed to move the windings on regular bass strings away fron the bridge saddles, as well as add some mass for increased sustain. A side benefit is that it adds some weight to the body, making it a bit easier to balance long Thunderbird necks, and I installed one of these years ago on a seriously upgraded Epiphone Thunderbird bass (which I intend to cannibalize to make a custom passive T-bird as well as another active Fenderbird sometime in the future):

So off it comes,  and on it goes:

So now I've replaced the tuners and added some weight to the bridge, and... balance still sucks. My last (well, there are probably more options, but I am hoping this it the last) is to move the strap button located at the back of the neck pocket. I searched quite a few online forum posts on this issue, hoping not to inflict unnecessary holes on this thing, and read about a number of options (as well as comments along the lines of "get a wider strap and don't be such a pussy"). The obvious first try for me was to move the button to the end in the horn, which would seem to alter the balance center a bit, but also relies on the fairly thin laminated maple side on the horn, without additional bracing to keep from easily stripping out the screw or even damaging the bass. But a few posters said they did this (and some even moved the one at the bottom if the bass up and off-center a but, which I might try as well). Though this did not totally eliminate the balance problem, it made a big difference, and it also helped the horizontal pitch back towards me a bit, which is a huge improvement (Thunderbirds have the same issue, because Gibson put the strap button on the same place, since the most common T-bird has no upper horn to mount a strap to; they even had to decrease the length of the head over decades because of the horrible balance problem). 

We're 90% there, a huge improvement! But when I have many basses that are 100% there balance-wise, it's still hard to justify playing this thing. For reference I pulled out my gorgeous German-made almost new 500/1 Beatle bass. Since the tones if these two hollow body basses are similar, I wanted to remind myself what the balance and playability was on Paul's classic bass.

What I found is that a modern reissue 500/1 Beatle bass is not much better, balance-wise. It actually had a somewhat fatter tone and surprisingly good intonation, but with a bit less sustain (perhaps due to the stainless bar on the Epiphone bridge), and a thunkier, deader sound that is THE sound of the Beatle bass.

Note: You rarely see anyone performing with the Hofner 500/1 model, not just because you have to be smaller/skinnier for it to look right, but mostly because you have to be Paul McCartney for it to look right. McCartney playing the Hofner, the only lefty bass he could find in Hamburg at the time (and, even according to him, not a great bass) was a boon for Hofner, not because many people perform with it, but I would think because lots of people buy one to look at it. Even Paul's current side bassist/guitarist does not dare pick up a 500/1 on stage - he plays this Epiphone, because it sounds fairly authentic but looks very (safely) different.

So I went back to the Epiphone, and it indeed feels pretty balanced and much more playable. I even tried one more behind-the-neck pocket position, just slightly higher than the original spot, and it returned to horrible. Other potential future improvements to try to cover the other 10% could include adding some weight inside the bottom of the body, or back of the body (metal plate or bearings in epoxy, perhaps), moving the bottom strap button up a few inches (something I have seen one or two people suggest on forums, but I hesitate putting any more holes in this thing), and even cheating the neck strap button up the neck a bit (but that then potentially gets in the way of the back of the fretting hand, and screwing into the truss rod channel can't be very good). Or just buy a wider strap and stop being a pussy....

To be continued?

And now for the Chocolate...

Not that the Gibson SG bass isn't choclatey enough, while working on these basses I listened to Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto (yum) and snacked on some Ghiradelli Intense Dark with sea salt and ground almonds. Like an extra fancy Crunch bar, the chocolate is surprisingly good (so it is UNLIKE a Nestle's Crunch bar in the best way) even if the salt is lacking. In October 2013 I found myself performing 4 weekends in a row in the Sacramento area, and each time stopped at the Ghiradelli factory outlet off the 5, where you can get any 5 bars for $10 ( and a decent but overly dairy-reliant drinking chocolate). 

This 72% Intense Dark bar is actually pretty amazing, and despite it's more mainstream lineage (now, anyway - Ghiradelli is a big outfit out here in California) this bar holds it's own against my two top favorite darks, including Poco Dolce and Valrhona.