Monday, October 27, 2014

Japanese and Swiss Army Knife Basses (and Chocolate)

I'm returning from a brief trip and gig in Japan, the second in a month. Japan is beautiful and the food is wonderful, even for a vegetarian and - sometimes - bad vegan like me. The culture is very organized and efficient, and the level of pride in work and craftsmanship seems very high. It also has a very strange famous clown troupe, wearing very odd vertical heads, and I had to get a photo with them before a gig in Fassu:

Having built a number of new basses since the last entry, this bass, and the chocolate that follows, has a Japan connection (of sorts).

Back as far as the 1960s Japanese companies were knocking off many US and European guitars and basses, and I believe the first Fender Squiers were made in Japan. By the 90s "Crafted in Japan" Fenders were considered as good if not better made than US Fenders, and they also offered many models not made in the US (especially vintage-style reissues). Up until this year Fender has only manufactured Jaguar basses, a hybrid of a Jaguar guitar body, a Jazz bass neck and an array of different active/passive pickup combinations, in Asia, although they have just started marketing an American Series Jag bass. Besides the very high-quality Japanese switchable active/passive Jaguars, they also sell variations of Indonesian and Chinese-made Squier Jaguars, some passive, some active (which are actually pretty good sounding), and even some with short-scale necks and painted headstocks matching the body.

About 10 years ago I owned a black Japanese Fender Jaguar bass. I had a custom tortoise pickguard made to replace the stock white one, and with the Jazz neck profile found it very comfortable to play. 

After a handful of performances, however, I found it impossible to voice the inner and outer strings correctly, the inners (esp. the  D) never as hot as the E and G, even with cheats to the bridge. I decided this was a design flaw with the pickups, and eventually sold it (although I probably should have just replaced the pickups, but whatever...). I always loved the body shape and thought it was a great looking bass, but really preferred a Sunburst body (which were much more rare), so a Jag bass has remained in the clutter that is the back of my mind.

Sometime in 2012 that brain clutter cleared a bit, and slowly I started acculumating parts to build my own Jaguar bass. I found a mint condition Squier Sunburst Jaguar body on EBay, acceptable even if it was Basswood (not Ash or Alder, which would have been a bit heavier and denser). I had ordered a couple Jazz necks from Eden, including a vintage-finish maple one I intended for this Jaguar. I liked the wider tonal choices available on the PJ-config Squiers, so instead of two Jazz pickups I ordered a hand wound, vintage-spec PJ set from Mark Lariccia, and for the head I ordered a set of Hipshot Chrome Clover Ultralight tuners with a D-drop and Hipshot chrome bridge with brass saddles. This looked like it was going to be a very nice instrument.

Then the first little challenge presented itself. A tortoise Squier Jaguar pickguard was turning out to be be difficult to find, and having one custom made was impossible because everyone needed an existing pickguard to work from, something I didn't have. It eventually took about 6 months to track down, all the while the body sat piled up on my shop bench. I then found it impossible to find a correct chrome electronics plate - it is a different shape from the standard Jazz bass plate. I purchased one from the same seller as the body, who thought it came from that Squier Jag, only to find it was a regular Jazz Bass plate. I then ordered another, and although that it was a better match, it still required that I modify the pickguard a bit for a correct fit. Meanwhile the body (with the pickguard) sat in a pile with others, waiting for months to track down the correct electronics plate:

During this exercise in patience I ended up using the P bass set on another bass. Realizing I had both a set of EMG Precision pickups and a spare EMG Jazz pickup, I decided instead to make this Jaguar bass fully active, and added EMG bass/treble and midrange control preamps. Instead of a vintage passive set-up, this bass would now be a modern and versatile "Swiss army knife" bass with a range of pickup and tonal options.

Since the vintage look was no longer so important, I reconsidered the neck. Sitting around my shop for about 10 years was a Moses graphite upright bass fingerboard purchased directly from Steve Moser, intended for a custom electric upright I had hoped to build. Sometime around then I also purchased a Steinberger Electric Upright (which I slightly altered and refinished in black, freaking Ned Steinberger out a bit, another story for a future writeup here).
This bass, as are all Steinberger basses, is far superior to anything I could make myself, so the homemade upright with the Moses fingerboard was never built. Sometime around 2011, after joining the Led Zeppelin tribute HEARTBREAKER (now ZEPPELIN LIVE), I instead made tentative plans to return the Moses fingerboard and have Steve make a custom neck for a proposed 8-string bass like the one John Paul Jones used to perform "Nobody's Fault" and "Achilles Last Stand" (it looks like an Alembic, but it was actually made by a former Alembic employee, and features very intricate fingerboard inlays). 

After a year or so of knocking this idea around, I decided the asian-made Hagstrom 8-string bass I found was certainly good enough for the few times I would actually play it (the bridge needs to be upgraded and repositioned, yet another story...). So at NAMM 2014 I spoke with Steve again, this time about building a custom graphite neck with a Jazz Bass profile, white block markers (Jag basses feature 70s style blocks instead of dots), and a Tele Bass headstock (to lighten the neck a bit more and add uniqueness of this bass). It took a couple more months, but I knew this bass would FINALLY come together when I received an email with the subject line "Ye ole' neck is already" and this attached photo:

All parts in place, I carefully modded the pickguard so the the pickups and electronics fit in the factory routes and lined up with the neck pocket. 
The Moses neck had the truss rod adjustment at the butt end, not the head, so the body pocket and pickguard had to be modified so that, if neck adjustment were required, the neck and puckguard would not have to be removed:
The Moses neck itself requires special taps installed for the neck bolts, where the neck attaches to the body. I was a bit paranoid about stripping the the graphite while installing the taps, and drilled and very carefully:

The factory side-mount jack was still mounted on the bass, and although it was not as solid as I liked, it had the required extra lead for turning in the active circuitry. The neck fit correctly in the pocket, and all body parts lined up. But this Zen exercise in patience was not quite over - I discovered that the holes drilled I the head were the wrong size for the Hipshop tuners. I contacted Hipshot and arranged for a swap, but this time with round Lollipop ends, a rather rare style used by Fender only briefly in the 60s. While awaiting delivery of the new tuners I applied the decal.  Although all of the hardware is chrome, I chose gold to go with the sunburst finish on the body, a decision I still have mixed feelings about:

The replacement tuners arrived two weeks later, and again were very carefully installed to avoid stripping the graphite material:

The final bass set up easily with some lighter gauge Rotosound roundwounds. Even the round string retainer proved a challenge - after assembling and setting the bass up, I brought it to a rehearsal to "open it up" and get a sense of the sound, with blue painters tape covering the rear battery and input jack holes. Upon opening the bag, I found that the string retainer had popped out because the wood screw holding it into the rather brittle grapite headstock had stripped and popped out, rendering the D and G strings unplayable. The next day I visited three hardware stores until a found a few choices of metal taps (similar to the ones holding the neck bolts, but much smaller). Again, you only get one shot at this, so I started with the smallest and eventually locked the tap in place using superglue:
A couple of rehearsals and gigs with this bass, and was sure it was a keeper. Some left over black pickguard pieces provided the material to make the rear access plates:
Because of the nature of the graphite material, I dated the bass with punches into the battery cover instead of the back it the headstock:


This bass plays as good or better than any bass I own, with loose comfortable string tension reminding me of some of my active basses. Sometimes it is true that, if you use the best parts, and take your time so as not to mess them up, you will probably get a great instrument. The only "consumer-grade" parts used were a Squire body, pickguard and neck plate; the body, because it's basswood, is OK if a bit light but with a nice, albeit poly finish, and pickguard required modding. All other parts were US made and absolute pro quality. The body could have been slightly heavier for my taste, and graphite necks are heavier than you would think (as opposed to carbon fiber, I guess). Because of this there is a very slight but very liveable neck dive (even with Ultralites and the smaller headstock). As much as a heavier/denser body might have been nice, sonically the bottom end fullness is not a problem with this bass, thanks in part to the seperate bass tone control which allows me to dial in as much low as need gwhich turns out to be little or none). The active electronics are also super quiet, with very high output. 

Besides the overall balance, my only complaint is, as my ear has grown accustomed to a warmer passive vintage tone, I wish the treble control on EMG electronics would allow me to dial down the brightness a bit more (I played with the little switches located on the preamp board, and it's as mellow as they allow). But for the right kind of music this bass is a monster, and I have had the pleasure of using it on enough gigs to validate my original feelings about it. My Funster Swiss Army Knife Jaguar Bass can sound like a modern Precision or a Jazz, or something in between, or something even bigger. It can be boomy or mid-squawky, and the neck is super slim and comfortable, speaking very clear in all positions. Perhaps a consultation with EMG may even help me figure out how to dial the treble down even more, allowing for more vintage tone as well. 

Chocolate (from Paris via Japan)
When searching for chocolate in Japan, think France. Apparently the Japanse do, and all of the chocolate I tried in Tokyo was deliberately copied/modelled after French pastry and chocolatiers. On my first trip I found this amazing chocolate pudding (or something like pudding) filled chocolate croissant at an airport French-style patisserie VENT ET LUNE:

Sadly, on my return trip to Tokyo a month later I went through Narita, the OTHER Tokyo airport, and could not find this same Patisserie. I did, however, find a chocolatier in the Shuguri section of Tokyo with a very familiar name:
The chocolates themselves were very expensive, so I only purchased a 2-pack box, and must report that although of obvious high quality and chocolate content, there were not amongst my favorites (especially the one with the name on it, which turned out to be coffee, not one I would have chosen deliberately). I also tried their chocolate covered old fashion donut, which could have been fresher, and can't compare to a Randy's chocolate old fashion. However, this Pelletier will be happy to try some of their other chocolates if I ever run across Peltier Patisserier & Chocolatier again - in Tokyo, Paris or wherever.