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.

Friday, June 14, 2013

About Randy's Donuts, and how I missed National Donut Day because every day is...

What can I say about Randy's Donuts? Besides the fact that they spell donuts correctly (i.e., efficiently), they are the finest donuts I have ever had (very similar to Donut Dip, the local donut chain - with 2 locations! - where I grew up in Western Massachusetts). Whenever I travel I continue to TRY to find better, but even the $4 donuts at The Donut Factory on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, although very good, are not superior to the texture and flavor of a Randy's raised chocolate covered. These donuts appeal to my palette, my cheapness (donuts should never cost more than $1), and they are bigger than a space ship (well, at least the one on the roof).
I missed this event; Toyota bought them out and closed the place for the day.

I missed National Donut day this June 1st, but every day is National Donut Day if I want it to be. Every time I fly out of LAX I drive thru Randy's a get a raised chocolate and glazed twist, or sometimes just one or two chocolate raised. Even when I am topping out at my max allowable weight of 180, I'll get one and not eat for most of the day, they are that satisfying (otherwise abstaining from sweets and/or bread until I get back down to 170-175).

Clearly (if not in focus) the best donut in the world.
I have tried a few of the other remaining "giant donut on the roof" establishments in the LA area (there are 3 or 4 others) and they don't come even close to Randy's (although there is still The Donut Hole in LA Puente with TWO huge donuts that you actually drive thru, and I am looking forward to trying those as well, and being disappointed). I understand there are some fine establishments in Seattle, Portland, a couple cities in Texas, and a few more - MANY more - throughout the USA, and as long as my weight and blood sugar levels remain at acceptable levels, I can try at least one, right?

Last week I was staying in San Jose for a couple of Zeppelin gigs, and discovered an amazing cup of drinking chocolate at Dolce Bella Cafe. Very much in the tradition of the thick Italian drinking chocolate from Florence, Italy's Rivoire Cafe, although a bit sweeter and much smaller (more like a cappuccino in size). Their $1 chocolate chip cookie went very well with it - small and crunchier like a euro-cookie (instead of the cookie dough on steroids popular with us Americans), it hit the spot and was truly a surprising to find - but then again this is the SF Bay Area, home of great chocolatiers (and made with local Guitard chocolate)!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

New Jazz Bass builds, New chocolate, New tones

After accumulating misc jazz bass parts over the last few years, I have apparently reached some sort of critical mass, and completed two new basses in as many days. 

I stated out by cannibalizing my first Funster jazz bass, made up of parts I have had on various basses  over the last 6-7 years. This particular black with tortoise bass, in this configuration for probably 3 years, started off with what has been my favorite neck of all my basses, a very thin and lightweight Jazz-style neck that I had spray finished (very badly) with poly and a Fender Precision decal, and installed on a Precision body. It always looked horrible up close, but felt so good to play that I never messed with it. In the meantime, I had always had issues with a black Mexi Jazz Bass body I played for years, feeling it lacked bottom end (for 15 years it was matched with a wonderful Moses graphite neck, which is now on my workhorse active Deluxe Jazz bass). I tracked down a mint black Allparts body, a set of Dimarzio Quarter Pounder 3's (very hot and overwound for a grittier tone) and a decent passive Varitone setup. The result was a a fantastic Jazz bass with a super comfortable neck, low action, and lots of bright round wound growl, but very full thanks to he Varitone settings). It has been my main backup bass for my Zep gigs (when I can take a backup), and I always pull it out for a few tunes in the set, especially Black Dog and The Ocean.

I have loved this neck so much that I decided to use it to build THE killer totally vintage stock-style passive '62 Sunburst bass with the classic fat warm tone. But the brighter 70's tone is a great one for the arsenal, and I have digging the look of some if the gold anodized pickguard models from the late 50's-early 60's (both Jazz and Precision styles). The two Allparts necks I just finished in vintage, slightly relic'd satin amber nitro will be used to make a matched pair of black/gold anodized/maple Jazz and Precision basses, starting with this Jazz.

A very nice stainless fret guard to clean frets without ruling the neck finish.

The bridge required some fitting, including some copper tape strips to bring the height up.

This first build was pretty straight forward and quick, just add Hipshot tuners on the new neck and a brass nut I had kicking around for at least three decades. The work was in installing and setting the neck properly, my first old-style slotted truss rod nut located at the bottom of the neck. I thought I might need to route out a bit in the body for the truss nut adjuster, but when I took off the old tortoise pickguard I found, to my surprise, that it already had this route (so the paint would not be ruined).

The results: A very straight neck, although a little chunkier than my favorite Jazz necks. Allparts neck and body, licensed pickups and tuners, except for the Chinese pickguard it's almost completely Fender-legal (except for the decal, of course)! The neck is also a bit heavier with the vintage-style Hipshot tuners, and I really hate neck dive, so I might try a heavier bridge to balance it better. I still get that great overwound growl, but probably the lowest action of any bass I have owned. Played thru my single 12" bass amp, the tone is very full with tone if presence and bottom, and I look forward to opening it up on the big rig with bands in June. 

The Sunburst Jazz has been an obsession for a while now. Ever since I got deep into the classic rock band scene, and especially since playing in Zeppelin tributes, JPJ's Sunburst Jazz was the model for the hybrid Deluxe Jazz I built and use on all Zep gigs (not to mention Noel Redding's bass, another famous example of this model). The bass has Fender Deluxe active electronics, which gives me complete tone control regardless of the amps I get stuck using (when not my own gear), and I am still looking for that killer warm vintage classic tone. As with all builds, it's all about materials - I don't MAKE basses, I ASSEMBLE them - so like great cuisine it's mostly about the ingredients. 

I know I had a great neck (and, to my surprise, upon removing it I found it was a Mighty Mite, which changes my opinion of them quite a bit), but it had a horrible (self inflicted) finish, especially on the fingerboard and frets. Having he neck off gave me the opportunity to make amends, and after considerable sanding and steel wooling there was still enough finish to leave as satin (instead of reshooting in gloss). I has tinted the headstock and applied the Funster decal a couple of years ago, and although the amber is pretty bright, it matches the body well (a nice Alder nitro-finished body I found on eBay - it's stamped W.W., not sure who that is).

I have some noise issues with my active Jazz, so on this one I shielded all of the cavities with copper tape, and ran some extra ground wires to each section. For pickups I had another set of hand-made, vintage spec scatter-wound pickups from the same guy who made the set in my Funster vintage Precision. The pots and plate I got complete on eBay for under $20 (the good CTS stuff), and I replaced the capacitor with a Russian oil-in-paper .047 I found on eBay for under $2 (I bought a few different ones, and plan in soldering some clips to my precision so I cam do a complete capacitor test to once and for all resolve the capacitor tone debate, watch for video soon). The bridge is a Hipshot, but  not a high-mass model; the vintage basses all had thin metal bridges, and I want authentic round tone, not hours of bright sustain.

The results: wowzers! Fuller with more bottom than I expected, but very warm (even with Rotosound roundwounds), and with an already proven neck, I am very pleased! The weight is good, and there is no beck dive, so it's very comfortable. It turns out the set of black plastic knobs I had we're for split-shaft pots, so I had to order better ones with screws and brass fittings, so it's not 100% complete cosmetically, but after neck setup and intonating I am very happy.

I have now added three great Jazz basses in the last couple if months to my arsenal (including the white Pepito bass) and will drag all three to my Zep gigs in June to put them through their paces. 

CHOCOLATE: At a recent wholesale food importer sale I attended, I found a bar of Valrhona 70% dark. I have not tried this brand or this particular bar before, and it's quite impressive. Not too sweet, but he chocolate is super rich and creamy, melting nicely on the tongue. I have been going thru it slowly to enjoy it, and rate it up there with Poco Dolce's Olive Oil and Sea Salt and Le Belge 72% as my all-around favorites (so far). Each great, like my three new basses, but each with a unique feel and tone.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Cookies and Necks

Another new artisanal pizza place opened in Hollywood last week. Although I am not sure why I would pay $14 for the same cheeseless Margarita pizza I get for $6 at 800 degrees in Westwood (ok, because I'm not in Westwood), they have an awesome fresh bakery and coffee counter at the entrance with some amazing cookies. I have tried two (so far):
They call this one a Flourless double chocolate cookie, but in reality it is a large round brownie. It's about an inch thick (!), but I was disappointed that it was, in fact, just a big brownie. Brownies are fine, but Flourless chocolate cake is much denser with way more intense chocolate. 
This one, however, is quite nice: a dark chocolate with sea salt cookie. It's big, filling (breakfast AND lunch), and the salt was nice and not overpowering. I will be back again soon. They also had a cookie with bacon on top, and as much as the idea disgusts me, I am aware that others may have the same reaction to this salted one. But they would be wrong.
The same day we found a spice dealer at the Hollywood Farmers Market with a few chocolate-infused teas. I got some of this one, with orange. We'll see...

BASSES: The two Allparts necks (on the left) have their satin nitro finishes and decals, and I am now ready assemble and re-assemble a couple of long-anticipated Jazz basses: a black '70's style with a gold anodized pickguard and tinted maple neck, and a true vintage '63 sunburst with custom scatterwound pickups and my favorite skinny rosewood neck.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Pepito Funster Bass

Right after midnight on February 11th, 2013 my 19 year old white kitty Pepito died on my chest, a remarkable experience (for both of us, I am sure), and the culmination of the longest continuous relationship of my life. As it happens I had been accumulating parts for an off-white Jazz-style bass featuring an extremely light-weight (under 3lbs) body, the lightest neck I had (a Mighty Mite), and Hipshot Ultra Lite tuners. Built around the same time as the 10lbs+ Precision-style bass I wrote about in April 2013, this one was going to be an experiment in the opposite direction - the lightest traditional-style bass guitar I could build (the idea being that Precisions need more mass for that bottom end, whereas Jazz basses can be lighter because their tone tends to emphasize the mids). Pepito the cat was always on the small side, and when he died he actually weighed about 4lbs; the next day, in honor of him, I assembled what I call the Pepito Funster bass.

I had never owned a 62'style Jazz with concentric pots, so I thought I would go that route with this bass (John Entwistle claimed the concentric pots provided a better tone, but I can see why Fender went back to one tone control - who needs separate tone controls for both pickups?). This bass weighs in under 6lbs (!!!), and is very well balanced thanks to the Ultra Lite tuners. I normally hate the metal bridge and pickup covers because they limit the range of dynamics I can get by either playing the strings in different spots, or muting the bridge a bit with the side of my palm when required, but I wanted to go totally showroom stock on this one. The color combinations are so classic, and although I used one of Hipshot's more modern bridges, it would be covered by the bridge plate (even though the extra shape on the bottom of the bridge made it difficult to fit the bridge cover properly). The pickups are a new set of Fender Custom Shop Vintage 60's, the underside of the Fender tortoise pickguard and all of the pickup and electronics cavities are very carefully shielded with copper tape, and the strings are LaBella flat wounds; every possible vintage-style part was used to get that vintage passive tone.

I first chance I had to play it on a live and loud was an outdoor Zeppelin gig, and oh my, it certainly sounded huge and full! I actually had to hold back a bit; compared to my normal Jazz-hybrid bass that I use for Zep (with Fender Deluxe active pickups and electronics) this thing sounded WAY bigger. I have to say I was pretty blown away - I did not expect the fullness with such a light body (it's not  Ash or Alder, I think it's Paulina or some other Pine-like wood). What I did notice, however, was something weird in the E string, which I confirmed at my next two Zep gigs - except for the open string, there was some weird doubling going on, and the intonation on the E way way off, with each higher note more out of tune (songs that stayed in first position were great, songs higher up - like Dazed and Confused - sounded very dazed and very confused).

I just assumed there was problem with the neck, and planned on replacing it with a better one I have used for years on another Jazz bass. But as I thought about it more, I decided to try a few other tweeks before I gave up on the neck:
The main problem as I saw it was the bridge - I think I installed it just a bit too close to the nut on the body, and it made intonation difficult, especially on the E string. I took this opportunity to change out the bridge with a standard Fender-style with tapped saddles, thus allowing the bridge cover plate to fit more properly. I moved the whole bridge back another 3/8" so intonating should improve (and that weird stuff on the E, probably caused by choking it off too close to the bottom of the bridge, would HOPEFULLY be taken care of as well).
The other issue could be the nut - it was a brass which I love, but the neck required a flat bottom, and this brass nut was rounded, so the fit was never going to be solid. I replaced it with a plastic one - if this solves the tuning issues, I'll order a better brass one with a flat bottom to install later.
I strung it back up and - problem gone! After another 60 minutes of intonating, adjusting string heights, tightening the truss rod for a straighter neck, and filing the nut slots down quite a bit more, Pepito now has fantastically low action, great intonation, and is smooth and buzz-free up and down the neck. Plus, the bridge cover plate now fits properly!

I am very much looking forward to playing this thing through my big rig with a band, and believe it will not disappoint. But the proof will be in the playing - how it feels in my hands, how it sounds on the stage, and comments after the gig from the soundman (who will be able to tell me how balanced it was, and whether or not it needed any additional EQing, etc.). I am happy that I could correct it with the original neck, which I had already date-stamped 2/11/2013, and hope to be performing with Pepito in my arms for many years to come.