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.

Sunday, May 5, 2013


My recent 6 days in the San Francisco area, besides being kind to my chocolate-loving palette, was also very good for my wardrobe. There are MANY Goodwill Thrift Stores (and misc other thrift shops) in the Bay Area, and I decided to use my downtime during the days to get to as many of them as possible, scouring the men's racks for vintage suits and maybe a decent summer shirt. I started the trip in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, but came home looking like this:

OK, not the best photo, but my $30 wardrobe included a cotton Kenneth Cole grey with red flower-pattern summer short sleeve shirt (there seemed to be a bit of a summer heatwave that week), a pair of vegan men's dress shoes (I think from Target originally), and an AWESOME lightweight black wool dress jacket with quite a nice lining and a Macy's tag originally listing the price as $495 (it had a pulled thread in the sleeve, and they dropped the price 3 times before they (or someone else) dumped it off to Goodwill, who sold it to me for $10.95). The missing link in this outfit was the slacks; although I have a few pair of black wool dress slacks, I could not really think of one that I knew would match the jacket, and I wanted something lightweight NOW to go with the jacket for the remainder of the trip. The problem was very similar to my search for basses and chocolate - searching for just the right color and texture, in this case to pass for a matched suit.

I first tried the Macy's in San Francisco - I figured that if they sold the jacket, they might have the slacks (or at least know more about the origins of the jacket, which had a MADE IN HONDURAS label, but nothing else). The salesman in the Men's department said that it was in fact a very nice jacket, but it must have been 2-3 years old (therefore whomever bought it at the final markdown price of $149 may have sat on it in the closet, then gave it to Goodwill). Without a designer tag, there was no way to know who made the jacket, and the chances of finding slacks of a similar color and texture were small to non-existent. I was willing to pay $100 or more for matching slacks, but it seems they would be unavailable at any price.

So I walked down the street to the nearest Goodwill in Downtown San Francisco, 5 blocks away, browsed to slacks rack lining up every pair to the jacket I wore to the store, and found a pair of slacks exactly my size that were REALLY close:

Even from the photo (jacket on left, slacks on right) they don't look like a very good match, but in person in sunlight or artificial light they look super close. Plus the slacks are polyester (who would have thought it), which means I can just wash them myself, and they are comfy and lightweight. This story seems even uninteresting to me at this point, but as another exercise in my pursuit of the perfect tone/flavor/texture/etc., it continues building my chops at recognizing such things, and improving my ability to get it right (even if it requires obsessing over it).

NOTE: I was so busy and focused on finding the perfect slack that I didn't even notice that someone had decided to use the dressing room at the Goodwill as a urinal, and I placed my jacket and the slacks on the bench, only to find they were VERY wet. Henceforth the suit will be known as the Piss Suit...

CHOCOLATE: Some other chocolate experiences in the last few days:
Chocolate fortune cookie from the San Francisco Fortune Cookie Company; super fresh, not too sweet, great added hint of sesame seeds, fantastically crisp. A good-sized bag costs $4.75, they make them right there in their tiny Chinatown alley shop.
Really good flourless chocolate cake from Fabulous Cafe in Hollywood (a decent local Italian restaurant where we had our wedding reception). I had been looking forward to this cake for my birthday in late April; ended up out of town, but went back there a couple of night ago for a small meal and the cake, which seems to have changed. It used to be denser, but it was still delicious, and no flour means more chocolate!

Trader Joes dark chocolate covered Butterscotch Salted Caramels: better than I expected, but a bit too sweet (because of the caramel, which I can do without). Seen here in a vintage Michelin Bibendum porcelain ashtray, where he invites you to enjoy his salty balls!

Thursday, May 2, 2013


I started this blog without a conscious connection between Bass Guitars and Chocolate, except for the fact that I loved them both, and thought about them with equal amounts of intellect and emotion (or, as composer Alban Berg refers to it,  "the ecstasy of logic"). I think of this process as the Muse (or spark of idea, or whatever) starting the process, not always understood at first, that gets the brain working out solutions that eventually (hopefully) come to some conclusion, in my case a finished "work" (song/painting/house/bass/etc). I have reliably found in my exploration of aesthetic obsession that if I simply trust the direction my interests take, they eventually make sense.

Tone is chocolate.

I tried out this explanation of tone/flavor to two different people yesterday. To a fellow bassist and owner of Annex Studios in San Lorenzo, CA, I described the tone of the Precision bass I had recently built (see April 2013 post) as rich and full with a bit of bite without distortion, but that I was interested in swapping out the capacitor with some Russian oil-in-paper caps to find a hint more creaminess. To Kathy Wiley, the chocolatier at poco dolce in the Dogpatch section of San Francisco, all I had to say was that the tone is currently like her bittersweet chocolate TILE topped with grey sea salt, but I wanted more of the Olive Oil with sea salt texture.

This is redundant. When I told each person about my tone/chocolate connection, they too seemed to understand. Words are only representations of ideas in our heads, and are not equipped to express every feeling we have. But when it comes to tone, chocolate can.

I am also still unable to get the flavor of the Steinway Hamburg Model D that I played in San Jose four days ago out of my head. I was killing time walking Santana Row (just like The Grove in Los Angeles, but with a Tesla showroom), and noticed a local piano shop across the street. My piano search of a few years ago (resulting in the Baldwin in my living room, also coincidentally enough from San Francisco) educated my piano palette, and this Steinway was exquisite, with a definite EURO vs. US Steinway tone. Just like sense memory of a food you tasted as a child, I was immediately taken back to recordings of Walter Gieseking playing Beethoven, as heard by me from scratchy LPs on headphones at the Springfield, MA main library in the mid-1970's (OK, these were probably recorded on Bechsteins, but the tone was very similar).

San Francisco certainly seems like the epicenter of tone these days; I also had a chocolate drink from ChocolateLab around the corner from poco dolce (not bad, slightly more pleasant that the one from Bittersweet Cafe, possibly in the 60% solids range instead of the 70's). I even drove by Guittard's factory in Burlingame - like many Yelp reviews have noted, it's just like the fabled Wonka plant, in that the air is full of chocolate, but it's locked down like a fortress and they won't let you in.

I also made an obligatory stop at Tartine Bakery for their amazing euro-style chocolate cookie (flat and crispy, not like US-style half-baked cookie dough variety). I am usually there later in the day, and this time they still had a mound of fresh croissants, the subject of another obsession my wife and I share. It did not disappoint - amazingly crisp on the outside, moist and rather substantial on the inside (a bit heavy, actually, better for sharing, must bring the wife next time). It rates second only to Maison Giraud in Pacific Palisades; either rival any in Paris, and both would compliment the drinking chocolates I have had in the last couple of days (too bad Maison Giraud makes only a weak, dairy-laden hot chocolate).

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Liquid chocolate nirvana, and thoughts on Igor

Stopped in at my favorite Oakland, CA chocolatier, Bittersweet Cafe (

As described in an earlier post, they make a chocolate drink, NOT to be confused with a "hot chocolate", consisting of two things - semisweet dark chocolate and very hot water. It is quite awesome, and usually requires a cup or two of water to accompany it. Words can only approximate what a pure chocolate drink does to the tongue and then to the brain, but I am starting to see a connection (in my mind, anyway) between the flavors and experience of consuming chocolate, and the sound or TONE I am continually searching for in a bass guitar (or any instrument, including for me the feel as well as sound of a fine grand piano). This drink was a real palette-opener for me, and has influenced my now regular search for better and better chocolates - drinks and solids.
Another cafe down the street makes a decent and sweeter "hot chocolate" I can order with soy milk instead of dairy, and although it is pleasant enough, it does not come close to the intense experience of this bittersweet drink.
This is best consumed with a couple of cups of water to clear the tongue.
Admiring the film it leaves on the inside of the cup as I happily walk back to the car.

While there I was disappointed to learn that they have not restocked what is probably the most outstanding chocolate I have ever experienced: a dark chocolate, olive oil and sea salt bar from Poco Dolce, a San Francisco chocolatier. I have one more full day in the area, so I will check out the local Berkeley Whole Foods to see if they carry it; if not, I may have to drive into San Francisco to get it (and write about it, more tomorrow...).

More thrift shopping today, with a couple more awesome classic album covers to admire:

These next two album covers feature classic Mad Men-era cover photographs with more great illustration work on the backsides:

Watch that foot, buddy...
STRAVINSKY, THE BIOPIC: I did actually buy an LP today as well, a classic Columbia "Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky," this one of his revised Firebird. I think it's the full ballet, and probably prepared/rehearsed by Robert Craft, Stravinsky's assistant on all of his Columbia recordings, the guy I would like to play in the movie about Stravinsky, starring Dustin Hoffman (my fantasy, anyway). I have owned this recording in multiple album and CD form since high school, but the cover sleeve is the very cool original version with costume drawings from the original Ballet Russe production. The vinyl itself was mint, so the $1.99 spent makes an excellent and not ostentatious addition to my modest LP collection.

Stravinsky was a seminal discovery for me as a teen, and influences the way I think about music, composition and orchestration to this day. Besides the classic ballets (including the opening to The Rite that I use as my ringtone) I love his Violin Concerto, one of the happiest sounding pieces of music I know (a description that would probably disturb him immensely), as well as the Piano Sonata, Symphony of Psalms and others from his middle, neo-classical period.

While still in music school in the early 1980's, it occurred to me that Stravinsky discarded tonal music in the 1950's to become the successor to Schoenberg (instead of Beethoven/Bach). It is my theory that, upon hearing Perot Lunaire in an early performance, Stravinsky (a highly intelligent and competitive man) was quite shaken (this part is documented fact), or more accurately pissed off that Schoenberg had bettered him in advancing modern, atonal music. He seemed to spend the next few decades tinkering with alternate styles of composing until Schoenberg's death, after which he declared himself a serialist and never again composed anything pleasant to the ear. Here he could once again the most famous and important living composer; as long as Schoenberg was around, Stravinsky would have always been at best the world's second best serial/atonal composer, something Igor could not - in my opinion - stand for.

None of this changes my love for his music (except for the before-mentioned late period), but this theory informs the way I think about egotism and careerism in the Arts. I honestly believe I am a better person (if not Artist) having had only minimal professional success early in my creative career (or late in it, for that matter). I'd like to think it kept me from becoming a COMPLETE asshole.