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.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sparky Bass & Portlandia

One of the things I love about building/making/creating is that, even if I have a goal for the project, I never really know how a project will come out until it's done. It's all the happy accidents that occour during creation, and the decisions made as they present themselves, that make the journeys so enjoyable for me (and the projects usually end up - suprisingly - different yet better than I could have imagined). My latest bass project is named Sparky after my grumpy old chihuahua Sparky...
...and a sparkly gold bass I saw at Guitar Center Hollywood back in 2013.

This Fender Custom Shop Early Relic '60s Jazz Bass stopped me in my tracks, with a body color I would have not previously thought of as attractive. But as I have gotten deeper and deeper into classic 50s and 60s bass guitar looks and finishes (and the whole 50s-60s era design in general) this bowling-ball sparkle gold paint stikes me now as thouroughly cool and classic, even if in a slighly ironic/kitchy way. It played OK, but the just under $3000 price tag was never is the cards or the bank account. I took some photos and filed it away in my head for future possibilities. A year earlier I purchased a gold-top Casady Bass, and a couple of months ago I also aquired a gorgeous gold-top Epiphone Les Paul guitar, so the finish was and remains on my radar.

In my January 2014 blog entry I wrote about completing my first full-on attempt at relic'ing with the black P-Bass. I took it on a couple of gigs, but like most lighter-weight P-Basses I have owned, the very bottom string tone seems to be missing something. Wood can be such a crapshoot; the body wood has to have sufficient mass PLUS be resonant, and sometimes there even seems to be a magic combination of neck and body. I have also recently come to the conclusion that lighter bodies are OK for Jazz Basses (see my Pepito Jazz Bass), but the Precision tone screams of body mass, especially on the E string. As much as I worked on the black P-Bass and LOVED the look, I knew this body was not going to cut it for me. So I watched eBay and found a seller with a black Ash Fender Squire P-Bass body with hardware and pickups that weighed 7lbs, which I bid on and won for under $60.

After spending some/time researching gold sparkle spray paint, I setted on cabs of Rust-oleum Gold Glitter paint at Home Depot. I figured it might cause some finish issues (it's actual gold glitter suspended in a paint base) but it COULD look awesome, so I sanded off as much of the black finish as I could.

Once stripped and sanded, I primed and started applying the coats. For the first base coat I tried using up a can of metallic spray paint I had lying around for years, only to realize after starting to spray that it was silver, not gold. I would love to take credit for this genius way to have the silvery color showing thru certain sanded areas to look more "worn," which it now does, but it was just another in a series of happy accidents.

The gold glitter paint really isn't "paint" as much as a delivery vehicle for gold glitter in a clear base. It goes on rather thick, but looks phenomenal, just like my memory of muscle car finishes and classic bowling balls. I had no idea at the time how it would take to cracking/relic'ing or even sanding, but I guess we will find out. 
Attempts at cracking, using upside down compressed air to freeze the finish, were mostly a disaster, although it might be because this finish takes forever to cure (a month later it was still getting pushed around a bit by hardware screwed into it, like golden fudge). 
All I really succeeded in doing was create lots of bubbling in the finish, which I had to sand out and repaint. 
After four cans of glitter, I sanded the finish as smoothly as I could, with some deliberate - and some not so deliberate - sanding thru to reveal the silver undercoat. This will turn out to look great, especially on the top where arm wear is not uncommon.

Next, after about a month of curing, I wet sanded and polished the finished to smooth it out as much as possible. I'm not looking for a flawless shiny new surface here, but given the materials I chose to work with that was going to be a bit tough anyway.
Now back to the relic'd Black P-Bass. The neck, hardware and pickups were all great, so I had no choice but to cannibalize them all. 
I decided to age the neck a bit more, including using more muriatic acid on the fingerboard to simulate wear of the finish under the strings where the fingers would fret most often, which I then cleaned and stained. While drying I added shielding to the body cavities, then transferred the electronics and hardware.

I had nicely relic'd the gold aluminum pickguard on the black P-Bass, and had planned on using it on this one. But in my shop I found a very nice WD tortoise pickguard that was very similar in tone to the Custom Shop I saw at Guitar Center, and decided to try it instead. It gives it more of a 60s rather than 50s vibe - very Fred Flintstone.

Finally together, it's certainly a looker!
One more tweak: Having burned in and stained the front if this maple fingerboard, I decided it should have a bit deeper color and another clear coat, so I (lazily) removed the strings, taped up the body and headstock, and sprayed it with a bit more amber and clear laquer.
Once dry, I redressed the frets, restrung, and the setup begins again...
I had to readjust the neck height (with shims) and truss rod a few times, then I swapped out the bridge for an older one I had that enabled slightly wider string spacing to line up better with the pickups. The neck, bridge and nut required quite a bit of messing with to get it playing well, but my initial instincts regarding body weight were correct, at least in this case. The heavier body mass did give the bass more presence on the E string. 

So far I have had a chance to play it at one outside gig with LA Zeppelin, and liked the tone more than the feel. I actually found the 70s-era thumb rest location kind if annoying, which is funny because I used to have in that position on every bass I owned 30 years ago. I guess I just got used to resting my thumb on the edge of the pickguard, or ridge of the neck, or even on the edge of a pickup. The taller thumb rest acted as a kind of a stop for my fingers when playing the E string, which felt constricting, so I removed it. I also think even heavier strings might make the strings feel a bit tighter (the looseness if the 45-105 Rotosounds on this bass is making string height and truss rid adjustments tricky), so I might try a set of even heavier roundwounds and see how the feel (I'm sure they will increase the bottom, esp. on the E, but will mess with the nut slots, string height, etc., so another setup is looming). I want a great passive roundwound P-Bass to go with the flatwound sunburst P seen in the header photo on this blog (an incredibly heavy and great feeling AND sounding bass), and this bass is ALMOST there (and was the best looking thing in this recent photo):
Just like my doggie, Sparky the Bass looks a bit worn out, and can be grumpy and difficult, but hopefully (like my doggie) it's worth it.


On my birthday weekend in April I had a Journey gig near Portland, OR, a city I have not yet had the pleasure of visiting, unless you count watching Portlandia on TV. For a couple if years I have had an amazing example of "bread porn" on the shelves in my kitchen. It's called FLOUR, WATER, SALT, YEAST by Jen Forkish, the proprietor of Ken's Artisan Bakery in Portland, and I have always wanted to go there and bring back his 3 Kilo Boulle. His baked goods (and the pizza at his pizza place) are every bit as outstanding as advertised, and on our first two trips there I spotted the 3 Kilo Boulle in the racks, and was assured that they had them every day. If course, when we drove back thru Portland on the Sunday morning in order to purchase the boulle and carry it on to the plane, they were sold out! But I did get two 1.5 kilo boules instead, which probably fit better in the overhead bins.
In wandering around Portland we also discovered an amazing chocolate shop call COCAO, with probably the finest cup of drinking chocolate I have ever had, including Florence. It was so rich, and so large, even I could not finish it in one sitting, and carried a third if it around for hours before happily finishing it off the next morning in the hotel.
One memorable and unanticipated chocolate stop in the Portland area was Tilamook Dairy. The wife wanted to check it out for the cheeses (which she did not care for), but I discovered a vegan's worst nightmare: an amazing ice cream called Chocolate Mudslide. I must warn you that this stuff is available at Ralphs and Pavillions in the LA area, and most likely many other places, and a few tubs have found their way into my freezer and mouth since then.
BAD VEGAN! Bad, bad vegan!