Friday, January 3, 2014

New Year, New Bass and New Painting

2014 starts with a finished bass build, along with a bass-related painting I have been wanting to complete for about 25 years.

50's Retro Precision Funster Bass

Although my current Zeppelin gigs have forced my focus back to Jazz basses, I built and played a few Precisions (along with Thunderbirds, Danelectros, Epiphones and Fenderbirds with Precision necks) while spending more than 3 years portraying John Entwistle in a Who tribute. In recreating some of John's basses, I cheated all of them by installing active EMG pickups and electronics, even though his earlier basses were very stock with passive pickups. It guaranteed me clean, piano-like tone and clarity, but I never had the overwound lead-guiatr-like sound featured on LIVE AT LEEDS. My Funster Sunburst Precision (featured on my 5/1/13 post) resolved one issue I had with every Precision up until then, something I noticed even with all the fancy EQs and big bass rigs I used while playing Who music - a weak low E. With my 2013 Sunburst Precision, added density of a very heavy body gave me the bottom I was looking for. In 2010 I even ordered a custom blank ash slab Precision body, which matches John's Frankenbass featured on LEEDS, and finally finished painting it in 2013 (with a very thin Nitro finish), so the FrankenFunster with overwound piuckups will still happen. But I wanted a clean, twangy and slightly lighter passive Precision, with cosmetics to match the black Jazz I recently finished.

This bass was originally a Korean-made Fender Squire Precision, last used as a stand-in for John's Isle of Wight/skeleton suit bass (as seen above - John is in the inset). The bass itself looked right (looked Wight?), but the bass was not great, and the neck was pretty bad. The body, finished in thick poly, seemed like a legit ash body and a decent piece of wood, and it has sat for about 5 years waiting for another build. I decided on a late 50's-style Precision look with a maple neck and gold-anodized pickguard, which also inspired the matching Jazz bass mentioned above (a model and cosmetic configutation which never actually existed in the 50's - the Jazz bass was introduced in 1960 - although I have seen something like it in more recent Fender catolouges). The Jazz ended up being completed first as I already had a complete body with good passive pickups, and I finished both AllParts necks at the same time. The paint on this body was not in keeping with my latest thin/nitro obsession, so I decided to "relic" it a bit to thin the finish as much as possible and take the plastic shine off the thing.
I had another set of hand-wound vintage-style P-bass pickups I was saving for a Jaguar bass build, but have decided to go active EMG with that one (finish date TBD, but all parts present and accounted for). The gold anodized pickguard is from Fender, and the electronics all top-shelf Switchcraft with a Russian vintage 1.0 cap. The bridge is a Chinese-made model that breaks the vintage look and design rule for this bass a bit, but it has more mass for perhaps a bit more sustain (although I am starting to believe vintage bass tone might mean darker tone and LESS sustain, so I may switch it out later). 
As mentioned above, I hand-painted the AllParts maple neck with Guitar ReRanch Nitro amber and laquer, then used steel wool/for an older satin finish. These two basses are supposed to look a bit worn-in, which is good because I installed a used set of Asian-made (and "Fender Licensed") tuning gears which had ferrulles just a bit oversized for the pre-drilled holes, and while installing the lowest E tuner ferrul I cracked the wood through to the bottom of the head. Not perfect, but a bit of Super Glue filled the crack, and it works fine (even though the tuners sort of suck), so moving on.

The part I was missing in my shop was the neck plate, so the eBay order slowed the neck install and setup a couple more weeks. On 2 January, neck plate in hand, the kitchen counter helped birth a new instrument:

Originally strung and setup with La Bella flats, I compared the final sound with my Sunburst Precision and realized I already had a great flatwound P-bass, so I switched to a new vintage set of La Bella roundwounds (how old were they? An included brochure about a bass lesson book boasted the included "cassette"). The neck re-adjusted well (my second x-style truss nut mounted at the bottom of the neck, and I am liking it), and I was able to set the action fairly low. Though not as hot as the Sunburst model (and with the same pickups - interesting...), it plays and sounds great, and the roundwounds give it nice feel and clarity, even with the tone turned down quite a bit (and the La Bellas are not quite as bright as my regular Rotosound roundwounds, which suits this bass). The A is pretty killer, although that could also be the result of the little 12" Hartke kickback amp I am using to test and voice. I have three high-volume Zeppelin gigs coming up this month with the big rig (2x18 and 4x10 cabs), and willl put this bass through its paces alongside my trusty Sunburst Jazz with La Bella flats, a Moses neck and Fender Deluxe pickups (the bass is full, fat and can do ANYTHING). 

A note about set-ups: There is a certain amount of stress associated with the final set-up of a bass. There really is no way of knowing how well all the parts will work together, how well the bass will play and feel, and ultimately how it will sound. The best I can hope for is that I chose my parts well, and I guess there are few if any real ways to ruin a bass during the set-up; maybe I could break something, although all of these parts are replaceable (except for the the wood parts, having been living things, are truly each one of a kind, and the core of the uniqueness and "magic" that makes a one instrument great, another - at best - mearly playable). Other than the random bad piece of wood in the neck or body, I guess my trepidation is more laziness. The neck goes on, the strings go on, the neck comes off, a shim is put in and the process repeats sometimes for a couple of hours, adjusting intonation,  bridge saddle height, pickup height, nut height... So many variables, but I guess that's where craft, experience and intuition matter.

Basses in the Arts (or, at least, in my art)

Back in 1985 I attended a Museum of Modern Art exhibit of Henri Rousseau's wonderful primitive paintings. I was already a great fan of his work, and had utilized some of his visual vocabulary and style as a painter in High School and beyond. This was probably not even the first time I saw THE SLEEPING GYPSY in person (it is part of their permanent collection), but the show moved me greatly. By that time I had long since abandoned building my own basses, having purchased my Steinberger L2 in 1983. I thought then, and I still think now, that this was and is the perfect bass guitar - lightweight, perfectly balanced, clear of tone, and a thing of design beauty (and this bass is ALSO in the permanent collection at MOMA). The L2 would be my main and at times ONLY bass for about 20 years (give or take a couple other Steinbergers, fretless basses, electric uuprights and my hybrid Mexi Jazz with the Moses neck and passive Dimarzio Quarter Pounders, all secondary at the most). Once I first played an L2, I realized I could never build a better bass, so I took out a loan, sold my walnut-body Jazz and bought a Steinberger. It was only when I started submersing myself in classic rock Tributes that I started buying and/or assembling wood-body basses, for the correct look and tone, but NEVER because I thought there was a better bass out there.

As a Clever Monkey I love the idea of copying things I enjoy, and I left the '85 exhibit with the idea of adapting THE SLEEPING GYPSY for a possible album cover of my music, which would swap out the gypsy and the Oud with myself and my Steinberger. Time passed, and I used a different painting of myself with an instrument and animal for my CHAMBER POP album (featuring my cat Gumby, who died hours before I finished the painting). Note, however, that my Steinberger bass also appears in that painting, leaning against the wall to the far right:

I had also come to love Irish Wolfhounds, and the idea of this image with my large doggie instead of the lion continued festering in the back of my mind. For a few years, commuting to gigs over the mountains between Los Angeles and Simi Valley, CA, I even thought I could stage a photo of this tribute to Rousseau with this landscape, myself and my dog. Time marches on, my doggie Scruffy dies at age 8 in 2003 (giant breeds like wolfhounds live an average 6-8 years because of their size), and a month later I aquire his grand-nephew, 9 month old Orson.

The poster from the 1985 Rousseau exhibit always hangs in my bedroom, and it feartures THE SLEEPING GYPSY, so (needless to say) I was reminded of the painting idea daily. In November 2013, on my return flight from some Middle East gigs, I turn my phone on after 16 hours of digital darkness to read, in a series of frantic emails and texts, the alarming story of Orson's crash (I think it may have been a mini stroke) and my wife's heroic actions to deal with getting a 130 pound dog to a series of animal doctors and hospitals. By the time I got home, with bills of over $2000, I still could not be told why his front legs would not straighten up and allow Orson, now almost 11 years old and already fairly lame in his rear legs, to get himself up and walk without two adult men assisting (and an Irish Wolfhound that cannot walk is essentially a dead Irish Wollfhound). Somehow, over the next couple of days, he regained the use of his front legs (and I know that my being home with him had something to do with it), so I resolved that I had to finish that painting with Orson as a tribute to my love for him, and his for me, and to ultimately get a photo of the two of us togeter in front of the painting WHILE HE WAS STILL ALIVE.

I am posting much more detail on this painting at my website,, and may even produce a film about the project in order to explore further the topics of love between humans and animals (and love in general) and my obsession with tributes (in art, music, architecture, etc). But I did finish the painting about a month and a half later:
And here's that photo I wanted:
As of this writing (3 January 2014) Orson has recovered 100%, and is doing remarkably well after his 11th birthday! In an indifferent universe I count myself truly lucky that he is still with us. It's nice to have the painting hanging on the wall, but it will never beat having Orson with me anywhere at all, alive and all.

A Note About That Steinberger Bass

When I finally started the original sketch on canvas for this painting in November 2013 I depicted a Sunburst Jazz, my go-to bass for the last couple of years. I have been playing classic rock almost exclusively since 2007, and my Steinberger L2 has seen almost no dust or sunlight for quite a while. But I decided that, since my original concept for the painting included the Steinberger, the painting would remain a tribute not only to the painter Henri Rousseau, and my two Wolfhounds Scruffy and Orson, but to the bass that has been such an important part of my adult music life (and to the genius of Ned Steinberger, to whom I will present a framed print at NAMM later this month - hope he likes it).


The holidays are certainly not lacking in dessert choices, and my drawer is currently well-stocked with my favorite dark chocolates, but this season Trader Joes offered a particularly good Belgian dark. I'm not sure of the %, but it has a complex dark flavor and a substantial texture that is not as creamy as some, but not stiff or chalky either. It's not too sweet, and is also a great deal, being fatter than standard bars, but only $1.99. It will be shame when it becomes unavailable, which is expected anytime due to the holiday-themed packaging. 

(with thanks to the winter weather, which delayed both of my flights heading to a weekend gig in Texas, allowing me just enough time to write and edit this article).

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