Thursday, March 16, 2017

New and Improved Ric (pt.1)

But it doesn't mean you can't try...
We are all the accumulation of our influences, all digested and blended in unique ways, then expressed based on our limits/abilities. Growing up listening to bassists, the Big Three for me were Chris Squire, Geddy Lee and Paul McCartney. The bass they all had in common, and (except for Paul) the bass that defined their sound, was the Rickenbacker.

I always went for that "Ric" sound - bright, cutting high mids suitable for melodic bass lines, even though I mostly played Jazz Bass-type basses (or, for a 20 year stretch, a Steinberger, a Geddy/Sting/Tony Levin-inspired choice). Throughout college and my 20's I played in a progressive rock/Rush tribute band, and Geddy and Chris's sound and approach to bass playing was all over my hands and musical choices. I have owned two actual Rickenbacker basses in my life; an early 80's 4003, and a late 70's model. The first played great and sounded like you would expect, but the neck was VERY chunky, and while I shedded on Yes bass parts I eventually realized that unless I wanted to form a Yes tribute, it would never get played (and I could not find THE drummer, so I sold it).

The second Ric, a beautiful brown model 4001 Autumnglow, required quite a bit of restoration to get it playable as well as presentable, and by that time, playing only Zeppelin, I again found no opportunity to use it live, so it too was sold (with a loss this time - these basses are not cheap, and having $1600+ just lying around like that turned out to be too much for me to bear). The build quality on the second one also left something to be desired, and it kinda soured me of the whole "wanting to be Geddy/Chris" thing, and besides: it was always about their playing and musical choices, not the instrument.


I always admired some of the more organic design qualities of the original Rickenbacker basses. It has some very sexy curves, and the horn and headstock is unique to them (on both their original guitars and basses). One bass I built in 1980 (and still own today), besides being ludicrously constructed of oak, featured a somewhat reverse Ric-inspired body shape and fingerboard markers:

Having had built and now owning and performing with about as many Fender-type bass variations as I can find useful (with a few less useful ones as well), my thoughts turned again to the Rickenbacker 4001 when I saw photos in 2015 of a sorta reissue model from Rickenbacker, the 4003ws:

What a beauty. First off, I am a sucker for walnut (see my Chocobass build postings). This model also featured no neck binding, which turned into an expensive nightmare with my last Ric, requiring extensive and expensive fretwork. I love the vintage touches, including no body binding and the understated 60's neck dots (instead of the later triangles introduced in the 70's). If only this thing wasn't $1800-$2300, I'd run out and grab one immediately.

Or, because it's what I love to do, I would build one myself.

Continuing with the dark chocolate theme of this site (and my Chocobass), in early 2016 I decided to slowly and deliberately assemble the parts to build my own chocolatey Ric. One of the unique elements of these basses is the neck-thru design. Unlike Fenders, and like some Gibsons (I have one actual Thunderbird bass with thru-neck construction), the neckwood extends all the way through the body instead of bolted to the body, with "wings" glued to each side to create the body. I have not built a neck-thru bass by hand in over 35 years, and the results were rather primitive, so I searched for a guitar maker online who could make a basic Ric blank, with the woods I requested, from which I would shape, install and complete. There are many knockoff builders out there (I suppose even I am one of them, although I am not a business, and build basses only for myself), and there have been many counterfit Ric basses built over the decades (with Rickenbacker notoriously protecting its design patents and trademarks, putting most of them out of business quickly, which I do not begrudge). The knockoff Rics currently avalable from Asia-based builders are not great, and most of their hardware was horrible. All I wanted was an unfinished walnut w/maple neck blank. I could take it from there, using actual Ric pickups (since that's the sound I wanted, anyway) and upgraded Hipshot hardware.

This, as with anything good, turned out to be much more difficult than expected.

I settled on a specific China-based builder (name witheld for reasons that will become apparent), and requested a price for these specifications:

Ric 4001 body and headstock shape, 34" scale bass guitar
Maple neck and fingerboard with WALNUT dot markers (not black) I prefer 38mm nut width
Standard size frets (NOT JUMBO FRETS)
WALNUT body and headstock wings, no sanding/contouring of body edges
No sealer/stain/finish on the bass
No routing or tuner holes drilled (I will complete all of these things) unless you can GUARANTEE the routing would 100% fit stock Rickenbacker parts, not your parts

After taking a couple of months to find walnut (???), their quoted price with shipping from China was $299, which seemed a great deal (if it was done right). A month later, I receive this photo from them:

What's wrong with this photo? The fretboard markers are triangles, which would not do. I requested that they remake, otherwise no sale, which they did. They shipped the bass, and a little over two months after the original order I receive this:

First glance says, yes, OK, I can work with this. They even did a better job of matching the direction of the grain from each side of the walnut body (probably a happy accident, but I'll take it). But when I inspected further, I discovered this:
I immediatey sent this email:

Received the bass body today. The body and neck look great, but I don't understand what your builders did with the headstock wings. The body on this bass is walnut, but they made the headstock wings with MAHOGANY.

WHY would anyone do this? I requested walnut body AND headstock wings, as shown in the sample Rickenbacker photos. I had no way of telling which wood was used in the headstock based on the photos you sent, so I had to wait until it arrived. It's not like walnut wood was not available, as they could have used scraps from the body wood.

We are going to need to come to an agreement on how to resolve this; remaking the bass again, or refunding a significant part of the payment so I can pay to have the headstock remade (including removing the current wood and cutting and attaching the correct walnut sides, all without ruining the bass).

NEXT: I fix the headstock, totally reshape the neck.