Friday, January 15, 2010

Review: His Majesty The Wal.

The Mk I Fretless.

Few basses have enjoyed the legendary reputation the Wal has. There is something about this bass that sets it apart from the others. More than a bass it is a statement to creativity, excellence and a blend of radical innovation and snobbish classicism.

This is the review of my '89 Mk I fretless. In a way it's also a reflection over the early days of the fretless phenomenon.

Among all Wal models - Mk I-II-III, fretted, fretless, in 4,5 and 6 strings configuration - the Mk I fret-less is, in my opinion, the most iconic of all.

I own a Mk III as well and I believe is a more refined instrument and the perfect evolution of the species. Should I buy another Wal today I would likely buy a Mk III.

So, why exactly do I think so highly of the Mk I fretless? It's not just because of its excellent quality and sophisticated electronics. Every Wal, fretted or fretless, shares that. It's rather because of it's significance in the fretless world. To me, at the very least.

In its infancy the fretless phenomenon
basically meant the sound of Jaco Pastorious' Fender Jazz. Only God, and a handful of us, knows how hard it was to be a fretless bassist at that time and not wanting to sound like Mr. Pastorius - with all due respect.

Literally overnight every bass player wanted a fretless J, a Chorus and wanted to - worse, he was expected to! - make it sound that way. Makers were struggling to follow suit and in a matter of months it had become a circus. It went on and on. Holy cow, I hated it!

The Mk I fretless was the perfect alternative, so naturally inclined to sound different thanks to its unorthodox electronics. But like the fretless bass needed Pastorius, so the Wal needed his champion.

Enter Brand X and Percy Jones. Over a few recordings the genius of Mr. Jones showed us bass players not just what else a fretless could sound like, but also what a Wal was capable of.
Others followed suit - notably Mick Karn of Japan Fame.

But more to the point non-Wal players started drifting away from the Fender Jazz shadow. Pino Palladino was one of the first bassists to build his sound around the Wal/Jones's lesson - and he played a Music Man Sting Ray.

Suddenly those who wanted to sound different had something to start with. Even if they couldn't afford a Wal. I'll be always grateful to the Mk I and Percy Jones for breaking the spell.


This bass is a 21 years old. But today's Mark I are made exactly the same way. The body is Brazilian Mahogany. The neck is a six piece Maple/Mahogany laminate with Ebony fretless fingerboard.

Top and back facings of this particular one are American Walnut.
Between the facing and the core is a thin layer of Maple which contrasts beautifully with the two dark woods - especially where the body has been contoured.

This is a fairly classic combination of timbers. Any extravagance at Wal is usually reserved for exotic wood tops.

Two huge, black humbucking P-ups and a massive bridge create a distinctive look, especially when in contrast with natural finish.

The body finish is natural and you can feel the wood under you fingers, while the neck is lacquered. A beautiful effect and a great feel under your fingers.

The 21 frets Ebony fingerboard is tastefully lined with a light brown wood, probably Olive, which is clearly visible at short range while blending nicely with the beautiful black fingerboard - another elegant touch.

Side MOP dots mark the fingerboard and a simple, elegant headstock houses the Schaller tuners. This bass is a gem of inspired simplicity where everything has a role and every detail is taken care of.

Take the fifth screw placed in the center of the metal neck plate. It doesn't contribute to holding the neck. In fact it's shorter than the others and doesn't even go through the body into the neck.

All it does it holding the metal plate so it won't fall when the fourth screw is taken out. That's a Bulgari

The neck is a marvel of reliability. This bass has traveled with me since 1989 from North America to many countries across Europe and Asia, through hot, cold, dry and very humid climates.

Even so, I never had to adjust the truss rod - which is a lot more than I can say of the majority of great basses I have owned or still own. Except for the Steinberger. Go figure!

When you consider that the truss rod is a 21 years old thing, not a contemporary state of the art, then you've got to conclude that the wood is dam good and the construction makes it very stiff.

My MkIII 5er shares the same quality - and it mounts only one truss rod, unlike many 5ers. It's a Wal thing.


Once you wear it, the headstock immediately looks for its balance point in the air. It does feel slightly heavier on the headstock compared to the more compact Mk III, but its natural playing position is comfortable and ergonomic. It doesn't feel heavy and doesn't make you tired.

The bridge P-U falls in a position slightly more central that that of other basses and that is very comfortable for the right arm. It also makes the end of the fingerboard comfortable for fast articulation.

The only thing this fretless doesn't have is a 24 frets long fingerboard. Today I would like that. Than again, today I would like a five or six strings 24 frets fretless, not a four. The Mk III ;)


Now, when many other basses would have been happy to thrive on such a superior crafting, the Wal hits you with electronics like no other. If you remove the Eq cover and look inside you'll see a neat and somehow spartan looking circuitry.

That is the heart of the Wal sound. Each pick-up contains individual adjustable (!) pick-ups for each string, which eliminates imbalances. It's a very quiet circuit and it uses only a 9-volt battery. Then there is a standard 1/4" jack and a Balanced DI so you can kiss goodbye to external DI boxes.

Pulling the volume Knob activates a pick-attack. As the Wal website sums it up "...a narrow band of high frequencies is added to the overall tone-setting to provide dynamic, percussive attack".

Both output level and pick-attack level can be adjusted from inside the bass. This is how Wal describes the electronics:

"Pick-up Mixing Knob:- This silently mixes the levels of the pre-EQ’d pick-ups to any desire ratio whilst keeping the combined output level constant.

Tone-Knobs:- These operate electronic, low pass filters whose roll-off frequencies vary with the position of the control. Fully clockwise at 10, the spectrum is full and flat. As the controls are backed off, the spectrums of the appropriate pick-ups are foreshortened. (Roll-off 12dB/Octave).

The dominant tone character varies, therefore, throughout the entire range of control. Pulling-up the knob produces a quasi-parametric boost of about 10dB to the harmonics which lie at or near the roll-off frequency set by the rotary position.

This provides the characteristic ‘active’ sounds so popular today, without the clinical quality common to many circuits.

By using the pan mixer like a master tone control, in conjunction with the pick-up controls, an endless range of subtle tones and dynamic effects can be created, with or without the pick attack

On left-hand models all rotary functions are reversed to right-hand".


All this might sound intimidating but it's actually a lot more intuitive than the traditional three knobs Eq.

Basically all you have to do is to rotate the tone knob of one pick up
and listen, until you like what you hear.

Then you do the same with the other pick up.

When both P-ups sound good to you, you use the balance to move around the sound spectrum you have created. I like this way of looking at it.

It sets me free from the mental grid of B/M/T and encurages me to think of sound as a whole, not as the product of three frequencies. It's a much more creative process which over time has changed the way I set the sound on bass I play.

I have played my two Wal with large band line up, in small clubs, with horns and with less then perfect sound system. There has never been a time I couldn't cut through the mud.

The Wal's voice.

...and here is where I hit the wall - pun intended. Sorry, I couldn't resist it :) I really don't know how to describe the sound. It cannot be likened to any other, not even just for reference purpose.

I can say that the massive Mahogany body adds a dark tone to the overall voice; that the sound is round, with a huge, earthquake-like bottom and that it has so much sustain you'll have to shoot it to make it stop.

I can point out how each note sounds clear and powerful; how high the P-ups output is - higher that most basses I know; how it sounds always clear, rich and with seemengly infinite nuances.

But then, what does that really tell you about the its Voice?

The best i can do here is to suggest listening to some of the old Percy Jones recordings with Brand X recordings - Masque and Do They Hurt above all - and the sound of
Mick Karn on Japan's recordings - take 'Oil on Canvas'.

That's a good start but it is only half the story. To feel the magic of this bass you'll have to try one. Well, I live in Asia. If that's not a problem for you I suppose it can be arranged.

Wrapping it up.

Now you might say I am biased, and I would accept that. How can I not be? It is not even a matter of saying 'I cannot find fault with this bass' because the Wal is in a category of one. Conventional rules simply do not apply.

I might not drive a Rolls or a Ferrari, but they are what they are regardless. And I have personally played a lot of Porches but I have found only a handful of Rolls and Ferrari.

How many great brands out there have made the questionable marketing decision to offer a line of instruments made in so n so, to produce the same uncompromising blablabla at an affordable price. Right.

It is just my point of view, but these makers are simply damaging their brand and I leave it to you all do wonder why.

Price and quality are part of the same equation and you can't have an affordable Rolls because that wouldn't be a Rolls anymore, now wouldn't it? Likewise, Wal doesn't offer a more affordable-but-just-as-good marketing miracle. Think about it.

Now that Wal has resumed production after changes at the helm of the company, the chances to actually own one are real.

Regretfully the long waiting list is real too - rumored to be at least a year.
That is, unless one is prepared to bit for it on the second hand market. And with price starting from 3200 British Pounds, getting a new one is not exactly easy.

And so it happens that, while some choose to make great basses everyone can afford, near Cobham in Surrey, UK, things just work together in prefect harmony to make a legend.


In a nutshell:

+ Top craftsmanship.
+Unique sound.

+Iconic status.

- Very hard to get one.
- 21 frets.


Wal website

Lesson learned: My ol' Jaydee taught me.

After 23 years the fingerboard of my old Jay Dee Supernatural and its truss rod had to be replaced. In the meantime I had entered this dangerous phase of my life when I want to know basses inside out - the most recent by-product of it being the upcoming Uber-J ;) - see the progress in archive on the right.

I wanted to do it myself, hands on and, under the guidance of a luthier I know, I took on the challenge.

First thing I did was to remove the old Ebony board - and almost my left thumb while at that.

It's one tough MFSOB of a job! It's hours spent heating up the old wood, trying to take it out only to see it cracking into tiny pieces which you'll have to deal with one by one - with pain. Believe me, after one hour of that you will want to pay whatever the guy's asking.

And here's Lesson One: Building instruments really is hard work and that costs money.

But I finished the job. Doing this forced me to notice and ponder over tiny things which a player doesn't necessarily need to know, being mostly focused on the 'feel' of the thing as opposed to the way it works. I learned how to choose the wood, prepare the fingerboard, decide the radius, bind it, glue it, choose the size of the frets, fret it, it, oil it.

Playing on a fingerboard I know this well is a feeling I haven't experienced so far and it is affecting the way I play this bass.

And here's Lesson Two: God is in the details.

Together with replacing the old truss rod with a new double action one I wanted to add stiffness to the neck. So I considered adding two graphite rods. Hence the chilling question:

"Do graphite rods affect (negatively or positively) the sound of a wooden bass which was not made with graphite rods to begin with?"

It's a honest question, if you ask me. Many have argued over it since graphite first appeared in the bass universe. You know those 'headless vs headstock' or 'sound-of-wood vs sound-of-electronics' kinda debate? There you go.

To know for sure - or close enough - the only way is to have two identical wooden basses, one with and the other without CF rods. Of course there is no such a thing like two
identical wooden basses. Ah ah ah. So the next best thing is to take a chance and do it to a bass you know very, very, very - did I hear very? - well. Like mine.

Which is exactly what I did.

Now I cannot speak as a builder because I ain't. But I am a bass player, I can tell you that. And my answer is a humble, resonant, rounded 'hell no'. Nope, niet, pas de tout, nein.

I couldn't notice any difference at all. Same strings, same amp, same player etc. The bass sounds the way it always did. Maybe my neighbor's cat hears something I don't. But, as far as I'm concerned, if I can't hear it it isn't there.

The graphite rods did however make the neck beautifully straight, stiff, and believe me, absolutely impervious to the humidity level of a tropical rain forest during the rainy season. But that is a side effect I can happily live with

End of the debate, as far as I'm concerned.

So, my Lesson Three is: What seems to have a point in theory might not have one in practice. Do it and see for yourself.

The Best for last: Lesson Four.

I wanted to add a few personal touches to my Jay Dee, but was intimidated by the old fear of spoiling the market value of the instrument. But I really, reeeeeally wanted to add an inlay myself and most importantly fix a few details which were key to my playing pleasure.

So I did the inlay. It took me two months. It might not be a masterpiece of perfection but I like it and I learned a lot, especially Lesson One all over again. Inlaying is one hell of a job which requires patience, precision, time, dedication, a sharp eyesight and good taste.

Then I added an oval shaped Ebony/Maple to fill the gap between fingerboard and body. It works with my slapping technique, which requires 5mm max distance between strings and body. For the same reason I had to file the edge of the fingerboard's lower angle to a smooth rounded shape right down to the neck. It just works for me. You can see both modifications in the picture above.

And here's Lesson Four: If it works for me I'm gonna do it. Screw the market value.
What I have learn easily compensates me for the monetary loss - if! Plus, I ain't gonna sell this love after 23 years :)
Which brings me to the Special Wisdom Prize

Special Wisdom Prize: The Lesson of a lifetime.

I bought this bass brand new in 1987. I my early years I wasn't in the position to own more than two basses. To buy this one I had to sell my Music Man Sting Ray - a '77 I believe...yeah, don't say a word ;) (Fore the records, the second bass I had at that time was a fender Precision fret-less class '73. Ask me where that one is now, please?)

Years later when I had more cash to spare I tracked down the owner - it wasn't easy, the bass had changed hand a couple of times! - only to see it disappear again, for good this time.

And here is the lesson: Never sell a great bass.
Not even to buy another great bass. Sell your car, sell your next 5 years worth of booze, sell your ass if you have too. Later on, you'll never miss them as much as you will miss that great bass you once let go.

Thanks for listening


ps: In case you asked, I sold the '73 P to buy a Wal Mark I fret-less - a gorgeous bass, not from this Earth. It will follow me into my grave. Wood smells good underground ;)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Review: the Jay Dee Supernatural series III

The Mark King III

Jay Dee are made in UK by John Diggins, hence the name.

Mine is a 1987. I fell in love with it from the first time I played it. Back then I couldn't afford more than two basses. So I had to sell a 1977 Music Man Sting Ray to buy one. Don't ask.


This bass is a display of great craftsmanship. Over thirty different pieces of wood are used for the construction. The body wings are Brazilian Mahogany and the neck is a five piece Walnut and Maple laminate.

The 21 fret fingerboard is made of Ebony and
it originally had MOP dots. The nut is Ivory. The P-Ups are sealed inside a Ebony, Maple and Mahogany cover - a little masterpiece. The front of the uniquely shaped headstock sports a beautiful top and veneer.

The only part they don't make is the Schaller tuners which are as precise and reliable as one would expect.

The most interesting feature of this bass to me is the fact that it looks like a neck through but is actually a glued neck. Go to the
JD Gallery to see how this is done - link provided below.

The string holders are made of massive bell-quality brass. The bridge itself - also in brass - is screwed to a brass plate sunk into the body. The two parts together lend a very unique look to the instrument.

Then again, everything about this bass is unique. Which is probably why it's a love or hate type of instrument. There is no denying that the somewhat retro style divides people. I love it, obviously.

The body is gracefully contoured leaving no sharp angles and is a pleasure to hold.
The finish is exceptional. After so many years of playing it still looks new with little sign of wear and tear.

The neck is flat, thin and makes for very fast playing. Unfortunately, the combination of thin neck, soft woods and the rather weak truss rod in this '87 model, resulted in a very temperamental neck.

Much like vintage cars, it succumbs to the slightest humidity and temperature changes. Having changed addresses many times across two continents I became a bit of an reluctant expert on this topic.

Good thing is, I learned to have the basic tools with me all the time. Still, a moody neck is not something too desirable in a high end instrument.

Last year I wrote to Mr. Diggins, a very likable person. He advised me to replace the old truss rod and confirmed that for quite some time now they had been using a far superior rod, putting an end to the problem. You've got to love progress! ;)

Needless to say, with the neck back in shape I fell for this bass all over again.

Playing this thing is a pleasure. It is well balanced, surprisingly light and the strap locks push the body slightly towards the left of the player, making it perfect for slapping.

This position makes it easier for the left hand to move around the 18th/21st fret area. It requires a bit of stretching to reach the first fret though, so small sized players be forewarned - and to those playing with the neck at a sharp angle.

There is a metal knob for master Volume and another for Tone control, which works on both active a passive selection. A toggle switches the Eq On/Off.

The three smaller Eq knobs are very nice looking in black plastic with MOP top. The Eq on my JD (
B/M/T) is perhaps not the most versatile on the market and I personally don't particularly like the Treble sound when rotated fully clock-wise. But the Eq works well overall. Jay Dee confirmed last year that new basses are mounting the same electronics.

When you open the Eq compartment you'll see the large recess full with circuitry very neatly put together. I have no idea what brand the Eq is though, probably JD made? If anyone does, please add a comment here.

The P-ups selector is a large switch with On-Off/Bridge/Two P-ups/Neck position. The ON position also tuns on a small red light so you know. The light gets dimmer when the battery starts running low - nice.

Just make sure to lower the volume on your amp when you switch the bass off or you'll hear the speakers popping - not nice.

Many seem to agree that a switch is preferable to a balance pot because it produces a cleaner signal. Be as it may, most basses come with a P-U balance or separate volume knobs, probably recognizing that players out there need all the in-between nuances to find a personal sound. I share that sentiment, even more so on this bass - more on this later.

Finally, the bass mounts a standard jack and an Balanced DI.

The Jay Dee Voice.

The overall tone is very organic, resonant. It almost feels like you could hear the sound of the wood unfiltered. It's very unique. You hear it, you know it's a Jay Dee.

The bridge P-U produces a sound that is punchy and nasal like many wouldn't expect from a Mahogany bass. The neck PU sounds very rounded, with an almost acoustic quality to it. Its very distinctive, but I have yet to find the right sound environment for it - after 23 years! Perhaps in a semi-acoustic lineup? It does add to the versatility of the bass though.

The two P-ups together produce a killer slap sound - rounded, percussive, sharp, compressed. To me it almost gives a voice to the bouncing of the strings. With light gauge stainless steel strings (.40, .35 or .30) it's a flying slap machine.

Which is why I earlier said I am not keen on the way the P-ups selector works. If only this bass had a Balance instead one could explore its infinite combination. As it is, I just hardly use the neck P-U. I wonder why it was designed that way. Perhaps I will ask Jay Dee to change that for me ;)

I have also noticed that the overall output is not as high as many high end basses. I'm not too sure why. But when I play it together with another bass - particularly with Wal or Steinberger - I often need two separate volume settings. Has anyone else noticed that?

The Supernatural was brought to international attention by Mark King of Level 42 in the mid eighties. However it was not designed in team with Mr. King. It was merely the bass he used. He later gave permission to name it after him.

Mark King & Jay Dee was a perfect marriage. If the player made the bass famous, the bass gave the player a signature sound which I feel he had not fully found until then.

The Jay Dee somehow planted the seed of a vision that has been perfected over many years of collaboration with top builders and has produced the gorgeous Alembic M.King and more recently the superb Kingbass MarkII.

The association with Mr. King might have somehow pigeon-holed this bass back then, with people looking at it from the funk-fusion angle only, perhaps limiting his appeal.

It might come as a surprise to some that Jaco Pastorius was about to endorse Jay Dee in the last period of his career. There is a video of him playing a Series II. The link is below.

I read in an interview to Mr. Diggins that Pastorius was initially quite skeptical about using a Mahogany bass, his being so used to Swamp Ash. However he was so blown away by the sound and the crafting of the Jay Dee that he ordered two basses right away
- or was it three? - albeit in a shape closer to the Fender Jazz.

These basses were to become the Jaco Pastorius signature Jay Dee. As fate would have it, he passed away just days before he could collect his basses. I wonder what would Jay Dee's story have been like had Pastorius survived the accident.

Anyway, Mark King and Pastorius' choice, that's good enough for me.

I saw the last one of those JP models on sale at Jay Dee's many years back. I should have bought one. But then again, those were the days when I had to sell a Music Man to afford a Jay Dee.


In a Nutshell:

+ Great Craftsmanship. Build to last. Fast neck. Personal Sound. People will stare.
- No P-ups Balance. Low volume output.
People will stare.

I've got a little story about this bass. If you're interested you'll find it in my other post: Lesson learned: My Jay Dee taught me


Jay Dee website (another web site is here).

JD Gallery

This video features Pastorius with a JD S series II

Building the uber-J. Part Four.

Unveiling a few little secrets ;)

This is the body at its final stage of contouring. I have shaped the lower horn to a point where it really leaves a lot of room for my left hand. I am so very happy with it! When you look at the body from the front view it doesn't look any different from a J. But when you look behind.... ;) Gosh I love it!!

Now, contrary to what is usually done I have deeply contoured the lower part of the body as well. I like the visual harmony of this solution. I mean, how cool is that?

What?...The drawings? What about them?....Oh, OK. So it's gonna be a long neck joint.
Actually, it's gonna go all the way down to the neck PU, almost half the body. Indeed!

As I said at the beginning, some of my efforts wil focus on improving the neck/body joint. This is it. It will take eight screws with ferrules and the heel will be shaped to make the transition neck/body as smooth as possible. Once it's done it'll take a bomb to separate these two fellows. I think this is worth trying. I can't wait to finish this!!

And yes, there will be an on-board EQ. The size and position of the recess is not final. In fact I am still waiting for the electronics. It will be as far away from the strings and bridge PU as I can go. I hate it when knobs are placed so far up that my right arm keeps on bumping into them.

Initially I was convinced I would stay true to the J's simplicity of V/V/T. I changed my mind. One reason is that a separate mids control is essential to me. Then, the second most important knob to me is the PU balance. Once I start changing that, little is left of the J layout. Might as well have some serious EqMF!

Now, I do understand that that deep body contour will challenge the position of a full 3 bands EQ. But I think I have a solution for that. Besides, I love challenges ;)

Prototyping and waiting for parts.

These days I'm working with the 'metal guys' on some hardware prototype for the headstock, so the wood work will have to wait until that is done. I have decided to take a rather radical approach to the tuning issue.

Basically I am trying to do without machine heads. (Yo bro! are you crazy? a J without headstock??) Of course my uber-Fender Jazz will have a headstock. No way I could do without it, no.
But I have over time come to question the whole headstock tuners thing. I should probably post separately on this rather controversial issue.

For now lets just say that my intention for this bass and for the next one is to try something different.
I will elaborate on that later, when the prototype is ready and I have something to show.


Right. So, I am waiting for a number of parts -
Bridge, Pick-Ups, on-board EQ.
They should arrive by mid next week.
In the meantime, I think I'll go swimming. Or write another review ;)


Saturday, January 9, 2010

Building the uber-J. Part Three.

More body work and starting the neck.

Today I have worked on the neck and on the body. The clamps are gone and the edges of the body and top have been sanded. I chose not to have veneer between top and body and to do without bindings. In a way I don't want to stray too far from the simple character of the J. Later I will round the edges.

I've been torn between the different types of Maple available. Some are truly gorgeous. In the end I decided to go for the humble simplicity of the Rock Maple. Again, an homage to the J frugality.

These are the laminate woods before and after the sanding, now ready for being glued. I decided to make it a three pieces laminated neck with Makassar Ebony as the central wood. After so much 'paying respect' to Mr. FJ I wanted to add a little rebel touch ;)
Be as it may, The Ebony should both stiffen the neck - which is going to be a lot thinner than the original FJ - and echo the body top.

This is the neck clamped. Nothing to add. Just sit and wait. Till Monday...

This is the fingerboard, partially sanded - Birdseye Maple, another little mutiny ;)

I have started shaping of the body. You can see how deep the chest recess is. I play with the bass fairly high and don't have a belly to speak of. Thus, the contour has to follow the shape of my chest.

Shaping it was a crude job.
I'll finish on Monday...probably. You can see the pencil mark on the lower horn. That wood will have to go. Many basses deal with the problem of playing the high position by changing the shape of the horn into a slimmer one, further away from the neck. That works and it almost always looks good. But on a FJ I think it'd be ugly and I pledged to keep the front look intact.

By shaving off the back of it I plan to give my left hand all the space it needs without changing the shape of the horn. I think it should work. If you pay attention to the way the horn interferes with the left hand you'll notice that in reality the culprit is the back, not the front.

Can't wait to put this theory to a test.


Friday, January 8, 2010

Building the uber-J. Part Two.

Making the body.

Traditionally a Fender Jazz comes with a Swamp Ash or Alder body. My personal taste leans towards the sound of woods like Mahogany. Now, I live in South East Asia and for this bass I wanted to use Asian timber.

Woods around here a different from those in North and South America though. A little research was necessary to find a balance between the Mahogany sound and the traditional J sound in an Asian package.

There is a wood here referred to as Asian Mahogany.
This wood sounds quite close to Brazilian Mahogany, the main difference being his sounding less dark than Mahogany.
Which could make it a good choice.
Among other things this wood is often used to build average to good quality guitars. However a A grade piece of this wood sports quite remarkable sonic qualities and its very beautiful to look at.

In this picture you can see two beautiful Flamed boards book-matched and cut in J shape. The Flames are very pronounced even at a raw stage. I am leaving a little more wood allowance where at the heal as I am planning to shape it for a heal-less effect.

The picture above shows the body after being reduced in thickness. You can see the arched top and bottom profile. The arch is more pronounced at the lower half the body, less so at the wings to avoid cracks in the top facing.

This is what it looks like after sending it both sides. Now it feels very smooth, like velvet. Or is it me hallucinating after sanding for longer than I like to remember?

As you can see it's an arch top, as opposed to the flat J body. Usually the area of a flat body that goes under the right arm is scooped out to make it more comfortable to hold. It's a good solution and aesthetically pleasing with a contrasting top and a veneer.
But I want to address the comfort issue with the arch top instead. This way the top will remain intact and the shape of the J will be preserved.

Now I'm ready to glue the top. I struggled quite a bit to choose the wood. I am going to build another bass after this and I wanted the color code of the two basses to be very different. I almost got myself a beautiful Zericote, but someone else was faster.

I always liked Macassar Ebony. It's a great looking wood and it makes fantastic fingerboards. But for a body top I felt the stripes were too straight and regular for my liking. Until I saw this one. I just loved it :)

So there you go. Can you see the body under all those clamps? ;))

Thanks for reading.


Building the uber-J. Part One.

OK, what I'm going to do is to put an end to my whining over what is good and what is not so good about the Fender Jazz and build one I hopefully have nothing to whine about. I am well aware of the iconic status this instrument has achieved and I'm taking this task with the utmost respect - plus a healthy dose of rebel spirit. Bear with me and see where this takes us.

BTW, to spice things up I have given myself a deadline: 15th of February...ops

Part One: Why.

First off, here is the hero in the woods and metal - an American Delux Fender Jazz straight from the Fender website. Ain't that a beauty?

These are the good things for me.

- The body shape is a great classic.
- The P-U positions are genius.
- One think this bass gets really right is having only 22 frets. I don't need more - unless I'm playing fret-less - and if I did I would switch to a six strings. It's a matter of personal preference, but to me this bass is a groove machine. You don't need 24 frets to groove. M Miller doesn't. Pastorius could make less then 24 frets fingerboards sing. When I slap the 24th fret gets in the way and I dislike the harmonics produced. So, long live J's 22 frets!

These are points that I'll try to address. They are very personal, nevertheless they are:

- The body has little contouring and I find it a bit uncomfortable.
- Access to the 22nd fret is not very comfortable especially on the E string.
- It is still a bit on the heavy side.
- The neck joint feels week and the heel looks chunky.
- The neck is too thick.
- The string spacing is too wide at the bridge and too narrow at the nut.
- I am not keen on the fingerboard radius.

- The distinctive headstock always strikes me as slightly too large.

There. I said it.


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Review: Tobias 5 strings

I have owned this bass for about nine years now. I bought it in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2003. Is the previous owner out there?

The serial number shows that this bass was completed on the 13th
of May 1992. At that time Tobias had already been acquired by Gibson (on 1.1.1990) but basses were still made by Mike Tobias and original team at the Burbank Calif. shop. This makes it one of the last few basses built before the shop moved to the new facilities in Nashville, sometime in June I believe, which marked the end of Mr. Tobias collaboration with Gibson.


The body is Swamp Ash with natural finish. The neck is a five piece Maple/Purpleheart laminate and it's a bolt-on - the preferred choice for a punchy sound. Under the 24 frets Pau Ferro fingerboard is a double truss rod which can be adjusted removing the plate located at the end of the fingerboard. As you can see from the pictures woods have aged beautifully.

The neck is perfect, straight and very fast with the asymmetric profile that is Tobias' trademark. The action can be set incredibly low and is virtually buzz free. It mounts two Bartolini p-ups and on board 3 bands EQ.

One impressive feature of this bass is that it is extremely light, even lighter than its slick shape would suggest - lighter than most 4 strings actually. But the sound is big, with a warmth and a growl that speaks directly to your guts.

A few details are really a joy to look at. The MOP inlay of the intricate logo and the stark contrast with the black glossy headstock cover is a very tasteful touch.

The head stock's angle naturally holds the strings down without any need for the usual metal bar just above the nut.
Again, one cannot help but notice how all these details converge into a bass that makes inspired simplicity its style statement.

The scarfed headstock joint at the back is more pronounced than on most basses and is so beautifully sculpted that your thumb can gradually tell you when it's approaching the headstock. A very nice touch indeed.

The neck joint is shaped in an almost heel-less fashion. Even just visually this is a far cry from the chunky squarish heels of most bolt-on of the time - and not only. The neck screws sit into ferrules and are arranged in slightly open layout, with the bottom screws further apart from each other that the top two. This seem to suggest that the neck end is shaped slightly wider than the rest of the neck. I'm not sure. I haven't disassemble it.

Overall, the attention to details shows just how much love and expertise had been put into it.
Lets not forget, this was 1992 and this bass' price wasn't exactly at Alembic level.

Electronics and sound.

I particularly like the way mids cut through. Dialing in a bit more of the bridge P-U produces a sound that is beautifully nasal, perfect for soloing. Bartolini P-U and EQ are exemplary in their simplicity and effectiveness - V/B/bass/mid/treble. A little EQ goes a long way without changing the voice of the instrument. A toggle activates/deactivates the EQ.

In the off position the three filter won't work and you can only adjust vol and balance. Even without EQ the sound is beautiful and gutsy.
When the sound spectrum of two P-U is wide I tend to dial in an overall sound I like, then use the P-U Balance almost like a master Tone control.
I have developed this habit playing Wal. It works well with this bass.

I cannot find fault with this bass except perhaps that, it isn't the best bass for my slapping style. I tend to slap with my thumb perpendicular to the strings and the neck positioned horizontally. At this angle the 24th fret gets in the way. Many bass players actually like to hammer on the fingerboard. I don't - I don't like the harmonics it produces.

To be fair, this is an inherent problem I have when slapping with many 24 fret basses - except a Steinberger because of its unique layout and ergonomics.
For slapping I prefer a 21 or 22 fret board with a body layout that pushes the neck slightly forward.

Having said so, if the preferred slapping style is with the neck at an angle, then this bass is spectacularly balanced and ergonomic.

For finger style I just love it and it's one of those rare instruments which allows the player to access frets from 20th to 24th really comfortably - including on the B string!

In fact, the Tobias is designed in such a way that the bass position itself slightly more towards the player's right shoulder. This makes playing around the 1st/3rd frets quite comfortable. But aside the problem I mentioned earlier, I feel it makes
it a bit tiring for the right arm when playing at the bridge P-U for long time.

As a side note I will add that I have also played a number of Gibson made Tobias and the high end ones seem very good. However the Killer B I have played don't quite fell like this one.

This bass has sealed my respect for Michael Tobias' work and all the MTD (link provided below) I have played show how the vision has improved.

Thanks for reading.


In a nutshell:
+ Growling machine. Very light. Comfortable neck. Bartolini.
- Must like the ergonomics. Hard to find.