Friday, January 15, 2010

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 ;)

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