Saturday, April 17, 2010

The headless conundrum.

Headless is better. Or, is it?

Disclaimer: the following statements reflect my humble (very) point of view. I mean no disrespect to anyone who thinks otherwise. Likewise, I hope to get the same treatment. There. So I won't have to write IMHO or IMVHO every other line.

There are a few unresolved dilemmas in the bass world. Is wood better than Graphite? Is tone a product of wood or electronics? Is passive better than active? I mean, really! These are true evergreens. Makers in particular can get quite emotional about them and argue forever.

Opposing parties have developed a way of building and playing consistent with their belief and - surprisingly? - one can find excellent products on both sides. Which probably explains why these are classics of disagreement.

In the headless vs. headstock debate though, it's not exactly the same. There is an inconsistency out there that strikes me as odd every time I think about it.

When I look at facts purely, it seems that the headless system wins hands down. Here is why.

Tuning reliability.

The evolution of traditional machine heads has chiefly focused on 1. making tuning smoother 2. making tuners lighter 3. keep the tune – providing there is no external interference.

It's a fact that even the best machine heads are prone to lose tuning; put your bass in the gig bag or take it out; drop the gig bag on the car's rear seat or in the boot; leave the bass leaning against the wall. Or, someone bumps into it or fiddles with it. Sometimes it seems like divine intervention. Let's face it: machine heads' design and position just makes accidental de-tuning too easy to happen.

Let me ask you, what's the first thing any bassist does – or guitarist for that matter - when taking his bass out of the case? He checks the tuning.

Good headless bridges on the other hand are extremely reliable. They are small, sturdy and positioned in a way that the body itself prevents accidental de-tuning. My 1982 Steinberger never goes out of tune accidentally.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are cases like this Warwick which seems more concerned with imitating the Steinberger look than understanding its functionality. Placing the tuners right where the bass rests on a stand or on the floor - even in a gig bag - to me just defeats the purpose. With all due respect, do these guys ever play gigs in the real world? Traditional tuners at the headstock would have done a much better job.

Stringing the bass.

Lets face it: no one thinks this is fun. Even Flash Gordon would take at the least 30 seconds to replace one string and get to a somewhat OK tension – still not in tune. The headless system takes perhaps 10/15 seconds per string. The string is locked - either by a double ball end or by a screw. It's a very clean and effective system.

Now, it's not like we've got better things to do than restringing our beloved bass. But the implications of a clumsy system are many. Say, you need to replace a broken string on stage; or you need fresh strings frequently for your many studio sessions; or you play with 6, 7, 8 strings. Or all of the above.


Makers can dish out the most exotic material to reduce tuners' weight. But it will never go down to zero. One hundred grams might not sound like much, but in a world where six strings bass and above have become common, a few hundred grams on an instrument that is struggling to keep its total weight down it's a lot.

What you put up there must be counter balanced by the body weight if you don't want your neck to nose-dive.

On-the-fly tuning.

Have you ever tried tuning a string while playing live? Maybe your previous song required a E string tuned to D and you forgot to tune it back. It happened to me once and I had to stretch my right arm across to reach the headstock, because my left hand had to hold the note. It isn't funny. With the tuner positioned at the bridge this operation is a breeze. Again, this might not happen to you everyday, but if it does you'll be happy you had tuners at the bridge.

I'd like to digress a little now. There has been for long time a belief that a headstock contributes to the sound. Some say positively, some argue negatively. Of course, the lack of convincing, definitive conclusions on either sides is the very reason why we're still debating and will continue doing so. Unless of course, we can test two identical basses with and without headstock in identical conditions - which is both impossible and pointless.

I have played both traditional and headless, side by side on stage and I have come to the conclusion that these are as close to 'facts' as it gets.

This should settle the argument once and for all, right? Cool. Lets all go out there then, and grab all headless basses we can get hold of.

Well, here is the oddity. Just walk into a shop and look around. You'll see very few headless basses - if any at all. Why is it so - considering how much better headless basses work? Why is it that in 30 years they haven't replaced the traditional design - and they don't seem any closer to do so today than they were back then. Obviously, something else is missing.

Lets take a look at the real world of headless basses for clues.

One of the most successful makers of headless basses right now is probably Status. They make beautiful instruments which play awesomely. Check their catalog and you'll see that most basses they produce sport a headstock. The headless models – including their classic S2 – come with headstock option. Even their King Bass which started off as a headless design, now comes with a headstock in its latest Mark-II standard version. A headless model is only available as a custom option. See what the market is saying?

Another good example is the work of luthier David King. On his website he makes a case for headless basses, very articulated and competent. Yet, when you look at the basses he makes you'll find that the majority sports a headstock - which says a lot about the type of orders he's getting.

Steinberger is making a comeback in its revamped venture with Gibson with Mr. Steinberger at the helm. We'll see. There are few more headless bass makers out there and they are no exception to this picture.

So it seems that demand for headless basses is very low. Does that mean that most bassists are impervious to new ideas? Maybe so. But in this case I beg to differ. Bassists just want to play an instrument that sounds, feels and looks good to them. Feel, not facts is what inspires us and makes us sound better.

I have noticed time and again how my playing is influenced by the looks and feel of the instrument. A great bass which didn't resonate with me always made me sound clumsy and uninspired. Conversely, I have felt – and hopefully sounded – better on a lesser bass which I was emotionally connected to.

Look is a great component of what we call feel. As human being we have been designed by mother nature to appreciate balance and harmony in shapes and forms and seek comfort in it.

We've grown up with the shape of acoustic guitars, basses and other stringed instruments. It is only understandable that we feel comfortable with their looks. Everybody likes the look of an acoustic guitar – even those who can't play or couldn't care less.

Headless basses represent indeed a revolution. They tick all the boxes in the Facts list. But lets be blunt about this: most of them look quite contrived and disharmonious – which is French for butt ugly.

One of the very few instrument that has ever managed to successfully address this point is still the original Steinberger. That's because the entire bass was designed from ground up around the vision of a headless instrument. From a sheer design point of view I can't find flaw to it. Still, even though it achieved a cult status, it carved only a niche for itself.

Removing the headstock is the rational and the right thing to do. But the design must harmonize the new the neck with the rest of the instrument, otherwise all you get is an amputation.

Look at the Status KB Mark-II with and without headstock and you should feel how much more pleasing and harmonious the one with headstock looks – especially since the body is considerably larger than the Mark-I's.

As a headless, the Mark-I (two pictured below) looks a lot more harmonious, with a smaller body balancing the missing headstock. I find one detail very insightful. Due to its layout the Mark-I works best as a 32" - 34" positioning the first fret very far from the body. Now, 32" is not as popular as 34". And yet the M-I is a very sought after bass. Think about it: scores of bassists have made this bass successful in spite of being a 32". That's a testament to how well beauty sells.

Status has recently introduced a compact headless bass as well, the Streamliner. The Steinbergeresque design is indeed quite pleasing.

Taste is a personal thing and everyone has the right to like and buy what he pleases. But unresolved design is something very visible to those who understand and appreciate good design.

I deeply believe in the superiority of the headless system. But I am as adamant in stating that, traditional basses are immensely better looking than most headless ones. Millions of bassists clearly see it the same way.

What's missing to headless often is great looks. Simply. Headless basses must find a way to look as beautiful as traditional basses, if they want to win bassists' interest. Until then, the headless' many advantages will be just uninspiring cold facts. We don't even buy a car based on rationalization alone. Go figure.

Some makers - mostly luthiers - have recognized this fact and looked for harmony by shaping the body some times with pretty good results.

Others have explored the option of a headstock which simply acts as a string retainer. I too have gotten to the same conclusion. Each has done it in a slightly different way and with probably different motivation. But the idea behind it is the same.

But, does a headstock still make sense when it only serves an aesthetic purpose? It's a good question. To some a tuners-less headstock might still look like a contrived solution. Maybe so. Personally I believe that beauty has a place and a role in this world, even just by itself.

Moreover, unveiling the discomfort with the look of current headless design opens the door to better ideas to come. We'll take that.

Besides, we can still argue that a headstock influences sound and harmonics. Or, does it?

Thanks for reading.


ps: Here's the great Kubicky x-factor, another prefect example of how headless features and gutsy design can coexist. Please note the added feature of a drop D at the headstock. Hell of a thing. Thanks to Zuma for pointing it out.

Building the uber-J. Part Six.

Starts looking like a bass, doesn't it?

Here is what is happening on uber-J front. The body is almost done - neck joint being the most visible exception. I'll shape that once the neck it done.

I don't know what you think, folks. But I just love the way the curves on the side show the core wood underneath.

I was a little nervous when I started shaving off the top wood from the sides. If it turned out a lemon I would have spoiled a great looking top. But I had it so clear in my mind and I so wanted to give it a try... I hope you'll also see what i see. To me, those little curves just sum up beautifully what the classic Fender design is all about. Yeah, Yeah, it's bragging time... ;)

Anyway, these are the above mentioned curves. I might need to just sand the body a little more before spraying it. Also, I have to polish the pick-up recess and neck joint that are still a bit rough.

I have also sanded the back and further shaped the two horns. All these shaving and sanding took me about six hours. I had to do almost everything by hand as many corners couldn't be safely reached otherwise. I actually like it and somehow prefer it to using machinery. It's a great way of finding the lines and feeling them under your fingers.

Next week I should be able to dedicate a couple of solid days to gluing the fingerboard, finishing neck, headstock and neck joint and routing the electronics' recess . If all goes fine, I should be ready to spray by week end. I have some wild ideas for the neck and for the finishing, so stay tuned.

ps: I do hope the groovy backgrounds I found for these pictures didn't go unnoticed :)