Friday, July 23, 2010

Wood and p-ups. Never ending story.

Is wood or p-ups responsible for a bass's sound?

Frankly we are all tired of hearing this question and the ensuing verbal fight. But I keep on bumping in it in one form or another.
I've steered clear from it until now, as it produces more foes than friends. But maybe I've been a coward. So, lets engage.

As it is formulated, it's as pointless a Q as it is impossible to answer to. Even if The One Answer did exist, it would be of little help in building a superior bass.

For argument sake, let's forget that wood's influence on tone in electric basses is minimal compared to acoustic instruments and say that Tone is in the woods. So what? Are we going to choose the best sounding woods - which is what top makers do anyway - and screw the rest? No, right?

So, it's in the electronics. Sure, lets get the cream of the electronics crop then. I've got an old frying pan sitting there, kiln-dried to perfection for the body.

No? OK then, so it is a pointless Q because whatever A we get will be basically useless.
And it is an impossible Q because it is far too generic. Is Manchester United a stronger team than AC Milan? Wanna fight? Is Ferrari a better car than Lamborghini? You and me, outside, now!

We would have to agree - as we usually end up doing when exhausted enough - that wood and pick-ups are only two of the many components linked in a chain reaction - and we're back to square one.

But if MU beats AC M hands down, then asking 'Why did this happen this time around?' might take AC M to recognize mistakes and change strategy for the next match.

Try this for a change - What do truly great basses have in common?

Is it the wood? Yes, but a Steinberger, Basslab, Status, Modulus and Moses would prove that wrong.

Then it's the p-ups. Yes. But a cheep bass mounting Alembic p-ups and electronics will never quite sound like an Alembic.

Hardware then? Yes. But what exactly. A Furlanetto sounds like a Furlanetto with either brass or wood bridge/nut.

Alembic, Sadowsky, Status, Wal and others use own proprietary electronics. MTD, Steinberger, Fodera and others use p-ups and electronics custom-made for them by top makers. So there is no apparent consistency here either.

What is then the common denominator across great basses?

Here's my personal experience. When I lift a great bass I know it with my eyes closed. I instantly feel its stiffness and can almost hear its voice under my fingers.

I lift up a so and so bass and can only feel the weight of parts assembled together.

Great woods assembled with so and so built quality will still sound crap. Yet a top bass sound great even unplugged.
Whether a bass is made of wood, graphite, metal, stone or kryptonite is quite irrelevant to me. I choose between graphite and wood depending on music style and/or mood of the day.

But stiffness is everything. Every great bass I have played is stiff, whatever the building style.
Be it a neck through, bolt on, set neck one thing they have in common is that you can't feel the individual parts. The bass feels like one.

Of course great el/p-u/hw will make a so and so bass sound better. But more to the point, the same parts will sound helluvalot better on a bass built the way a great bass should be.

And that to me should end the wood vs. p-ups argument. However there is a more interesting angle to it. Once construction becomes the cornerstone of great basses, then everything else take a different meaning.

Because it all becomes product of a Vision - of unique sound, playability, look and feel. Which is to me a lot more interesting and insightful than finding the silver bullet. Players are interested in great basses with great personality. No one want the Perfect One - if the is such a thing.

Some makers believe in wood tone. They keep electronics, p-ups and hardware the same for every build.
Then they experiment with woods. Whichever bass they make will share the same voice. But you'll be able to appreciate subtle differences due to wood choice. It's a wonderful thing. Try a few MTD.

Some others will sound almost the same regardless of woods choice. An Alembic always sounds like an Alembic and so does a Wal or a Status. And God bless them for that.

In either cases, that's the Brand's Voice.

To this point, some time ago I watched a very interesting experiment on UK TV. A guy claimed he could tell a bass only by listening to it.

So there he was, blindfolded and with a dozen basses behind him. One by one the instruments were played by Mr. Mark King, no less. Heck, the guy nailed them
all! Which goes to prove that great basses have each a unique voice.

Stiffness is the foundation of it. Each maker achieves it in the way that is more akin to his nature and craft. He then blends in p-ups, electronics and hardware to perfect his unique vision.

Different vision = Different tone.
is why there is no universally acceptable A to the Wood vs P-ups Q. And nothing to learn from it.
I might still not know how to build an Alembic. But I sure as hell know which way to look to build my very own.

There. I said it.


Thursday, July 22, 2010

Building the uber-J. Part Ten.

The hardware. Hard indeed.

Today was Brass Day. I had to drive around for half a day though some shady neighborhoods to find a brass plate of the right size for the cavity cover and a rod to make the nut.

I finally found what I wanted and while I was there that little demon in me decided to also buy a rounded rod to make the headstock parts. Not sure it'll work but I'll give it a try.

Hope you like my porch ceiling too.....

Then I had to clean up the plate. I wish I had taken a picture first. That thing was oh-soooo dirty, scratched and stained with glue and tape...But it was the only piece they had in the right size. Those guys sell by the yard probably and I was more than happy to walk away with the only reasonably sized left over they had...scratches and all.
It took me about one hour to send it by hand with sandpaper up to 1200 and steel wool.
It's 60X45cm and .7mm thick. I should be able to cut about six to nine covers from this one

Here are the two rods....ops...a scratch.......
I'm probably going to cut a few nuts at once.

Here is a picture of all parts that I'm going to use on this project - except for the tuner-bridge which was in the previous pictures.

The two p-ups are J Bartolini 4x.

The Eq is an [sfx] Ultra-Tone. It was designed and assembled by my friend and electronics wizard Max of [sfx] fame (UK based company. Check out the web site here. Some cool stuff!).

I had a Preamp with DI designed and built by him some time ago and i am very happy with it. I told him that I was looking for an Eq for this project and I wanted one tone only but active and with a twist. He came up with this.
Basically by turning the knob cw or ccw the frequency shifts from very deep tones to piercing trebles. The Eq sports also 2 switches for a 50% mid freq cut or boost. Sounds interesting doesn't it? can't wait to hear it!!

I am going gold all the way... security locks, bridge, ferrules for the headstock, p-ups screws and the six neck screws. Brass plate and brass nut.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Tobias is a Tobias is a Tobias. Or, is it?

I own an old Killer B. In fact, it's one of the last few built by M. Tobias himself and the original team before Gibson took over production. Pictures and a review are available here.

I have come to know this bass inside out, especially from the building angle. I can almost feel the line of thoughts that generated every detail. It is a true masterpiece in his own right - even though it was never meant to be in the league (price-wise) of Alembic and Co.

I have never really bothered checking out what a Gibson made Killer B would feel and sound like, even though I have read countless debates about the topic.

I went to London for work recently. During a day off I was wandering around looking for good basses when I stumbled upon a Gibson made Killer B and I gave it a go.

I must say, there is no arguing anymore as far as I am concerned. This new Tobias was no even the shadow of the original bass.

I usually get the first feeling just by lifting up the bass. Its weight, the feel of the wood under my fingers... these are for me almost definitive clues.

This new KB felt light, almost inconspicuous, the neck wood lacking that silky feel that makes my Tobias such a pleasure to hold. The Maple neck looked too plain, without anything special to it. It didn't look like a wood that was carefully chosen to match the others or just a beautiful piece in its own right. And so did the body. Incidentally the bass sported exactly the same wood combination as mine - Swamp Ash body, Maple/Purplehearth laminated neck (although I think the new one had a M/Bubinga lam neck) and Pau Ferro fingerboard. Thus the comparison was all the more striking.

I must confess, the feeling was so off putting I didn't even plug it in. It wasn't worth it to me, really. A bass has to feel right first.

Now, I don't mean that it wasn't a decent instrument - perhaps even a pretty good one... if the price was right, that is. I am simply looking at it as the heir of a much loved bass. As such, the new production failed me miserably.
Of course, it might be me a bit too fussy? Of course, it might have been just a very unlucky encounter with a lower grade run away bass...yeah...what are the odds...

But the bottom line remains the same: one feels hand made, the other machine-made. Enough for me.

Love & Peace & Groove.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Building the uber-J. Part Nine.

The Uber side of the Jay.

Here we are. This is were the whole project makes its biggest departure from its model. The Uber-Jay is going to be a headless cum headstock bass.
The tuners will be at the bridge while the headstock is going to act as strings retainer. The reasons for this are many. I have elaborated on them in my post The Headless Conundrum.

I'll just sum it up here by saying that the headless system is in my opinion much more reliable, clean and efficient than the traditional one. Having played for long time both type of basses side by side on stage I am convinced that the headless system works best for me.

The flip side is mainly an aesthetic one. The look of the Fender Jazz cannot survive without a headstock. Now that would be a serious blasphemy in my world. So I decided that the right thing to do was to preserve the headstock and design a device which would allow me to anchor the strings there.

It is very simple, and rear mounted. The strings will go through the headstock and a Allen screw will lock them in place. The part is buried inside the back of the headstock, flush with the wood, virtually invisible except for a 15mm disk. The aluminum makes it feather light.

Two little screws hold the piece but the stability is mainly given by it being inside the wood and by the string's tension itself. The small channel allows for comfortable tuning with a small Allen key. I already know I'll do this differently on the next Uber-Jay. Not that I don't like it but I can see an even less intrusive way of doing that. Well, this isn't a prototype for nothing after all.

To test the system's reliability and look for flaws I have mounted the parts on a hard wood blank with a tuner-bridge at the opposite end of a 34” scale. I have tuned both my broom-bass and one of my other basses – a Tobias – and kept them on the same stand in the same room. I have not played the Tobias nor have I touched the broom-bass for sixty days.

When I finally checked the two sets of strings the broom bass was still perfectly in tune while the Tobias needed some adjustment. To be fair, the broom's G was slightly down. But that was due to the fact that the thin .30 string had slightly dented into the wood – which shouldn't happen with Ebony or metal.

The bridge is an ABM. Very well machined and flawlessly finished. The shallow recess on the body was needed to align the bridge to a lower fingerboard level. You might remember me writing that the distance between the body and the top of the fingerboard will be much lower than usual for a total string/body distance of 5mm.

One more feature I always felt uncomfortable with on headless basses – aesthetically speaking – is the cut at the bottom of the body, where the tuners are. It surely makes them reachable. But it is also an important design feature. The fact that it look great on the Steinberger doesn't mean that it will always look just as good on traditional looking basses.

Anyway, I have carved a recess that allows to operate the tuners while preserving the shape of the body. It also gives top and core woods the opportunity to contrast. This bass is fairly basic in that only core wood and top wood will contrast. But it should work very well with top/veneer/core/veneer/back and with laminated neck through.

Thanks for reading.


Thursday, July 8, 2010

Building the uber-J. Part Eight.

It's all in the head. And in the neck.
The last eight days were spent mainly working on the neck and headstock. Granted, I managed to slot in a few days idling by the beach. But I think I deserve that, after two months in cold London/Prague/Paris/Milan. Late spring my ass.

The neck is really hard work. Sand, check, re-sand, re-check. Repeat till you're done. Take a closer look. Repeat all of the above. Avoid taking another look if it's dinner time.

It is a great pleasure seeing it come to life under your fingers and blisters. I so understand those who do this as a full time job. I kinda start seeing my retirement plan here.

Anyway, I wanted the neck to be thin but not flat in the center - a thin D shape. The lower part from the 7th fret to the end is slightly more tapered than the upper part - akin to that of my old Tobias. Not so noticeable, though.

After testing the position of the neck scarf a few times I found it a little too low. To be exact it was below the center line of the 1rst fret. Now it's a little above that and it feels just right. The smooth feel of the ebony under my thumb is phenomenal - and I haven't used any fine sanding paper as yet. I just love this wood. It should be made mandatory for sheer thumb ecstasy.

I have devoted yet another day to the headstock. In the overall economy of the project it seems like I'm lingering on it way much. But I am so very happy with the result! I'll do the final touch ups next. There I go again...

Some more time was spent shaping the neck pocket and heel. It still felt a little too big. I don't rule out more touch ups.

I know, I know... it should all be decided beforehand, on a locked down master plan.
And it is. Almost. Sure enough the next Uber-Jay will be exactly the same. Almost ;)

To me doing this is an ongoing creative process. I won't change my mind on the overall direction. Only, the deal I made with myself does account for few digressions.

OK, I'm digressing. Where was I?...the body. I dedicated one full day to sanding the body back and giving the lower horn a sharper, more defined line.

Hopefully, the pictures below will do justice to the grain and texture of this Asian wood. To me the grain itself would be already enough to make it beautiful. But the flame all over it...oh boy!

Next week: Routing the electronics cavity; Drilling holes for the neck joint and on the headstock. Working on the cavity cover, which I believe it's going to be in wood. Any guess as which wood? ;)
I have a little inlay in mind - which shouldn't take me
more than a day to do. I should be able to finish all this by next Friday. If I don't screw up too much, that is.

Thanks for reading this far.