The thought about building myself a fretless bass has been poppin' up in my mind on numerous occasions over many, many years. When I studied music back in 1992 I heard a lot of different pop-music recordings which had been played on a fretless, and there was something so special about that fretless sound that got my attention and interest. The legendary sound of Jaco Pastorious and pop-hits like Paul Young's "Wherever I Lay My Hat" and "Every Time You Go Away", featuring Pino Palladino on a defretted MusicMan Stingray, and Roman Morykit (of Gypsy Soul) all has got that "oh-so-wonderful" mwah-sound, and I thought to myself "I GOTTA have a fretless some day!"
So after thinking about it for a while I took the frets of my old Washburn B2 4-string, put some epoxy on the fretboard to make it hard enough for the wear and tear. Ok, not bad, but the bass was pretty lousy to begin with, so it never actually got me goin'.
Until autumn of 2007. I hadn't been playing bass for a long time, but then I got this "itch" for finding out more about different woods used in guitars and basses and how they affect the construction and sound. I found some very interesting websites about different woods and their sonic characteristics, one of those being the Luthier's Corner at TalkBass, a discussion forum about building electric basses. I got lots of information reading all those posts, and it didn't take long until I found myself visiting an old acquaintance of mine, an elderly man in a nearby village, who is what you could call an expert on domestic woods. I bought some pieces of alder, elm and maple from his extensive piles of different woods. I had some ash and birch allready in stock.
Since I've got a basic degree in carpentry I allready had set up a
small woodworking shop with the most basic woodworking machines and
handtools, so working with wood wasn't exactly something new to me,
but building an instrument is quite something else than making a kitchen
table or a cornershelf.
And so, it was high time for my first electric bass build, and the rest is... well... history.
Let the hunt begin! Truss rods, tuners, bridges and etc. isn't exactly
easy to find in this country, so I found this German company called Rockinger
Guitars that sells a bit of this and that, mainly for electric guitars
and basses. Ordered various parts, and once they arrived it was time
to sit down and make som full scale plans, and count and measure all
the critical measures needed. Some say that carefully planned is half
After several what-if's and how-about's I ended up the following technical specs :
|Type : 5-string fretless
Scale Length : 874mm (34")
Tuners : Duesenberg
Bridge : Rockinger Modern Style
Strings : GHS Boomers
Pickups : EMG DC-40
Piezo : Rockinger no-brand under saddle designed for classic guitars.
Electronics : Seymour Duncan Basslines 3-band Eq
Neck construction : Bolt-on
Width @ nut : 45mm
String spacing @ nut : 9mm
String spacing @ bridge : 17mm
Neck thickness @ 1st fret : 19mm
Neck thickness @ 15th fret : 21mm
Body wood : Alder
Body Top : Wavy Birch
Neck : 7-piece maple & ash
Fingerboard : Ebony
The most common wood used for necks is maple, there's no
question about that. But what about som other species of wood?
Wenge is quite common and good sounding, I had a Warwick 5-string once with wenge neck and fretboard. But my original concept was trying to use only domestic woods in my build, so my attention turned to ash and birch. If you compare the technical/mechanical properties of maple and ash, you find that ash is only about 5% heavier than maple, but a bit more stiff. So the question is, why aren't there more necks on the market made out of ash?
Birch is even more stiff than ash, but somewhere I once read that
ash has some similar sonic characteristics as wenge. I had som nice planks
of ash dried and ready to put thru the tablesaw and planner, so I decided
to make a 7-piece neck construction with maple and ash. Besides, ash is
quite good-looking too.
I made a 4mm thick vaneer out of wavy birch to match the
top of the body and glued it on top of the head. A electric file is a
very efficient tool for shaping, with 80grit paper on it you gotta have
quite stable hands or it might slip, leaving some pretty ugly results.
But just as those tennis players say: "It's all in the wrist"
Shaped and sanded the head and back of neck to those critical dimensions, drilled the holes for the tuners and the metal inserts for the neck-body joint, and screwed the metal inserts in place. Shaping the neck is one of the most enjoyable parts of building an instrument like this.
Rounded the edges of the head with a small router bit, and it was time to glue the ebony fingerboard in place. I let the glue dry, and since I didn't have a sanding block for making the fingerboard radius I made one myself using a router, a very simple jig and som pieces of MDF.
I've always thought that the original Tobias, or "Toby"
as some call them, is one of the "sexiest" shapes on a bass guitar bodies
I've ever seen. I didn't want to make a copy of that shape however, so
I took a closer look at Warmoth's Gecko 5-string and so the idea of combining
those two shapes came to mind. I searched the net for the most hi-res
images available of those two basses and printed each other of them out
on sheets of paper in full scale. Then I made a template out of the two
shapes, and so the shape of this bass is something in the middle of a
Toby 5 and a Gecko 5.
The body was to be made out of alder, but I had some fairly nice looking wavy birch in stock so I sawed up a few pieces and put them thru the planner. It isn't exactly something one would call "flamed", more like "icy".
I glued the wing-blocks of alder and birch together, the two body-wings together, and drawed out the shape using the template and sawed out the shape using a sticksaw. Sanded the sides of the body-block and pre-drilled all the cavities with a forstner bit using the bench drill. Time to put the router to some serious work, routing out the pickup cavities, a 2mm deep slot (for the piezo under the bridge), and electronics cavity in the back, using a few selfmade jigs.
Once upon a time I was a owner of a Ibanez SoundGear 5-string,
and for that bass I once got myself a pair of EMG active pickups. Before
I sold the bass I removed the EMG's and put in the original
pickups. The EMG's have been lying in my drawer for the last 5 years,
so the choice for pickups for this build was pretty easy, besides I like
the sound of these soapbars quite a lot. Warm lows, articulate mids and
soft highs, perfect for a fretless.
The active electronics I removed from my old modified Washburn B2 4-string, the one I ripped the frets off once upon a time.
While surfing the Rockinger Guitars website I found a piezo pickup that is meant for acoustic nylon-stringed guitars. This model is meant to be placed under the bridge, is only 2,5mm thick and costs only 19,80 €. So the idea of trying to mount a piezo under the saddle of the bass popped up. If it works on guitars, why wouldn't it work on a electric bass? And piezos are generally recommended to be run thru a preamp with a high input impedance, so a small NOLLelectronics preamp was added to the shopping cart, along with a 5-way switch (since I'd be using three different pickups on this bass), and all the other hardware parts needed for this build.
The electronics cavity and the cavity cover was shielded with some aluminum foil (the stuff with glue on one side). Pots, switch, output jack and the pickups were screwed in place. An hour of soldering and that was that. Even though the cavity looks large, it got quite crowded in there.
I didn't want to use lacquer on this project, I thought about a more easier and more "au naturelle" approach, which left me with two alternatives. Either Danish Oil or Osmo Color treewax. I have used both of them before and since I wanted the birch to turn out as light in color as possible I chose the Osmo Color.
The neck and body was sanded
with 240 grit sandpaper, applied some water using a spraybottle
and let it dry over night. The grains of the wood that rises by
doing this is then easy to get smooth with some fine steelwool,
especially with as much round and curvy surfaces as this.
The Osmo treewax (a mixture of natural oil and wax) was then applied with a brush and left to dry. A few days later I then checked if the surface was dry, but it still was quite sticky, so there was nothing to do about it, but to let it dry for 3-4 more days.
And finally the surfaces was dry enough to polish them
using some fine steelwool and a cotton polishing cloth on a angle grinder.
The electronics, tuners, bridge, nut and all the hardware was installed and the neck screwed in place. Strings on, and... Voila'! That magic moment when you hear the instrument for the very first time... Sweet! :-)
The neck relief was surpricingly little, not much at all when the bass was tuned. I thought I would have to tighten the truss rod at least a bit, but the relief was looking pretty good, considering the fact that this is a fretless. Maybe all that ash in the neck is making the whole neck that more stiff and rigid? Who know's...
The sound of the different pickups turned out to be quite versatile.
The pickup closest to the bridge is just what I was looking for, that tight mid-scooped sound that every fretless should have. That will probably be the pickup I'll be using the most.
|The sound of the piezo
and the bridge pickup is somewhat alike, the piezo just lacks some bottom
to it. It feels a bit "sterile" and "Clickety-clacky".
I've been thinking about adding a thin piece of soft wood between the
bridge and the piezo, to try and get it more mellow-sounding.