Bass Builders: Catalpa ’51 P-Bass Finished!

Sid and I just finished his bass, and it’s beautiful! Maple neck and Catalpa body, Gotoh reverse tuners like the old days, a Fender bridge that allows for string-through (our choice) or top-load setup, and a very cool Lindy Fralin pickup.

The pickup is noise-canceling, but you can’t tell by looking at it unless you’re right on top of it. Each coil surrounds two pole pieces. It’s very nicely made and fits in well with the other old-school-style parts. Sounded big and clear through my studio amps, but I don’t have a proper bass amp here, so I’ll have to wait for Sid to wind it up with his stage rig to get the real story.

We were a little concerned about balance because the body is pretty light and the Gotoh tuners are fairly heavy, but a little work on the position of the strap button on the horn took care of that. The bass hangs perfectly, with no tendency to neck-dive. One volume, one tone, no damn switches, nothing else needed!

I made a bone nut, installed the neck, and did most of the wiring, but Sid took on the finishing job (the toughest process in a build), installed the tuners (not easy with these), lined up the control plate, pickguard, strap buttons, bridge, and bridge cover, drilled their holes, and drove all the screws. We did a quick setup, and he’ll play it for a few days so it can get used to being a bass. Then we’ll meet again for final setup.

Thanks to Sid for taking on the project. It’s always a journey, but he’s got a cool new bass to play, and he built it!

Guitar Builders: Esquire Finish So Far

A quick update, after three coats of Tru-Oil. You can see that the dye’s “bronzing” is gone, and that I’m on the way to a nice gloss. I’ll rub this out lightly with 0000 steel wool, and keep going for another 3-4 coats. I might switch to the aerosol T-O, since I seem to get a better looking gloss that way. And then we will see…

Guitar Building: The Alder Esquire’s Neck

I have had this neck sitting around for a couple of years. It’s a Fender California Series, which dates it to about 1997. This neck was on a parts Strat, but I replaced it with an Allparts neck with a rosewood board, which looked and played better on that guitar. As the black Esquire project has come together, I decided to take another look at it to see if it would work here.

The first order of business was a complete level and crown. There was enough fret height to make that work, and I like the size and shape of the frets. At the same time, I rolled the fretboard edges a bit. The finish on this neck is very brittle, and there’s been some flaking on the fretboard. It doesn’t look great, but also doesn’t affect how the neck plays, so I’m leaving that alone for now.

Next up was a new set of tuners. I like the standard Fender vintage-style with the split posts. They’re made by Gotoh and work great, but I find it odd that the tuner bushings are always bigger than vintage spec. I always have to put the neck on the drill press and bore the holes out a bit to get a proper fit. By the time that’s done, the bushings press in pretty easily. Installation was painless because the screw holes were already there. I use a little Stew-Mac Guitar Grease to lube the screws, since the maple is hard, and the screws aren’t all that strong.

The neck still needs a bone nut. Meanwhile the Tru-Oil on the body is drying, and with the leather dye has given me a great deep black. I’ll apply a few more coats, probably five or six altogether. Waiting for finish to dry is seriously not exciting, but you can’t rush it. In fact, it’s time to apply the next coat!

The Alder Tele (Now Esquire), Going Dark

I decided to stain this one. Several reasons: I’ve never done it, the alder grain is nice but a bit plain, and there’s a tiny bit of router tearout on the body edges that has to be filled. The grain filling ruled out a lighter stain color (the filler will show), so we’re going with black, a white 3-ply Esquire pickguard (NOT vintage correct), and a single volume control. The pickup will be the Seymour Duncan BG1400, and I’m trying out Wilkinson’s version of a vintage Tele bridge with compensated brass saddles. Neck to be determined, but the frontrunner is a maple Strat neck.

I used Timber Mate for the filling, and it’s easy to use. An old credit card is a great applicator/scraper. It’s water-based, so it can be thinned to any consistency, and it dries fast. I used it straight from the container, and didn’t worry about the color match (they make a zillion colors), since I planned to cover it with the black dye. A light sanding, and I was ready to move on.

The question was, what stain to use? A long internet search turned up the tidbit that guitar makers have long used leather dye to make ebony fingerboards a more uniform black. I know the dyeing part is true, but hadn’t heard the part about using leather dye, so I ordered up a bottle of Fiebing’s from Amazon. It’s alcohol based and is said to penetrate like crazy, so it seemed worth a shot.

The photos show the body after two coats of dye. I dabbed it on with their applicator, and removed the excess with a dry foam brush. Very easy, but messy. Gloves and old clothes are a great idea when you do this. It dries quickly, so I applied the second coat about two hours after the first. It stained very evenly, something my internet search had warned me is often a problem when working with alder. The grain still shows, which I like.

You can see in the photos something the Fiebing’s folks call “bronzing” in the color. The wet dye was very black, and the bronzing appeared as it dried. It’s sort of cool, but not exactly what I was hoping for. They say that a coat of neutral polish will fix it when working with leather. Since my intention is to follow the dye coats with several coats of Tru-Oil, I’m pretty sure I’ll wind up with a deeper, wetter-looking black, which is what I want.

The first Tru-Oil coat is drying as I write this. So far I’m really happy. I’m keeping the finish very thin (better sound that way), and I think it will look great!

Pedalboard Class, One-On-One


The first pedals/pedalboards/amps and TONE class was held Saturday, April 25, down here in the basement and was a great success! We divided the time between an overview of pedal order, reliable cabling, and physical layout, and a hands-on dialing-in of my student Andy’s particular setup.

For the overview, I brought in my larger board, seen in the photo above. Before anyone piles on, I switch certain pedals in and out, and am aware that my cabling isn’t OCD neat. The red cable is from a George L’s kit, which sounds great, is very reliable once you get the solderless connection thing down, and has nice low profile plugs, which help when I need to squeeze just one more pedal on before a gig.

That board is a Pedaltrain 2, with a Voodoo Labs Pedal Power 2 supply underneath. It’ll run nine 9V pedals, so there’s only one battery on the board, in a pedal that still works with a dead battery. I’ve had no issues with that foundation at all, and as pedals come and go, I don’t have to worry about things working. Nice to have that peace of mind!

Andy’s jam camp rig is a Tele (from our building classes), a T-Rex Yellow Drive pedal, and a Vox AC-4 tube amp. First we tweaked the amp’s tone knobs, explored the interaction between the gain and master volume knobs, and found a beautiful clean tone that sounds great all by itself.

We moved on to the pedal, which has two selectable channels, each with its own gain, level, and tone controls. It presents lots of options but can also seem a little confusing if you aren’t a veteran knob-spinner. We were able to quickly find pedal settings that pulled lots of great sounds from the whole rig, again without compromising a great clean sound. The right settings are easy to control from the guitar, or by switching channels on the pedal, and everything works great!

Playing is much more fun when your gear works predictably and consistently, and inspires you to play your best stuff. And messing with the gear is a good time, too!

Guitar Building: Body Cut Sanding

Here’s a quick update. I decided some time ago to set aside this alder body for sanding experiments. It’s a little over five pounds, and I’m partial to keeping it closer to four. So, I figured that anything I sanded off would just lighten the load a bit.

I wanted to try going further with the belly cut, and get it closer to what Fender has always done with Strats. In my previous posts you can see what I’ve done (for myself and with my builders) with cuts up to now, and it definitely makes the instruments more comfortable to hold and play. My tool of choice, aside from the trusty rubber sanding block, has become the random orbital sander. It’s a great “wood eraser”, in that spot sanding and creating clean lines is easier with it than any other tool I’ve tried.

Check out the photos to see what I mean. On the left you can see where I left off previously. The overall shape is nice and works well, but the edge at the waist of the body is a bit soft. I wanted to try to clean and sharpen that up. In a couple of spots, the cut wasn’t as evenly concave as I wanted, so I tried to get that less lumpy. You can’t really see it in the photos, but it was easy to feel with my fingers. Working those down with the sander let me redefine the body edge, so that I have the opportunity to hand-sand a consistent edge radius all the way around. The third photo shows how much cleaner that edge is now. I’m a happy guy!

On to the final sanding, and then I’m thinking about staining this one. Another thing to learn!

Building A Silicon Fuzz Face Clone

I found this kit on eBay, and bought it for $50. The circuit board is a piece of stripboard, which has copper strips for the circuit traces on one side. You can see that in the “Parts” photo. One very cool feature of this kit is the inclusion of trimpots for adjusting the bias voltage to the transistors. The sound will vary according to that voltage setting. The kit maker provides target voltages, and that’s what I’m using so far.

The BC108 silicon transistors are fuzzier, brighter, and generally more aggressive-sounding than the older germanium types. Fuzz Face fans like the way the germaniums clean up when you turn the guitar down. The silicons don’t do that as well, but I tend to run this thing flat out when I use it, so that’s not much of an issue.

So, it turns out strip board is not that much fun to solder to. The circuit is only a few parts though, as you can see, so that went fairly quickly. Plenty of room for the tiny completed board in the box. It’s nice not to need as much pedalboard space as my old ’71 takes, and the transistors (and the sound) are similar.

No LED or power jack here, just the 9 volt battery. I added a few pieces of weather stripping foam to secure the board and isolate the battery from the switch. The sound is AMAZING, and has a great upper octave overtone. Lots of gain and focus; it’s more controlled than my old pedal, in a good way. I LIKE IT!

Builder News: Re-shaping A Neck

First, a disclaimer: there are plenty of opportunities to ruin a perfectly good neck here! Be sure you feel comfortable with the tools and the overall process before you try this.

I really like Allparts necks. They are consistently well-made, affordable, and fit well with the Clearfork Designs bodies I like to use. But they don’t offer every radius with every fret size and every neck shape, which can be a little frustrating. Their V-shaped guitar necks, for instance, come with a vintage radius and small frets, neither of which I like.

So I was eyeing the neck on the swamp ash Strat I put together, and considering it as a candidate for a little re-shaping. It’s extremely straight, maybe a hair too much so. The truss rod is tightened only enough so that it won’t rattle. This neck doesn’t much care what strings I put on it. I level-and-crowned it, with fallaway above the 12th fret, and it plays very cleanly with a low action.

So it seemed to me that this neck would stand up to being thinned a bit. I play a lot of chord stuff with my thumb over the neck, and I was curious to see if I could sand a slight V-shape and maybe even go a bit asymmetrical, with a little more wood removed on the treble side than on the bass side.

Many videos and internet articles later, I felt I had a good procedure worked out. I taped off the neck as you see, and marked the areas I wanted to concentrate on. I mainly used my random orbital sander with a 60 grit disk. Keeping the sander moving smoothly along the neck was the key to controlling the rate at which I was removing wood, and avoiding high or low spots, which would have been a serious PITA to even out. I’d sand a little and feel the neck. The work went quickly, and I had most of it done within a half hour.

Once the sides were to my liking, I untaped the center line and hand-sanded the whole surface. The sander leaves lines (and very few scratches, yay!), but they were easily smoothed with a piece of 150 and my fingers. I ran the grits to 600, and the neck feels and looks great to me.

I reinstalled it on the guitar, and put new strings on it. Sure enough, it’s as straight as ever; this neck has strong opinions. It’s a very soft V now, and I removed enough of the bulk that wrapping my hand around it is easier. I’ll play it this way for awhile, both to see how it settles in, and to decide whether or not I want to sand any further. It feels great with no finish, but once I’m sure about the shape, I’ll get a few coats of Tru-Oil back on there.

This is a pretty common modification. It seems like it would be a mistake to try to drastically take wood off; that is, if your neck is a tree trunk, go buy a new neck that you like. There are more than a few stories out there of people sanding into the truss rod, which would trash the neck. So, as always, you need to know your limitations, and work carefully. Still, it’s a cool option for a bit of customizing. I like it!

Guitar Builders: Redwood Thinline Tele!

Here’s the first Thinline that has come out of building classes! The top is figured redwood, beautifully bookmatched and glued to a mahogany body. It’s easy to see why you wouldn’t want to cover that top with the usual enormous pickguard. The builder found a great solution and executed it beautifully.

He routed a lip around the control recess, which is normally not visible, and then cut out a perfectly-fitted tortoise control plate. The shape works nicely in balance with the single F-hole. The use of the tortoise plastic is a ballsy move here, because both the plate and the top are busy visually, and then there’s all that gold! I think he pulled it off; it’s fancy, and a real pleasure to look at.

No stopping there! He cut a 1/4″ radius with the router all around the top. That radius looks softer than the Tele usually does, but it’s not as rounded as the Strat. Very pretty. This took some guts too, because the least bit of router tearout could have ruined the look of the whole top. But the job is perfect, and adds something extra to the iconic Tele body shape.

Barden pickups, Gotoh bridge, and the cool inlaid control knobs are all present and accounted for. And the guitar kicks! I was expecting it to be a bit more mellow-sounding, but there’s a lot of attitude on tap here. Here’s to taking chances and really getting it done. NICE!

What My Builders Are Up To: Fretless ’51 P-Bass

We are having a great run of very nice instruments coming out of the building classes, but this one really stands out. It’s the second completed bass (mine was the first), but the first fretless bass. That’s cool enough, but what is unique is how well worked-out the builder’s design for this instrument was.

When she approached me, I was not completely encouraging about what she wanted to do. It was a great plan, but I anticipated some problems with the execution. Nicely finished black parts can be really tough to locate, and a lot of items that look fine in website photos really don’t cut it when you have them in hand. She also had a very specific sense of the overall black-and-blonde color scheme, right down to which parts should be matte and which glossy. And she wanted arm and belly cuts on the slab ’51 body!

So, a tall order. Well, it turns out she has a great eye and mad skills with coping saws and such. She drew up and patterned the control plate, pickup surround, and the trim plate at the neck pocket, and made them from matte pickguard material. Really clean work, and they contribute a lot of visual interest and unity. The piece at the neck heel was necessitated by the fact that the body’s neck pocket is square at the heel, but the modern P-Bass neck from Allparts has a rounded heel. It fits fine, but leaves small gaps at the corners. Nobody manufactures that part, so she made it herself. She figured out how to sand in the body cuts. The Hipshot bridge and tuners are beautifully finished and work great. Even the lustre we got on the nut was a topic of discussion. As I said, she knew what she wanted!

The pickup is a Joe Barden. The body, as always, came from Larry Robinson at Clearfork Designs. The whole instrument is lightweight, resonant, and a real pleasure to look at and to play. This time, my role was to get it assembled and working right, but the visual concept was entirely hers, and she nailed it!