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!

What My Builders Are Up To: Obeche Tele

This was the last day for this one, and it is beautiful! We finished connecting the pickups and jack, tested the wiring, and placed and installed the control plate and pick guard. We got the nut slots perfect and installed the string guide. The strap buttons are on, and the knobs, too.

Final setup was perfectly straightforward. Truss rod, saddle height, intonation, and pickup height all fell right into place. The pickups are Duncan Vintage Stacks, which look and sound great, and are very affordable. I always discuss pickup choice at length with my builders, and more than half of them choose a noiseless option. These are actually more authentically Tele-sounding than the Bardens, and are less than half the price. Don’t get me wrong: I love the Bardens and have them on a Tele, a Strat, and my ’51 P-Bass. I also know that great pickups are critical to the overall tone and response of the guitar. But not everyone can justify that price tag. Fortunately there are several good, and quiet, options out there.

Single-coil fans, I’m with you, too. No noiseless pickup I’ve heard is exactly the same as the old-school stuff. I have guitars with those pickups, too, because sometimes you need the most twang you can get, you know?

This builder’s wife told him she thinks this is the best-sounding guitar he owns! And it’s never a bad thing to get support at home, is it? This is another cool guitar!

Building The BYOC Silver Pony, Part 2

Once I was into it, I decided to go ahead and finish building the pedal in a single session. The twenty-nine resistors were followed by five diodes, a dozen or so capacitors, three chip sockets, the battery clip, and several short lengths of purple hookup wire.

Once the circuit board was completely populated, I had to mount the 9V DC jack in the enclosure. Bringing everything together involved setting in place but not yet soldering the three potentiometers for the controls and the yellow LED on the board. The board had to be held in one hand while I guided the LED and the control shafts into their holes with the other. After aligning the board and checking to be sure nothing would short out, I soldered everything and tightened up the mounting hardware.

After that, I installed and wired the input and output jacks and the 9V jack. I then installed the on/off switch and connected it to the board with six more lengths of hookup wire. Finally I plugged in the three chips, checked everything over once more, snapped in the battery, and screwed the box shut.

I’m pleased to say it worked perfectly, right away! This project required a LOT of patience and cost me a little eyestrain, but the Silver Pony sounds amazing. I took it along on my mini pedal board to a jam last night and it was on the whole time. Finding a sweet spot (many are possible!) was easy, and I just rode my guitar volume knob the entire night. I have a bunch of nice pedals, and my bigger pedal board has two Lovepedals I really like, but this thing just seduced my Alessandro amp and gave me great clear, warm sound with nice compression at a pretty reasonable volume. Totally a success, and it fills a role that none of my other pedals can.

And of course, BYOC has discontinued it. I appreciate and applaud their position, which is that the original Klon builder, Bill Finnegan, has a new version of the Centaur available again, and they didn’t feel right in offering a clone kit for sale while the original is still in production. I’m very happy to have gotten my kit, had a lot of fun building it (but I have some weird ideas about fun), and plan to play it a whole lot!

By the way, the available knob colors on the BYOC site were a bit limited when I ordered, so I worked out a color scheme that made sense to me. Red is the gain knob, yellow controls treble, and blue controls the output volume. And the DC jack is green because it’ll remind me to use fewer batteries…or that’s just what they had.

Building The BYOC Silver Pony, Part 1

BYOC is a company called Build Your Own Clone, and they manufacture and package kits for guitar pedals and such. I’m on their mailing list, and recently they sent out a notice that they had decided to discontinue their Silver Pony kit. They would sell off their current stock, and that would be it. So, I went right to the site and placed an order.

This pedal is interesting because it’s a clone of the silver box Klon Centaur. The Centaurs are much sought after, and used ones trade for insane (to me, anyway) prices. The pedal has a long and interesting history, at least if you’re a pedal geek. They’re no longer made in their original form, but are available in an updated version called the KTR. I’ve never owned one, or had a chance to check one out at any length, so I figured it was worth the gamble. BYOC has a pretty convincing comparison video, and their version sounded amazingly close to the original.

So the order comes in, as you see it. Instructions are available as a download, and I thought it best to look at them on my laptop. I don’t own a color printer anymore, and for this, I need to see the colors! The hardest part for my aging eyes is checking and matching the resistor color codes, which are tiny bands on tiny parts. Very time-consuming. But everything on the list was there, so I got to work.

To build a pedal like this, you “populate” the printed circuit board in stages. Resistors are first. Once each is in its proper place, you turn the board over and start soldering. The solder pads are also small, so I did the soldering in a few stages, working from the outside in. I didn’t want to overheat the PCB or any of the parts, so it’s important to make the solder joint in a few seconds. Shiny is good.

I didn’t get a photo of the forest of resistor wires, since I was busy soldering and snipping, but in the last photo you can see that everything went in as it should. Also, my soldering job is super clean, and yeah, I’m bragging a little.

What My Builders Are Up To, 1/24/2015

This session had a whole lotta WOW going on! The guitar is a Tele Thinline-style, with an amazing bookmatched figured redwood top, from Clearfork Designs. The builder got the idea of routing the control compartment to create a lip that would support a custom control plate cut from a piece of tortoise pick guard material. He couldn’t imagine covering the beautiful top with the normal huge guard that you see on Thinlines. This is his solution, and I think it looks fantastic. The gold hardware looks killer, and the whole guitar is going to be a knockout. It will play and sound great, too.

The fretless bass has a body of lightweight obeche, which finishes beautifully with Tru-Oil, our old standby. I used the same wood for my bass, but rubbed it out to a satin gloss. This builder went for a higher gloss, and she got it. It’s really nice! There are two coats of the same finish on the fingerboard to seal it a bit, and all the other parts and hardware are black.

So, this bass is the most visually-designed of all the projects I’ve seen since I started the building classes a year ago. And there are always problems to solve. In this case, except for offering a bit of advice along the way, I had the pleasure of sitting back and watching it come together.

The neck is a modern Precision bass neck, and that has a rounded heel, like a Strat. The body is a ’51 Precision bass type, and true to its Tele heritage, it has a squared neck pocket. The neck fits perfectly, after a bit of sanding along the sides of the heel, and sanding the flat of the heel so it doesn’t sit up too high. But there are gaps where the corners of the neck heel don’t touch the end of the pocket, and it doesn’t look great that way.

Her solution was to design and hand-cut a piece of matte black plastic to fit around the heel of the neck and cover the gaps. It does that, and much more. She also didn’t want a huge pick guard, and the stock model for this body is enormous (check out mine). So she designed and cut a pickup ring from the same material, and then knocked out a perfect control plate for good measure. She does great work!

We got the nuts on both instruments fitted and rough-slotted, the necks aligned, screw holes drilled, and screws and neck plates installed. They look like instruments now, and not just piles of nice parts. We still need to build the wiring harnesses, install the pickups, and get the nuts done before we can set everything up, but the end is in sight.

So, let me make it clear: this beautiful and VERY well-executed routing, cutting, and design work was all done by the builders! I wish I could take credit, and I was able to offer some helpful advice, in addition to, as usual, making sure everything would work right. But they did the tricky stuff and had the vision, and deserve all the credit for imagining these instruments and making them happen. SALUTE!

Meet The Family: The Catalpa Tele

I was eagerly looking forward to the November 2012 Philly Guitar Show, to see what Larry had come up with this time. Don’t get me wrong; I do not need any more guitars! But within a minute of arriving at his booth, I spotted this Catalpa body and grabbed it. He had it out on a stand, and was definitely showing it off. I’d never seen anything like it, and he filled me in. Apparently it’s quite unusual to see one-piece bodies in this stuff (it’s prone to decay of some sort) and the trees are mainly valued for their foliage and for their seed pods, which are used to feed livestock.

The wood is pretty soft, and has a faint greenish cast. As you can see, Tru-Oil worked its by-now-familiar magic and brought a beautiful warm amber tone to the wood, as well as making the grain pop spectacularly. The pictures really can’t do it justice; turning this body under the light is a religious experience if you enjoy cool wood grain.

Because it is a little softer than, say, the swamp ash, I was anticipating a bit warmer sound from it, as well as possibly softer highs. That made it seem like a great platform for a set of Joe Barden pickups with the new Modern T bridge pickup, which has a little more midrange than the familiar Danny Gatton bridge model. Great sound, and they are dead quiet.

I also wanted to build it up with an Allparts TRO-22 neck, which has 22 tall, wide frets. The 22nd fret is on a lip at the very end of the fingerboard, and the upshot of that is that you can’t remove the pickguard with first removing the neck. Big fat PITA! Ordinarily the guard needs to come off so you can adjust the height of the neck pickup, which is screwed into the body. I like the way that sounds, and fortunately an excellent answer presented itself.

I found a modern 3-ply black Fender guard with holes at either end of the pickup cutout for mounting the pickup. My spin on it was to mount the pickup into the wood as I usually do, but use a very thin Phillips screwdriver to adjust the screws through the holes in the pick guard. Quick and easy, and you can’t really see the holes unless you are pretty close.

Other features include a beautiful Marc Rutters vintage-style bridge with compensated brass saddles. Marc machines string grooves very accurately into each saddle, and gets his compensation that way, rather than angling the saddles themselves. Old school appearance, and it plays perfectly in tune. My usual flipped plate, Electroscket jack holder, and red chicken head tone knob ware all included, as are Dunlop Straploks, Gotoh vintage-type tuners, and a bone nut.

My hunch was correct. I got another great guitar, one which has undergone no parts swapping since I put it together. I got it just right the first time.

Meet The Family: The Swamp Ash Tele

I bought this body on the same day I got the pine body. This one is two-piece, but Larry does such a beautiful job of hiding the join that you really can only see it in the end grain. This guitar uses many of the same basic parts as the pine guitar, but with a few notable differences.

That’s a Glendale cold-rolled steel bridge with both sides cut down, and a mix of his brass and aluminum saddles. The pickups are from Jimmy Wallace, and are his ’50’s set. These, however, have staggered magnets, which is not their usual spec. They are the best sounding vintage-type set I own, and suit this guitar very well. When I need to get to twangin’, this is the guitar I reach for. But these pickups will work for anything; they just sound great. They’re SO vintage, they aren’t hum-cancelling in the middle position…and I don’t mind!

You may have noticed that I flip the control plates on my Teles, and I will never go back! I like the volume control to be within easy reach, and I don’t adjust the tone knob much during a song. That’s why the tone control gets the cool red chicken head knob. I don’t mind reaching a little for the selector, so this definitely the best set-up for me.

I also shaped the hard corner on the bass side of the neck, near the heel. When I wrapped my thumb around it before, it was NOT comfortable. So, I filed and sanded it down, and now it is.

Next up: Catalpa!

Meet The Family: The Pine Tele

This was my first build project. It’s got a one-piece pine body, under four pounds. I found the body on Larry Robinson’s “paint grade” pile at the June, 2012 Philly Guitar Show in Oaks. I grabbed it (I did pay first), went home, and started looking for info on necks. I’m an old hand at bridges, pickups, tuners, and electronics (for guitars), but the right neck choice is critical. I zeroed in on the Fender-licensed necks sold by Allparts and selected the TRO-C, which is a C-shaped neck, with 21 tall-but-narrow frets and a rosewood fretboard.

I like the rosewood for its color contrast. The frets are tall enough that I’m not touching the fretboard wood much, but still I am generally fonder of rosewood than maple. My other parts choices were pretty straightforward: vintage-style tuners from Gotoh (the ones Fender currently uses), an unbleached bone nut from a Stew-Mac blank, a Joe Barden bridge (well-compensated saddles), and standard Fender parts elsewhere.

The finish is a light application of Tru-Oil, rubbed out with 0000 steel wool. I wanted enough finish for protection from dirt and moisture, but was curious to hear what effect, if any, a thin finish would have on the guitar’s sound. This was the biggest surprise of the build. I love the sound of a thin finish! Make no mistake, thicker commercial finishes are at least filtering the highs in the guitar, if not strangling them outright. It’s a win in every way, in my opinion. The finish is easy to apply, rubs out to a beautiful satin gloss, and contributes a lot to (or maybe just stays out of the way of) the sound of the guitar.

The pickups? Well, I always have fun with that. These are Bill Lawrence Micro-Coils, said to be the final design refinement from Bill before he died. Not traditional but great sounding, very quiet, and easily adjustable for an even string balance, unlike actual Tele pickups. These were in another guitar at first, but have found their way to this guitar, and are here to stay.

A few tweaks: I installed a no-load tone pot and a treble bypass cap on the volume control. The jack holder is an Electrosocket; again, my preferred part. Otherwise this guitar is simple, great sounding, resonant as hell, and all around a good time.

Next up: swamp ash!

’51 P-Bass Build, Part 6: The Reveal!

I need a thumb rest on this bass. The Barden pickup isn’t housed in a plastic cover, so it won’t really do for that job. Bring on the trial-and-error! The standard black plastic Fender rest works well, but doesn’t contribute much of anything visually. The full-blast bridge and pickup cover combo is a bit Flash Gordon for me. But the pickup cover alone is perfect. Just enough flash, and a wide range of thumb positions for getting nice tones.

And that is the final touch. This bass looks and sounds killer!

What My Guitar Builders Are Up To, 1/10/2015

Two builders came in yesterday to work on their Teles. The first picture shows a beautiful one-piece African mahogany body, and we spent our time sanding. There’s LOTS of sanding to do, and we went over the use of a sanding block, running the grits from 220 to 600, what to expect as the grain changes, and the importance of really good lighting, so you can actually see what you’re doing.

It’s a meditative job, if you approach it a certain way. You can feel each new grit as it sands, and then slides more smoothly, and you constantly touch the wood to feel what is right and what isn’t yet. Not fun if you’re impatient, so try not to be; it’s well worth the time. This is one of the phases where the builder makes the guitar truly theirs, and has much to do with how pretty it will be when it’s done.

The next five pictures are of the second build we worked on. This guy really impressed me with the gloss he achieved wet-sanding the Tru-Oil finish (our standard favorite) on his obeche body with a little water and some 4000 grit paper. Beautiful work! We drilled properly-sized holes for the tuners, pressed in the bushings, lined the tuners up, drilled the screw holes, and installed them. We also got a pretty perfect ferrule installation, screwed on the bridge, and fitted and aligned the neck, which was a snug fit. That’s a very good thing.

We roughed in the nut, measured for and started the E-string slots, and drilled the screw holes in the neck heel. It looks like a guitar now, instead of a pile of parts. Plenty still to do, but it’s coming out beautifully!