Building an Electric Bass

originalsketch2I had a dream…

Or, more accurately, Garth Heron on the Alembic “Dreaming for now” forum did. When I first saw the image of the “Dream Catcher” bass he designed, I simply fell in love with it and had to have one. I’ve been a huge fan of Alembic basses for as long as I can remember but as this was intended to be a custom built Alembic – and I had neither the money or patience to have them create one for me – I decided to build a version of it myself.

There are two things that I should mention right from the start. The first thing is that I built this on the balcony of my apartment during the summer of 2010 using only basic hand and power tools. The second thing is that I had the neck custom made for me – which some may consider “cheating”. My only defense is that it cost about half the price of buying the raw materials online, I had no way of cutting the fret slots accurately enough and the fret work on the custom neck is amazing… So there you go.

Now, this is where the fun really began…

Terminology

Before we get started, there are a few terms that I’ll be using that you might not be familiar with if this is your first venture into the world of guitars:

Action – The height of the strings above the frets and fretboard.
Bolt-on neck – A guitar neck that is secured to the body of the guitar by screws (not bolts, ironically), and a metal plate.
Bridge – The metal component on the front of the body that holds the strings in place. Bridges usually contain one saddle for each string, on which the strings are held in place. The position of these saddles can be altered to adjust the action and intonation.
Intonation – The ability of a guitar to be in tune with itself. The 12th fret and the harmonic at the 12th fret should yield the same note. If the guitar is not in tune with itself then the intonation is said to be out.
Machine heads – Used for tuning up each string and housed on the headstock (sometimes referred to as tuning heads or tuning keys).
Nut – A piece of plastic or metal between the headstock and fretboard with slots to guide the strings from the headstock and tuners over the fretboard.
Scale Length – Length of the vibrating string from nut to bridge saddle or twice the distance from the nut to the 12th fret.
Strap Pin – A secure button for attaching a guitar strap.
Truss rod – A steel rod that runs down the center of the guitar neck. The truss rod can be adjusted to oppose the stress put on the neck from the string tension.

Sizing It Up

I already knew from my experience with previous bass builds that I would use a “standard” 34 inch scale length and a custom two octave neck (meaning it would have 24 frets in total) with a 2.5 inch fingerboard width at the 24th fret. These dimensions are arguably the most important things that anyone should initially consider when designing a custom electric or bass guitar.

Now, most people would build a bass body out of a single slab of wood or two pieces of wood joined in the middle. This has worked well ever since the immortal Leo Fender designed the first electric bass guitar back in 1951. Alembic doesn’t usually do things that way, so I wasn’t going to either.

photoshop image 1, bass guitarTo circumvent any manner of simplicity, I went for an 11 ply laminate of American Black Walnut and Canadian Rock Maple. I’ve always preferred “slimmer” bodied basses, such as the 1.5 inch thick JayDee, Rickenbacker 4001 series and, of course, the Alembic Series One, Two, Stanley Clarke and Mark King Signature models.

To keep the weight down to a minimum, I also decided that the center sections of the body wings would be hollowed out – which also gave plenty of room for the active electronics and battery to power them.

Once that was finalized, I could produce a 1:1 size mock-up of the design using – you guessed it – Photoshop. The body size was actually quite petite when compared to most standard and well-known designs, but that was perfect for the body shape as far as I was concerned.

photoshop image 2, bass guitarAlembic offers many options for the shape of the bottom of the body. The initial drawing by Garth had a “Standard Omega” shape, which looks great but was a little beyond my skills, so I went for the “Standard Point” shape that several members of the forum had suggested.

A bit of trivia – in the early days, Alembic had to undertake so many neck repairs caused by people leaving their instrument leaning against a wall and then watching them fall over and break that the wonderful Susan Wickersham designed the bodies of their basses with a pointed end to make sure they were put on a guitar stand when not in use.

The Build

woodpanelsI live in Wonderful Copenhagen and thought that finding a supplier for the hardwood that I required would be an easy task considering the Danes seem to love the design and creation of anything that can be done with a cut-down tree.

This was not the case in this instance. If I was building a Summer Home or decking a veranda it wouldn’t have been a problem, but instead – and after some considerable research – I had to order the wood from a UK supplier. In any case, I was more than happy when the wood stock arrived and the build could start.

Parts and Supplies

So, I had the blank wood panels, but that was only part of the story. From the initial drawings, I knew that I would need to source the hardware to turn the planks into a musical instrument. To me, this meant seeing what I could find for a good price on eBay. So, I made a list that was fairly comprehensive and included all the essential items:

  • Two humbucking 5-string bass pickups (yes, I was building a 4-string bass but the wider 5-string block humbuckers made it look more “Alembicized” and would hopefully sound, to my ears at least, a lot richer and more punchy than single coil ones).
  • Four black Gotah machine heads, 2-a-side for a balanced headstock.
  • A black 4-string slotted bridge (for quicker string changes, which I do quite often).
  • Active volume, balance, treble and bass controls and switched output jack to turn off the power supply when the instrument isn’t plugged-in.
  • Black Gibson-style control knobs.
  • Schaller strap locks, which are essential if you don’t want your instrument to fall off the strap when you least expect it to and make you look like a complete idiot.

A Cunning Plan…

bodyplanThe next step was to draw a detailed plan of the body that included the neck pocket size, pickup, bridge, power supply and control placement, internal and external cavities and wiring channels. It’s important to remember that on paper you can change things easily with the use of an eraser but once you start cutting, drilling and routing, a mistake isn’t something you can easily recover from. The person that said, “measure twice, cut once” was quite right. My advice would be to measure three times just to be sure.

Body Parts

Now that the plans were completed and the parts were on their way, the next step was to make several sets of templates and start getting the various layers cut to size.

bass build raw wood and templatesbass build templates

Once the layers were ready, the individual cutouts (battery holder, body cavities, control access cover and wiring access channels) were completed prior to gluing the parts together.

bass build control cover cutoutlower wing
upper wing gluedbass build bottom back with control holes drilled

Up next was the body center section…

gluing neck step 1gluing neck step 2
gluing neck step 3cutting the body point

Then a final sanding to ensure that the edges were flat, square and level before routing and shaping the neck pocket and gluing the body together…

squaring the body edgesgluing the wings step 1
gluing the wings step 2gluing the wings step 3

The Final Countdown

Once the glue had dried it was time to start the final steps of the project. This included routing the pickup slots, drilling the neck mounting holes, rounding over the body edges, doing a “test fit” of the hardware and adding a few dozen layers of varnish (which is my least favorite part of the entire process). Once all of these tasks were completed it was time to finish the neck, assemble the hardware, wire the electronics and do a complete setup.

pickup slot routing step 1pickup slot routing step 2wiring access check

hardware check

varnished, dryingvarnished frontvarnished back

headstock

bass build adding inlayneck inlay complete

Yes, I have a logo :). I also added the “Tree of Life” fret inlay design, purchased online for $20 and worth every penny…

Finishing and Setup

The final hurdle was to align the neck (which I’m happy to say was a perfect fit), wire the electronics (active controls, bridge earth wire, battery connection and switched output jack socket) and do a final setup.

It’s worth mentioning that there are two factors that effect the playability of any stringed instrument – the action and the intonation – and that these two factors depend on several things – the correct string slot height and position of the nut, the neck truss rod setting (I always go for an absolutely straight, flat neck) and the height and intonation settings of the bridge saddles. I can honestly say that the setup on this particular bass was one of the easiest I’ve ever done!

neck fitbass wiring

bass build final result

All done! The finished bass is light, balances perfectly, and has a fast, low and buzz-free action.
You can watch my YouTube video of the build and hear how it sounds.