Frankly I can’t think of an easier Do Savor and more enjoyable project than building a fretless bass, and trust me when I tell you, it’s easier than you think! With a little patience and attention to detail you can have a top of the line instrument for half the shelf price! If there is one thing I have learned over the years about building my own fretless basses is that once you take the responsibility of making your own axe, you become a master of your own sound. If your bass sounds and plays well or sounds and plays crappy it will be because you took the time to put the parts together and experiment! The best preliminary step to building is to go to one or more local music stores and just play basses. Make note of what you like and what you don’t like about the sound, appearance and configuration of the basses, that way when you are ready to drop some cash on your parts you will know what to get. Another thing to keep in mind is that if you use crappy parts you will get a crappy sound. Always get the best grade woods and hardware you can afford, trust me it makes a HUGE difference!
We will start with the body. In this tutorial we will be using a simple two piece Alder body, but like I said earlier, your tastes and budget can be the judge on what tone woods or combination you would like. The first step is to sand your new body with a 60 to 150 grit sand paper. This ensures a smooth feel, even grain and uniform look on the wood. Remember to always sand with the grain of the wood and not to push down too hard..
Pushing down too hard, especially with lower grit paper, will destroy the sultry curves of your bass. The idea is to make everything uniform especially for the feel and texture of the wood. Sanding allows the stain or finish to penetrate the wood in the most even way possible!
Once your body is sanded a good wipe down with either a tack cloth or a damp rag will remove all excess debris and prepare the body for the next step. I really enjoy this step of the process simply because you can make your instrument look anyway you like. There are many options available to you in the are of stains and paints. For this bass I used a simple MinWax Water Based Stain in Fruit Punch. Out of all the stains I’ve used water based allows for the easiest application and clean up, not to mention its environmentally friendly.
A simple coat or two of this stain can yield luster and beauty, depending on the kind of wood you use for your bass. A visit to your local hardware store can get you started and there is a wide range of colors and blends to choose from!
Another thing to keep in mind is that you might want to go with the Tru-Oil finish by itself, especially if you have a nice grain of wood. A simple image search of Tung Oil or Tru-Oil finished instruments will yield many beautiful results. Please explore and experiment.
Once I chose a color I coated the body with MinWax Pre-Stain. This water-based compound fills in the pours of uneven hard woods and allows for a more uniform and even stain across the whole body. Please make sure to always follow the directions on the can for best results! After drying I started to stain the body. Again, I can not stress how important it is to work in a safe and well ventilated area. While it maybe temping to do this in a more comfortable area, you don’t want to expose yourself to fumes and suffer the side effects! I hung and finished the body in my apartment patio closet which was perfect for shelter and ventilation. Remember, if you find a coat is unacceptable you can always sand it away with a low grit sandpaper. However, it will require the same low to high sanding process, and if your not careful it the sanding can erode angles and curves.
After getting the color right where I like it, it’s time to seal the body with a finish. Like stated earlier we will be using a very easy but effective gun stock finish called Tru-Oil. Just like the stain make sure you find a well ventilated and climate controlled area and clean it of any debris. To cut down on spots and fingerprints find an old wire hanger or shoelace and hang the body up at just about eye level. Take an old rag pour a small amount of finish and gently rub the finish in small circles, making sure to spread the amount of finish as far as possible (a little goes a long way). I find it easier to do one side at a time to help prevent smudges. After each coat, allow to dry for about an hour and buff lightly (as not to remove previous coats) between coats. I find about 10 to 15 coats is enough to build a nice luster and provide a nice hard surface, but going to about 20 to 25 will be more than enough. A final buffing with steel wool will give the finish a dull shine and a smooth touch. Give about 24 to 48 hours to completely cure the finish.
Once the body is finished, drill holes (if needed) and assemble the body with electronics and hardware. I find after years of soldering iron burns and melted wires, as well as a trip or two to the hospital from solder fumes, that the same well vented area is needed as well as pre-assembling of the pots to the control plate be done outside and separate from the bass body itself. You want everything to be finish and connected that way the only thing left to solder will be the ground cord and pickup wires. I would also recommend buying a Jazz Bass electronic kit. All the parts separately would cost a lot more, but for about 18 bucks you get them all plus instructions and trust me, wiring a jazz bass is very very easy! I will go into this in more detail in the electronics section of the website to help clear things up. Another thing I like to do helps) is to line every part of the inside of the bass with copper foil tape. This helps to ensure that even if wires do come loose they will be grounded and shielded. This also helps prevent hums picked up from lighting and other electronic devices ( lights and certain electronic devices emit a 60 cycle hum that interfere with pickups and bass electronics). Now that everything is sealed, grounded and assembled its time to move to the neck.
The neck, the soul of a bass! For this bass I’m going with a maple neck and a walnut lined maple fingerboard. I like the brightness of the maple and the crazy glue epoxy finish (more on that in another section). Normally, a maple neck tends to get all gunked up with finger oil and dirt because maple tends to soil easily, however with an epoxy finish I will not need to worry about that. Again like the body, you want to make the neck smooth and supple! A 400 grit rub down with the grain works great but make sure (and I can’t stress this enough) to not press hard. I order my necks unfinished so I can color and finish it anyway I want (which we will in this tutorial with Tru-Oil) plus it’s way cheaper (about $50 to $80 dollars more) which really makes a huge difference especially when you are on a budget and who’s not these days!
Just like the body it is important to let the neck hang between coats in a well ventilated area. You will finish the neck much like the body. Use a rag and rub in small circles with the finish covering the sections of the neck. Let the neck dry an hour at a time and buff lightly with with steel wool. Again you are aiming for about 10 to 15 coats. Like on the body,
it will gain a nice luster that will polish nicely with the wool. It is also important to remember that the neck needs to have a good amount of finish on it. This is because the neck is under constant pressure and any moisture can compromise the strength of the wood that leads to warpage. ( There are some woods that cant even take coats of like most of the African woods because they are too oily or waxy already.) I find that Tru-Oil needs a good day or two to cure which is why I always try to finish the body and the neck staggered one after the other. That way I’m always working on one of them and they are both done around the same time. Its also good to add a coat right before you are on the way out to school, the store or work, that way it gets a nice long undisturbed drying session. Once everything is sealed, buffed and drilled, assemble the neck. I will go into further finer drilling and adjustment in another section as I know some of you will have a neck with no holes drilled, but this is a very easy extra step! After the tuners, and string trees are mounted the final step is the string nut. I have found that it is best to take this to a professional because it takes practice and a skilled hand to file the nut blank. If you mess up you have to buy another nut and uncool it off the finger board and that’s a waste of time and money. It may cost a little bread but the tech can slap on a nice new custom nut and have the bass growling with new strings the same day, which is always a nice ending to a custom job well done! I would also encourage you to watch (if you can) the tech install everything and learn all you can. I know after a few questions and watching, I was able to nail this delicate step, but take your time!
Now that your fretless is put together it’s time to set up! Keeping your instrument setup properly will cut out unwanted variables in your intonation, sound and allow you to operate your bass as easily as possible. I like to think of the bass as an extension of oneself, which is almost impossible to do if your bridge is intonated incorrectly or the neck is out of whack! Please, do not be afraid of any adjustments, or changes that need to be done. Once you know how to adjust these factors you will be a confident bass master!
Now that your bass is physically together lets string her up! Whatever your bass string of choice is, installing them properly will ensure good tension, a snug fit and long lasting strings. incorrect instillation will result in buzzes, dead spots and dollars wasted from broken strings. When you unwrap the strings they will be pre-coiled and ready to go. You will need a pair of wire cutters and a tuner. First take the G string and run the very tip through the bridge’s G string slot, up past the saddle, under the string tree and past the tuning post.
Now, everybody is different, some say don’t clip the string, some say do, but I find that keeping about 3 to 5 windings on every post will ensure a secure hold. I do this by using my wire cutters as a measuring tool. I match the full length of the wire cutters with the bass strings, then I put the tip of the handle of the wire cutters on the tuning post and mark my fingers at the tip of the head of the pliers, then clip. This ensures that each string is cut at the same length and allows you to take them off and store them if needed.
Once you have your string cut to the right length, take the freshly cut string end and bend just a bit of it, say a centimeter or two, at a right angle. Take this straight end and insert it into the hole in the middle of the tuning peg. Use downward pressure on the string and turn it clockwise to wrap the string around the tuning peg. You want to make sure that the string is running straight front the bridge, under the string round and to the tuning peg.
Continue turning the tuner until the string holds tension and rests in the nut. Repeat the process, bringing each string up to tune. Remember that new strings need some time to stretch and will go out of tune for the next few hours. But worry not they will eventually settle.
The neck of your bass is the strongest of all the parts! It consists of a metal rod embedded under the fingerboard called a Truss Rod. The truss rod turns with an allen wrench either clockwise or counter-clockwise to counteract the tension applied to the neck by the strings. This tension (or lack there of) will either add or take away curve to the neck allowing the strings to clear all parts of the fingerboard vibrate freely and allow the plucked note to sound. An adjustment to either the heel of the neck or at the top in front of the nut will allow you to turn the trus rod and add or take away tension or curve to the neck.
Remember, on a top mounted adjustment turn your allen wrench clockwise to tighten the neck and straighten it, or counter clockwise to loosen it and curve the neck. On heel adjustments its the exact opposite! The more curved the neck the higher the strings will be from the fingerboard, the straighter the neck the closer. On a fretless neck you want the action to be as low as possible to allow for the pleasant buzzy “Mmmwah” sound. It is possible to set the action too low in which the “mmmahh” will be squelched. A good indication of where your neck is at is either a buzz at the first 5 frets which indicates a neck that is too straight or a buzz at the 7th fret and up which indicates a neck that is too curved. Holding the bass at eye level against a strong light and looking at the very edge of the fingerboard will indicate the status of the neck curvature. You want to set your neck as straight as possible until you get buzzes on or about the 5th fret or lower, then back the neck off with quarter turns until the buzzes go away.
Now that the neck has the right relief its time to adjust the bridge. The bridge holds the important setup factors such as intonation and string height. While the neck curvature determines string height, the bridge saddles will give you a finer adjustment and allow you to lower your action even lower and match the curvature of the fingerboard. This allows you to intonate or tune the bass with itself. Keep in mind that all the adjustment you do at the bridge will knock your strings out of tune so have a tuner handy to bring the string back to pitch whenever you adjust something. This way you know how the correct playing tension will feel when the setup is complete.
The next step is bridge intonation and this is very very vital. The thing you have to always remember is that unlike playing other fretted instruments, the player makes the intonation not the frets. This being said you can get some help either from fret lines (like on this bass) or position markers like the ones on a blank fingerboard. The choice of one or the other is all personal preference and yet another option for you to consider.
Intonation of a lined fingerboard is done in the same way as a fretted. Hook up your tuner to your bass and play the open G string in tune. Fret directly on the 12th and check to see if your fretted note is in tune. Carefully make sure that you are using the tip of your finger avoiding any kind of fingertip pivot that will change your pitch. While this is a great technique while playing, in tuning and setup its not going to do you any favors. Now if the fretted note is sharp, turn the adjustment screw on the bridge so the saddle is moving towards you. If it is flat move the saddle away from you. Do small quarter turns and bring the string back up to tune before you check it. Once the fretted note is intonated repeat the process with the other three. One thing to keep in mind is that while the fret lines are right where the frets should be, it doesn’t mean that all of the lines are in tune 100% all over the neck.
Just like with any fretless instrument, you have to use your ears to judge the pitch and adjust accordingly. Avoid using the lines as a crutch to good intonation. Now if you have a blank plank, then your options are fewer (and less complicated) for intonating the bridge. Just grab a measuring tape and measure from the nut exactly 17 inches. Mark the spot with a piece of tape and intonate to that spot, which 9 times out of 10 is just about in the center of the octave double dot marker. Remember like the lined board, your ear is judge of pitch, not the markers.
Depending on the type of strings you use, the wear and tear on the board can vary quite a bit. Roundwound strings will eat your fingerboard, causing dead spots and loss of proper intonation. Flatwounds are far gentler and have a smooth texture. This being said, the more you play on the board the more it will need to be dressed and sanded. Like a formula race car that get’s it’s tires changed every few laps, your board will need to be smoothed out and it’s crown or arc restored to get a consistent sound. You can do this in one of two ways. One way is to run some nice 400 grit sand paper on the fingerboard. Make sure to do this very gently because you do not want to remove the arc from your board. If you’re too worried about screwing up your board spend a little cash and get your bass into a luthier to dress it for you professionally. Either way it is important that you maintain a good working fingerboard, because it’s where all the sound happens. If you are lucky enough to have a bass with treated epoxy then most if not all of these maintenance steps will be unnecessary. Should problems arise make sure you do what is needed without voiding your warranty!
Setting correct pickup height is vital to a good round sound and volume. The standard jazz bass pickup will come with four screws (two on each side). The screws adjust the pickup up and down. On the shafts of each screw are springs. Those springs provide tension which keeps the pickup from falling down to the bottom of the body cavity. The springs also provide upward and downward pressure. When you loosen the screws the tension from the spring pushes up on the pickup allowing the pickup to rise, when you tighten the screws down the springs are compressed and the pickup goes down.
With the help of the installed pickup springs turn a phillips head screw driver to move the pickup up or down. Moving the pickup higher or up towards the strings will yield a louder over all tone. Moving it away or down from the strings will result in a quieter volume. You want to strike a balance between the two which I find can be done by making your pickups like a ramp. You want to give the lower E and A strings plenty of room to vibrate so keep that end of the pickup just a bit lower, while making the D and G string side just a tad higher. It shouldn’t be extreme but all the strings need to clear the pickup otherwise the case for the pickup itself will get scratched and the sound of your fingers hitting the top of the pickup will make an unwanted “thump” sound, that is unless you want that thump sound.
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