In Search of the Perfect Custom Bass Part One - Custom Is As Custom DoesBy Lane Baldwin
For years, you practiced your fingers to the bone and played in every decent band you could find, and some that weren't. You saved as much money as possible while still maintaining some sort of social life, keeping the lights on and the rent paid. As you saved and slaved, you poured over every magazine, website and CD cover you could find, drooling over all those basses. And all the while, a huge case of G.A.S. (Gear Acquisition Syndrome) has been building inside.
Finally, it's time to relieve the G.A.S. pressure and buy that perfect instrument: a custom bass built just for you. You've got a wad of cash and you aren't afraid to use it. Fine, what's next?
Conceiving, commissioning - and then waiting for - a custom bass can be an extremely rewarding experience, or a complete pain in the anatomy. My goal for this series is to help you avoid many of the common pitfalls, and to understand some of the things you can't change about the process (and will need to learn to deal with). If I succeed, you'll have a much more enjoyable experience.
This series of articles is designed to offer a broad overview of what it takes to get your perfect custom from "brainstorm" to finished product. We'll look at woods, electronics, design considerations and more. At the same time, I'll be introducing you to some of today's best builders so you can get a sense of what awaits you. By the time you get to the end of this, you should be far better equipped for your Quest for the Perfect Bass.
Before we head off into the great unknown, however, let's cover the basics by considering the following questions. This short exercise will help determine exactly what you want in a custom bass. As many can testify from personal experience, if you aren't sure what you want, you're sure not to get it. Pay attention to every detail, every screw; this is the best way to ensure that you get what you thought you paid for.
What is Custom?
Exactly what does the word "custom" mean to you? For one player, it may be an instrument built from catalog parts (perhaps with minor modifications), painted and assembled by a competent person. For another it may be an exotic piece of wood cut to their specifications, neck inlays designed by their girlfriend's sister's best friend, all stained to match the dashboard in Granddad's old Woody station wagon. For the purpose of this discussion, let's break down custom builders into the following very general categories:
Most work at the local/regional level, although some rise to fame nationally. The best go on to bigger shops and incorporate secret knowledge learned in the basement late at night. Don't be put off; some parts builders do amazing work, producing outstanding instruments for far less than a full-bore custom. One excellent example is Roger Sadowsky, who began as a repairman, transitioned into parts building and is now internationally renowned for his custom basses and his bullet-proof pre-amp.
Small companies, with only a few, if any, employees besides the name on the headstock. Instruments may vary from hand-built "Super Fenders" to edge-of-the-fringe designs. Sadowsky is now a boutique builder, as are Rick Turner, Lakland, many others. Many small companies have a "standard" line of instruments, but also entertain modifications/additions to customize their work. Others will build you anything you want - and your wallet can afford.
No, that brand-new P-bass hanging on the music store's wall isn't a custom. Unless it came from Fender's Custom Shop, that is. Many large manufacturers also have small custom shops. Granted, much of their work is for stars and endorsers, but if you're willing to plunk down a few large, they'll be more than happy to take your money and build you a YourNameHere signature model. (Just don't expect to see it in their next catalogue, ok?)
How much do you want to spend?
There are many parts-built basses available for less than two thousand dollars, some for not much more than a grand. These can have figured maple bodies (or other exotic woods), top-flight electronics and beautiful stain work. On the other end of the spectrum are the 5-digit prices that can easily show up on a one-off custom design, especially if you're willing to spend a lot on cosmetics.
How long are you willing to wait?
Many custom builders can take six months to a year to complete your project; some take even longer. Can you lay out a thousand bucks to get the project started and then wait for a year or more for the final product? If not, better head down to the local store for your next bass purchase.
What are your exact requirements?
Here's where it starts getting serious. The more detailed you are in describing your perfect bass, the easier it will be to get it made. The basics are easy - hardware and body color, number of strings, etc. - but that's just the beginning. What string spacing at the nut and the bridge do you want? Do you want a special pre-amp or pickups? Perhaps both? How many frets? What size fret wire? Details, details.
Do all of these details make you nervous? Relax. At this stage of your purchase, time is as important an investment as the money. Take the time to understand what "custom" means to you, and to determine the exact specifications you want. Spending time now codifying your concept of the Perfect Bass will save you money, time and frustration in the long run.
In the next part of this series, we'll look at wood and what impact it has on the sound and playability of your bass. Until then, keep thumpin'!
What does "Custom" mean?
There are many levels of customization, from replacing the stock bridge, pickups or other parts to a hand-carved body, an 11-string neck, and my patented Spatial Imaging Defrabumolator for tone control. To better understand the different types of custom builders, consider the following general categories:
1. Parts Builders. - Can upgrade your current instrument, or build a new one, although most parts will come from other sources. Many players feel this is the best way to get a "Super-Fender" because it offers a wide choice of options without costing too much.
2. Boutique Builders. These are the small manufacturers, such as Roger Sadowsky and Lakland (Super Fenders), and Rick Turner and Carl Thompson (original designs). Usually they have a standard line of offerings, but do allow customization of their instruments, sometimes even allowing the modification of neck and body dimensions. Others will build your design, if you can afford it. Many also have trade secrets that set their basses apart from the crowd. Two excellent examples: Rick Turner and Roger Sadowsky both offer their own highly-sought-after preamps.
3. Manufacturers. You've seen these names in virtually every bass magazine you've ever read: Fender, Gibson, Spector, Yamaha and more. Most large companies employ a small crew of artisans to create custom versions of their instruments. Much of the output of these internal shops go to stars and endorsers but any customer with the cash to turn a dream into a reality is welcome.
Still to come in the Perfect Bass series:
Exotic Bodies - a look at the woods used for bass bodies, their visual characteristics and their effect on tone.
Stick Your Neck Out - pros and cons of different neck designs, construction techniques and woods.
"Board" Stiff - All about fingerboards.
Hardware Made Easy - Pickups, bridges, tuning keys and more.
Putting it All Together - The final article in the series will bring everything together and offer tips on how to make sure the bass you order is the one you ultimately purchase.
Included with each installment will be glimpses of some of today's most important bass builders. Learn from the experts as they explain what sets their instruments apart from the rest.
Here's your opportunity to get the most possible from reading this series of articles. The two assignments proposed will help you gather information to help you turn your vision into a reality. Be thorough and be patient. And try not to forget actually practicing ecah day!
1. On paper or computer, set up a file in which to gather information. Paper works best for me, even though I spend hours every day working on a computer, but do what works best for you. This will keep all your information in one place, where you can access it, and add to it, easily.
2. Write down each of the questions posed in the main article. Answer each question carefully and fully. Leave lots of room, especially for defining all the details about your upcoming custom creation. Thougtfully answering these questions will ensure you order the bass you think you want - and get the bass you think you ordered.
3. Play as many different basses as you can. Visit every music store and pawn shop you can get to. Ask friends, acquaintances, the bass player in the other band on the bill, and anyone else you can grab to let you play their basses. Make specific notes about what you like and dislike about each one. (Neck too thin. Tone to sterile. Doesn't look cool hanging at my knees. Whatever.) Write down everything you can find out about the bass itself - what kind of wood, finish, truss rod, pickups - everything you can learn.
This exercise will help you understand the differences in woods, methods of construction, electronics and more. In turn, this new knowledge will help pinpoint more accurately what you want in a custom bass, and help accurately communicate your desires to the builder.
This homework isn't required, and there will be no test next issue. However, the time you invest now will save money later - and you'll be more likely to get everything you want in your next custom.
The Author's Search for the Perfect Custom
I'm very lucky. I own two custom basses, and they're both worth every penny. In both instances, I got exactly what I expected. I attribute this to two things: taking the time to be sure of what I wanted, and finding the right builder to deliver the perfect bass for me. The time invested in the initial stages of each project contributed greatly to their success.
My first custom is a Stuart Spector Designs NS-6P, which features an LED-driven fiber optic neck marker system, and is the first instrument Spector delivered in translucent black. My second custom is from Rick Turner and Renaissance Guitars, and features the strangest piece of figured maple you'll see.
In truth, my desires weren't always compatible with the builder's and it was necessary to work out those differences. For example, I could practically hear Stuart Spector cringe through the phone line when I informed him of my color choices - black translucent finish with black hardware. ("Lane, it's a perfect piece of quilted maple; why do you want to cover it up?!?") Ultimately, they let me have my way, but only because I was absolutely certain of my decision. After they completed the finishing process, everyone agreed that it was beautiful, but I doubt many customers have ordered one to match.
On the other hand, Rick Turner loved the idea of a translucent black finish, but hated the black hardware. In fact, he never relented on using stainless steel screws in certain places, such as the neck/body joint. He believed black screws would age gracelessly over time, and he simply wouldn't use them. In this case, I listened to the builder's advice and it all worked out fine. The guilty screws are hidden from view on the back of the instrument.
In each case, talking with the builder ensured that we both knew exactly what I expected - and what I'd get. The other key ingredient in my formula for success is easier said than done: being patient. Patience allowed me to say "oh, that's too bad" when Stuart informed me the build was on hold while he brought a new finishing person on board, adding two months to the build time. I was OK with it, however, because I'd already added in that time - and then some. As far as I was concerned, the project was still on schedule.
Bottom Line: Be specific and communicate effectively so everyone is on the same page. Then be very patient and let the experts do their work. Handle both of these well, and your quest for the Perfect Bass will be far more enjoyable. And probably less costly.
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