Building my First Bass Guitar

Tak­ing the di­gres­sion from my last two posts to the ex­treme and the rea­son for half a year of ra­dio si­lence: I built a bass gui­tar! This post is a bit of a pho­to-blog of my first ven­ture in­to luthiery, so you've been warned, there are many im­ages ahead.

Why build a bass gui­tar in­stead of just buy­ing one and retrofitting the poly­phon­ic pick­up and cus­tom elec­tron­ics? Nor­mal­ly, I'd say “be­cause I can,” but be­ing my very first at­tempt, I very much can't (yet). The re­al rea­son: be­cause none I could find match ev­ery­thing I want­ed and al­so be­cause I've been watch­ing a lot of gui­tar builders on YT over the past cou­ple of years and I just want­ed to 😁. Due to my lack of ex­pe­ri­ence in luthiery, wood­work­ing, or tru­ly any “prac­ti­cal” skill, I de­cid­ed to go with a kit build. And since my fa­vorite gui­tar build­ing YTer (Crim­son Cus­tom Gui­tars, if you're won­der­ing—no af­fil­i­a­tion or spon­sor­ship, as with all prod­uct names list­ed in this ar­ti­cle) al­so does kits and even cus­tom kits, the choice where I'd get it was easy.

Since I want­ed to go with a very… anachro­nis­tic style, I de­cid­ed to com­bine el­e­ments from mul­ti­ple pe­ri­ods, I based my de­sign off the first mass-pro­duced bass gui­tar: the Fend­er '51 pre­ci­sion bass. So I spec­i­fied the fol­low­ing for the kit: a rear-rout­ed ash '51 P-style body and a roast­ed maple neck with ze­ro fret, no fret­board in­lays, and a re­verse '51 P-style head­stock. That's at least three sig­nif­i­cant de­vi­a­tions from the orig­i­nal there, which is front-rout­ed, doesn't have a ze­ro fret, and most cer­tain­ly doesn't have an '80s met­al gui­tar re­verse head­stock. A fourth mod­ern de­vi­a­tion was spe­cial side dots. What kind of spe­cial side dots? The kind they didn't car­ry, so I had to do those my­self 😲 (they were nice enough to pre-drill the holes to the right size though). Since I on­ly have two hands and no tri­pod, I on­ly have pho­tos of the re­sult which didn't turn out too bad, me­thinks:

Photo showing the lower half of an unfinished roasted maple bass guitar neck not installed in a body with glow-in-the-dark side dot inlays with black rings around them for contrast.

See what's spe­cial about them yet? No? Then just scroll down a lit­tle fur­ther.

Photo of the same bass guitar neck as in the previous photo, but photographed in a dark room, showing off the glowing side dots.

Yup. I'm now an of­fi­cial mem­ber of the glowy dots gang 👽. Lu­min­lay, if you didn't rec­og­nize them. What did the in­stal­la­tion evolve? Su­per­glue, a side cut­ter, a file (which I didn't have be­fore), mask­ing tape as a stop­per for the file, and 6 or so grades of sand­pa­per (which I didn't own be­fore ei­ther). Spoil­er: mask­ing tape, files, and lots of sand­ing are re­cur­ring themes in gui­tar build­ing. Much like in the next step, which was to do the fret­work on the neck:

Photo of the middle section of the fretboard of a bass guitar neck covered in masking tape between the frets.

This step al­so in­volved a notched straight­edge, which is a spe­cial­ized straight­edge for luthiers to check if a neck is straight un­der­neath the frets, sev­er­al tiny files, a “sand­ing beam” (a met­al beam with a very flat side you af­fix self-stick sand­pa­per to), and var­i­ous abra­sives. At this point, imag­ine a cou­ple of im­ages of me drilling nu­mer­ous holes in­to the parts of the kit:

Holes for the con­trol knobs. Holes for the neck screws (well, ac­tu­al­ly bolts for a lit­er­al bolt-on neck in this case). Holes for the neck bolt fer­rules. Holes for the bridge mount­ing screws. Holes for the thread­ed in­serts to match the bolts. This last step near­ly went cat­a­stroph­i­cally wrong. The first in­sert caused large splin­ters to lift from the neck. Turns out roast­ed maple is hard, but in­cred­i­bly brit­tle. In the end, I drilled the holes at al­most ex­act­ly the out­er thread di­am­e­ter and se­cured the thread­ed in­serts with lots of glue. Very glad that part is nev­er vis­i­ble.

Oh, and guess what. I didn't have any of the nec­es­sary drill bits. Told you I have no ex­pe­ri­ence with any prac­ti­cal skills 😅 I al­so had to en­large the holes for the tuners which were much small­er than nec­es­sary. I used a step drill bit (de­signed for sheet met­al but works well on wood as well) and a ream­er. Two more tools to ac­quire.

Oh, you thought those were all the holes I had to drill? Nope. Sev­er­al more and the worst one was the next. Re­mem­ber that I want­ed to in­stall a poly­phon­ic pick­up? Well, poly­phon­ic pick­ups mean more or larg­er pick­up wires. Larg­er than the typ­i­cal hole for pick­up wires:

Photo of an unfinished ash bass guitar body with no pickup installed and a cable with a 10-pin 2 mm pitch connector held against the much smaller pre-drilled pickup wire hole.

That won't fit. Can't get a 10 mm×4 mm con­nec­tor through an 8 mm hole. Since that cor­re­sponds to a 10.77 mm di­ag­o­nal, and I want­ed at least some mar­gin so that the con­nec­tor doesn't get stuck dur­ing in­stal­la­tion, I de­cid­ed I had to drill (at least) a 12 mm hole. I had to think about this a bit, since the “drilling di­ag­o­nal­ly from the pick­up rout” tech­nique that a ma­jor­i­ty of luthiers seem to use wouldn't re­al­ly work for a 12 mm hole, es­pe­cial­ly con­sid­er­ing how close the much small­er ex­ist­ing hole was to the top (and to the back on the oth­er side).

At that point, I de­cid­ed to drill the holes for the stan­dard ¼ inch au­dio jack and the poly­phon­ic con­nec­tor first. Which was al­so scary in it­self since the poly­phon­ic con­nec­tor I de­cid­ed on re­quired a 24 mm hole (read medi­um-sized Forstner bit, not re­al­ly what you want to use with a hand-held drill as a be­gin­ner) and much small­er mount­ing holes very close (less than 3 mm of wood left) to that main hole, but in the end it worked out all right (or so I thought, more on that lat­er):

Side view photo of the bass guitar body with a large 24 mm hole centered on the side of the body with two much smaller holes less than 3 mm from the large hole. A smaller hole for a regular deep panel jack is visible as well.

At that point I had an idea 💡, maybe I could drill through one of those holes par­al­lel to the body! So I trans­ferred the po­si­tion of the pick­up rout to the back of the body as well as I could with a lit­tle plas­tic ruler (you think I have prop­er rulers and a square? Ha!) and laid out a plan for drilling:

Back side of the bass guitar body shown in the previous photo, with a pickup lying on the back with pencil lines marking the approximate position of the pickup cavity on the front. The 10-conductor cable is attached to the pickup with the other end lying on the rear-routed electronics cavity.

This could work, so I or­dered the scary bit (pun in­tend­ed):

Photo of a 40 cm long, 12 mm spade drill bit, held up against the backdrop of a garden.

Yup. That's a 40 cm long, 12 mm spade drill bit. Scary. Two big ad­van­tages to us­ing a spade bit for this though:

  1. It costs about a tenth of a sim­i­lar size and length spi­ral bit
  2. The shaft is much thin­ner than the tip, so I get a lot more ma­neu­ver­abil­i­ty while drilling through the con­nec­tor holes at the side

To avoid any thin walls, I glued and ham­mered a piece of 8 mm beech rod in­to the old wire chan­nel. Since I had to cut it off in­side the pick­up cav­i­ty, where no saw would reach I used a chis­el to trim the rod to size. Then af­ter some more plan­ning, check­ing, and re-check­ing—and a lot of sweat­ing, no blood or tears though—I man­aged to drill the hole cor­rect­ly!

Low-angle photo pointing into the rear-routed electronics cavity, showing the newly drilled large hole as well as the old wire channel filled up with an 8 mm beech rod.

(See that bit of beech rod at the side? Told you the orig­i­nal hole was al­ready a close call on both sides!)

Now let's close it up (pret­ty awe­some grain match­ing I must say, thanks Crim­son!) with some Torx (for that mod­ern high-tech look) bolts to match the neck bolts:

Photo of the electronics cavity now closed with an ash cover plate, affixed with Torx bolts.

Now let's in­stall that poly­phon­ic con­nec­tor…

Photo of a Neutrik EtherCON connector installed in the large hole from the previous photo using Torx screws. The flat front part of the connector protrudes several millimeters from the curved body.

Well that won't do. Can't have it stick­ing out like that. First off, it looks ug­ly. Sec­ond, you are just bound to catch some­thing on that gap.

Oh, and yes, I put an RJ45 sock­et in­to my bass gui­tar 😁 “Wait, Eth­er­net in a bass gui­tar?!,” I hear you say, “Are you out of your mind?” Well the an­swers to that are “no” and “pos­si­bly, since I think that would be awe­some.” I'm just plan­ning to use the four twist­ed pairs in an Eth­er­net ca­ble to trans­mit four bal­anced sig­nals—one for each string— in­to an RJ45 stage­box which con­verts to four XLR con­nec­tors (yes, you can buy these pre-made). And Eth­er­net ca­bles are much cheap­er than most oth­er poly­phon­ic gui­tar ca­bles since you can buy them off the shelf. And since it's bal­anced you can even send P48 phan­tom pow­er over the same wires! I haven't writ­ten any­thing about the ac­tive bal­anc­ing and phan­tom pow­er cir­cuit, be­cause it's not that in­ter­est­ing in my opin­ion, but if you want to hear about it any­way, send me a mes­sage.

But how do we get that con­nec­tor not to stick out? Well, I could try in­lay­ing it and that's pret­ty much what I did, so my first in­lay was an Eth­er­net sock­et! I used a drill for the round­ed cor­ners—at which point I wished I hadn't drilled the cen­tral 24 mm hole yet, since the ra­dius over­lapped with that hole, caus­ing the drill to skip like crazy. Oh well, noth­ing loads of glue and wood dust won't fix. For the straight parts and the in­te­ri­or I used a chis­el again. Hav­ing to do all this in what is es­sen­tial­ly half-way be­tween straight and end grain was not fun. But since you can't see all the is­sues un­der­neath, it ac­tu­al­ly looks ok:

Photo of the same EtherCON connector as in the previous photo, now inlaid into the wood of the body, so that it no longer protrudes from the side.

Now, with all the holes drilled there were just a few more steps left. The big­gest one be­ing to do the fin­ish­ing. I re­al­ly love the fin­ish on the ash body of my main Sand­berg bass, which is satin black but with vis­i­ble and tan­gi­ble grain:

Photo of a long-haired blonde man with beard and glasses playing a black 5-string Sandberg bass on stage

To em­u­late this look I de­cid­ed to try a met­al wire brush to open up the soft grain, sand out any re­sult­ing rough­ness in the hard grain, stain it black, and fi­nal­ly cov­er it with a clear pro­tec­tive fin­ish (I de­cid­ed to use a two-in-one wood primer and fin­ish, not the best choice as it turns out).

So step one, the wire brush. Since I am not a pa­tient per­son, I got an­oth­er scary bit:

Photo of a large power drill with side handle installed and a large metal brush bit, held up against the backdrop of a garden.

Since I didn't want to take it di­rect­ly to the body I had spent so many hours on al­ready, I did some tests on bits of ash I or­dered on­line:

Photo of two flat pieces of ash stuck to another piece of wood with tape. The ash has pronounced wood grain and is stained black and covered in a semi-matte finish.

I want­ed the re­sult to be even black­er, so I de­cid­ed I'd stain the body mul­ti­ple times to get it dark­er. Boy did I un­der­es­ti­mate how many times I'd be stain­ing this thing. While two coats of stain did dark­en it to a point I was hap­py with, I made the mis­take of get­ting wa­ter-based stain, which raised the grain, which meant I had to sand it smooth again, which went half­way through the stain in an in­stant with 400 grit sand­pa­per. A process I re­peat­ed at least three times on the en­tire body be­fore the stain didn't sig­nif­i­cant­ly raise the grain any­more.

Then—de­spite ini­tial tests—it turned out I bought an ill-suit­ed fin­ish. Af­ter ap­ply­ing the fin­ish, it ini­tial­ly looked good, but af­ter dry­ing the body was now glossy in some spots and mat­te ev­ery­where else! I tried sand­ing the glossy spots with very fine sand­pa­per (1000 grit or so), which im­me­di­ate­ly went through ev­ery­thing in some spots be­fore even touch­ing the glossi­ness in oth­ers 💩. I had to re-stain and re­fin­ish again.

This time I ap­plied a thick­er coat in hopes that it would at least be con­sis­tent­ly glossy, but no luck. In­stead of glossy in some spots it was now mat­te in some spots and glossy ev­ery­where else 💩💩. I tried sand­ing (again with very, very light sand­pa­per), but the lay­er of fin­ish turned out again to be in­cred­i­bly thin. So I (par­tial­ly) re-stained and re­fin­ished it all again. In the end I had to spray on more of the stuff to get it glossy ev­ery­where, ex­cept it didn't stick to the spots where it was al­ready glossy at all and pooled in­to small droplets in­stead. Oh well, per­ma­nent wet look it is I guess.

Some day I might re-do it all again with a dif­fer­ent type of fin­ish, on­ly is­sue is: the two-in-one wood primer and fin­ish warns to un­der no cir­cum­stances spray acrylic lac­quers over it, so I'd have to strip it all to bare wood, which might prove dif­fi­cult to im­pos­si­ble in the soft grain ar­eas. And un­less you're stand­ing re­al close you don't see it any­way, so I de­cid­ed to as­sem­ble the bass as is. So here go the beau­ty shots:

Low-angle photo from slightly above the side jacks of a finished bass guitar. The chrome-plated hardware is installed. The bass has two control knobs, one regular, one stacked.Photo showing the entire finished bass guitar. The bass has a reversed '51 precision bass headstock and no fretboard inlays.Photo of the finished bass body at a lower angle, this time from the fretboard side pointing towards the bridge.

Not half bad to be hon­est. While I'm def­i­nite­ly not hap­py with ev­ery­thing, all in all it looks pret­ty good. And I even got a small un­ex­pect­ed bonus. The neck I got had a pret­ty sig­nif­i­cant (par­tial) flame to it, so I just had to oil it:

Photo of the back side of the finished bass guitar neck. The wood has significant flame figuring. The tuners are open-backed.

Beau­ti­ful! For those of you who like spec lists, and I know you're out there, here are the specs:

  • Ash body
  • Roast­ed maple neck
  • 34" scale
  • Neck bolt­ed on with six ma­chine screws and thread­ed in­serts
  • Lu­min­lay side dots
  • Cy­c­fi poly­phon­ic Nu Mul­ti pick­up
  • jsAudio (a.k.a. me) cus­tom elec­tron­ics
    • Bal­anced line driv­er with P48 phan­tom pow­er
    • Res­o­nant SVF fil­ter with vari­able fre­quen­cy and res­o­nance
  • Graph­tech Black Tusq XL nut
  • Chrome hard­ware
    • Hip­shot A Style FM1 bridge
    • Graph­tech clas­sic clover­leaf Ra­tio ma­chine heads
    • Sand­berg string re­tain­er
    • Hip­shot O-ring knobs
    • Schaller strap locks

Is it fin­ished? Well… not en­tire­ly. In the cur­rent ver­sion, the elec­tron­ics were too large to fit in the elec­tron­ics cav­i­ty 😔. I have re-de­signed them, and they're cur­rent­ly on their way from the man­u­fac­tur­er in Chi­na. Fin­gers crossed they'll fit this time. I will prob­a­bly al­so need to shield it, since right now I have some hum and buzz is­sues (or it's a bad sol­der joint some­where). If the elec­tron­ics still don't fit I may have to add a sep­a­rate bat­tery com­part­ment, which may prove dif­fi­cult as I have no router. Al­though in the­o­ry it should be pos­si­ble with a Forstner bit and some chis­els.

In any case, that's it for to­day, and as usu­al, feel free to fol­low me and send me a DM on Mastodon if you have any ques­tions or com­ments. I hope I'll have an up­date by next month.