Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Fretless

I’ve gone ahead and finished the modifications to my fretless bass, and I have to say that, with the exception of a few minor cosmetic blemishes on the fretboard and a burn on the back of my finger which will probably leave quite a sizable scar, it has been a complete success. Here are the remaining stages of the process.

I last wrote when I had just finished shielding the cavities of the body with aluminium foil. I hadn’t got round to wiring the different sections to ground yet and I’ll admit that I had doubts as to whether or not the foil would be sufficient to shield the cavities from the sheer amount of electrical noise that my room seems to funnel into my instruments.

I managed to eventually find a shop in Canterbury that sold sandpaper (you just have to keep walking down Wincheap high street until you are practically in Ashford – it’s on the left and looks like a proper old fashioned hardware store) and finished sanding the finish off the body of the bass, leaving it a nice matt black rather than a cheap looking shiny thing.

The next day I got some wire and stripped all the shielding off it, cut it to the right length, and ran it through the wiring channels to the pickup cavities. I made sure that I had enough to stretch this wire along the length of the bottom of each cavity, maximising the chances of it making a decent connection to the entirety of the shielding foil around the pickups, and taped it down with electrical tape (I tried soldering it to the foil in one or two places but as far as I can tell it isn’t possible to make a secure connection to foil with solder, so I made doubly sure with tape – it appears to have worked.)

After this I turned my soldering iron to the other electronics, I ‘m not going to go into a huge amount of detail on the methodology of this part, but I feel I should point out that this – the double volume pot I was using – is very, very small. Like tinysmall. I started to wire up all the pots etc. with as much of the connecting and grounding wires as I could without actually putting them inside the control cavity, and once I’d done that I started to wire up the pickups and grounding wires to the pots and jack. After I’d loosely bolted in the volume and tone pots the hot output wire connecting the volume pot with the tone pot broke – evidently I made a slip when cutting off the shielding that didn’t show itself until I tried to bend it into the cavity. This meant that I had to unsolder and remove the aforementioned incredibly small and intricate double volume pot from the cavity and start that whole process again. I was, however, determined to be professional and so after merely uttering a simple ‘oh bollocks’ I gritted my teeth and set about that task.

I’m guessing that my concentration was impaired by my frustration because when doing a particularly intricate bit of desoldering my hand slipped and I burned the back of my middle finger on my right hand so badly that I screamed like a crazy man and spent a good few minutes holding my hand under the cold tap and loudly swearing at the world in general in the most colourful and unpleasant terms I could think of. As I write, about a week after I did it, I’m looking at the icky patch of scorched skin at the bottom of the hole in my finger where the burned and blistered surface has come off – kids, don’t solder angry; always curse the universe fully whenever you encounter a frustrating setback.

One big problem that I’d been putting off for as long as possible was the fact that I don’t really know what the bridge pickup on my fretless is – I bought the bass from a pawn shop in Plymouth in 2006 and my research on the internet have told me that A. the bass was manufactured sometime between 1985 and 1994 (personal speculation based on various insubstantial details causes me to think that it was probably made in the late 1980s) and B. that the bridge pickup - along with the two on/off switches for the two pickups – was added in by someone else at some stage in the bass’s history. Further investigation poking around with it has told me that the pickup is unusual and probably quite expensive – the adjustable polepieces and split coil humbucking design suggesting that it is most likely a DiMarzio ‘Model J’. Being unable to find any wiring diagrams for a DiMarzio pickup of indeterminate age, however, I had to deduce the significance of the four different coloured wires myself. Through devilish cunning I managed to get it down to a 50/50 split - either the white was hot and the black was ground, or it was the inverse. I decided to go with the most logical option – the first – and wired it all up. The work on the neck not yet being finished I was unable to test the wiring properly (by playing the thing) – only to plug it in and poke the pickups with a knife to confirm that they were all connected up and making some sort of sound. As far as I could tell, it worked – which was a bit of a shock.

After I’d finished the neck refinishing, which took two days because it kept raining and forcing me inside, I reassembled my bass and set it up. Once the strings were on and the bass plugged in I discovered that the pickups were wired out of phase – I wasn’t even remotely surprised, there was a 50/50 chance of this happening and it would be difficult to remedy if it was wrong, therefore, according to Murphy’s law there was only one way things were ever going to go down, I knew this when wiring it up, but I also knew that if I changed my mind and rewired it before I could test it then that would turn out to be the wrong way.

Rewiring the pickup turned out to not be as traumatising a process as I had envisaged and the whole thing was up and running within about 10 minutes of the problem being discovered. When plugged in and with the amp turned up the shielding is so good that I actually have to press the bass's front against the side of my poweramp before the thing makes any noise at all.

I now have a very tasty fretless to match my very tasty fretted, the pickups have a growly bite to them that I've never heard on a passive instrument that cost less than £400 and the newly finished neck is beautifully silkysmooth. On top of that it looks badass with its new matt finish, I tihnk you'll agree. Huzzah.

Now I just have to learn to play it properly.