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A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

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A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Dave Higham » Wed Jul 16, 2014 5:26 pm

This was inspired by the Stega basses made by French luthier Paul Lairat. I repeat, I didn't think this up all by myself. There are, however, several small differences between his basses and this one. Mine has fanned frets, a bolt-on neck, controls on the treble side, a different shape, a flat fingerboard, etc., but the basic idea is the same.

The scale lengths are 876 to 914mm (34 ½” to 36”). My last bass was 33 ½” to 35” and although I was quite pleased with it, I thought the low B could still be better. I decided on 34 ½ to 36 as, after much measuring and drawing of plans. 36” was the longest I could make the B string without having to order special strings. Sheldon Dingwall obviously did more research than me, which is probably why his 5-strings are 34” to 37” (so he probably got it right, but I've never played one).

I was well into making the body when I had a sort of “Duh!” senior moment, realising that I hadn’t taken any photos. At that point I’m afraid I thought “bother it” (censored) so there are no work-in-progress photos. Sorry. Here’s a full frontal.

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The whole thing is made from maple, mahogany and rosewood. The laminated ‘ribs’ (that’s what you’d call them if it were an acoustic, and I can’t think of another word) are a 9-piece sandwich of 2mm thick rosewood and mahogany with maple veneer in between. I had to pre-bend them in a Fox-type bender before laminating them.

The pickup covers are rosewood and maple, the maple being the pieces that were sawn out of the drop-top before it was glued to the body. The pickups are off-the-shelf Kent Armstrong humbuckers bought a few years ago from WD in the UK. I asked Aaron if they'd cover a 5-string at the angle I wanted and he said they should be OK. He was right.The covers are only about 1.5 to 2mm thick but the pickups are embedded into them in epoxy so they become solid units. The preamp is a John East BTB01 with stacked treble and bass controls, volume and balance and an active/passive switch.

All the rosewood is East Indian (bass fingerboard blanks) from a UK supplier. I was a little disappointed by the quality and rather pale brown colour but as the supplier had already replaced the original order without question (they were thinner than advertised and had some worm holes) I couldn’t complain.

The bridges are much cheaper copies of ABMs from Bezdez on Ebay. They seem to work fine to me.

The frets are stainless steel banjo frets and the fingerboard is flat. (There’s no such thing as a zero radius. If you have to call it a radius, it’s an infinity radius. ;-) )

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Oops, I told a fib! This is the one-and-only construction photo. Getting all those bits of wood, covered in sticky fish glue lined up and clamped involved quite a lot of perspiration and expletives of Anglo-Saxon origin.
I spent a long time on the plans trying to get both ribs out of the same mould, but in the end it didn’t look right, so I had to make 2 bending forms and 2 laminating forms.

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I can’t think of any good reason for not having a zero fret. It makes life that little bit easier.
You can see how the extra-long-scale D’Addario B-string was only just long enough. The observant among you will also notice that I seem to have miscalculated the tuner positions. The B string isn’t quite a straight pull and the G tuner is too near the nut. I don’t know how that happened but with the headstock sloping back at a cockeyed angle because of the nut not being square to the neck centre line, it’s not all that surprising. The tuners are Hipshots and the truss rod cover is held in place by magnets.

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The head plate, used for the backstrap, was part of the same order and was lovely close grained purple stuff; pity the rest wasn’t the same. I actually had to carve a partial recess in the volute to make a flat surface for the G string tuner.

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The neck is Honduras mahogany, laminated with rosewood and maple veneer to match the ribs but I think the body is probably khaya (African mahogany). There are cavities in the body between the pickups and in the upper bout to reduce weight to a minimum.

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The control cover is held in place by magnets and shouldn’t ever need to come off as I installed a battery box this time but, if it does, it’s the suction cup trick again.

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I find it very difficult taking photos of the maple top to show up the quilt figure. It’s more striking in reality than in the photos

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This photo shows the figure a little better. It came from the German supplier who has stunning maple but the prices are quite stunning too. This wasn’t too expensive as it was rather small and had some defects but as a lot of this body ‘isn’t there’ I was able to work around them.

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I took this photo with the reflections to show that you CAN get a gloss finish using Tru Oil. It’s not a ‘dipped in plastic’ gloss, but it is shiny.

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I tried to show the skewed headstock angle in this photo but the fanned frets make everything look wonky so it doesn’t even look as if there is one.

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The twin strap buttons serve two purposes. I swapped the crappy screws they supply with strap buttons for very long chipboard screws to reinforce the glued joint between the rib and the end grain of the body. The buttons also stop the bass falling over if you stand it up, although I always put it on a stand. In fact I hardly ever use a strap as I play sitting down and the bass balances perfectly on my knee. It’s the most comfortable to play of the basses I’ve made. What probably helps is that the body is only 40mm (1 9/16”) deep and it only weighs 6lbs. I like electro-sockets with Switchcraft jack sockets.

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This is a fairly accurate photo of the fretboard colour (on my monitor) which would be fine if it were walnut but I find a bit disappointing for EIR.

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A close-up of the rib laminations.

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The control knobs aren’t EIR, they are what, it seems, is now becoming known in some circles as ‘South American BRownwood’. They are some of the last off-cuts I scrounged in the days when Sheffield toolmakers Spear & Jackson used it to make the handles of most of their tools. Tri-squares, marking gauges, plane handles, tenon and panel saw handles, they were all made from BRownwood. It wasn't yesterday! But I digress...
You may notice, after what I said about getting a gloss finish with Tru Oil, that in this and the last photo the ribs have a satin finish. I found that varying the time I left a coat of true oil before wiping it off again, varied the degree of gloss when it was dry. To get the gloss finish on the front I polished it up with Brasso! Nothing makes quilted figure pop like a gloss finish.

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That dark circle on the upper horn is a rosewood plug. It’s there so that the strap button screw (again, a longer woodscrew) isn’t just screwed into the end grain of the laminates and should also help to solidify the end of the laminated rib.

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If you have been, thanks for watching.
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Gordon Bellerose » Wed Jul 16, 2014 6:48 pm

VERY nicely done Sir!
A beautiful, unique instrument.
I need your help. I can't possibly make all the mistakes myself!
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Jason Rodgers » Wed Jul 16, 2014 6:50 pm

Dave, I like this a lot! Of course, I'm biased, as I'm finishing up a 7-string electric with 25-1/2" to 27" multiscale fretboard, zero fret, all glued with fish glue and finished in tung oil. The "rib" feature is super cool. Good work!
-Ruining perfectly good wood, one day at a time.
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Peter Wilcox » Thu Jul 17, 2014 12:07 am

I'm speechless!

But, I have a question - why is the headstock angle skewed? Maybe it's easier on the wrist, easier to reach the B and E strings at the first fret and makes it more playable? So you have to put a twist in the fretboard?
Maybe I can't fix it, but I can fix it so no one can fix it
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Dave Higham » Thu Jul 17, 2014 2:17 am

Thank you for the kind words.

Peter, the neck and fingerboard are normal except that there's no radius on the fingerboard. But, as the nut is at an angle to the centreline of the fingerboard, the headstock slopes back along that angle which makes it skewed. (I'm explaining this very badly.)
If you take a strip of paper, say 12" long and 2" wide and draw a line across it at 70° to the long edge, then fold it along that line, you'll see what I mean.
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Barry Daniels » Thu Jul 17, 2014 8:54 am

Very well done, sir.
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Jason Rodgers » Thu Jul 17, 2014 10:14 am

In the latest issue of American Lutherie, Harry Fleishman shows how to cut that scarf to match the multiscale nut in two cuts on the table saw. Gonna hafta try that next time.
-Ruining perfectly good wood, one day at a time.
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Jason Rodgers » Thu Jul 17, 2014 10:50 am

I keep coming back to look at this. Gawd, it's purdy. After looking at Lairat's website, I see that you did a very good job of approximating this minimal body with rib construction. Your glue lines are flawless. I like where you've put your controls, though, in the traditional location: putting knobs and switches all over the place, especially in the upper bass bout, doesn't make sense to me (just asking to get flipped and bumped).
-Ruining perfectly good wood, one day at a time.
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby David King » Thu Jul 17, 2014 11:15 am

Great work Dave. I'm particularly fond of the headstock bindings and rib laminations. The quilted maple looks good to me. I might have been tempted to amber over that fingerboard but it's fine the way it is. I'm not a fan of the knob location as I tend to like to strum on occasion and those would be in the way. I only wish there were more 6 pound basses in the world. A hearty congratulations on this one.
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Hans Bezemer » Thu Jul 17, 2014 11:44 am

This is a great instrument!!!
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Dave Higham » Thu Jul 17, 2014 12:12 pm

Thank you David and Hans. Very much appreciated.
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Peter Wilcox » Thu Jul 17, 2014 12:37 pm

Dave Higham wrote:If you take a strip of paper, say 12" long and 2" wide and draw a line across it at 70° to the long edge, then fold it along that line, you'll see what I mean.


I see, said the blind man to his deaf dog as he picked up his hammer and saw. Thanks Dave - I thought the fretboard was skewed too, but just an optical illusion.
Maybe I can't fix it, but I can fix it so no one can fix it
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Mark Wybierala » Sun Jul 20, 2014 5:38 pm

Quite a work of art and high craft. I like everything about this. Why didn't you want a fingerboard radius? Not that you need one -- just curious. This instrument is inspiring -- I want to play with a few of the ideas. I've never bent wood in other than a classroom situation and using the laminations like you did is way cool. Its a nice departure from the ordinary solid body construction with the laminations being a highly functional part of the instrument.

I have heard that playing a multiscale doesn't really cause much of problem to someone not used to such things.
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Dave Higham » Mon Jul 21, 2014 8:56 am

Thank you Mark.

On the last-but-one bass I made, I decided to try a flat fingerboard. Let's be honest, it's easier to make and a lot of people seem to be making and playing them these days. I found it didn't make any difference to me (but then I'm just a 'plonker' as far as playing is concerned) and when I gave it to a real bass player to try, it didn't seem to bother him at all. After all, in the guitar playing world I've never heard any classical players complaining about not having a radiused fingerboard or that their fingerboards are too wide. (And some of them have amazingly good left-hand technique! ;) )

When it comes to fanned frets (oops!, sorry, I mean multi-scale :oops: ) most people say they adapt in a few minutes and I'm no exception (but then, I'm no reference either). Without wishing to offend anyone, I think God is a bass-player, and when he's gigging he goes under the name of Leland Sklar.

If anyone isn't familiar with his name, have a look at his Wikipedia page and the people on whose records he's played. :o

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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Mark Swanson » Mon Jul 21, 2014 9:15 am

Yes, he is fantastic and I have been listening to him for lots of years- we all have. I'm one of his Facebook friends too.
    Mark Swanson, guitarist, MIMForum Staff
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Mark Wybierala » Mon Jul 21, 2014 3:42 pm

Honestly, I didn't recognize the name and initially thought you were mentioning Slartibartfast. I think that there is a coincidental similarity. I'm a big fan of both.
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Pete Halliday » Wed Jul 23, 2014 2:36 pm

Dave, that's really nice! What is the thickness of the layers in your ribs? Did you assemble those essentially dry or soften them to achieve your desired shape? This is giving me all sorts of ideas about how I can complicate some designs and make my job harder!
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Dave Higham » Wed Jul 23, 2014 5:52 pm

Pete, the rosewood and mahogany layers are 2mm (.080") thick and the white veneer about 0.6mm (0.024"). I pre-bent the rosewood and maple layers all to the same shape as if they were acoustic guitar sides using a Fox-type bender and a heating blanket. There was some spring-back but that didn't really matter. The maple veneer easily bends to shape.
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Pete Halliday » Thu Jul 24, 2014 11:46 am

Thanks, Dave. I missed that in your write-up. I've never been accused of being too bright...
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Re: A 5-string multi-scale Skeleton Bass

Postby Gale Sharp » Mon Dec 15, 2014 6:34 am

Stunning!
Thanks for sharing.
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