5 string fretless bass project

Section 1: Intro and Design

Design | Neck | Fingerboard | Body | Finishing | Suppliers

I first began to think seriously about making a bass in about November 1998. At this time I really wanted a 5 string fretless bass, but being rather rare (ie you can get loads of 5 string fretted basses and quite a few 4 string fretless, but not many of both) I decided I would probably get what I wanted at a reasonable price if I made one, especially since I like through-neck basses (I guess because you get a nicer neck-body joint and, well, they look nicer!). I also love a challenge, and it certainly was!

I finally completed it in June 1999, although I never did get around to building the active electronics.

You can get all sorts of part-made components such as ready made necks, bodies, ready-radiused fingerboards etc. I wanted the full experience so started with absolute basic bits of wood.

Here is what I started with:

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40x4x2 inch length of brazilian mahogany
24x3x0.25 inch length of ebony
1 bass aluminium boxed truss rod

Both of the above were from Sound Wood, Millers Dale, Derbyshire and are literally off-the-shelf parts. They came sawn and sealed, but not planed sufficiently. I chose these woods not by any highly scientific reasoning, but the mahogany was quite cheap and I wanted quite a dark final colour, and I figured that ebony is hard-wearing and should cope ok with roundwound strings (groundwound strings are nice for fretless basses but are not well stocked).

5 Gotoh bass machine heads (2 LH, 3 RH)
1 length white bone nut blank
1 Schaller 5-string bridge

The above bits of hardware were from Stewart MacDonald in the USA. I could have probably got the same bits in the UK, although most of the prices that I saw were much more than the USA, and I couldn't find anywhere with such a good range. I decided black hardware was best, the chrome and gold varieties can look a bit tacky on natural wood guitars.

At this point I didn't have much of a clue on how to proceed - although I knew in my head what type of bass to make, I didn't know much about woodwork...

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The next stage was to plan the bass out. After some initial rough sketches and psuedo- calculations at no appreciable scale, I stuck together some A2-sized sheets of paper and drew out the bass full-sized. I can't stress how important it is to draw a full-sized plan of the instrument. For one thing, you can lay the actual parts on top and make sure the shapes and sizes make sense and look ok. You can also see if the design will fit on your chosen wood.

I also measured my existing bass (a Washburn D-20 4 string) and I also found some measurements of other basses such as the Warwick Thumb for reality-checking my guestimations.

I drew out a top view and a side view on the page:

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Here you can see a close-up of the body end of the plan. The body shape is roughly sketched out, and the positions of the bridge (critical for scale length) and pickups (critial because the body needs to be quite deep to hold them) is shown.

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Here is a close-up of the headstock design. You can see that it's quite small - this is how I wanted it. You can also see that the machine heads do fit, and that the strings will not collide as they come off the nut.

Getting the design right for the side-on view was a bit tricky - ensuring that: i. the headstock angle was sufficient so that the strings would bed down firmly on the nut, but not too steep so that the head is too long to fit the 2 inch think neck blank ii. the height of the neck with the ebony attached is tall enough to allow a low action, but not too high so as to give a big step between neck and body height. Also the range of adjustment of the bridge had to be taken into account for the string height calculation.

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