Bass guitars have been the heart of SMD since the beginning of the business. The nature of the bass guitar has led to the creation of a huge custom market. Unlike guitars, there are many options with basses that are necessary for individual players but impossible for large factories to create. The number of strings, scale length, tonal properties, weight and design are all aspects that vary for every serious player. A custom builder needs to be able to meet these specific requirements on a daily basis. The number of custom SMD basses now number in the hundreds and are located across the globe. A small sample of such builds is displayed in the Bass Photo Gallery.
|A new feature with the business is the introduction of bass models. I have divided the models into two sections; stock and custom. Custom models are simply templates for the standard custom builds. They demonstrate the standard body shapes, electronics, and styles of construction. This was created to help clients have a foundation for their personal vision, and offer pricing examples.
Stock models are instruments that are built and available for purchase, or available for short-term ordering. This is a very nice option for players looking for a quality custom bass, but who don’t necessarily need any unique features. It is important to realize that each stock bass is individually handmade, just as the custom orders are. This means they have the same level of quality, and each instrument is still unique.
|The most important aspect to the construction of the bass is the neck joint. The three standard styles of joinery are bolt-on, set-neck, and neck-thru. Each style creates a certain tonal palette, and determines the fundamental tone of the bass. This is mainly due to the ratio of body wood to neck wood, as the neck wood is traditionally denser than the body wood.
Bolt-on has been the traditional method for bass building since the beginning. It is easier and quicker than the other styles, which has kept it popular for factories with inexpensive models. It can also be useful on high-quality basses, as it offers a unique sound. Bolt-on creates the most “punchy” sound possible, which is useful. “Punch”, of course, is an arbitrary word. It refers to the characteristic of the attack of the note sounding very impactful. This helps the note to cut through in louder settings. It is actually caused by a quick decay due to the softer nature of the large amount of body wood. Great for rock, funk, etc.
Set-neck is similar in design to bolt-on. The main difference is that the separate neck is glued to the body, instead of being bolted on. This is more popular with high-end basses, as it can be more time consuming to achieve. It offers a similar tone to bolt-on, but with a more elegant neck heel. I find it most useful for singlecut designs when a bolt-on style of punch is desired.
Neck-thru construction refers to the bass being made with a center core that includes the neck. The bass is made as one entity, a more complex style of build than the other styles. This leaves much more neck wood, almost 50% more, than a bolt-on. Likewise, it significantly reduces the amount of body wood. This higher ratio of dense neck woods will create a much more evenly sustaining instrument. The sound is often described as “piano” like. This can be a disadvantage for louder bands, as it does not have the punch. It can, however, create a deep, clear tone that is nice for solo or small band settings. Neck-thru basses are typically a bit heavier than bolt-ons or set-necks, due to the larger amount of neck wood.
|A variety of hardware can be used. Chrome, black, or gold are all standard options for the tuners and bridge. Hipshot A style bridges are the standard choice for the bridge due to the quality of construction and versatility of adjustment. Likewise, Hipshot Ultralite tuners are frequently used.
Tremolo is an option. I typically use the Kahler bass tremolos. These require a very small amount of body removal, and work well. One important factor when using a tremolo bridge is the tone. There is a large amount of metal used, which isolates the string sound from the warmth of the wood body. This makes a brighter and more sustaining, but less punchy sound than a normal bridge would. The trem will also add a bit of weight to the bass.
Each bass comes fitted with an unbleached bone nut for superior resonance. A variety of knobs are available, including ebony as a standard option. Another standard feature is a self-contained battery box, eliminating the need to disturb the main wiring cavity.
|Certainly one of the most enjoyable aspects of custom basses is the wide selection of beautiful woods that can be used. As the industry has grown, more and more independent wood brokers offer unique species from around the world. It is typically the facing of the bass that is chosen for beauty, with the other areas primarily chosen for tone.
The neck woods are the most consistent with bas construction. It is standard to use a multi-laminate neck that is primarily hard maple mixed with either bubinga or purpleheart. The multi-lam construction helps to add both rigidity and stablility to the neck.
The most popular fretboard woods are birdseye maple, morado, and macassar ebony. Maple is known for providing the best punch, morado and other rosewoods warm the tone, and ebony provides clarity and sustain.
Body woods can vary quite a bit, but the most common choices are African mahogany, black limba, alder, and swamp ash. The finish helps determine this choice, as alder and swamp ash work better with the thicker urethane finish. African mahogany was once considered a cheap replacement for Honduras mahogany, but it has since been recognized as providing a superior tone- warm with accented mids. Black limba can vary in density, which affects the tone. It typically is deep and clear sounding. Swamp ash and alder are used when the traditional big, punchy tone of a bolt-on is desired.
The facing can also affect the tone, though to a lesser degree. A particularly dense facing will add sustain, while a soft facing can remove sustain and attack. The worst wood used for facings is normally buckeye burl. The extreme softness coupled with the lack of grain integrity causes the wood to remove much of the attack of the note that would otherwise be there. Any number of woods can be used for the facing, and are selected on an individual basis for each instrument.
The finish on an instrument can be just as crucial as any other element in contributing to tone, playability, and appearance. I offer a variety of finishes to suit different needs. The accepted finish for guitars and basses has traditionally been lacquer. This is the thick, high-gloss coating that most factories still use. This can actually be achieved with a few different materials, including nitrocellulose, urethane, and two part resins. For gloss finishes, I typically use urethane, thgouh nitrocellulose is available. Many players feel that vintage instruments sound better over time. Some attribute this to the nitrocellulose used at the time, but this is not due to any inherent superiority of the finish. The nitro breaks down over time, turning yellow, brittle, and cracking. This separates it from the wood, allowing the wood to breathe and vibrate freely, creating a better sounding instrument. It is the inherent flaws of the finish that are it's best attributes. Rather than waiting thirty years for this effect to take place, other finishes can instantly start this vibration tuning process. Rubbed oil has become a popular finish for basses in the past few years. It readily allows the wood to breathe while providing moderate protection against the elements. Oil finish also creates the feel of bare wood under the hands, which many players find extremely comfortable. Clients regularly report that after only about six months, there is a noticable improvement in the tone, as the wood has "opened up." Both the varnish and the tung oil can be reapplied very easily, making maintenance more simple.
There are many options with electronics in bass guitars. The style of music and intended use help to determine what is right for each bass. The number of pickups, whether or not to use a preamp, and knob locations are the first aspects to consider in the design.
| It has become a standard practice to use active preamps in high-end basses. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is not always necessary. Any normal 3 band EQ on a bass is nothing but a primitive version of the same EQ that is found on an amp or preamp. Likewise, the thought of needing a preamp to “boost” the signal is not particularly accurate. Amps are built to take certain levels of input, both active and passive. The gain knob on a good amp is the most important aspect of amplified tone. Ironically, it is often the most overlooked knob on the amp.
The most popular choices for pickups are Aeros and Bartolinis. Most other manufacturers are available when desired. The use of Aero pickups has allowed for a much wider range of unique instruments, as each pickup is custom made for each design.
The range of available on-board preamps has grown in the last few years, and I use most of them on a regular basis. I also offer the Stellartone passive tone module, a unique option for those looking for multiple tone settings without “going active”.