So, You Want To Design a Custom Electric Bass?
By Bill Wilkat, May 3/2009 © Edited Aug. 9, 2018
Designing one’s own custom bass, can there be anything more satisfying or rewarding, or ambitious? Sure, but not if you love bass, and see all the great inspirational designs created by the talented luthiers out in the market these days—Lord knows, I competed with them all the time! Good thing they are a friendly bunch, and many, just like me, are willing to share some ideas, and without their inspirational concepts, we’d all be stuck in neutral.
We all love the late Leo Fender’s original Precision and Jazz bass designs, and they still serve us well today–these designs are still as contemporary and highly functional as they were when he created them. To me, that’s a wonderful accomplishment, and one that is difficult if not impossible to top, but that’s not necessarily the reason to design something new. So, we need to ask ourselves some fundamental questions before getting started:
1) What is our real goal? Is it to create something fresh and truly original, or is it to try and improve on our favourite bass design and make it better in some way?
2) Do we have the ability? Be honest with yourself, do you have the skills to envision a concept from start to finish and have you taken everything into account? In this respect, we need to consider criteria like ergonomics, material data, etc. Do you have drawing skills? Know how to use CAD software? Use a ruler or a square LOL? You’d be surprised to learn how many people don’t know how to use them.
3) Do you really know what’s involved? Have you compiled the fundamental criteria related to scale length, bridge and pickup location, space required for controls, etc.?
These are just the basics in my opinion, and simply having an idea is not going to get you very far, or might well set you up for a big disappointment. When I was 16 years old, I wanted to build my version of a tear drop guitar, but I honestly did not have much of a clue as to what I was doing and I was drawing lines on the wood I had selected and cutting away material without any direction and less tools than a primate playing with a sharp rock! As luck would happen, I never completed the project as it was stolen from a high school locker, and perhaps that’s just as well—it probably would have only been a disappointment since I was ill-prepared, and did not even have a proper blueprint of what I was building. Nor did I have a budget, a list of raw materials and finished parts, or a schedule to follow. I did have some advantages and they included the ability to draw and sketch well, to see things within my brain in 3 dimensions, creative ability and a passion for stringed instruments.
Creating a Blueprint Plan: So now that you’ve successfully answered the above questions and written down all of the vital things you need to get started, you need to create a plan. The best way to accomplish this to draw up a skeleton of the things that wont be changing, and build on that. If you have not resolved the ability questions noted in question number 2 above, then you better stop now, collect the data, and get the training if you need or want it. Or, take a chance and hope that on a song and a prayer that it all works out.
The term “Blueprint” was derived from the old photosensitive paper process of making a copy of a construction or engineering drawing that yielded a drawing with a blue background with white lines and writing representing the images and data. Today, if you have the training and the software, Computer Assisted Drafting (CAD) is the method to go with, and it will make your life easier since making changes can be done in a fraction of the time compared to conventional drafting, and variations can be produced virtually as quickly as you can dream them up. However, if you wish to go “old school” there is nothing wrong with doing a manual drawing with a lead pencil on a drafting board. I actually preferred it because I could see the complete picture, full-sized, and to proper scale right in front of me.
Regardless, I recommend you begin by drawing up a life-sized layout depicting the neck, the bridge, and the pickup placement. once this has been done, you can make a lay over sketch onto a transparent piece of paper (or create a new layer using CAD), and begin developing your own design. Make sure that you have done this as accurately as you can, since inherent errors will come back to haunt you later if you don’t. Bear in mind that the 12th fret is at the halfway point of the scale length chosen, and that the scale length is measured from the inside (finger board side) of the nut, to the center (or break point), of the string saddle, where it makes contact with the string. If using a “zero nut”, it’s the centre of that fret to the string saddle. This is of course a “nominal” dimension, since the exact position of the saddles is determined later by intonation adjustments, and you need to allow for that capability when locating the bridge you’ve selected (remember what I said earlier about answering fundamental questions?).
Design Tip: For a 4 string bass with a 34 inch scale length, I designed my basses with the understanding that required intonation necessitates a length greater than 34 inches, and so I established a rule of thumb of setting the G string’s saddle at 34.125”, and the E string at 34.250”. This will help you locate your bridge and provide a better initial starting point for your design.
Also, there are differing ideas about placement of pickups, and you may want to do something out of the ordinary—and that’s okay, but it’s subject to trial and error, so for your first design, it may be a good idea to go with locations found on established basses. Generally it’s a good idea to locate a pickup where the natural string harmonic points fall (e.g. the halfway point between the 12th fret and the bridge is a natural location).
Body Design: Think about balance relative to weight distribution as you sketch away, and take note of bass designs that you found to be very comfortable when you played them. It’s especially important to avoid a design that ends up being “neck heavy”! in my opinion, nothing is more annoying than having to fight to keep the neck in your preferred playing position and nothing will hamper you more, and create an unpleasant playing experience. Pay close attention to the shapes of other designs and try to think about how each of them would feel and look when you are holding them. If in doubt, do what one of my previous clients (Gonzo) did—make a cardboard cut-out and carry it around and see how it looks in a mirror when you hold it in playing position. you can make as many of these as you need and they will prove helpful. Once you are happy with one, you can even take it a step further and get some low-cost lumber (or even plywood), and make a mock body with the correct thickness, and get even a better sense of how it will work and feel.
Head stock Design:So, now that you’ve developed a workable body shape and are pleased with what you’ve done, (give yourself a pat on the back), it’s time to do likewise for the head stock. It makes sense that there should be a relationship between the head stock and the body shape, but there is no absolute rule about this—it’s simply a matter of taste, and as we all know that’s subjective, and entirely up to you. Or maybe you’re building a headless design? Just remember, that it is far more rewarding to create a design that will appeal to you now and in the future, and the more people who like it, the more likely that you’ve “nailed it”! Good taste may not matter to some, but let’s be honest, we all like to be proud of what we’ve created, and having the approval of your peers certainly helps and provides more fuel for your creativity!
Once again, you can use a lay over to sketch up various shapes and styles and toss out any that don’t seem to be working. The beauty of having made the drawing to “1:1 scale” as a life-sized image allows you to see in an instant if the idea is working. If you work in CAD, you’ll need to zoom in and out, but you’ll still have the overall layout plan to study your concepts.
Design Tip:I did a lot of different designs, and I didn’t use CAD/CAM manufacturing processes, so by making my drawings precisely to full life-sized dimensions allowed me to get black line copies made that I could use to cut out paper templates, that assisted me in the work shop. If you plan to make multiple copies of your creation, you’ll want to use these to transfer shape and critical dimensions onto a long-lasting durable material (e.g. MDF board) to create solid templates which can be used to actually assist in producing the parts (e.g. using a router with the template).
One last thing: Whether you elect to develop a double or a single cutaway design, it’s a good idea to think about the type of woods you will be using, and how to use them to achieve the end result you are trying to create (e.g. laminations and/or structural properties). Certain wood species hold details better than others, and many types of wood are not ideal when it comes to weight, grain appearance, or the ability to hold a screw under load or tension. If you are really on a tight budget, there’s nothing wrong with making your first creation out of less fancy materials (yes, even plywood can be considered), and you may well be surprised at what can be done when flexible thinking is used. It’s also a good idea to use lesser materials when testing out a “prototype”, and saving the costly exotic stuff for the “final” custom bass. In any event, enjoy the entire process, and have fun with it—now is the time to do it—so start your homework, and don’t be shy to show your work to others, and ask for opinions—they might surprise you!