Drifter Bass, Part I

But, what is a Drifter Bass?

There comes a time when you get an idea and it just doesn’t let go. It can start as something much smaller and what could seem insignificant, but after a while it has snow balled itself to house crushing dimension and keeps on getting bigger. You might even wake up in the middle of the night with another detail that fits the jigsaw and can’t go back to sleep unless you scribble it down so you can remember it in the morning…

This project has been one of those. It’s not every day one can start drawing an instrument completely from scratch and have the opportunity to make it just as you think it should be made, to follow your instincts and vision to a 100%.

Essentially the brief was to build my dream bass. As a starting point that is a very dangerous proposition, it could easily become a bass suitable for just one person, me, but as I have a fair amount of experience from playing live and from recordings, I thought there is a gap in the market for an instrument like this. My main bass for many years has been an electric four string, although I have been playing more and more the double bass over recent years. It’s of course much more difficult to play and take to gigs and there’s been times when I’ve cursed out loud when I’ve tried to fit in a packed tube. Nevertheless, there’s something so special about an acoustic fretless bass that I wanted to have go at building me one, one that I wouldn’t mind taking with me wherever I go.

When I think of a good fretless bass sound, I immediately think of something that mimics the human voice. The use of vibrato, not excessive sustain and the ability to slide up or down the register automatically springs to mind. So, to get that sound, obviously a fretless neck had to be used and since I love the double bass and I wanted it to have a carved spruce top as well. If there’s anyone not familiar with the term, a carved top is made from two pieces of wood glued together and carved to roughly the same thickness as a normal acoustic but in an arch (hence the name, archtop). The downside is that you need a thicker piece of wood to start with and it’s very time consuming but the benefit is it can take a lot more downwards pressure and that it is the traditional way to make stringed instruments like violins, cellos and double basses for hundreds of years. To make the bottom half of the body thin and light, but still resonant, I decided to hollow out a two-piece mahogany blank. That way the back can be kept thin and the sides given any thickness or shape you want, in this case I decided to round them over for maximum comfort but still keep them stiff.

The neck to body joint is of crucial importance to any stringed instrument, every player and luthier have their favourite. I personally like neck-through and sometimes set-necks for bass, but since I’ve never seen a bolt-on neck like this on an archtop before and it fitted the brief, I decided to base the whole project around it. There are many benefits from being able to detach a neck, it’s easier to service (change neck angle, straighten the neck if needed, change/dress frets) or swap for a completely different neck, not to mention the ability to dismount it for safer shipment or travel. I like to use threaded inserts and hex bolts for ease of use and because they last forever, and since the neck pocket is fairly big I managed to fit six of them for a secure fit. In the near future, I will have a suitable case, where the body and neck will lie side by side, making it much more manageable and sturdy to take along even if your next gig might be on the other side of the planet.

Another important factor is the scale and I made it short (30”) for various reasons. What you might lose in sustain you gain in playability and it would be an excellent choice for someone with smaller hands. Since I like short scale fretted basses, I’ve wondered for some time what a smaller fretless bass would sound, and feel, like and this was the perfect project to try it out.

The look of this bass is, at least I’d like to think so, influenced by the classic archtop but moving towards the functionality and simplicity of contemporary designs. All parts, except for the tuners, strings and electrical components, are made by me and designed specifically for this instrument. Seen from the front, the materials are kept to a minimum, just ebony and spruce, which gives an almost a black and white look to it. From the back it’s mainly mahogany but the neck has also some details in wenge and ebony, the colour palette is simple on purpose trying to avoid clutter and too much contrast. Another detail I wanted to try out was to put all the controls on the edge of the bass mounted securely on a brass plate. Like that, they are both physically and visually out of the way but still easily accessed when you need them.

Since it has a hollow body it can, to a certain degree, be used as an acoustic instrument but due to its small size it has its limitations. It was never meant to be able to fill a concert hall with sound just by itself but its plenty loud to practice at home or to play along with an acoustic guitar. Even a double bass, with its enormous body, will struggle to be heard without an amp if you play in a band so not installing a pickup would have been silly. As a huge fan of P90 guitar pickups, which are punchy but still have clarity, I thought I’d try to make a bass version of it, calling it the B90, obviously. I really don’t like hum so I made it a split coil RWRP but otherwise kept the dimensions true to the original making future pickup swaps a breeze. I also intend to add a piezo pickup at a later date.

The design process was slow at first but sped up when I got the headstock done, it was the key that unlocked the rest. I mainly used hand tools, which, although not very fast, made me enjoy every minute of it. The balance is superb and at just under two kilos it’s an instrument that begs to be played for hours.

The target was to make the Drifter Bass, a multi-purpose instrument, able to tackle any musical genre you throw at it, and I strongly believe it will be my personal favourite for years to come, hopefully also yours.

I will know in the near future how it all worked out since there is no way of being certain until I’ve tried it out on some gigs and recordings first. I have a very good feeling about this project, and tests at home have been amazing, but you don’t have believe me, soon the part II with a test-video, stay tuned!

Pictures: Kemê 2017© contact keme(at)gmx.es

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