You guys have followed me through a few projects now and, if Iʼve done my job, some of you have been inspired to take an instrument and make it fit you better in some way.
This month, I want to talk about why we do this and pose some questions you should answer for yourself if youʼre considering upgrading or modding your bass.
There are as many different reasons one might modify an instrument, but it all pretty much boils down to this: most basses are made for the masses, and we are individuals. We all have different taste, we approach the instrument in different ways, and we have our own opinion about what sounds good and what doesnʼt. Thereʼs nothing wrong with that! Thereʼs no reason you shouldn’t make your bass do exactly what you need or want it to do. When your bass serves you better, you will be able to better serve the music.
If you have a mod in mind for your bass (or several), then you have already identified a need or some room for improvement. Allow me to suggest that you might make a sort of list here that will help you decide what the real benefit is to you, and if you have more than one project in mind, how to prioritize them. I lump a lot of different upgrades into a few basic categories and prioritize them in this way. Of course, you may prioritize them in a different order, and it really comes down to whatʼs important to you.
- Function and feel
- Performance and tone
Letʼs break these down a little.
Function and Feel
For me, it starts with the neck. If you have a neck thatʼs stable and feels good in your hand, you have a keeper. Absent that, there isnʼt much limit to what you can do right at home, with hand tools, to improve the way your bass works.
If there are things about the switching system or volume and tone controls you donʼt like, itʼs usually not that hard to change things around. Maybe you have two pickups with individual volume controls, and a selector switch makes more sense to you. Or maybe one volume with a blend pot. Whatever seems more intuitive to you is what you should have, and it will allow you to be able to control your bass without giving it a distracting thought. Personally, I like passive basses, and I use the tone control a lot while the volume control basically gets used as an on/off switch. As such, I always move the tone knob closest to my hand.
Performance and Tone
If you have a bass that feels good and works the way you want it to, youʼre off to a great start. How does your bass perform? Does it tune up easily and stay in tune? Does it have enough sustain for you? Does it intonate well?
How about the sound? Is it too bright? Not bright enough? Is the bottom end tight and defined or is it muddy?
These things can all be changed. It can start as simply as experimenting with different strings and finding the right set for your bass, or it can involve new hardware or electronics.
Keep in mind that itʼs tough to electronically reproduce a tonal characteristic that your bass doesnʼt already have. Hereʼs an example: If you have a bass thatʼs a little muddy or weak in the bottom end, it may be a result of the hardware the strings are anchored to, or even the body material. If this is the case, you wonʼt hear much improvement by dropping a better pickup in. That’s why I usually start with hardware upgrades (if needed) before I replace pickups or other electronics.
Ok, youʼve got a bass that feels good, functions the way you like and sounds good to you. Now youʼre really ahead of the game. A lot of people would be perfectly content with that and, really, they should be. All the important stuff is covered. Thereʼs only one reason to change the way your bass looks, and that’s because you want to. This is more important to some people than it is to others, as thereʼs just something about adding a touch of our own style to our basses that appeals to many of us. It can be something as simple as changing the knobs out or as involved as changing the shape of the body. The aftermarket is full of visual upgrades for most popular basses and, if youʼre inclined to tackle more than replacing parts, the creative possibilities are endless.
Hereʼs an extreme example:
This was a Teisco Del Rey at one time. It has all new electronics and hardware, the bodyʼs been reshaped and it has custom made aluminum work and pick guard on the body. This is a fun little bass to play (it is a 30″ inch scale) and itʼs been a fun, ongoing project.
Now, youʼve determined whether thereʼs room for improvement somewhere and come up with some ideaʼs to make your bass fit you better. Itʼs time to decide if youʼre really going to go through with it. There are three questions you need to ask for yourself before you tackle any project:
- Do I have the tools and equipment needed to do the job?
- Am I confident I can pull it off?
- Is it worth it?
A lot of the mods we touched on here can be done with hand tools most people already have. Many of them require more than that. If you donʼt have the power tools required to tackle a project youʼd like to take on, then maybe you know someone who does. If not, youʼll have to add the cost of renting or purchasing the required tools for the project.
If you donʼt have the experience or the knowledge to go into a particular project with confidence, get it. There is information available on any project you can dream up, right on your computer. There are forums and instructional sites where you can learn just about anything you need to know. Take some time to do the research, and definitely ask questions on the forums. Any steps you can take to make yourself more proficient will pay off in the long run.
When deciding whether to put time or money into an instrument, you have to determine if itʼs worth it to you. Keep in mind that putting a bunch of costly upgrades on your bass is not necessarily going to make it worth more money to someone else. Having said that, if itʼs a bass you like and youʼre going to keep it and play it, who cares what itʼs worth to someone else? If your bass isnʼt for sale, itʼs worth whatever you say itʼs worth.
Also keep in mind that you should calculate the risk if youʼre contemplating doing anything invasive. You should ask yourself what could go wrong and whether the cost of fixing a mistake would be too much. Iʼve lost count of the times Iʼve taken a router to a bass body, and Iʼve never done damage to one. I still ask myself every time I do it, “If this goes bad, can I replace this body?”
Always do your homework. Make the proper preparations and set yourself up for success, but donʼt forget the contingency plan. If I wreck this thing, am I still going to be able to make the gig tomorrow?
An instrument is an extension of the musician. A bass is nothing more than a tool, but we do get attached to our tools! We figure out the little quirks they have and learn to work with them. We learn how they will react to different environments and how they will sound through different systems. Over time, we donʼt have to think too much about the bass and can concentrate more on the music. This experience makes us more proficient. Modding your bass is just taking that to the next level and making it fit you the best that it can. Anything you can do to make your bass fit you and the way you play is going to allow it to be a better extension of you as a player. Go for it. Make it yours!
Join me next month and weʼll take a look at my latest purchase. Weʼll give it a good once over, look for problems that may need attention and give it a proper set up. Weʼll determine whether a gamble paid off with a bargain and try to unravel the mystery behind this fiasco. We may never know!