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Braindancer
#1 Posted : Thursday, October 10, 2013 3:31:18 AM(UTC)
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Braindancer
#2 Posted : Thursday, October 10, 2013 3:44:55 AM(UTC)
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The mission of a giggable bass shorter than a standard guitar is accomplished. This actually worked. It's not exactly like an Ashbory - in fact, it's not ANYTHING like an Ashbory, truth to be told - but if you gave me the choice between this hack, and a brand-new mahogany Epiphone 30" EB-0, there's no question about it...I'll have a LOT more fun with this oddball. But I got a chance to hear what a poly-string bass at this scale can sound like. And while this is definitely a giggable instrument, the tone I was hearing from that underpowered stick-on pickup was very compelling indeed. There may yet be a "fretted Ashbory" in my future, but the fact remains that once I got used to the B string (it only took a few weeks at age 51 before 4-strings began to feel uncomfortable), I find any normally-tuned 4-string bass to be thin-sounding and limited. Now that I'm gigging, so I'll see how long the honeymoon lasts with this one before thinking about another mini-bass.

(Unless, of course, a short-scale guitar should just fall into my lap in the near future...and two of them *did* in the two years before I found this red mini-Strat.)

The only thing that I needed to know before going fully ahead with this was how the B-string would respond. Every other problem can be overcome, but if that eighth-inch-thick B string didn't work when tuned to E at this scale, this was a dead end.

I got it to work, and learned something about bass strings in the pricess. Tuned to E, it produced a stable, robust open E note. And since I had time today, I finished the project. I now have a truly giggable 23-1/2" solidbody bass, and if there's sunshine tomorrow, I'll have pics by midnight.

I wasn't entirely sure that this project would get built, though. I had serious problems mounting that heavy E string. As most of you already know, B strings won't fit the peghead of many bass tuners unless you get the proper length of string, and you're able to insert a section of narrower thread-wrapped string. Try to fit a normal-length B-string on a shortscale or baritone, and you have to remove a half-inch plus of outer winding...perhaps even TWO layers of winding. (All but one of the half-dozen or so B strings I've unwound for shorter-scale instruments have had three layers of winding.) The problem is that some of the strain relief is lost when you cut the string below the the thread wrap, and B cores will snap at normal tension if you bend them around the peg in the wrong way. I recently saw THREE D'Addario EXP b-strings snap, one after the other, as I tried to install them on my Ibanez SR405's small-head peg. (This was a manufacturing defect, though, and D'Addario replaced the bad B's when I reported the failures.) And when I tried to install an old Rotosound red today, it snapped too. Fortunately, I was able to install the string by simply laying the string end across the slot, and not adding that extra bend to stuff it down the center of the peg.

So take that as a warning if you're planning a build like this. Always leave enough string end on that rare and costly B string to allow a second-chance installation *across* the peg if it snaps when you stuff the core *into* the peg.

BUILD ISSUES

The build isn't ideal, and needs a little tweaking before I can say that I'm done with it. Right now it has the P-bass bridge that came off of my converted Barracuda 5-string, but the string separation at the bridge is just a tad too much...let's not forget, this is being installed on a mini-guitar. So I'd like to shave an extra millimetre or two off the distance between the strings before I can say I'm satisfied; there's enough variations from manufacturer to manufacturer that I probably have a better-fit bridge in stock at the store.

But if this bridge was all I had, the bass is still giggable. The E and G strings sit dead center over the edge of the bevel on the 21st fret, so they're easy to flop over the edge of the fretboard past the 12th fret. I rarely play past the ninth fret, so it's no hardship for me. The short scale means that the string "rolls" less on the fret, and feels a bit stiffer than on a full-scale bass. I was actually surprised at how little string flop there was.

Part of that was dealt with at the nut, though. I installed a cheap ABS p-bass nut to replace the Fender strat nut, but the thicker strings meant that all four slots needed filing. Knowing that flopover might be a problem, I filed the slots out carefully, making sure that any extra width I got on the E and G string came from filing on the *inside* edge of the slot. It worked; I got an extra millimetre or so of narrowing on the E side, and a tiny bit of narrowing on the G side too.

The tuners had to be replaced, and I chose to install a hybrid set: three Schaller-style bass tuners on the E side, and a guitar tuner on the G side. (Any decent sealed tuner will accept the cut end of a .060 G-string; it's not an unreasonable gauge for a low E.) But I miscalculated there; the guitar tuner is NOT sufficient for this task. The tension on the G string is so high that it HAS to use a bass tuner; the extra-heavy .060-gauge G string was impossible for me to tune to pitch on a guitar peg without the aid of a string winder for extra grip on the peg. I need to reorder 2+2 bass pegs, so that replacement will have to wait for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, the bass is still usable...provided that I don't snap the shaft of the guitar tuner before the new pegs arrive, and the tension is SO high that I wouldn't be surprised if it did snap. (That tension may be excessive on a guitar peg, but the actual string tension for fretting feels quite normal.)

PICKUPS AND TONE

There was virtually no chance that the anemic 3.6kOhm Squier would be usable as bass pickups...so I didn't even bother auditioning them. Instead, I played a hunch, and it paid off nicely. Last year I bought about fifteen cheap ceramic twin-rail pickups when I found a Hong Kong vendor who was selling NOT the nasty Chinese rails with the yellow pickup leads and/or grey sheathing, but a variant on that which is EITHER the Belcat/Artec/GFS "Li'l Killer" ceramic twin-rail, or an exact copy...for SEVEN BUCKS EACH. (I know they're Korean, because I bought four of these before finding this deal from Bezdez, who got THEIR stock from a jobber who supplied them with a ton of Korean-made pickups.) I've used TEN of those pickups now, and they've been terrific performers every time...including the trio loaded into my mini-Strat. The bridge pickup - VERY close to the bridge, for a bass pickup - sounds decidedly Jazz-like. The neck has a tone very reminiscent of a pair of Korean-made ceramic p-bass pickups that I took out of an early-90s Barracuda and a similar-vintage Samick Artist, a tone that I know to be quite superior to the five-dollar p-bass pickups offered by the HK vendors.

You can't get twin-rail humbuckers of this quality for this price now...not that I've seen. This was a rare deal. But a lot of vendors sell a cheapo $8 twin-rails that comes reasonably close to the tone quality of the Artec/Belcat/GFS...certainly close enough to give you a decent bass tone if you chose to build a mini-Strat bass on this model. They're probably THE best budget pickup you'll find that will work as a plug-and-play mini-bass solution. Anything purpose-built for bass will require pickguard cutting, and no other under-$15 strat-sized pickup that I've ever tried will work as well as a bass pickup. I just happened to have a strong hunch on these after hearing one of these Korean twin-rails as the middle pickup in one of my Peavey fat-strats. It happened to be sitting next to a GFS VEH, a pickup notorious for having exceptional bass response, and I knew the twin-rail had bottom end that compared very favorably to the VEH.

Because they're blade pickups, they don't depend upon string centering over the polepiece, and the blades always extend well beyond the outer strings on a 6-string, so they're reasonably - but not ideally - positioned for the string separation on this minibass. It's a bit iffy at the bridge, but the neck tone is just fine. I'll rarely use the bridge pickup anyway. I think I'll install a cheap Chinese soapbar humbucker in place of the middle pickup, just for some variety of tone (the parallel-wired tone in the cheap soapbuckers is just a touch StingRay-ish, and a nice antidote to the bland sound of these pickups in their normal series configuration), But the tone I get from this bass as it sits isn't bad at all, and I kind of like the look of those three twin-rails.

Let's be clear on a couple of points, though. The tone does lack the fullness and complexity you get from a 34/35" bass - you're just NOT going to get that kind of richness from something this short - so it's always going to sound like a shortscale, and shortscale solidbody basses do have a reputation for a certain plainness and blandness of tone.

But you might be surprised at just how full the tone really is. The extra thickness of the up-tuned 5-string-set strings add a depth and body to the tone that helps to compensate for the lack of richness that comes from the short scale. If you think you know shortscale tone, you might be surprised at what the fat strings do to compensate...you might mistake the tone of this bass with these pickups for the tone of a cheap 34" import p-bass with extra-heavy strings if you heard it in a blind test.

HOW DOES IT PLAY?

How does it play? Well, it plays like a 23"-scale fretted bass. Not much surprised me about the way it felt, or what it needed for setup, other than the lack of lateral string roll, which is a plus. I don't need to pay as much attention to my fretting as I expected, because it takes a LOT more effort to pull the string over the edge of the fretboard than it would for the same note on a 34" bass.

Playing position requires some attention, though...I found myself picking the bridge more than once when I first tested it, just because I'm used to the bridge being far back from its position on this guitar. Raising the strap helped a lot, but I want to play this low-slung, in part because it'll blend in better with my band's lead and rhythm players. I WANT this to look confusing to an audience; I WANT them to be squinting to figure out which of us - if any of us - is playing bass.

The scale takes some getting used to. I've had a couple of 23" guitars in the last couple of years, and couldn't get used to either of them. But this only requires single-note playing; it's not nearly as much of an adjustment from a standard-scale bass as I encountered when going from a Fender-scale to a 23" "travel" guitar.

The action has to be set a bit higher than you might hope to compensate for the wide amplitude of these high-mass strings. Upping the gauge by .020-.025" per string adds a LOT of vibrating mass - at least 50%, by my reckoning, to each string over normal bass gauge for the same tuning, and a bigger initial rebound when you pluck. But the tension is so comfortable that I don't mind the higher action much at all.

I suspect that guitar players who only pick up a bass occasionally will find this a dream to play compared to a regular-scale bass. In fact, it might even be smarter to build something like this from a standard-scale guitar...the adjustment will be that much less, and the extra two inches of scale will add to the depth of string tone.

COST

My total cost on this project was a bit insane, but only because I went down the dead-end alley of piezo, and some of the parts for this were obtained at one-time-only prices. (The tuners came from an odd-lot batch of Bezdez' leftover or returned tuners.) The actual real-world cost of building this project turns out to be VERY reasonable, as I'll demonstrate in a moment. Here's my costs:

mini-Strat: $70
Pickups: $20
Bridge: free
Strings: free
Tuners: $7
=============
Piezo bridge: $40
Poly strings: $33
=============
Total: $170

Real-world costs to build a near-identical mini-bass:

mini-Strat: $70*
Pickups: $25**
Bridge: $5-20***
Strings: free to $20+
2+2 bass tuners: $12++
=============
Realistic total: $115-145

* Try to hold out for one of the Indonesian-made 3-pickup models if you're going to use a Squier. Other makers build kid-sized instruments that might do the job, but be sure the neck is at least as wide at the heel as a standard Strat-type guitar.
** Price is for a lot of 3 cheapo twin-rails; you may only ever use 2 of them, in which case your cost is proportionately lower.
*** Cheap Chinese P-bass bridges might be as low as $5...Tomtop retailers have sold them this cheap. You may want to grind off the saddle ends and tether the saddle bolts together to get a bit less string spread at the bridge; otherwise, you'll likely want to find a bass bridge with less string separation, which .
+ Know someone you can hit up for a dead 5-string set...or just as good, a .125-.045 set that suffered a broken G string? Dead strings should do...even new strings won't sound great at this short a scale.
++ I configured mine as a 3+1 because of the tuners that I had on hand, and because I thought - wrongly - that I could use a guitar tuner for the G string. The 2+2 configuration would have been just as easy and effective.

You can actually buy quite a lot of bass for that kind of money. What that kind of money WON'T get you, though, is the beers that other players will buy for you to find out what's up with that goofball bass you're playing, or the memory of the look on the faces of other players when you plug the thing in, turn it up, and wipe the condescending grins from their smug faces. I only got to hear the piezo version for a minute or two, thanks to the ungodly level of gain needed to produce audible output, but I know that the piezo-plus-poly-strings version will DESTROY this version for tone. This, however, actually sounds like a steel-string solidbody bass that's perfectly at-home playing rock.

IN SUMMARY

This is NOT where I expected to arrive when I first embarked on this quixotic adventure (well *duh*...) and if I'd had a working piezo bridge, I might have never gone this far...I'd probably have stopped with the plastic-stringed "fretted Ashbory" and never twigged on the thicker-strings hack.

But this hack is an unqualified success for me. My band's main gig requires that we keep volume and energy level fairly low before 11pm, and blow the doors off after midnight. I was hoping to use the "fretted Ashbory" as my bass for the first two sets of this gig. But the piezo version would have been a bit more full-bodied than I really needed. This bass, through an amp, sounds somewhere between an EB-type and a classic P-bass tone, and in that respect, it's much better suited to the purpose for which I wanted it.

And the bottom line here is that a 23"-scale solidbody steel-string bass is now, officially, a thing. All it took was the right choice of string to bring it off.

Thanks again, Swamp Yankee. Not the first time you've either saved or seasoned my bacon.

Oh...and one last thing...now that this project is complete enough to be usable, I'm starting to think that I might just get some use out of a lap-steel bass. Hmm...yeah...string it with a flatwound 5-string set...and here's the real kicker about that idea: I put my OLP baritone up for sale 2 months ago after going nearly a year without finding a valid use for it other than messing around on my own, and took it OFF sale just this week when I realized that a track I was working on actually NEEDED a hard-rock-toned baritone, not just a 7-string. I seriously can't think of a single song that I know, or have written, that would benefit from a lap slide bass. But if I HAD one....

Pics to follow when I have them.
Will Chen
#3 Posted : Thursday, October 10, 2013 8:46:38 AM(UTC)
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Man, very good read. Can't wait to see the pictures. Any chance of a recorded clip as well?
Braindancer
#4 Posted : Thursday, October 10, 2013 2:23:42 PM(UTC)
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Weather won't co-operate, so pardon the photo quality.

I did a quickie sampling of three basses.

http://www.cublea.net/fora/basses.mp3

The first 20-second run is the Squier MINI with volume and tone on 10, neck pickup only, with a dead set of .125-.065's of unknown manufacture. (The E is a Rotosound red B string, the rest I'm not sure about.)

The second run is my converted 5-string Barracuda bass with the GFS hot-vintage P-bass pickup. Strings are a hybrid set; the B-E-A strings are extremely dead roundwounds, the D-G strings are somewhat-dead D'Addario flats. I find this combination gives me the best of both worlds. Flats were causing problems on stage because of the way they seem to make the fundamental sound like a harmonic. Both guitarists are inexperienced amateurs who heard my bass as badly out-of-tune when playing on the E and A. When ultra-dead rounds were substituted, it did little to change the basic tone, but it cleared up the confusing harmonics, which are actually quite pronounced on a nickel-steel flatwound (somewhat less so on a tapewound) and the crossover from rounds to flats is only noticeable in the upper-mid and treble range, where it's practically inaudible in a live situation.

The third run is the '03 Cirrus, EQs flat, neck pickup only, which I recently learned is actually an '08 Cirrus with bad handwriting on the EQ module. Strings are brand-new Peavey Cirrus Xtra Longs.

Front view of the "Revision 1" Squier MINI bass conversion.

Here's how the thing looks right now. When I chose the 3+1 tuner layout, I didn't expect to have to install a fourth bass tuner; this kind of looked "right". The right-side tuners are fanned to reduce stubbing; the keys were VERY close together when aligned in a straight line.

The bridge didn't line up quite as planned, but it actually worked out for the best. I need the additional clearance from the fret edge more on the E side than on the G side.

Pickups detail

Note how the neck pickup nicely sits beneath all four strings at the neck, and doesn't quite seem to quite cover all four strings at the bridge. I don't really care; I'll use the neck pickup 90 percent of the time, and plan to use a proper bass pickup in the middle position anyway...I'm just not sure what it'll be yet.

At the bridge, you'll notice that the pickguard floats over top of the bridge plate. I didn't cut the plate since I may have a bridge that better fits this guitar...it doesn't fundamentally affect how this plays at the present time.

You'll also notice a volume jump on the A and D strings. This has been a bugbear with all of these bladebuckers...it's the arch in the blade that causes this, and it goes away with a little bit of grinding to flatten the tops. (I've done this to both the ceramic and the alnico versions of this pickup...the alnico (Allan Eden has it) is QUITE nice, a cheap and very serviceable alternative to the Duncan JB Jr.

I shopped for other pickguards, but regrettably they're neither easy to find nor cheap once you find them. Several HK vendors do have ten-dollar mini-strat pickguards, but only the two-pickup models, and I don't think they're an exact fit.

Headstock front view.

The tuners look a bit odd because they ARE odd...they're installed backward. These are actually left-side tuners, used because they're good-quality tuners - Ibanez OEMs I suspect - and because I had them onhand from an odd lot that didn't include washers.

The reason I installed the tuners the way I did was because I initially wanted to cut the "bulb" off of the headstock. But I've realized that doing so could significantly change the "stealth" character of this bass...it does reduce the length by a couple of inches, but once the bulb is gone, this looks that much less like your basic strat. I'll probably still chop that bulb off, but for now I want to keep it...just in case I change my mind.
big_teee
#5 Posted : Thursday, October 10, 2013 3:25:29 PM(UTC)
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Good Job, and that looked like a lot of work.
I think I would just buy a short scale bass, instead of though!
Surprised the neck frets are in the right place.
I can't talk though, I do some pretty out there projects from time to time! BigGrin

Edited by user Thursday, October 10, 2013 3:29:04 PM(UTC)  | Reason: Not specified

Keep Rockin!
Terry
Big T Custom Pickups
Braindancer
#6 Posted : Friday, October 11, 2013 4:47:08 AM(UTC)
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First, this was seriously one of the easiest hacks I've ever done. If I had to do it again, using the same pickups, I could probably convert and set up a 3-pickup kiddie strat in a little more than 2 hours, plus another half-hour to order the parts. The only tough part of my build for the average hacker was the holes for the bass pegs...they required 9/16" holes, and drillbit kits stop at 1/2", but you can easily find 1/2"-neck pegs for a few dollars more.

Second, as for the frets, fret positioning is standard on all western stringed instruments...makes no difference if it's a bass or a ukelele, it's all proportional to scale length. You just have to leave enough wiggle room at the bridge to allow for intonation corrections.

This isn't a short-scale bass. Sub-30" is considered ultra-short, pretty much a different class of instrument. And this is hardly "out there". There's a substantial market for minibasses. If it wasn't so, Steinberger would be a boutique brand today. A large percentage of their sales are to bassists who buy them primarily for the extra few inches of safe stage space that they offer over a short-scale. Ultra-short-scale's even have their own UG on talkbass. But what there is out there right now seems to consist of gimmick instruments, or purpose-built piezo basses that use non-metal strings. And it's my belief that if it was commonly known how effective the 5-string set can be as 4-string ultra-short-scale string set, a LOT more people would be playing ultra-short's right now.

The sub-26"-scale standard-electric bass is insanely rare, and typically limited to novelties like the many Teisco minis, piezo instruments such as Kala's bass ukeleles, or boutique travel guitars. The Greg Bennett designed Samick Corsair MCR-1 25" is about the only name-brand production bass of guitar scale or shorter, and it's pretty popular with shorty fans. But I don't know how the stringing works on the Samick...from what I can see, it MIGHT be using slightly-thicker strings, but they don't look like an up-tuned B-E-A-D set.

And that, more than the build itself, is the real news here. Because half the guitar players in North America have experimented with converting an old six-string to a shorty bass, and discovered that it simply doesn't work without strings that will tension properly at a much shorter scale when tuned to E-A-D-G. That kind of string has to be either custom-made using a special core, or adapted from a longer-scale string. And it turns out that using a five-string set for a four-string ultra-short-scale produces a versatile and usable tone quite different from any standard-scale or 30" short-scale bass.

It's an incredibly simple concept, but it never occured to me until Swamp Yankee suggested it. And it appears that if others HAVE twigged on this, either they kept the information to themselves, or figured it was common knowledge that didn't need to be broadcast to a wider world. Because I've done a lot of googling since announcing this project, and NOBODY that I've encountered thus far has said word one about adapting five-string sets to a four-string ultra-short.

This project represents by far the cheapest way to get your hands on a truly serviceable, giggable ultra-short...the closest thing to it for quality is the 25" Samick MCR-1 Corsair, which will typically set you back $200 or so. But that one little nugget of information about using 5-string string sets for a 4-string ultra-short-scale is probably far more important than all the other information about this build combined. Because that's the secret that sets virtually ANY 20"-plus-scale guitar free to become a stageworthy bass.
Axeman69
#7 Posted : Friday, October 11, 2013 5:41:11 AM(UTC)
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VERY nice work dude!ThumpUp
big_teee
#8 Posted : Friday, October 11, 2013 10:32:24 AM(UTC)
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If you like it, I like it!
If there is such a demand as you mention, I'm surprised there is not a factory offering?
Perhaps there will be.
A Cool Mod though.
I'm Not that big on all the holes in the headstock, for a finished product!
That's my $.02 . lol
Keep Rockin!
Terry
Big T Custom Pickups
Braindancer
#9 Posted : Friday, October 11, 2013 10:51:00 PM(UTC)
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Just got back from rehearsal, where things got a little weird. The guys couldn't stop laughing...they couldn't believe something that short could sound that good.

And it really did sound good thru my gigging amp. The rails BADLY need to be ground flatter, but they really do sound good as bass pickups! The tone is VERY Fat, but the scoop switch made it sound too artificial. I've solved this problem with other basses by switching from series to parallel wiring, so that's what I'm going to do.

The bridge pickup lost far too much bottom, and is virtually useless, but position 2 was VERY nice. It was surprisingly easy to get used to the lo-def tone of short strings, too, and this thing pockets VERY nicely with the band's sound...nicer, in fact, than my p-bass.

What wasn't so easy to get used to was the fret positions. The bass may be giggable, but my left hand isn't yet. I seriously need to practice with this bass before I can go on a stage with it. I can go from bass to guitar effortlessly, but I need to train my muscle memory before I can reliably pick this thing up and know I'll be "on".

I think I've also found a very simple - and dirt-cheap - solution to the string-separation issue, and I'll have more on this as soon as I test it. The key is to use finger bridges, or any bridge which has those removable black "chiclet" saddles, and file new string slots in better locations on the underside of the chiclet.

Edited by user Friday, October 11, 2013 10:55:21 PM(UTC)  | Reason: Not specified

big_teee
#10 Posted : Friday, October 11, 2013 10:59:20 PM(UTC)
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Originally Posted by: Braindancer Go to Quoted Post
Just got back from rehearsal, where things got a little weird. The guys couldn't stop laughing...they couldn't believe something that short could sound that good.

And it really did sound good thru my gigging amp. The rails BADLY need to be ground flatter, but they really do sound good as bass pickups! The tone is VERY Fat, but the scoop switch made it sound too artificial. I've solved this problem with other basses by switching from series to parallel wiring, so that's what I'm going to do.

The bridge pickup lost far too much bottom, and is virtually useless, but position 2 was VERY nice. It was surprisingly easy to get used to the lo-def tone of short strings, too, and this thing pockets VERY nicely with the band's sound...nicer, in fact, than my p-bass.

I think I've also found a very simple - and dirt-cheap - solution to the string-separation issue, and I'll have more on this as soon as I test it. The key is to use finger bridges, or any bridge which has those removable black "chiclet" saddles, and file new string slots in better locations on the underside of the chiclet.

Hey Brainey:
I make blade pickups with straight blades.
If the blades can be taken out of the pickups, you might turn them over.
They should be flat on the bottom.
I used to try the bought blades, but like you say the curve makes them too Middy!
I machine my own blades and leave them straight.
Good Luck.
T
Keep Rockin!
Terry
Big T Custom Pickups
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