Building a 5-String Bass

I built a 5-string bass, using a kit, and thought I’d share how it came out.

June 14, 2018

In the 90s, I had a ’57 reissue Precision. It was American, and expensive, but it had problems. It’s been over 20 years, but I remember a dead spot in the C# vicinity (on the G string) plus a couple of other problems, like lack of tonal manipulation. At that time, I also had a Japanese fretless Jazz bass, and an upright.

Searching for a better sound, I installed EMG pickups in the Precision. While the bass was out for the install (I didn’t have my soldering license yet) the music store loaned me a Steinberger. I fell in love. It was a pre-Gibson (as in, not junk) rig, and retailed forĀ  about $700 if I remember right. I asked about trading even when my Fender got back from the shop. The fellow at the music store (the now defunct Daddy’s Junky Music) offered me $300. The gold anodized pickguard, he announced, was not original. I managed to keep from swinging a Steinberger into his poor greasy head, and instead went to the store where I got it. That fellow knew I didn’t want a Fender (he was in fact the Fender dealer where I’d gotten the ’57 resissue), and referred me to another gentleman who might have a Pedulla.

Lovestruck, I traded both my Fenders, plus a sizable amount of cash, for an MVP4. It’s now 2018, and I can say that I don’t regret the decision I made 21 years ago one bit. My 11 year old, who may become a bass player (we’ll see how he does with the bass he’s got now) pretty much drools over it and wants it now.

So here we are at The Fret Wire…

I want a 5-string bass. Everyone in my family knows that. An MVP5 from Pedulla is several thousand dollars. I realize that I just got another high paying IT gig, but I have other things I need to spend money on. You know, like retirement? So for Christmas, they get me a 5-string. The trouble is, when they ordered the rig from The Fret Wire, they got the fretless model.

Fretless basses are cool. In fact, I miss my upright and the Jazz I traded in toward the Pedulla. But, what I’m trying to do now (record an album with a fellow that we started back in the 90s) needs a regular bass sound. The "whaaaaah" of a fretless just won’t cut it on this album. So, since the fretless kit went so well, and since the Fret Wire also sells a 5-string fretted kit, I figured "What could possibly go wrong" and ordered a kit in April of 2018.

At the end of my first week at my new job, I ordered it. It came the following week, after I’d gotten home, and I ripped it open. I will tell you right off, I’m not a fan of oak. The grain is so loud and pronounced. Ash, what the kit’s body is made from, looks an awful lot like oak. So right off the bat, I’m nervous. Is this thing going to look like the Peavy T40 I had once upon a time? Here’s what I got:

And color… I’m used to just a bit of stain and clear coat. I built a basswood Tele kit a while back, and just used a real light Minwax (Puritan Pine) color. It looked good, but I get worried what stain colors look like on different species. My kids both got kits with mahogany bodies. All three are over on this page. One used a stain that made it look like walnut (a Jazz bass) and the other grabbed something funky for his Tele kit that ended up looking all right. I didn’t like it, but two years later, it’s grown on me and I really dig it.

So rather than go with a regular stain, What about Blue?

Blue is a pain. Let me tell you ahead of time. There are two types of stain. There’s either dye or pigment based. I guess I did pigment based. I couldn’t find any blue stain locally, so I grabbed some Pthalo Blue (you know, like what Bob Ross used to paint happy little accidents), some mineral spirits to thin it out, and made my own.

I took the ash body down smooth with 220 grit sandpaper, then I applied some of this home-brew stain. I have no idea what brand (species) of ash we’re dealing with, but it didn’t come out very blue. There was this weird yellowish tint in general that was worse in spots. I couldn’t figure it out. But being a hundred and something dollar kit, compared to the several thousand dollar hand-made axe I’m used to, I figured I could live with it.

I think I got another coat of blue on, then applied a clear coat. Having finished the other aforementioned instruments (plus one I did back in the 90s with nitrocellulose — that was a potentially explosive ruckus) with water-based clear coats, I embarked on this rig the same way. All was well. Except for wet-sanding through in a couple of spots (thus getting rid of the blue) all went well. I clear-coated over any blemishes, and was finished finally. As far as I was concerned, as long as things were smooth and shiny, I was happy. Hell, my Pedulla looks like it got in a fight with a freight train, so what does it matter if I’ve got blemishes,, right?

So, I got the bass together, and it was time to wire it up. There’s a fellow at The Fret Wire named Sam who heard from me a lot during this process… The bass came with two soapbar pickups, and four pots. There are supposed to be two volumes and two tones, once for each pickup. However, something was hinkey.

I’m no electricity expert, but it sounds like however those pickups are designed to work isn’t how they actually work. After many emails back and forth, it was determined that instead of a volume and tone control for each pickup, the only way they’d work was if there were two volumes, and then one "Master" tone. This setup was fine with me. Since I’d gone through at least five complete tear-down/re-solder operations, this last idea sounded good to me. In the end, I had a working bass with controls like a Jazz.

Part of the reason I wasn’t worried about the finish blemishes was that I wasn’t sure the bass would be any good in the end. I don’t want to dump a bunch of time into something that isn’t going to work, but…

This bass is pretty much everything I hoped it would be. Consistent volume and sustain were what I was worried about, and those aren’t concerns after plugging it in the first time. But it’s real quiet. If I were playing live, I could just crank it up and it wouldn’t make a difference. I’m trying to record though, so any cranking up will mean noise. I asked Sam about better pickups. He took pity on me, and sold me some Seymore Duncans, the SSB-5s, at a reduced rate.

Since I was getting better pickups, I figured I might as well fix the finish blemishes, so I started over. I grabbed a random orbital sander and some 220 sandpaper, and took it down to bare wood again. Turns out the yellow was leftover glue, and it also turns out that I’m bad with blue. There are still blemishes, but they’re different. I give up. It’s pretty, sounds good, and plays good. I’m happy.

Finished Bass

Finished bass: Stain is home-brew. Pthalo Blue oil paint (think Bob Ross), but Master’s Touch brand from Hobby Lobby, mixed with Klean Strip Green Odorless Mineral Spirits from a local Ace Hardware.

Piece of Ash

I wired up the pickups so that I had two volumes and one tone. I didn’t like the 1/4" barrel jack that came with the bass, so I chucked it and installed one that I did like in the fourth hole on front. That meant a big hole where the other jack was, so I grabbed some ash to fill it in. It’s a piece from an ash tree in Porter Maine (the family farm). Not sure why I bothered using ash specifically, since it’s totally not the same species…

Plug Installed

All over but the sanding

Better than it was…

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