Monday, January 26, 2015

The SMR Workshop

Last Saturday I met Steve of SMR Double Basses and one of his very talkative cats (the other guy went upstairs). I called him that morning saying I'm building a double bass and I haven't ever played one and I would love to pick your brain if you're cool with that—and he was!

I found SMR online a while back and was surprised to see that it's based in Evanston—right around the corner. It's a funny thing, Skokie has a good amount of violin shops, but they don't deal with the double bass. I've reached a point in my build where I really need to get up close and personal with some good basses and see what makes them tick. Steve was nice enough to show me all the basses in his workshop which resides on the lower level of his 2-flat.

I walked around plucking the A strings of basses from Germany, China, the Czech Republic… even some from Chicago and it was amazing how distinct each were. I promised to shower him with tedious and detail-focused questions as my build progressed and he seemed pretty OK with that. We said adios and took off for our respective gigs…

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Sloppy Joe Armstrong

Rushing makes it easy to start over.

Mistakes were made on all fronts.

I have a terrible memory.

I put this down last summer because I felt there was some shoddy craftsmanship at play, but when my trusty fretless conked out on me at last weekend's gig I thought hey I should finish that tele I was building last summer. As it turns out, I probably should have let the sawdust bury it.

The intention  Last summer I was listening to a lot of Bill Frisell and Bill Kirchen which lead me to luthier Rick Kelly and his Bowery Pine Teles. I thought, I have all the parts to put together a bass, except the body, however I have a garage full of 2" x 2" pine—so why not build own?  And I did. The goal was to have a magneto fretless to compliment my piezo fretless.

Good things  Although I'm not real happy with the end result there are things that I like: 1. the graphite finish on the back plate and neck—pencil, hairspray and pledge (still in the experimental stage); 2. simple electronics (series/split/paralell switch, vol, kill switch)

Irksome things  that will bug me constantly: 1. the pickup is mounted to the left—the poles don't line up with the strings; 2. the bridge sits higher than a fender bridge so the neck is set too low; 3. the back plate makes the bass heavy; 4. the graphite finish rubs off a bit as you play; 5. the ƒ hole is sloppy; 6. the body's outline looks like a frumpy telecaster

The irksome things could probably be fixed, but I wonder if it's worth it… probably not. I learned some things and my trusty fretless seems to be trustworthy again—it was a worthwhile project.

Here are the specs on Billie, the Garage-caster:

Body: Pine
Pickups: Hong Kong Humbucker ($16)
Switching: Paralell/Split/Series
Controls: 1 Volume, Kill switch
Bridge: "Gibson Style" bridge

Neck: Maple with Ziricote/Zebrawood veneer
Fingerboard: Rosewood (fretless)
Scale length: 32"

Friday, January 16, 2015

40 hours

"Let us say that you take the easy way and buy the neck and scroll 'ready made'. If you do this you will always have the feeling that you cheated in the construction and when asked if you really made the instrument you would be obliged to say, 'well, all except the neck and scroll.'" —H. S. Wake, To Make a Double Bass

This obscure and helpful book was a birthday gift from the Champaign Carty clan—thanks guys!

I'm 40 hours into my Rocket 88 (electric upright bass) build—23 hours of planning and 17 hours building. That's 40 hours over the course of 3 months, so you could say I'm taking my time. As you can see in my clamped up mockup I'm starting to practice my new upright moves.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Vacation Slide Neck

For the first time in my adult life, I took a week and a half long vacation. In my freelance days, this meant I was out of work. So all in all, it was a new and strange experience. My vacation project was to build a short scale neck for my P-Bass. The P-Bass has been through half a billion changes over the last decade and I would say this is it, but who really knows. This change does fix the "nose-dive" situation. So, here are the details…

The neck is made of African Mahogany and has no fingerboard since it is intended for slide playing.

The head stock is made of Ziricote which smells like roasted nuts when you saw it. It was a wonderful comforting smell—it makes you feel warm even though your freezing you buns off next to a space heater in the garage.

 The angled tuners were not planned, but a result of breaking a drill bit in the wood (yes I'm an amateur woodworker), but it's actually really a nice angle for operating the tuners.

I had T draw one of her dogs on the neck.

Watson has reminded me to tell you that this 2-string slide bass is tuned to the key of D (D, A) and uses a 65 gauge for the D and 45 gauge for the A. It's 30" in scale. In fact, calling this a 2-string slide Baritone would be more accurate.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

You've got a real eye for music.

Sunday was closing night for Redmoon's Winter Pageant and I spent some of my down time thinking/sketching  about my two loves: music and art, with my love, Teresa. Eating PBJs, sketching, while T knit a hat, in a place that has been so welcoming to me—life doesn't get much better than that.

It's no secret that Morphine is my favorite band and when the Cure for Pain documentary came out I bought it immediately (after a year of anticipation). What's amazing is that since then all sorts of new videos have popped up on youtube. I'm so grateful that Sandman recorded everything and that the folks around him have been so diligent about preserving his music. It's been 20 years since I first heard Morphine, 15 years since Sandman passed away and they just keep giving… amazing.

It struck me—wow 20 years! As a chubby little 14 year old I started to think about music a little differently: it can be simple, totally strange and yet still very familiar… I could build my own instruments and make sounds that haven't been heard before.

Through his friends and fellow musicians: Dana Colley, Jerome Deupree, Billy Conway, Chris Ballew, Monique Ortiz, the Twinemen, Either Orchestra, Treat Her Right… to name a few, Mark Sandman has been a great teacher for me. The main point being: keep it simple. This basic tenant is always on my mind when I play bass, but also in my drawing.

Strip down to the essentials and give that your full attention, you don't need anything fancy just use what you have—something wonderful will happen.

Monday, December 8, 2014

On Press!

If you scroll down a ways, you'll see that since April I've been working with Redmoon Theater on a "scroll cranky" featuring a luche-libre-inspired sailor who finds his true love. It has already had several iterations: first appearing at a private party, then at Redmoon's Boneshaker and Skelebration events with performer Yuri Lane and finally with the Chicago Sinfonietta set to the music of Manuel de Falla.

Scroll of the Drunken Mariner, my reinterpretation of the Redmoon project in book form is on press this week! It will be available in the Spruce Moose Shop this weekend. I will also be selling it along with prints and original drawings at Redmoon Theater this Friday—opening night of the Winter Pageant.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Redmoon's Winter Pageant

Redmoon Theater's Winter Pageant is starting this Friday! I will be there selling some art. If you do make it over there for any of the performances, one thing you'll see is a giant pop-up book with puppets. This was my Saturday. I started painting at 10 am and 14 hours later—voila!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Tracking, Labeling and Naming…

It's safe to say you've reached a strange point in your life when excitedly, you turn to your wife and say, "you know what, I'm gonna create google spreadsheets and track my expenses and time on this project." Who's that guy? Research time is a bit "nebulous," but 29 hours into this project (9 hours build time) I would say things are going pretty OK. I mean check it out, you're looking at a bass:

Just a few more cuts and some shaping… and that's it.

Upright basses are made by master luthiers, working off centuries of tradition and that can be pretty intimidating. I don't have those kind of chops, so I'm trying to stick to that cigar box guitar mentality of using what's available and making it work. Above, your looking at mahogany for the neck which I bought last year for my birthday, aromatic cedar for the top and back and reclaimed pine for the sides (left in the garage by the previous home owners). All in all its not that scrappy of a lumber selection although it is pretty atypical for an upright bass. But this isn't exactly an upright bass, it's an electric upright, in fact I might call it a 3/4 condensed bass.

The 3/4 condensed bass isn't too snappy of a name, but after gluing together the 2 layers of my sides I think I might have something with a bit more pizazz: My Rocket 88. Seems like a good name for rock 'n' roll bass given that Rocket 88 is often credited as the first, or one of the first rock 'n' roll songs ever recorded.

I'm still sketching away on the details, but the build is underway—let's see what happens…