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Fun with a Rickenbacker - troubleshooting and modding.

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by Axstar, Dec 14, 2018.


  1. Axstar

    Axstar

    Jul 8, 2016
    East of Eden.
    I picked up a Rickenbacker 4003 bass a few days ago, and it needs some work done to it! I bought a used bass in part so that I could modify it without feeling too much like I was thrashing a new instrument. In this case I was happy to let somebody put the first ding in the finish.

    The bass itself is from the 28th week of 2009. Some view this era as Rickenbacker's 'lost weekend', as they were working quickly to try and offset a backlog of orders. Production got a bit boring during this era, with the range of models and finishes reduced to the bare bones. In the case of my bass, the electronics are badly and somewhat illogically soldered and the finish is thin, sticky and hazy in places.

    I'm not a purist by any stretch of the imagination. This bass sounds great as-is. The slightly nasal Rickenbacker tone is there, even when you play it unplugged. There is a granite-hard fundamental underneath every note, but that excellent spray of harmonics on top. This bass can be surprisingly bright and brash sounding, or it can produce a deep, fat rumble.

    Ultimately I don't see Rickenbacker instruments as sacred objects, and I see no point in defending the indefensible. Parts of this bass demonstrate absolutely top-shelf levels of detail and craftsmanship. Other sections fall short of the mark and could do with being improved.

    My bass:

    oJUnVcN.

    Also my bass:

    UT9D57i.
    The shielding paint in the cavities is not factory stock. Somebody applied this paint and installed a star-grounding wiring scheme to link the painted sections together.

    My first job today was to remove the hump from the pickguard. Attributed by some as a template error, Rickenbackers from this period have a 'double hump' down by the pickup selector switch. Once you see it you can't un-see it.

    meLa8LQ.

    This is my attempt to un-hump the pickguard. I used a rasp, and various grits of sand paper, to smooth this out.

    I've also re-crowned the frets and polished them out. There is green marker ink on the upper fret ends, so I reckon somebody has done some work on the frets already. However they left the frets a wee bit rougher than I'm used to. I've also started polishing the fretboard as once I've finished the adjacent fret.

    Before:

    Q1cOKwT.

    After:

    mAMe0P1.

    I'm using Poorboy's SSR-1 polishing compound and Poorboy's EX-P finishing wax to make these shine.

    I also shaved the top of the nut down. This might not please the purists, but there is no reason for the strings to disappear down to the bottom of deep channels in the nut.

    itd0bJN.

    Notice the weird lump of un-routed wood at the end of the truss rod cavity in the headstock and that the binding stops beyond the end of the fretboard, creating a small gap between the nut and the end of the fretboard.

    Another issue I have is with the finish on the headstock. It is hazy, cloudy, swirly and soft. The grain is visible quite clearly in the walnut wings, in a way that suggests the finish isn't adhering well to the wood. See the photo above. I can't polish this lacquer further.

    I've cut down the bridge height adjuster screws. These are long setscrews that protrude above the top of the bridge. Not too fun to rest your hand on or around! There is no reason for them to be this tall, therefore they aren't any more on mine:

    3D30sPG.

    The bridge needs a polish. On mine, the bridge is grounded via a black wire tack-soldered onto the carriage the mute foam sits on. Remove the mute (or the screws that adjust it) and the bridge might not be grounded. This might not be a stock feature on my bass, as the wire was part of the star grounding setup.

    When the bass arrived the bridge pickup was loose. The carriage was firmly mounted into the bridge pickup surround, but the pickup coil/bobbin and magnet were rattling around and striking the strings. Not good! I tightened up the pickup assembly, but it came loose again pretty quickly. The problem is that the two screws that thread into the back of the bobbin have been over-tightened before and stripped out the thread in the plastic. Bad news.

    The good news is that I was planning to do the RWRP mod to this bass anyway, so I needed to get the bridge pickup in bits one way or another:

    t1WtGRM.

    Magnet, carriage and coil/bobbin assembly. Remind me how much these things cost to replace?! This is some janky engineering.
     
    miljoneir, nixdad, craigie and 6 others like this.
  2. saabfender

    saabfender Banned

    Jan 10, 2018
    Indianapolis
    Speaking of modding, are you looking at aftermarket replacement bridges that are less of a contraption?
     
    nixdad likes this.
  3. Axstar

    Axstar

    Jul 8, 2016
    East of Eden.
    I'm pretty pleased with the stock bridge. It has given me the functionality I need from it (I don't need to worry about changing the radius of the strings), and there is a chance I might need the foam mute setup in the future.

    I'm only aware of the Hipshot bridge in general circulation, though it seemed like Babicz were doing one for a wee while and other manufacturers like 'Starz Guitars' made a brass replacement in the '70s. AllParts make a replacement, but it is basically the same as a Rickenbacker design but with a lower profile and shiny saddles.
     
    knumbskull and saabfender like this.
  4. Axstar

    Axstar

    Jul 8, 2016
    East of Eden.
    A small update. I've been busily sanding the factory varnish off this bass. The good news is that it is coming off very easily and there is no sealer coat underneath. The maple is very forgiving. I'm using 120 grit to remove the varnish, and then working up through two sides of a sanding block (marked medium and fine, but no grit stated), then 500 grit. This is taking a long of time!

    I've gone right up to 2000 grit on the headstock, but this might be overkill. I've been raising the grain with mineral spirits then sanding off the 'hair'. 2000 grit on the headstock feels almost like finished, satin-sheen wood.

    I've run into a small issue sanding the headstock, in that the walnut wood dust wants to track into the maple and discolor it. I've been able to clean this up with mineral spirits and more gentle sanding, in the direction of the grain of the wood. This keeps the walnut dust on the walnut areas.

    My plan is to use Coloron Danish Oil and Coloron Finishing Wax to give this bass a thin, satin finish. My old Coloron Danish Oil was a 'vintage pine' tint that was too yellow. I imagine the maple wouldn't take up the stain evenly. I might thin the DO with mineral spirits to get it to flash off a bit more quickly and give the finish a little bit more shine.
     
  5. Gilmourisgod

    Gilmourisgod

    Jun 23, 2014
    Cape Cod MA
    Outstanding! That sticky finish had to go. I love Watco, it’s stupid easy to use, and repairable. Fingerboard and frets look great. I never managed to get a gloss finish out of it, but Watco does satin well. The pups sound great, but it’s kind of a shoddy design. Plastic base plate? Really? The Classic Amplification drop in replacements have an aluminum base plate, much better built overall, but not cheap. While you are at it, you can make sure that the pup goes back together straight. There’s some nonsense amongst the Faithful that the randomly crooked pups common in current production are “meant” to be crooked, not just sloppy QC. Consistent QC was never Rics strong suit, but the basic construction and hardware are pretty good. The Hipshot is very nice, but beyond being a PITA to adjust intonation, the stock bridge works fine and looks cool. Rics are notorious for a high nut, it should not be more than half the diameter of the strings for slot depth, so filing the top makes sense. I actually like the Bakelite nuts, kinda waxy and self lubricating. Can you pop it off and file the binding flush with the fingerboard? Looking forward to the finished product, which looks to be far better than the day it rolled off the assembly line.
     
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2018
    nixdad likes this.
  6. Valsmere

    Valsmere Supporting Member

    Jun 28, 2018
    southern NJ
    Wow looking great the effort is worth the results!
     
    nixdad likes this.
  7. daveman50

    daveman50 Supporting Member

    Feb 24, 2007
    Westchester County NY
    This grounding scheme is stock (and as you say rather batty).
     
    nixdad and Axstar like this.
  8. Gilmourisgod

    Gilmourisgod

    Jun 23, 2014
    Cape Cod MA
    I took my ground wire off the mute and have an eyelet soldered to the end of it, one of the bridge screws passes through it. Works fine. I’ve been trying to find some tiny stainless grub screws with some kind of rounded head for the bridge height adjusters, those suckers are sharp! Maybe I’ll just grind them down like @Axstar.
     
    nixdad and Axstar like this.
  9. Axstar

    Axstar

    Jul 8, 2016
    East of Eden.
    Done! The end of the fretboard is a hot mess of not-quite-square geometries. The weirdness started with the nut itself:

    4NMllRR.

    They cut the base of it at an off-kilter angle. This made the nut too low on the E-string side, so they jacked it up with a little black shim, and used quite a thick glue to keep the nut in place. As such I had a lot of residue to clean up.

    I start grinding the shim off, and it is made of wood, painted black!

    CHHhHNE.


    I've cleaned up the nut area. Note the gap behind the backstop for the bass-side trussrod nut (and the raised bump of wood the router/CNC machine never got to at the front of the access route):

    BsGgmDR.

    As I'm sanding a clear finish off maple, I'm using a UV lamp to guide me:

    79xzMvF.

    7oYw4Tc.

    If it glows it has still to be sanded! This is useful, as once I've knocked the varnish back with 120 grit it can look the same as raw maple, as hit with 120 grit. I'm finding that the varnish is coming away easily in some areas, but has soaked into the wood a wee bit more in other areas. Between the UV lamp and periodically dampening the top with mineral spirits I'm finding out where I still need to sand.

    MZclr7M.

    I'm wearing a mask while doing all of this. Maple dust is like flour, and gets everywhere, but I think the walnut dust off the headstock wings is the real killer. You can see where I've just not quite sanded away all the varnish off the back yet, just above the sanding block. I had to go right down to 40 grit to get this spot sanded away, remembering to let the paper do the work and not my elbow and wrist! I don't want to sand bowls and depressions into the surface of the bass by over-sanding an area.

    All this makes me wonder what Paul McCartney used on his 4001S, to effectively sand the upper horn down to a blob of maple. A six pack of beer and a belt sander?
     
    nixdad, craigie, wraub and 6 others like this.
  10. saabfender

    saabfender Banned

    Jan 10, 2018
    Indianapolis
    The UV lamp trick blows me away. I learn so much from TB! Wood nut? So lame. Almost as lame as two truss rods.
     
    aproud1, nixdad, Spidey2112 and 2 others like this.
  11. knumbskull

    knumbskull

    Jul 28, 2007
    UK
    great stuff :)

    a Ric is my dream bass so it's nice to see one taken to pieces and renovated (if that's the word – improved?).

    look forward to seeing more of what you've got in mind.
     
    nixdad, Gilmourisgod and Axstar like this.
  12. davelowell2

    davelowell2 Uhh... FaFaFooey is BaBaBooey... Supporting Member

    Apr 20, 2006
    NYC via StL
    @Axstar the fretboard looks so nice!
    Nice work overall to rescue this lost weekender.
     
    nixdad and Axstar like this.
  13. Axstar

    Axstar

    Jul 8, 2016
    East of Eden.
    I stole the UV trick from the vintage Les Paul crowd, as they use UV light to detect re-sprayed areas and replaced plastic parts on old instruments. Old lacquer and plastic glows with a fairly uniform luminosity that modern stuff doesn't, although I bet some guy is working right now on making reproduction PAF pickup rings glow like the Crab Nebula under UV light.

    The nut isn't wood, but the weird wee shim is. This makes me think they glued on a cut down scrap of maple to do the job.
     
    miljoneir, nixdad, wraub and 3 others like this.
  14. Gilmourisgod

    Gilmourisgod

    Jun 23, 2014
    Cape Cod MA
    Dang, that UV trick is cool! never seen that done. To use your phrase, that nut was Janky! They must have left the binding long to cover up the shim mess, which means it's definitely a factory QC disaster. I can't believe it went out the door like that. If you can't get it to work, Pick of the Ricks does sell replacement pre-slotted bakelite nuts. These things are made WAY high, so I ground mine down close to size from the bottom edge before adjusting and string slot depths. it does polish up nice though, like an old 1940's telephone or a gun grip.
    Rickenbacker Bass Nut 03301 (Black)

    Here's what mine looked like while I was honing it down to size, still a hair wide, as you can see in the photo. They leave it around 1/8" extra wide too.
    UoeAdJb.
     
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2018
  15. Gilmourisgod

    Gilmourisgod

    Jun 23, 2014
    Cape Cod MA
    Another thought:
    if they left the binding long to cover the Jank, did they push the whole nut AWAY from the end of the fingerboard, towards the headstock? If so, wouldn't that mess with the intonation? Might want to check it for chuckles, distance from the face of nut to center of first fret should be 1.866" for a 33.25" scale per the Stewmac Fret Calculator:
    Fret Position Calculator | stewmac.com
     
  16. Axstar

    Axstar

    Jul 8, 2016
    East of Eden.
    I'm not ready for maths!

    The binding was a little too long on the treble side. You can see the gap under it in the photo of the nut on my first post. There is a buildup of white residue between the nut and the end of the fretboard in that photo. As I said before, nothing was quite perfectly square down there, and RIC used quite thick superglue (at a guess) to bodge the nut in. The end of the fretboard has quite deep machining marks in it. The dodgy little wooden shim was on the bass side of the nut, conversely. I could see the shim when I first received the bass as there was a little ledge under the nut on the bass side.

    The other wee surprise was that the carriage assembly for the bridge pickup is actually made from grey material, painted black! I was sanding some of the debris off of it (I think the pickup lived a hard life on my bass) and found that the black was coming off! You can see the grey in my photo of the exploded pickup.

    I've picked up a Retrovibe 'Slim Jim' bridge pickup surround, in case I ever go down the route of using a different bridge pickup. This is a chrome surround (like Seymour Duncan provide with their pickup) that fits the footprint but appears to have a wider slot for a pickup. It also comes with a carriage, so you could bolt any pickup on there. The possibilities are endless!

    IMG_5554-e1539357895229-300x300.

    I spent a couple of hours sanding last night. I have the headstock down to raw wood now. I need to sand the treble cutaway area and neck heel. Being the end grain of the maple, the bass cutaway 'drank' a bit more of the varnish than the top of the bass. Sod's Law dictates that the thicker finish occurs in the hardest areas to sand.

    I'm also looking at cutting my own pickguard. Repro 4003 pickguards are expensive, and apparently the AllParts ones miss the mark. The screw patterns are all over the place on Ricky 'guards as well.

    I have a PDF template of a 1974 4001 pickguard, a modern 4003, and my own 4003 pickguard. The 4001 pickguard is thinner in most areas, but most noticably down by the controls. The controls are also subtly closer to the neck than on a modern 4003. The screw holes are all further 'inland' on the modern pickguard, whereas on the '70s they are close to the edge (geddit?) which maybe caused a fair few to break over time.

    I want to make a mashup of the best of the '70s pickguard with the screw pattern of my 4003. The modern pickguard looks so bloated by comparison.

    Vintage:

    fg6mlmyndjcafzamnfk3.

    Compared to:

    koga7e7zhk8rl54qt2tg.
     
  17. Gilmourisgod

    Gilmourisgod

    Jun 23, 2014
    Cape Cod MA
    The pickguard in the second photo has the dreaded “double hump” profile you might have heard mentioned. The newer ones look more like the first photo. Given how much it’s changed over the years, I’d say it’s fair game, pick a version you like and go for it. I bought one of the Allparts guards, cheap plastic with sharp edges, neck pup hole slightly too small, meh. I had a nice pearloid one made by Pickguardian, but as you say, not cheap! BTW, if anybody wants my Allparts guard, you can have it for postage. On another note, Pickguardian has downloadable PDF templates for Ric guards, might be easy to modify one of those to taste.
     
    Axstar likes this.
  18. radapaw

    radapaw

    Mar 22, 2000
    Canada
    wow... that nut shim... at least go full width and sand away the difference.
     
    Axstar likes this.
  19. Axstar

    Axstar

    Jul 8, 2016
    East of Eden.
    I'm still debating what pickup and wiring options to go for on this bass. I'm tempted by the Seymour Duncan SRB-1 pickup set. The advantage is that they are humbuckers, and the neck pickup could go nearer to the 1/2'' spacing as there isn't a wider section of the pickup hiding under the pickguard.

    The neck pickup in the Seymour Duncan set is built along the footprint of a Firebird guitar pickup (the baseplate even has six unpopulated screw holes in it for poles on various minibuckers that share the same). When you stick this in a factory Rickenbacker pickguard you get a gap on each side of the pickup, as the Seymour Duncan has a squarer footprint than the stock HiGain pickup.

    1_dcd728dd-2d6b-447d-a303-13b54f137d51_grande.

    For wiring, I'm going to built my own harness with 500 k pots all round. What I fancy doing is adding a fifth 'blender' knob, which will bring in the vintage/modern switching (by bypassing the bass-cut cap on the bridge pickup). This is useful as it removes the need for a cheap clicky push/pull switch, and it allows me to blend the bass out of the circuit. I've seen an 8-string 4001 in @PaulBoyer's book that @Aceonbass (I think?) added a fifth knob to, so it can be done!

    I got the sanding finished on the bass today. It has easily taken about 10 hours to fully hand-sand this bass. The cool thing is that I now know every single curve and contour on this bass.

    I've started on the first few coats of Danish oil. I had some oil dyes kicking around from when I made a liquid light show (*) for my band (the old fashioned psychedelic way, back-projecting coloured oil and water between two glass clock faces). I used a mix of red and yellow dyes to make the grain pop a wee bit on the bass. I'm not dealing with flamey maple, just a bit of random figuring here and there. I do want it to have some movement (which it didn't have with the factory finish). As such I thinned down the red dye with mineral spirits, wiped this on, and then sanded back. I then made an amber colour using the same process, wiped it on, and sanded back.

    The Danish Oil itself added a bit of yellow to the mix.

    bz4yKHX.

    The two black screws in the bridge route are so I can flip the bass onto its front without rubbing the finish on my magic beach towel here.

    NHlVKNI.

    The figuring on the body now dances. It looks good on the back of the upper horn, and less good around the treble side of the bridge pickup route.


    * The liquid lightshow stuff was beyond messy to do, but the results were pretty authentic looking:

    tQvlkIt.

    6wB2RLl.

    FNzXtpK.
     
    nixdad, wraub, ICM and 2 others like this.
  20. Axstar

    Axstar

    Jul 8, 2016
    East of Eden.
    To bump my own post... zing!

    LjbvYrp.

    Icby7HC.
     
    nixdad, jallenbass, Engle and 4 others like this.

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