My Les Paul Bass Build - I need a Gibby too...

Discussion in 'Luthier's Corner' started by BassHappy, Dec 9, 2014.

  1. To the good folks of the Talk Bass….


    An up front warning - this intro can easily be considered over-the-top long-winded, and many of you will rightfully condemn it as so. Apologies also, much of this story has appeared in threads here and there - but not ever in the same place. I will eventually bring it full circle, but if you are in a hurry, you may want to skip over the text and go right to the photos, which I am hoping will be quite plentiful in this thread.

    For those of you who have kept up with the Fender Performer Build thread:

    Keith delivered my Fender Performer to Pat Wilkins today to have the finish applied. Since that process will take 4-6 weeks by Pat’s best estimate, I figured it must be time to start thinking about and working on the next build.


    As many of you know, I have been exclusively a medium scale player since 1977. My band “Happy the Man” got signed to Arista in 1976 - after spending considerable time in our rehearsal studio with Peter Gabriel. The Gabriel thing didn’t work out but the Arista deal did and I commissioned Paul Reed Smith to build me a custom bass. At that time, Paul did guitars in batches of 7 or 8 and it took about a year for Paul to complete a batch. My first bass, was the 7th instrument he ever built. When he finished it, he wanted to surprise me by sending the bass to A&M Studios in Hollywood where we were recording with producer Ken Scott.

    Unfortunately, we had just completed all of the basic tracks when the bass arrived, but Ken was excited too – and he let me go ahead and re-dub “Knee Bitten Nymphs in Limbo.” This particular track requires serious strength and extraordinary chops especially to play the lightning fast climbing sections in the chorus - which starts all the way down on the first fret and hovers crazy fast down there for a while. I wrote the parts just beyond my technical grasp so I could work up to them, but it’s one of those sections that flies by so quickly, up to that point it had always been a bit of a hit and miss thing. Well, with the PRS I banged out the whole tune top to bottom in one glorious take. Suddenly, parts I was struggling with became simple and second nature. This is my experience, this is my truth and it was a powerful wake up call for my playing.

    As it turns out the bass he built me was a medium scale bass with a 32.5” scale neck. I didn’t realize at the time that the neck was slightly shorter and I am not sure Paul did either. He was crafting a bass that was comfortable for him all alone in his tiny shop at 33 West Street. Eventually, PRS #7 needed some repairs and Paul loaned me #11, which was basically a twin. When #7 proved not to be repairable, I refused to give him back #11. I had fallen head over heels in love with it and played it exclusively until 1999. I didn’t own any other basses and had no reason to. At that time, upon the advice of my guitar player, I had the bass appraised and nearly fell off my chair.


    In 1999 Happy the Man was scheduled to headline NEARFest and starting the process of signing a new deal with InsideOut Music Germany, who at the time had the solo records for several of the guys from Genesis, Yes and Kansas. I soon realized the bass would NOT be leaving the house, it was simply too valuable. This launched me on a search for the best medium scale bass I could find or build to replace PRS #11. Although I have been overwhelmingly successful on many levels - as I count 16 other basses - my fear is that I will never be able to equal the sound, playability, charm and magnetism of that bass. That fact does not, however, prevent me from trying.

    Admittedly, there have been a number of other instruments along the way that I craved. Once I found the perfect size, I resented the major manufacturers for never making a version of their most coveted instruments in my scale. Sure, I can play shorts and longs probably about as well as anybody, but the truth is - I can smoke my own butt BIG TIME on a medium and my musical situation with Happy the Man called for extraordinary ability. I needed every extra edge I could find to keep up with a band full of virtuoso players. I still can’t believe how much my playing improves when the instrument fits me perfectly.


    Now that the medium scale Performer is on the way, I have nine medium scale Fenders, a few off the rack new, a few off the rack used, and several I designed and had built for me to my specs because they didn’t otherwise exist. I wanted to build another bass that has always caught my eye and triggered my fascination – A Les Paul bass in medium scale.


    Although I wouldn’t really consider myself to be a huge Gibson fan, I admire their basses - and I cut my teeth on a Kalamazoo and a Gibson EB-0 shortie. In honor of my formative years of playing, I wanted to build a medium scale Gibson and I have always wanted a Les Paul bass I could actually play with my total skill set. I don’t consider myself much of a Gibson historian and I am hoping that some of the good souls on TB will chime in when the urge strikes them, and fill us all in on details which will appear sketchy if left to me. I started a thread here a while back and asked the question if Gibson ever made a medium scale bass. Here is the only response I ever got to the thread:

    "I believe the 80's Explorers were medium scale. Same for the late 70's early 80's Flying V"

    So there you have it. Only one response - not a definitive anything, just an "I believe".


    A few years ago, I did a lot of research and I was hoping that the Gibson Custom shop would build me a Les Paul bass in medium scale. I contacted my good friends at Sweetwater, but I couldn’t believe my ears until I called Gibson myself. They don’t have a “Custom Shop” at least not in the same way that Fender does. It was then that I realized – if I wanted a Les Paul bass, I would have to design it the way I wanted and have it built for me. I like the idea, because I can eliminate the features I don’t like and run with the ones that I do. I can make it my dream Les Paul bass, finally, one that fits me.

    Here is the Wikipedia, which seems shockingly sketchy to me:


    “The Gibson Les Paul bass is a bass guitar first manufactured by Gibson in 1969, just after the relaunch of the Les Paul guitar in 1968.


    The first model, simply called "Les Paul Bass", had a few interesting features, most notably low impedance circuitry, especially designed for recording in the studio. It had a Honduras mahogany body with a three-piece mahogany set neck with 24 frets, and a 30 1/2" scale. Besides volume and tone control it had a number of tone-shaping switches (passive circuitry) and two oval humbuckers.[1]

    The original Les Paul Bass turned out to be a flop, and in 1971 the model was redesigned and renamed name Les Paul Triumph.This model had built-in switching to change from low to high impedance, but was, in essence, much the same, using the same woods and construction.

    A hollow body version was created in 1973, named the Les Paul Signature bass. This was a long scale bass (34½") with double cutaways. Very different from the preceding models, but still bearing the Les Paul name.

    All Les Paul Bass models were once discontinued in 1979.

    In recent times Gibson has concentrated on its classic designs, and in the early 1990s decided to give the Les Paul bass another chance. Offerings included flattop versions (Deluxe and Special) and a carved-top Standard model. Les Paul basses were available in 4 or 5-string models. The first 1990s version of the Standard model featured Bartolini electronics and pickups. This version is recognizable because there is no pickup selector switch.

    The most recent incarnation of the Les Paul Standard bass, introduced in 1997, featured a chambered body which reduced the weight. This Standard model also featured a carved maple top and saw a switch to passive electronics with TB Plus pickups, which are very high output humbuckers with ceramic magnets. This version features a three-way pickup selector switch. The Les Paul Standard bass was discontinued in 2006.

    In 2011, the Gibson Les Paul Bass Oversized was released. The difference between the Les Paul Standard Bass is that it has a stoptail and tune-o-matic bridge.”


    So the evolution of this – my Les Paul bass build - is this. I had been looking through a website from the Far East and this bass caught my eye:

    Screen shot 2014-11-30 at 11.37.03 AM.png
    There was only one picture, but for whatever reason this instrument and the price got my attention. Of course, this was a big pipe dream, as I would be willing to bet this is a long scaler. After gawking at the bass pictured above, I started thinking about buying a Les Paul guitar kit and having Keith and Bruce make the neck for me.

    Screen shot 2014-11-30 at 11.31.21 AM.png

    When Paul made my PRS, he was using his exact guitar body shape and carving the top a little more heavily and making the body a little thicker. But, for the most part it was a bass with a guitar body. I loved it and I wasn’t alone. There was Garry Tallent from Springsteen, there was Stan Sheldon who played with Frampton and there were a few other incredible bassists such as Peter Princiotto from However and Tony Bunn, and a couple of others - who all fell in love with Paul’s original medium scale bass designs.

    That is one of the things I am so enamored with on PRS #11. It's also one of the things that Jens Ritter and I go back and forth on. When we had dinner this summer in NYC, Jens asked me to bring the PRS along. He held it in his hands and just looked at it for a few minutes, and asked me about some of the detail. One of the things he admired was how Paul had cut thin slats off of each side of the Brazilian rosewood fingerboard, mounted the frets, and then glued those pieces back in - making a "natural" binding. It makes it so you can't see the "T" on the frets. It's amazing to see how that workmanship has held up after 36 years. After discussing the fine points he asked if I would let him take some photos of it and he whipped out his phone and took a few.

    This is a big part of why I decided that I would like to make a Les Paul bass with a medium scale neck – using a guitar body. If it is good enough for PRS #11 it's simply a good idea for me. A Les Paul guitar – although it has varied some from year to year – is approximately 13” X 17.25”. My viola bass is almost exactly the same size and I find it to be uber comfortable. The medium scale neck and ultra light tuners should also guard against severe neck dive. Like most basses, the Les Paul bass has some serious fans on here – but I would say the vast majority of TB’ers seem to have a strong dislike for them. The biggest issues seem to be - overall weight, neck dive and less than stellar sound.

    I realized this was a huge compromise, but I also saw how cheap the kit was and I realized this approach could make it an affordable build. So, I opened up a dialog with Keith who has done a pretty incredible job on my Fender "Transformer" in medium scale. I had also been talking to our good TB friend JIO who specializes in a pretty incredible “gilding” process - which I have really been attracted to. I thought, if I got a guitar body kit, and had Keith fill the bridge holes, and pickup routs - JIO can gild the top and no one will ever know the difference. You won’t even see the butchery once the top is gilded. So, I started exploring the idea.

    Here are some samples of JIO's incredible gilding work:


    But what really caught my eye at first, because it slightly resembled the Les Paul bass I was looking at from the Far East was this:

    Screen shot 2014-11-30 at 8.03.13 AM.png

    As I spent more and more time on his website looking around at all the gilding options, I changed my thinking. I have admired the PRS turquoise basses a lot:


    and when I saw this on the gildaxe site I thought I had struck gold:


    I then decided to do a quick mock up in Photoshop and see what it might look like:


    I liked it but realized – what if it looked more like a turquoise stone? My wife Leah, is also an amazing keyboardist and composer and we are currently working on her new CD. We have a little story I won’t bore you with about our wedding rings years ago that involves turquoise stones. I thought in her honor, it could be cool to make a top that looked like stone. She is a fabulous woman and adores my bass collection.

    Last edited: Dec 13, 2014
  2. devinp17


    Jun 26, 2014
    Ontario, Canada
    Awesome! Sub'd!

    I sent a bunch of stones to JIO and he thought he could come closest to duplicating this one:


    So I mocked it up to get a look at it:


    Around this same time, I started talking to Keith about the project as well. Much to my delight and amazement, the Les Paul guitar was Keith’s favorite instrument and he was more than an expert and extremely knowledgeable about everything Les Paul. Keith was willing to bend over backwards price-wise in order to do this project, it was an exciting project to him. He really wanted to build the body, rather than use a knock off from the Far East. He was quick to remind me that moving the bridge back on a Les Paul guitar body wouldn't work. The carve behind the bridge on the guitar body is just too steep. I was thrilled, he wanted to work on this - and we decided that there would not be a need for a maple top if we were just going to cover it up with JIO’s fine gilding work.

    So I started researching Les Paul guitars through the ages and studying the subtleties and looking at some of the wonderful wooden tops. I got a little depressed thinking about how a killer maple top - I mean a killer maple top - can cost a gazillion dollars, but would ultimately be the way to go for me.

    As many of you know, I am a wood guy - and I will ALWAYS choose the beauty of nature above body shop paint. It's the way I am wired. Sometimes the wood is dreary and beyond "not special" and enters the fugly category. That is really the only time I would ever get out the paint gun on a custom build.

    Screen shot 2014-12-07 at 9.44.19 PM.png

    So, in a moment of brilliance and as I said desperation, I sent an email off to Paul at PRS. I asked him if he had a maple top he would donate so I could use it for a Les Paul bass I was planning. I told him it could be flamed, quilted, fiddleback or even an oddball piece of curly maple he had lying around. I told him I wasn’t picky, it would be his choice but that it was for a Les Paul guitar body. Paul has always had a soft spot in his heart for Gibson stuff, and the original PRS body shape is essentially a slightly modified and heavily carved version of a Les Paul Junior body shape. I was elated when the email came back and he said he would be happy to send me a top. He asked for the dimensions and I got an email yesterday from his associate Sharon, telling me that the top had left the dock and was on the way to me in New York. Surprise of all surprises the package arrived today, and here is the top that Paul so generously donated to this project - merry christmas to me for certain:

    PRS Wood.jpg

    PRS Wood2.jpg

    I am not sure the photos do it justice. Curly Maple is also known as Fiddleback Maple, Flame Maple, Tiger Maple, and Tiger stripe Maple. In the US, most use the term Fiddleback Maple and Curly Maple interchangeably. The true difference is that Fiddleback Maple has more wavy lines per inch than the Curly Maple. These waves turn from dark to light and take sharp turns which cause a natural distortion to the eye. It makes the wood look alive when it is moved or viewed at a slightly different angle - because of the differential light reflection or refraction that is caused by the stripes - it causes a natural illusion to the eye. I would call this fiddleback for sure.

    I let our friend JIO know about the change of plans, and he was more than an outstanding gentleman about the whole thing. I am sure we will do some joyous "gilding" on another project together someday soon. There is a lot of bad wood out there that can definitely use some covering up!

    I was originally thinking of BourbonBurst, something like this:


    But I have to admit, after seeing the maple Paul hand picked and sent me, I am thinking more along the lines of this violin amber for the finish:


    For those who may not know, Paul had been trying to get back #11 from me in a friendly sort of way since the day he loaned it to me in 1978. It was one of his favorite builds of all time. I personally think that #11 was the precursor to all the fabulous wood and crazy exhibition grade tops Paul eventually was known for. Paul found a pretty incredible slab of mahogany, and if you look at his early work, #11 was the first highly figured instrument he had built. All the others, including #7 were pretty plain.

    Well, thanks to dedpool here on TB, one of the early PRS pre factory basses found it’s way back to him. The story is here, simply scroll down to the fretless pre-factory lefty PRS bass photo and you can read the whole story.

    It’s a good one, and to me explains why Paul was so ready to send me such a nice top.

    Much more to follow....
    Last edited: Dec 29, 2014
    Heavy Blue and BeeTL like this.
  4. devinp17


    Jun 26, 2014
    Ontario, Canada
    Ooooooo! That turquoise is really nice! I love how you're doing it in your wife's honer... that's so nice of you!
    You're giving me ideas for when I get married ;)
  5. Getting Started...

    One of the reasons we abandoned the pre made body concept - in addition to the fact that it is just plain wrong - is that Keith is going to be careful and creative about how he carves the top. A standard Les Paul bass bridge moved back a ways on the guitar body will cause problems. The carve is too steep. He is going to have to make the body carve slightly less dramatic in order to make the top work properly with the bass bridge. I think of it as a Les Paul body with a Les Paul bass body carve.

    So, as defined above, my goal is to attack and solve the three main issues: weight, neck dive and the sound of the bass. Keith's idea is to use Equatorial Mahogany for the body and the neck because it is very light. Here is what Keith mentioned to me:

    "Speaking of my ghetto bird I made it out of Equatorial Mahogany. It's super lightweight and sounds just as good if not better than some old growth Honduras mahogany I've heard. It's more pink than orange like Honduras but once it has a finish on it you can't tell the difference. I'm a Les Paul guy. Love em. My guitar of choice. I have 6 of them 3 Gibsons and 3 I made so I have all the templates and I'm pretty well jigged up to make them."

    So here is what I am shooting for from the backside:

    Screen shot 2014-12-10 at 7.20.40 AM.png

    Even though most of the high end Les Pauls these days seem to be stained cherry:

    Screen shot 2014-12-10 at 7.23.28 AM.png

    I just feel like if I go with the Violin Amber finish, with a darker smoked burst, the natural wood will accentuate it better.

    So my other area of concern was keeping the guitar as authentic as possible. I know Gibson is pretty crazy with pushing the lawsuit button, but the reality is no one in their right mind would ever mistake this bass with a guitar body as being an actual "Gibson". It's a one off design built exclusively for me, and not for re-sale. Again, I am sure this is controversial for some, but the headstock overlay is on the way:


    These were actually made by Gibson as a 1959 Les Paul replica. They had a batch of leftovers and apparently they sold them to a company overseas. With the medium scale neck the headstock can be guitar size without causing any problems. Keith requested that I buy the pearloid blocks for the fretboard, so these are on the way:

    MOP Per Keith.png

    And I also purchased two chrome pickup covers: Screen shot 2014-12-10 at 7.30.36 AM.png

    I am going with cream pickup rings and will grab a set from Sweetwater:

    Screen shot 2014-12-10 at 7.33.54 AM.png

    Screen shot 2014-12-10 at 7.34.15 AM.png
    As far as the tuners go, I really need to stay with the Hipshot Ultra Lites in 3/8" to help with the neck dive. I see them all over the place, but they are expensive for the US versions so I want to wait and see if a deal pops up somewhere on them. I don't love the idea that they say Hipshot on them, if anyone knows of any new comparable ultra lights with a Gibson logo, let me know. Or even plain. Don't want to be a barker for a tuner brand:

    Screen shot 2014-12-10 at 7.55.25 AM.png

    I find that if you hang out a while and keep your eyes open, you can usually find a way to save a few bucks on the tuners. I want the US ones, because they are swappable from Bass to Treble side with an allen wrench, and the import licensed ones are not. I have also ordered the bridge, which should be here today.

    LP Bass Bridge.png Chrome Stop Tail.png
    Last edited: Dec 13, 2014
  6. Body Enhancements

    Happily Pat can do the natural binding on this bass for me as no big deal, so I will do something like this:

    Screen shot 2014-12-07 at 10.30.54 PM.png

    Actually in the end it could be more like this, not sure if I want to vintage amber tint the binding?


    I am also having Keith use the same or very similar maple for the binding on the sides of the fretboard. I mean, why use cheap plastic when you can have the elegance of wood? I am also exploring the idea of using scraps from the body wood, if possible, to make the two rear cavity covers, the truss rod cover and the jack plate. If not, maybe I can find some nice ones pre-made in fiddleback that match the top and binding well enough to use. Otherwise, I guess it is cheap cream or black plastic.

    So these are the initial thoughts. Chime in with comments and ideas if you see fit! The biggest challenge - the pickups are coming up next!
    Last edited: Dec 13, 2014
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  7. RedHotFuzz


    Mar 16, 2014
    Mmm, looks like another delicious dish is in the works. I enjoy living vicariously through your builds, BassHappy. I regret that I have become a fellow medium scale devotee, as it certainly seems the hardest scale to find.
    BassHappy likes this.
  8. It can be a nasty and thankless job, but someone has to populate the landscape with medium scalers!
    Last edited: Dec 10, 2014
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  9. RedHotFuzz


    Mar 16, 2014
    The other dilemma is in the rare instance a great medium scale will pop up for sale, you'll probably find it first! :D
    BassHappy likes this.
  10. Did you consider a hipshot D type or Warwick for the bridge?
  11. Howdy Sturm

    No, I didn't. We have been experimenting with deep cut aluminum body anchors and I think we are going to try it here. I really wanted to stay with the classic look of the Les Paul Gibson bass bridge.
  12. hdracer


    Feb 15, 2009
    Elk River, MN.
    What is the string spacing on that bridge?
  13. You better make two of these, one as a backup. You'll find my fee for storing your backup quite reasonable, throw in some lessons and I may even store it for free!
    BassHappy likes this.
  14. Will measure it when it arrives and let you know.
  15. Sorry, Paul only gave me one top.

    One Thumb.jpeg
    Heavy Blue likes this.
  16. Most gibson guitars and basses I have owned had grover not gibson written on the tuners, including my current gibson les paul standard from 2012. Rickenbacker gets hipshot to write rickenbacker on the tuners they order and since I have heard hipshot doing one off's for people maybe you can get blank ones but the price would be high.

    I will be watching this build.
    hdracer likes this.
  17. hdracer


    Feb 15, 2009
    Elk River, MN.
    And the stud spread too. I have a project in mind myself and have been having a tough time finding the right bridge.
  18. Thanks A-Step

    Appreciate you following along.

    I really liked the Gotoh tuners which I thought were plain and had no markings on them. Turns out if you zoom in they DID have markings on them.

    Gotoh_Compact_Bass_Tuner 2L_2R_Set.jpg

    But they were like 64 grams each while the Hipshot UltraLights were 44 grams each. The Reso-Light Gotohs were even slightly lighter than the Hipshots but I didn't like the way the Y keys were "bobbed". The also have Gotoh written on the back of them larger then the others.

    Screen shot 2014-12-10 at 9.47.44 PM.png

    Big difference, in weight - so I will now apparently be a barker for Hipshot tuners as I ordered a set and YES, they have Hipshot on them big as life.


    These are the tuners I liked. I was hoping to find some brand new replicas like these from 1969, I was even hoping that Gotoh might have just used a "G" on the tuners like these.


    . Screen shot 2014-12-10 at 9.42.14 PM.png

    Neither was true so I called Oscar @ Hipshot and decided to go with the 3/8" UltraLights.
    Last edited: Dec 11, 2014
    A-Step-Towards likes this.
  19. Pickups...

    I really want to stay passive with these pickups and I certainly wouldn't mind going with the Gibson TB+ humbuckers, if I could find a set for a reasonable price. I saw where Gibson at one point seem to be selling a version of the Les Paul/Thunderbird TB+ pickups to the public, but I can't find any evidence that they still do.

    I have to admit everything I am hearing about the modern replacement options for the Les Paul and Thunderbird basses have had very mixed reviews. The only ones I have seriously looked at are the Bartolini's:


    And the EMG'S:

    EMG pickups.png

    I am hoping that you can pop the covers off of either of these and mount the pickups into the chrome metal covers. If I get serious about either of these, I will inquire about that before I purchase.

    I am anxious to try out the Fender Performer pickups that Bruce Johnson is designing and building for me, but that will take another month. I am thinking that i will have ample time to try these out and if I like them, Keith and I MAY be able to twist Bruce's arm into building a couple of special pickups for this bass. I sure would like to have a chance to live with the Performer first though, before I decide.
    Last edited: Dec 10, 2014
  20. hdracer


    Feb 15, 2009
    Elk River, MN.
    Check with Curtis Novak. He makes some great pups. His Goldfoils are amazing and would look nice in a LP. Check out his Facebook page and web site