Priorities for Improving an old Plywood Bass

Discussion in 'Setup & Repair [DB]' started by Chris Fitzgerald, Aug 18, 2002.

  1. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    Last night I played an outdoor gig on my "outdoor" bass (for pictures of this monstrosity, please visit this page: ). It did well enough for what it is, but the sound on the G string was pretty choked and I had to pull really hard to get anything out of the upper register at all. The bass is a mess, so perhaps I should just list all the things that are "less than great" about it:

    1) The top has been thrice repaired right by the treble foot of the bridge: the first repair was a graft, the second was a patch underneath the graft, and the third was an even larger and heavier patch under the graft when the first patch broke. This third repair really hurt the sound.

    2) The bridge is uneven because of the warping of the top, so that the treble adjuster is out almost a full inch while the bass adjuster is out only about a half inch. Not good, I know...but it was that way when I got it.

    3) The fingerboard is in decent shape dressingwise, but is rather thin and I was told it was made of "low grade Ebony". I'm sure a denser board would produce a meatier sound.

    I like having an outdoor bass for those miserable hot/humid/cold/dry gigs, but at this point it's such a step down from my carved Czech bass that it's kind of a drag to play on. What should I look into changing first without breaking the bank? I looked into getting the top repaired by a "bass specialist" luthier when the patch split, but the estimate was $1600 minimum, so I took it to a guy who works on stringed instruments for the school system here locally, who put on the current patch for about $400 (including removing and replacing the top).

    Or should I just retire the damn thing and look into getting a new plywood? Any/all on-topic replies welcome, thanks in advance.
  2. Chris,
    Looking at this bass as a luthier, I think you've reached the point where any significant repairs are going to be more than the bass is worth. My vote goes for getting another bass.
  3. ksdaddy


    Jul 5, 2002
    Caribou, ME
    I think it's beautiful. If you see an old red Ford pickup parked by your dumpster, just set this bass in the back and I'll give it a good home.
  4. Jeff Bollbach

    Jeff Bollbach Jeff Bollbach Luthier, Inc.

    Dec 12, 2001
    freeport, ny
    I agree with Our Luthier of Good Regularity -but I will play Devil's advocate for a second. Only cuz it is an American Standard and there is much potential for tone. Sure, a new meaty fingerboard can do wonders for a bass. But your bridge-thats what really has to go. Adjusters cranked out with that differential are gonna have a major impact on the tone IMnotsoHO. A new bridge can be cut to compensate for the diff in the arch so you can start out with a centered bridge and even adjusters. That, with a new board "could" make a quantum level improvement on the tone. That being said, the variable in this equation for me is-can we assess why the disparity in the arching occurred and more importantly-is it stabilized? It wouldn't be prudent to sink a thou or more into this bass if the top is still heading south. So how do you do that? First thing is obvious-is there anything flapping in the breeze? The bassbar, the neck block or end block? If those are solid then you just have to ask how long has it been like this? I can't tell you how many times I heard a guy being told that-"This sinkage is very dangerous-you need a $5000 restoration!" Later I 'd ask him-how long has it been like this. Usually the reply was something like-I bought it like this 35 YEARS AGO. If the arching deformities have not changed in years-they're prolly not going anywhere-in which case you might wanna go ahead with the improvements.
    It is usually a tough decision, Chris. But, for a low teen investment you may have a sweet playing axe. How much will you have to spend to get into another one? Think that one won't have issues?! It's always tough to work out the math of basses.
  5. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    The "disparity of arching" has been there since I've known the bass, and has not changed all that much, even from before the last top repair. The adjusters were like that when I got it (for free!).

    My problem with other plywoods is that I've not seen many that I liked...I did play a great Kay Chubby Jackson 5 string with a high C, but the guy wanted $3500 for it so I passed. For less than that kind of money, I could get one of those nice carved Christopher Basses similar to the one my one of my students just bought. But since I'd like to stay married, I think I'll look into fixing this one up a bit, and I'll definitely start with the bridge. Thanks for the advice.
  6. arnoldschnitzer

    arnoldschnitzer AES Fine Instruments

    Feb 16, 2002
    Brewster, NY, USA
    With due respect to Mr's Bollbach and Branstetter, I'd replace the top. Done it several times, always with good results.
  7. Jeff Bollbach

    Jeff Bollbach Jeff Bollbach Luthier, Inc.

    Dec 12, 2001
    freeport, ny
    At what cost though? Few players with basses like this seem to have trust funds,

    AMJBASS Supporting Member

    Jan 8, 2002
    Ontario, Canada
    Chris, I must say that your bass has a little charm to it! There is something about an old beat(it's not too bad!) bass that just grabs you! I have played a couple of American standards, and I have been impressed with all of them. I would say try a better fingerboard and bridge. That should really make it sound much better. If you are up to it, a new top would probably make it a great bass(especially if you could get a carved top for it). I wouldn't retire that bass.
  9. Mike Goodbar

    Mike Goodbar Supporting Member

    Jun 6, 2001
    Charlotte, NC
    What about refinishing? I've read that this can open up the sound of a ply considerably.

    Of course, Chris, I know that you would be loath to risk damaging the appearance of your bass.
  10. Chris Fitzgerald

    Chris Fitzgerald Student of Life Staff Member Administrator

    Oct 19, 2000
    Louisville, KY
    I considered this when the top patch died the first time. But where would I find a top big enough to fit this hoss, and how much would a repair like this be likely to cost?

    Also, wouldn't that shade of green paint be hard to recreate?
  11. I forgot that Arnold makes the new American Standard basses. I imagine that one of the new tops would fit the old without too much trouble. I replace a lot of old Kay and Englehardt bass tops with new ones from Englehardt since they are available for a reasonable cost. If a ready made top is available for the American Standard, that would certainly change my opinion on this matter.
  12. JazznFunk

    JazznFunk Supporting Member

    Mar 26, 2000
    Asheville, NC
    Lakland Basses Artist
    The first big change I made to my el-cheapo plywood was having a new adjustable bridge cut for it. It made so much of a difference in tone and evened out the volume across the entire spectrum that it sounded like a completely different bass. Now all it needs is a new fingerboard and I'm set. ;-)

    Good luck....