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Reader Rick correctly pointed out in comments the other day that Scott French’s TM-featured workspace seems oriented entirely toward working with electric guitars. And that reminded me of my first (and only) attempt an such work: my first bass.

I played the trumpet in high school and college, but stopped for a while when my favorite instrument (a Bach 25th anniversary Stradivarius) was stolen at a gig. For years I had a Steinberger (think oar) knockoff laying around my apartment, but after a few beers one night I traded it to a friend for a chromatic harmonica. (Doh.) So later when I wanted to pick up the electric bass to help out some friends in a band whose bassist had quit, I tried to reverse the trade.

No luck, of course. But in a fit of feeling sorry for my poor drunken trade skills, the fake Steinberger’s new owner gave me the bass you see pictured above. It was a total POS when he came by it at a pawn shop, and it remained a POS even after he’d refinished it badly about four or five times. What you see here was his last effort involving a lot of power-sanding, some stain, and poly.

I still remember my first “gig” playing it. I was pretty sure it was in tune when I started, but over the whole 30-minute show it just got flatter and flatter. I thought I must be doing something wrong, but it turns out the neck was loose. Having no cash, I made my first “mod:” a seriously-overkill neck re-mount.

A few months later it started crackling and popping randomly during rehearsals and performances. I took it apart and discovered that the wiring had suffered more than a little during the previous owner’s refinishing attempts, and the pots were really, really dirty. I tried cleaning them, but they still made tons of noise. So I headed down to Radio Shack, bought about $10 worth of parts, and re-wired it, adding additional shielding pieced together from left over material a friend bought to mod his guitar. You can still see the cheap-ass pots.

Then the real trouble started. I’d begun taking lessons, which led to the desire/need to play above the 12th fret. Sadly, the neck was so bowed that it I could choose either above or below the 12th, but not both. Attempts to adjust it made no difference, so finally I pulled the neck and the fretboard to discover that the adjuster rod had dug into the soft neck wood.

I figured I could fix it by routing out a slot near the bottom of the neck and creating a hard walnut insert. (There was some walnut scrap lying around my dad’s shop at the time.) All went swimmingly — even re-attaching the fretboard — until I put the first turn on the adjuster rod. CRACK! The neck split in two.

At this point it was pretty much a loss. My dad loaned me some cash and I bought a Mexican Fender J-bass, which I played for a number of years until I graduated to a Modulus. One thing’s certain: lessons were a hell of a lot easier when the neck was adjusted properly.

And hey — at least I had some clue what was inside of a bass. And how to adjust it. I guess what I’m getting at is that even though this is totally a story of epic fail — the bass is now completely useless — I did manage to eke out another year of play from it, and I learned a lot about how to care for my future instruments.

Lesson: there’s something to be said from making an effort to reclaim property instead of just discarding it for something new, even if your efforts eventually end in failure.


15 Responses to My First Bass: A Story Of Epic DIY Fail

  1. A.Crush says:

    Agreed. Most of the time, it’s working on the junk that’s badly in need of repair that teaches you how to work on stuff, so when you have something brand new, you now have the skills to work on it, and hopefully appreciate it more. Using cheap tools to work on cheap stuff is a great way to start out, and lets you practice and mess up, hopefully without much expense. I doubt too many people started out working on top end stuff, whether it’s bass guitars or a blown hot rod.

  2. Will says:

    I disagree: I see absolutely no fail in this story.

  3. Brau says:

    Been there, done that.

    I had a hand-me-down Japanese “Zen-On” Mustang styled guitar. The body was made of plywood, would detune regularly, and the neck was warped beyond repair making octaves a half-tone out. Egad! I ripped the neck off a wrecked gibson hollow-body, replaced the pick-ups and pots, and within two weeks the neck pocket sheared right off. Into the trash it went (wish I had saved it now!!).

    Since then I’ve learned to start with a known good instrument and rebuild from there. Also, what makes a piece of wood *look* nice (IE: Birdseye) doesn’t actually have a whit to do with how it sounds. Some of the best guitarist play some of the ugliest guitars, so don’t let pretty wood fool you. How it plays means way more than how much it cost or how it looks.

    I like to rebuild “cheap” guitars. There are some decent gems that can be found new today for as little as $100 from Squire, Jay Turser, Epiphone,etc. If you spend some time to find a good one, it’s worth upgrading the pick-ups, doing a bit of fretwork, or adding a really cool paint job. A few hundred can make you a guitar that plays just as good as the top custom shop offerings. I’m working on remaking one right now. I hope to post some pics soon when it’s done.

  4. IronHerder says:

    As usual, the Toolmonger commenters add wonderful insights.

    @A.Crush, @Will & @Brau connect this topic to the previous post “How do people learn about tools?” by pointing out that this is an example of “How people learn to fix things.”

    @Will is dead on, there is no failure here. The lessons are obviously applicable to guitar repair & guitar playing. But more importantly, the experience can & will be applied to all future projects, For example, confidence is required to tackle any repair. Mr. Cage obviously used this “failure” as a starting point for future work, not as an omen foretelling a life of DIY disappointments.


  5. mike foley says:

    Absolutely loved this story.

  6. Mac says:

    Will & Ironherder are right, there is no fail here… To paraphrase Edison, You just discovered a bunch of ways that didn’t work. [I pretty nearly live by this. 🙂 ]

    Great story.

  7. jeff_williams says:

    Ironherder summed up my thoughts better than my brain. It’s the confidence and knowledge gained in the fail that were the real payoff. That’s how I learned a great many things. Test and hone skills on the small things where failing doesn’t matter so I can succeed on the bigger projects later.

  8. Dave says:

    When drums stop, very bad.

  9. IronHerder says:

    @Dave, this is the only punchline I know for that setup: “because the saxophone solo is next.” Or am I ignorant of a better one?


  10. Dave says:

    “Bass solo.”

  11. 99octane says:

    Seems to me it was a great success. You still used the guitar, and meanwhile learned what to do (and not to do) on it.

  12. pirana says:

    This story reminds me of my first electric guitar which was a Univox & a POS as well. That was around 40 years ago & I knew nothing about repair as a young teen nor could I afford to pay to have it fixed. Knowing what I know now I wish I still had it because I did kinda dug the body shape & could probably make it a decent player today. Like Brau says above, some of the cheap guitars today are actually ok, or can be made decent fairly easily. A few years ago I was in the local music store & picked up a Squier 51 & couldn’t believe how well it played for a $120 guitar so I bought it. Of course, suffering from severe GAS like I do it’s been …ah, tinkered with a bit.

  13. Jose Romero says:

    Awesome story, I’m currently playing a Lakland and Travis Bean and still tinker with my amps and an old Rickenbacher. Bass strings make good sink snakes too. Bend the end of an E string and place in your cordless drill(start slow). Hair, rubber bands, and good stuff will grab on and come right out of your glogged sink.
    Save your old strings they come in handy for different things!

  14. dominic says:

    WHat the brand of your bass, because I have the same ?

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