The Birth of Aradia (part IV)

Welcome back. Where I left you with part III, Aradia had been taken to meet my parents, and my father had drilled some holes in her neck. With three of the four neck joint screws successfully in place – and one very nearly there – I was about to take a chisel to her pickup cavity…

Soundtrack: Thelonious Monk Quartet – Monk’s Dream
One of the advantages of cobbling together a bass from mahogany is that it’s an absolute delight to work.
It’s dense but relatively soft, and so my chisels were able to cut the wood without too much effort. Unfortunately, this means it’s also relatively easy to scratch or dent, and in my woeful incompetence I did end up taking a small chunk out of the edge of the pickup cavity. Hopefully this will sand down until it can just be dismissed as “character.”

Once I had deepened the cavity by around 5mm, I decided to pop the pickup cover into the cavity and see where it sat relative to the strings. Using a knackered old set of Rotosounds taken from another bass, I wound them up to tension and had a play. It looked as though I’d managed to get just enough relief on the pickup, so the strings weren’t knocking against it when I played in the upper register. The bass was quite nice to play, although the intonation definitely needed some attention.

As I mentioned in part I, I had been coming to the conclusion that this beautiful mahogany body had been intended for a short-scale bass. And here I was mangling a long-scale neck onto it. I wasn’t at all surprised that I had to put the bridge right at the end of the body to get the 34″ scale length. Without adjustment, the strings were sounding about a quarter-tone sharp at the 12-fret. Grabbing a screwdriver and dragging the bridge saddles back, it was a source of immeasurable relief that I was able to sort out the intonation.

Soundtrack: Ian Siegal – Broadside
Reluctantly, I put Aradia down and removed her strings. Having carved up her pickup cavity with those chisels, it was about time I tidied up the mess. A smaller chisel was fine for tidying up some of the edges, and for the first time in years I dug out a small craft drill to sand down the surfaces. This did the job just nicely, and filled the room with a fine spray of sawdust, which is probably still clogging up my lungs as I write. I certainly knew about it when I made the daft error of blowing the dust out of the cavity and getting a lump in my eye.

Time to properly install the pickup. This was a moment for some genuine excitement, as I was about to get an answer to the original question: what will a mahogany-bodied bass sound like with a bolted neck joint? I screwed the pickup into the cavity, fed the wires through to the control cavity (on the rear face) and got the rest of my components, along with the wiring diag…oh, bugger.

Cue panic. As I may have mentioned earlier on, in between buying all the parts to build Aradia and actually getting round to putting her together, I moved house. I could picture myself packing up the parts and the wiring diagrams and thinking I’ll put these somewhere sensible, somewhere safe, so I can find them easily.

After a bit of fruitless searching, it occurred to me that the alternative would have been to take the cover off Brenda, my single-pickup Precision copy, and wire Aradia in the same way, but that would have meant undoing quite a lot of screws. Better, I thought, to keep looking.

Fortunately, it turned out I’d simply put them in a not-very-sensible, not-very-safe place where I could not easily find them. Breathing a sigh of relief, it was time to break for a cup of tea.
Tea-break soundtrack: Santana – Santana I

Soundtrack, post tea-break: Pete Townshend – Empty Glass
The other things I’d been unable to find were the lengths of wire that had come with the electronics I’d bought. I’d bought these to put some better-quality pots into Brenda, and I kept the old pots behind to use in Aradia, at least to begin with. But the generous lengths of wire that came with the new pots were nowhere to be seen – I certainly couldn’t have used that much of them when I was re-fitting Brenda. After another fruitless search, I decided to cut my losses and cut a few lengths from an old piece of strapping wire.

It turns out that the wiring on a single-pickup bass, whilst not especially complicated, is an absolute sod to put together when your pots are in a tiny control cavity. Perhaps I should have wired them outside the cavity and screwed them in once they were connected, but I wanted to know how far apart they’d be, and how they’d be oriented relative to each other. So back into the cavity it was. Maybe I just need to invest in a smaller soldering iron.

Soundtrack: Joanne Shaw Taylor – White Sugar
Once everything was soldered into place (at least as far as I could tell), I was getting very excited. Far too excited, perhaps, as I fished out an old set of Rotosounds and wound them onto the tuning pegs. Fine, they weren’t quite in tune. Fine, the strings were still knocking against the pickup (I’d have to lower that a bit more). Fine, the intonation was…actually, the intonation was bloody awful, as I mentioned above. (Glad I was able to fix that.) But the moment had finally come. I plugged Aradia into my amp. I paused Ms Shaw Taylor (possibly even mid-solo, I was too excited to remember), turned up the volume on the amp…

…and heard nothing.

Not so much as a crackle. A small part of my brain knew this would happen, and was trying to tell the rest of my brain not to get so excited, but I was rather crestfallen nonetheless. I couldn’t see any loose wiring. Was the pickup faulty? Could it be that the copper strapping wire I’d used was not suitable for the job? (No, really: despite knowing damn well that copper is used because of its good conductive properties, I began to question even this.)

For peace of mind, I decided to bypass the tone and volume controls, and wired the pickup straight to the output socket. I plugged in and found my problem was temporarily solved. And I think the experiment may have even been successful. Aradia sounded good. The same sort of strong, growling mid-rich tone that I had come to expect from Brenda, but with darker, warmer overtones. It’s too early to say whether Aradia produces the tone I’m looking for – that can take weeks of playing to really establish, as you discover the nuances of the instrument – but for now, I have been reassured and encouraged.

I wired the pots back into place, and of course she stopped working again. Frustratedly, I poked at the wires inside the cavity, listening for the tell-tale crackle that would indicate how much was connected to the amp (NB: this is not good for your amp, and I would not encourage you to try it yourselves). And eventually – of course – I found a slightly loose connection. Pinching it back into place, I tried the strings again, and found I had a complete circuit. I played around a bit more, testing Aradia’s response to adjustments of volume and tone. Then I tweaked the tone control a little more and the connection went. But at least she had worked. It wasn’t the wire, it wasn’t the pickup, and it wasn’t my inability to read a wiring diagram. It was…erm…just my shoddy soldering. But I’ll do it better next time, I promise.

Speaking of next time, I’ve got a control cavity to make deeper, but otherwise it’s time to start the finish. Part V will hopefully contain a run-down of the French Polishing process that will (again, hopefully) make Aradia look even more beautiful than she does already. At the time of finishing this post, I’d already made a start on the finish. I expect it will take me a couple more weeks to finish the finish, but when I’ve finished, I look forward to showing the finished product, complete with finish. Possibly even in Finnish. (Unlikely.)

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