While I derive considerable satisfaction from completing and delivering instruments to my clients, there is nothing so satisfying as developing a new instrument from scratch. To date, this website has focused exclusively on mountain dulcimers, but in the past, I have designed and build all kinds of instruments including percussion, strings and woodwinds. Most recently, I was looking into micro bass guitars (23” scale) in the hope of building an instrument for my good friend, who plays a conventional bass. In order to learn more about the current micro basses, I scoured the web and purchased a Kala solid body California U-bass. In recent years, string manufacturers have made both round wound and flat wound metal strings available as an alternative to the fat elastomer strings originally offered on these instruments. While the metal strings did offer some new tonal options, they did not reach their full potential because the instruments lacked appropriate intonation adjustment and were limited to piezo pickups. The piezo pickups were the only option when the strings were non-magnetic but didn’t due justice to the metal wound strings. Additionally, the Kala U-bass had a headstock design that required string retainers that made tuning a nightmare.
Having observed these issues I concluded that a fresh approach could bring out the full potential of these otherwise conveniently portable and fun instruments. What you see in the photos is a proof of concept prototype that has just been completed. From what I can tell (I don’t play bass) I am on the right track. The tuning is a breeze owing to the conventional 15 degree headstock angle that eliminates the need for string retainers. The bridge makes the large intonation adjustments required of these strings very easy to accomplish. It also allows for changes to the action height on a sting-by-string basis.
The bass has two magnetic pickups and one piezo pickup. In order to make the most of this setup, there is an onboard active mixer which yields almost endless combinations and variations. You can select piezo, magnetic or both. You can blend the two magnetic pickups from full neck humbucker to full bridge single coil and anywhere in between. The magnetic pickups have a volume and a tone control as does the piezo pickup. In short, there is no lack of control over the tone. Because of the small size of the instrument, the volume and tone controls were stacked.
The fretboard has a 10” radius with a width at the nut of a standard P bass. The string spacing at the bridge is 19mm (3/4"). I chose the 23” scale over a shorter 20.5” now used on the Kala solid body U-basses because reviews indicated that 23” was easier for conventional bass players to transition to. The tuners are Hipshot Ultralights with 1/2" posts that are much easier on the fragile flat wound strings. The extra large posts can also be modified to accommodate the fat elastomeric strings if desired. The string path is virtually a straight line from bridge to tuner post, again to be gentile on the strings and make tuning as easy as possible. The neck has a two-way adjustable truss rod. The prototype is made with a sapele body and neck and a quarter sawn sycamore overlay. Not the traditional swamp ash, but I rarely follow tradition.
I am most anxious to get the instrument into the hands of my bass playing friends and hear exactly what it can do. Much was learned in the building of the prototype and I already have some pretty wild ideas for enhancements in the future. Stay tuned for more developments!