BASS MODS: WHEN, WHERE, AND WHY? BY HEIKO HOEPFINGER
Low-enders! Welcome to the Bass Bench, my new column about all things bass—
from its fundamental frequencies to its
fundamental musical mission. We’ll explore
modding and also seek to understand your
instrument and its main parts. We’ll cover
basic maintenance and setup, and even ways
to stay cool when your bass malfunctions in
the most inappropriate moment.
Here at PG, there’s been a long tradition
of offering modding and maintenance ideas
for guitarists, but let’s face it, basses and
bassists have different needs. While our colleagues are struggling with another attempt
to rewire a 5-way switch and test out yet
another vintage capacitor, we low-enders
have already swapped in our fifth 36-volt,
fully parametric 4-band EQ.
Basses have real strings too—not just those
tiny .010" wires that are just a few times as
thick as a human hair! Our mainly non-tube
bass amps are burlier than guitar amps, as are
our cabs. In short: Bass players embrace cutting-edge technology and care about big, tough rigs.
Though we might start by simply adding
a new pickguard, our bass mods can include
swapping electronics and pickups, replacing
bridges and necks, and even attempting some
Jaco-inspired fretless conversions. Whatever
the mod, I like to categorize it as one of four
types: visual, functional, ergonomic, or tonal.
Categorizing a mod helps us focus on the
desired outcome, but these categories can be
less distinct than you might initially think.
For example, applying a new fin-
ish (which would come under the visual
category) will often alter tone. Adding an
ergonomic thumb rest might hurt func-
tionality for slap-style playing. Balancing an
instrument makes it more ergonomic, and
that introduces a relaxed functionality for
your left hand. And those new tuners (func-
tional category) can shift sonic dead spots to
where they really hurt. These things all con-
nect, sometimes in unexpected ways.
easily lose control by, say, changing pickups
and electronics at the same time.
In terms of importance, here’s how I rank
our four categories: functional, tonal, ergonomic, and finally visual. If the instrument
lacks functionality—specifically good playability—I won’t invest any time or money
into tonal mods, let alone a visual one. Your
priorities might differ, but if you don’t feel
that your current instrument is a real keeper, don’t waste too much time on it. That
said, if you’re just doing mods for fun—a
perfectly acceptable goal—get a low-budget
instrument for your first experiments.
Another thing: Always keep the original
parts and don’t be afraid to ask a luthier for
help. A skilled pro should be able to give
you some advice. The more you know about
your instrument, the better you can judge if
the repairperson is just looking for work or
is eager to win you as a future customer.
Before you begin a project, ask yourself
these questions: What’s my budget? What
mods are the most effective? What’s the
value of my instrument? Are there affordable
replacements if I ruin it? Is it smart to start
a project the day before my biggest, once-in-a-lifetime studio job? Am I just bored or
fixing up the instrument to sell it?
Modifying your wiring is cheap, pretty predictable, and reversible. Conversely, spending
your last bucks on your hero’s favorite pickup
could turn into a huge disappointment if you
don’t take other factors into account.
If you’re not happy with your instrument’s
playability, visit your local dealer and test-drive
a few basses. There’s a good chance your dream
machine already exists. If not, you should take
every chance to compare various basses, so you
understand what you really want.
And finally, don’t spend your whole budget on a new finish unless you really love
the rest of the bass. Even then, think twice:
In my next columns, we’ll heat up the
soldering iron and try some basic wiring
projects. The goal will be to learn what can
break most often and how to fix it on your
own. See you then!
As bassists, we’re used to peering into control cavities like this, but our guitarist buddies might
faint at the sight.
HEIKO HOEPFINGER is a German
physicist and long-time bassist, classical
guitarist, and motorcycle enthusiast. His
work on fuel cells for the European orbital
glider Hermes got him deeply into modern
materials and physical acoustics, and
led him to form BassLab ( basslab.de)—a
manufacturer of monocoque guitars and basses. You can
reach him at email@example.com.