Of Wood & Wire #1

This is the first of a series I’ll be sprinkling in with the Friday news page blogs in the coming year. 

An instrument to the player is one form, in moments separate features or details. To the builder, that instrument is lists of completed tasks, layers of specific materials, many decisions and – for a brief moment – one form. Whether in a huge factory or alone in a rural workshop, those who have tasted sawdust and hammered frets see instruments differently than those who pull it out of the case to play it and work their craft on that end… just as they, participating in music’s creation, will forever hear it differently than the casual listener. Let’s peel back the layers of wood and wire and see what we find…

Since the Muse awakened my ears and put a guitar in my hands at twelve, the path of music has rivered me through many chapters. Every step of the way I have been gifted by circumstance the opportunity to play some amazing instruments full of color and potential and, yes, some kind of soul. I don’t think their consciousness is the same as mine but I also don’t convince myself I can explain – or explain away – that which I cannot see or make logical sense of. I’ve felt things in my hands and was there for what happened; this is all I know. Many instruments have crossed my benches and stages and music rooms where the line between tool and talisman was blurred; live and breathe it with every waking hour for almost 40 years and they will be speaking to you too. Some of them stayed in my life for a time, or maybe I in theirs… that line has blurred as well. 

This is my bass. There are many like it, but this one is mine. We will become part of each other. We will…

This is a 2017 Birdsong Especial Supremo bass guitar, 4 string, of cypress, maple and rosewood. Over the years while working on yours I’ve built a few for me but it’s very hard to tickle yourself. It is 31” scale, bolt-on, oil finish like most Birdsong basses. The Especial is an off-menu model worked up a few years back for Marciano of the band Los Enanitos Verdes, basically a combination of the pickup and all-wood trimout of the Fusion model with the body shape of the Cortobass. This one starts there and has a hand carved scroll for the upper horn, and a “German carve” edge; purely cosmetic touches but a lot of fun to do and contours & shapes my eyes like to look at. The high edge of our scroll that arches over into the rounded portion I call the “Marvin” after the headgear of, well, you can guess. But there are workday lists that have said things like “Esp#5, shape Marvin and carve heel.”   

Cypress is a soft wood but it’s the wood that represents new life from old after the flood of 2015 tore down the Blanco river and through our town of Wimberley, Texas. Among other tragic losses were so many of the incredible, ancient cypresses that had lined the river for hundreds of years. This bass has a body from one of those trees. Having picked a specific long slab out of a drying stack, stored it at the workshop and marked the best areas for offering to clients, I then put aside some for me; imperfect pieces to be worked into a whole that could transcend and heal how they got here. I can’t fix anything; I can’t change much. All I can do is take one broken piece and help it to sing.

Rosewood is some of my favorite wood on the planet, and it’s very unfortunate that it has not been sustainably harvested by those who use 90% of it and is now restricted by CITES regulations. As enacted, the well meaning 2017 measure is a C.F. of the overly broad enforced by the under qualified, so many small builders and suppliers opt to not even attempt shipping it internationally and others are phasing it out of their instruments entirely. I’ll build with it for sale in the States as long as I can get it. I love it for fingerboards and trim pieces, and this bass has got it all over it.    

Brass. I love brass. Especially with some age on it, that slightly tarnished patina. In the 1970s, brass became a thing in the electric guitar and bass world, and it was considered high-end to have brass nuts, bridges, knobs, and cover plates on everything. Combined with that era’s natural wood aesthetics, that combination is what grabbed me visually as what a good looking instrument looked like. B.C. Rich, O’Hagan, Alembic, SD Curlee; I have awed at them in magazines as a kid and sampled the goods as a player. SD Curlee especially, having resurrected that brand in 2011. This bass has a specially ordered unplated brass bridge from Hipshot and every screw on the instrument is pure NOS 1970s brass from the SD Curlee stash. NOS stands for “New Old Stock”, original old parts that were never used. In the automotive world it means that too, as well as Nitrous Oxide, a gas force fed into some engines during racing to temporarily skyrocket the power output, sometimes permanently grenading them in the process.

The rest of the hardware is gold, only because I can’t find those specific parts in unplated brass. And I’m not big on brass nuts, though in the past I’ve been accused during reprimand of having some. “You have some brass balls on you, young man,” they’d say. But all I have is one box of old SD Curlee nuts, that’s all. I swear. They’re not brass, they just have a limit on how much breaking they’ll endure. I get through airport screening just fine. But imagine that scenario if I DID have brass ones!

The build itself took on a two-tone theme, where it’s basically two colors. The blonde of the cypress body and maple neck, and the brown of the rosewood. There are black pickups and chrome on almost every bass you’ll see, so much that the eye doesn’t even notice them as a feature – it’s just part of what a bass looks like so hey, look over there at that top wood or those inlays. Sometimes, like when playing and leaving space deliberately as a part of your phrasing while you speak with the notes, building and deliberately leaving something out is another way of painting with space, where one layer is not what you do but what you don’t do. Enhancement by omission. The art in simplification, or the other way around. Other than the strings, frets, and the white dots on the side of the fretboard, everything on this build is either shades of gold or brown. If you’re past all the carving and still looking, going “Why does it look so different?” – look for what’s missing. No plastic. No chrome. No color. No black pickups or knobs.

Lastly in our look at this bass, the story of the neck. It’s a neck that just wasn’t doing its thing to sellable standards back about ten years ago, so it was put aside as a “Test neck.” During one-off builds or prototyping, for reference or measurement, or for quickie photographs of concepts, out it came and on it went for a moment. In 2014 I built myself a Fusion and dressed this neck up with a headstock veneer, glued and reclamped the visible join, burned in the logo and on it went. It was this neck’s turn to sing. It’s a great neck, just flawed. When I decided to sell that bass it was swapped for a neck we would sell & guarantee. So it spent 2016 as a marked “Test neck” again until I put it on this one. Under the inked “DEF (neck sep)” I penciled in “Good ‘nuff for me.” And it is. My bass is a sweet playing, beautiful woody sounding piece of magic in the hands, full of meaning, telling its stories with every note. Not perfect by any means but doing its best to transcend that in its service. I don’t think I’ll be selling this one anytime soon. 

And that’s what’s in there, the stories within the layers of wood and wire.

Go pick up a special instrument and help it sing…

Listening to: Mississippi Fred McDowell