Surly Dog Bass

The "Surly Dog"

(For sale for $800)

Four days ago, I finished building my first bass guitar. I made it out of a cheap starter bass that I bought from my friend’s brother a year ago. I have a bad habit of taking apart guitars with the intent to rebuild them.

I went ultra-simple with the design on this one. No volume or tone pots, just an on/off toggle switch.

Unfortunately for many of my guitars, they never get rebuilt. I was afraid that my bass was going to share that fate, but two months ago I steeled my resolve and started building a new body for it.

I was not going to let another guitar die in vain.

I started by building a laminate body blank out of scrap walnut, cherry, and maple that I had in my garage. Using scrap wood to make something beautiful is extra satisfying, I think.

After gluing up the body blank and planing it until it was  smooth and even, I started sketching body outlines on the wood. It took me a while to find a design that I liked, but I am pleased with the result.

I roughed out the shape with a jigsaw, then used a belt sander and rasp to smooth out the shape and get rid of any jagged edges. I did this the hard way, because it wasn’t until after I shaped the body and routed the neck pocket–freehand–that I learned that real luthiers use routing templates instead of trying to free hand everything.

I bought a template for the pickup cavity, which made it almost too easy. However, I’m ok with “too easy.”

I reused the neck from my old starter bass, but I re-shaped the headstock with an angle grinder and sanding disk. I got a little carried away, so the headstock is very small now. I just pretend I meant for it to be exactly that size.

Here you can see the laminate construction.

After I shaped the neck and routed the body, I sanded everything down with very fine sandpaper. 400 grit, then 600 grit. Then I applied a Danish oil rubbed finish. I used an old t-shirt to spread Danish oil over the wood, then wiped it off with another piece of t-shirt. After letting it sit over night, I scrubbed it with ultra fine steel wool.

Rinse and repeat. Well, just repeat. I didn’t rinse anything. But I repeated the process 7-8 times to get a nice glossy shine on the wood, which is now sealed and waterproof. And beautiful.

The next step was to design and cut out a pickguard. I used 1/8 inch plywood and just sketched shaped on the wood until I landed on something I liked. Then I cut it out with a jigsaw and sanded the edges smooth. I routed a hole for the pickup, then drilled holes for the toggle switch and pickguard screws. I covered it with white canvas, which will probably get really dirty, really quickly, but the texture of the canvas is a delightful contrast with the glossy wood.

I installed the neck and bridge, then shielded all the wiring cavities and one side of the pickguard with conductive copper tape. I laid out the wires and installed the input jack, and I was ready to try my hand at wiring.

Unfortunately, I did not know how to do this.

Fortunately, YouTube exists.

I watched a quick video on how to solder, and went back out into the garage to give it a shot. Two hours or so later, I had an ugly–but functional (or so I thought)–wiring job under the pickguard.

I put on the strings, plugged it into my little practice amp, and heard a chorus of static. I was crestfallen. Not to be deterred, however, I opened it back up (which involved taking all the strings off again–grr) and looked inside. I noticed a spot where a hot wire was touching the shielding tape, and I hoped with all my heart that was the problem. Five minutes and a few pieces of electrical tape later, I plugged in the bass again. This time, no static. I flipped the switch a few times. It was so quiet I was afraid that it wasn’t working at all.

I started putting the strings back on and one of them dragged across the pickup. My ears were assaulted with a horrible scratching noise. It was the most beautiful horrible scratching noise I had ever heard, because it meant that my wiring job was working.

I strung it up, tuned it up, and played a little bass line along with the drum machine built in to my amp. The tone was simultaneously bright and deep. I was a happy camper.

So there you have it. That’s the story of my first bass build. Sorry I don’t have process pictures to share, but I’ll be sure to take some on my next build, whatever that turns out to be!

Oh, yeah, and a note about the name. I call this the “Surly Dog” bass because it growls at you when you pick it up, just like this guy:

Rest in peace, little buddy.