Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Kurt's & Eli's Basses Nearing Completion

Kurt's Roscoe SKB 3006 is coming along very nicely. This bass will feature a number of unique items, including a 34" scale neck, Nordstrand dual coil pickups with exposed pole pieces and custom ebony covers, and a custom finish. Kurt wanted a blueburt finish, but only on the top. The back will be natural swamp ash, and you can just barely see where the finish ends and the natural wood begins on this photo (left/end pin side of body). It's like I always say...if you're going to get a Roscoe, you may as well get one that's going to "stand out"!

Eli has been patiently waiting for his Nordstrand NJ5 Custom for quite some time, and his wait is almost over. I belive that this is the first, and only, NJ5 Custom P/J fretless, so not only is Eli getting an incredible instrument, but he is also getting a one-of-a-kind. The zebrawood top really turned out well. Even thought we thought that it woudl be good, I'm not sure if anyone (except for Eli) thought that it would be quite THIS good! I am really impressed with how this bass turned out, and the dark streaks in the top go great with the ebony fingerboard and black hardware.

Check the Blueberry Hill Sold Basses Gallery soon for completed photos of these basses.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Nordstrand Jazz Pickup Review (NJ4 vs. NJ4SV vs. NJ4SE)

As promised in an earlier post, this installment of the BHB Blog will address some of the differences between the three models of Nordstrand jazz bass pickups. Other than being asked if Nordstrand pickups come with covers, the most common question I get about Nordstrand pickups involves the differences between the NJ4, NJ4SV, and NJ4SE pickup sets.

One of the most important points to make right at the top is that the differences are subtle. If you like Nordstrand pickups and are looking for improved performance and tone from your current pickups, then the chances are good that you will be perfectly fine with any one of the three models. All three models deliver that classic tone that so many of us love and crave. The differences between the models are subtle, but are still very important to many players.

The original Nordstrand jazz pickup was the NJ4. This is a true single coil pickup and sounds closest to the pickups that were used 40 or 50 years ago. The NJ4 set has a very clean, clear, bell-like tone, is balanced from top to bottom, and delivers a true vintage jazz bass tone. Of course, because they are a true single coil pickup, they are also susceptible to noise and 60 cycle hum. While the NJ4 is a very quiet pickup, any true single coil design will always be potentially vulnerable to interference. This is the "reference" for jazz bass pickups and is the most traditional sounding of the bunch. It is also the least expensive ($150 for the set), so if you are budget-conscious, the NJ4 set might be the way to go. The NJ4 pickup is the one that launched the entire Nordstrand Pickups line and has livened up the tone of many budget and overseas basses that come loaded with inexpensive pickups.

The NJ4SV is very similar to the NJ4. The NJ4SV (split vintage) is a split coil hum-canceling jazz bass pickup that is designed to sound just like the NJ4 while eliminating noise and 60 cycle hum. The SV set was designed based on feedback from players who loved the TONE of the NJ4 but wanted a pickup that was impervious to interference. For players who do a lot of gigging and recording, a quite pickup is essential. Carey spent a lot of time developing the SV to sound as close to the NJ4 as possible, given the fact that the two pickups could never be "exactly" the same due to the differences in design...single coil vs. split coil. Nevertheless, the SV set has been a huge success since its creation. Like the NJ4, the SV pickup is very balanced from top to bottom, delivers a classic, bell-like jazz bass tone, and is fat, detailed, and articulate. This pickup set deliveres what jazz bass fans have come to look for in a boutique pickup but without any of the noise or hum associated with true single coil pickups.

The NJ4SE pickup is the stand-out of the three. Where the NJ4 and NJ4SV arrive at a tone that is very traditional in nature, the SE goes beyond the "classic" jazz bass tone. Because SEs are wound differently, they feature a slight "bump" in the midrange that the other two sets do not prominently feature. Players who are looking for a jazz bass tone that gives them "a little more" tend to gravitate toward the SE set. SEs are notorious for being big, warm, and fat, but still retain clarity and detail. Unlike other vintage pickups that claim to be "warm", but also end up being muddy and lifeless, the SEs retain warmth and punch while still allowing you to cut through in the mix. SEs are also more "growly" and work great for players looking for more Jaco-like tone from their bridge pickup. Fretless players also tend to prefer the SE, as the added growl helps to bring out more "mwah" from a fretless bass.

Hopefully this will help explain some of the finer details between the three Nordstrand jazz pickup models as all three are excellent pickup sets. The NJ4 and SV models sound more like vintage pickups, and the SEs are more growly, working well in fretless basses and for players who are looking for a jazz bass pickup with slightly boosted mids. As far as I'm concerned, you can't go wrong regardless of which set you choose!


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Why Does It Take So Long To Build A Custom Bass?

This is a question that I am all too familiar with. Not only am I a frequent recipient of the "Are we there yet?" phone calls and e-mails, but it seems like just about everyone involved in the high-end, custom instrument business is regularly solicited for updates, in-progress photos, and estimates for completion dates. These requests can take a lot of time away from the actual "building of basses", and the following paragraphs are intended to explain why the process can take so long. It is important to note that the point of this blog is not, in any way, intended to poke fun at or belittle anyone who has ever asked these types of questions. Checking up on the progress of one's instrument it perfectly legitimate. It is part of human nature to be excited about a custom bass. I repeatedly tell my customers that the process should be fun...it shouldn't be something to worry and fret about. Further, if one doesn't have a good understanding of the process, the long waits, pushed-back deadlines, and frequent lack of progress at various stages of the game can be mystifying, if not just plain frustrating. Therefore, in an attempt to shed some light on what really goes on behind the workshop doors, I thought that I would tackle the issue of the "wait list" in this installment of the BHB blog. For those who are about to order a custom instrument, I hope that this better prepares you for the wait (whether it's 3 months or 3 years). By understanding what happens, when, and why, I hope to provide custom bass customers with a more realistic expectation of what to expect during the build process. For those who are just plain curious....enjoy!

First, it is important to remember that many custom bass shops are operated by one person. Even for the "larger" companies that advertise in bass magazines and have dealer networks across the globe, the owner may only have a handful of employees helping out in the shop, and when I say "handful", I mean two or three. When one person is responsible for keeping track of orders, answering the phone, answering a large volume of e-mails every day, attending trade shows, keeping dealers happy, keeping their spouses and children happy, occasionally taking some personal time, growing their business, AND actually building basses, it becomes obvious that there are very few hours in a day to perform all of these tasks. If you factor in a little bit of success, the hours in a day can fill up very quickly as orders begin to flow in. More orders usually lead to more demands on the builder's time (which we have already established is at a premium to being with), and when the workload becomes too much to keep up with, delays become inevitable.

When you have a situation where one person, or a handful of people, is performing labor-intensive work, and when demand far exceeds supply, keeping on top of things can be very difficult. For those economists in the crowd, you're probably asking yourselves "Well then...why doesn't Mr. Bass Builder just run out and hire more employees?". Unfortunately, it just isn't that simple. The cost to do so is not offset by the increased output. When you factor in the cost of downtime to train new employees couples with the increased cost of paying those employees, the numbers often don't add up. The increase in output does not always couterbalance the increase in expenditures for most small shops. Keeping quality high is a major consideration when work starts to be shared, which is why you see many small builders turn to CNC machines. These machines enable smaller, low-output builders to keep quality high while still maintaining control over every aspect of what they do.

The other main factor that often contributes to long build times is the wait list itself. Many customers feel that progress should begin immediately as soon as a deposit is placed with a builder or a dealer. If you're first in line and the builder you have chosen does not have a backlog of orders, then I agree with you. But...if there is a waiting list (per our discussion above), then you must wait your turn. Again, it is unfortunate, but implementing a waiting list to organize backlogged orders seems to be the only fair way to do things. Therefore, even though you have submitted your deposit, have speced out your bass, picked out your top, etc., the reality of the situation is that Mr. Bass Builder will probably not even think about your bass for several months. It isn't that he doesn't care...it's just that he is busy devoting his time and attention to the order that was placed three or four months before you placed yours. Several months down the line, your turn will finally come up and then a lot of attention will be devoted to your instrument while the person who placed an order a week ago patiently waits until all of the basses that were ordered before him/her are finished.

For most bass builders, it generally takes little time to craft a bass body. Instrument necks take a lot longer. If they are being made by hand, they must be glued up, rough cut, and then sanded to perfection. Then the fret slots must be cut, frets must be installed, leveled and crowned. Then, the nut must be cut, and the neck will also need to be sprayed with a finish at some point as well. These steps are far more intricate and detailed than what is normally involved in making a body. So...you may receive photos from your builder very early on that shows the body of your bass very near it's completed stage. This is great, but keep in mind that the REAL work is involved in crafting the neck. Until you see photos of a neck that looks like it could be immediately attached to a body, your bass is still a long way from finished.

Ultimately, there are an infinite number of reason why a custom bass project might be delayed. I have attempted to describe some of the more common reasons and hope that this has given you a better understanding of the challenges that small shops face. But even though the wait might be lenghty, it will most certainly be worth it!

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Nordy VJ4 Review (Pt.1)

The first Nordy VJ4 recently arrived at Blueberry Hill, and I was so impressed I thought that the bass warranted a review. While a more comprehensive review should be appearing in an issue of Bass Player magazine around the end of the year, I was so thrilled with how the Nordy project turned out that I had to share the news.

The idea of the Nordy line was first discussed about two years ago when Carey mentioned an interest in building a line of jazz basses. I not only thought that it was a great idea, but was interested in all of the various possibilities that such a project presented. Carey was largely involved in building custom basses based on specs submitted by customers...their choice of woods, pickups, preamps, etc. While this was satisfying work in itself, Carey also had very clear ideas as to what he felt made a good bass and was looking for a way to establish more tonal consistency from instrument to instrument. His goad was to define the "Nordstrand sound". I thought it was a great idea because I wanted to offer a world-class Nordstrand bass to my customers who were not able to wait for a custom to be build and/or who were looking for a more affordable option without sacrificing quality and performance. By standardizing many elements of the Nordy line, we are able to offer a bass, build by Carey in his California shop, that is more affordable and more accessible than a "built to order" custom instrument. Based on what I have seen so far, the goal has been achieved in spades!

First, the materials used in the construction of this bass are outstanding. The swamp ash body is very light and resonant, the maple used for the neck and fingerboard are blemish-free, and the entire bass just feels solid. The nutwork and fretwork are perfect, and the bass came set-up with super-low action. The neck profile is outstanding as well. I have played and owned many jazz basses, and I instantly fell in love with the shape of the neck. It feels silky-smooth on the back and is ultra-fast. The first time I plugged the Nordy in, I experienced one of those magical moments where everything about the instrument just felt RIGHT. The Nordstrand NJ4SV pickups deliver a classic, vintage single-coil jazz tone, but without any noise or hum, and the Audere preamp offers up a versatile array of useful tones. I was able to quickly and easily dial in everything from deep, fat, warm vintage tones to ultra-crisp and clean modern slap tones.
Overall, I am extremely impressed with this bass and am proud of the success of the new line. We are expecting to have other Nordy basses in soon, including an alder/rosewood VJ4 and a modern VJ5 with Fat Stacks and the new Nordstrand 3-band preamp. Keep an eye on the Basses page at www.blueberryhillbass.com for photos when they arrive, and when they do, I will follow up this review with Pt.2.