Hey folks! I've been going back and forth for months on whether or not I can pull off building this instrument, and I'm wondering what you think. I want to build my own bass ukulele, 4 polyurethane strings (probably the Kala Silver Rumblers), standard tuning, acoustically useful, and I know a few of you have done similar things. I don't need a masterpiece, or something my grandchildren can play, I just need something I can mess around with while I sit in the car and wait for my wife in the store. After way too many dozens of hours scouring the web for info, I really can't figure out what's required for a working instrument vs what's required for a professional level instrument that an experienced builder would stake his reputation on. If some of you would be so kind as to offer your insights, I'd really appreciate it!
So for the body, I don't actually want to use a cigar box. I'd like to make my own box. Now, I've read that more mass in the body gives more sustain, but that it also means the strings can't power it acoustically, so you get less sound. Those ideas don't make any sense to me when put together, so I don't know what to think about box size and wood thickness. Obviously it needs to be biggish for bass notes to work, but do I want it smallish because of the soft strings, does it need to be thin wood for more sound, or thick wood for more sustain? Right now here's my plan: I've got a basswood plaque that I've done a relief carving in, and I thought that would make a fun back. The plaque is 11"x14" and probably about 5/8" thick. Too much? Just right? Would it be better if I trim it to just the carving, which would be about 11"x7", with about half of the thickness carved away on average? Either way, I'd like to just grab some 3/8" basswood from a local shop for the sides, maybe even for the soundboard.
For the neck, I'd really like to avoid the complication of a truss rod. I'm hoping that'll be fine, since my brief moments with a U-Bass suggests that those strings have just about zero tension (is that right?). The trick is that I'd also like to be able to carve down the neck for a whittled feel, which I don't imagine I could do with a real hardwood. Do you think I could safely use basswood for the neck? Is there anything sturdier but still whittle-able that I should consider? The top will be fretless, I'm thinking I'll just add some sort of markers and then sand the heck out of it.
For the bridge and nut, I'll probably grab a bone blank, slice it in half, carve four notches and call it good. Can't decide on electronics. I've got no soldering iron, and might just keep it acoustic for simplicity's sake.
I've probably got more questions, but you get the idea of what I'm going for. I'm stuck in a $50 budget if I do it, most of which will go to strings and tuners, so I don't have much left to get fancy with. Do y'all think it can work? Is there anything super important I'm not considering? Seriously, deciding to get married was way easier for me than committing to this project, since it could be awesome, or it could be a complete dud. Advise me, wise builders!
An acoustic electric bass uke relies mostly on the strings and pickup for it's sound. An acoustic bass uke without a pickup would likely not be loud enough to play with other instruments unless the body was huge. Don't worry about traditional uke construction for a bass uke. Many of the piezo pickups that you would use do not require soldering but use 3.5mm mini-jacks. With a $50 budget, you might want to find a super deal on those bass strings. If you belong to Ukulele Underground, do a WTB listing for some bass strings in the Marketplace. Lots of UBass players change strings because they didn't like the ones they had on the one they bought.
I haven't worked up the courage to try building a bass uke, but I REALLY want one. I'll watch your progress with great interest.
From playing a couple of them in stores, it looks like the body of a commercial baritone uke with special strings. Those strings can run $25-30 USD.
Don't forget that the tuners have to be big enough to accommodate the fat strings.
I've been using poplar for necks of CBGs. It's hard-ish and can be carved. (But it ain't the prettiest wood I've ever stained!)
Even if you're going fretless, consider laminating on a separate fingerboard to prevent warping. Alternatively, a friend of mine laminates 3 strips of wood into a 1 x 2 to use as a neck. The color variation is decorative and the lamination adds stability.
Best of luck! Keep us posted on your progress...
Alan: Indeed there are many examples, and I've gotten a lot of ideas and courage from them. But I can't find any that are quite like what I have in mind, particularly as few of them seem designed for acoustic use. But between the CBBs and a guy who made an entire guitar out of popsicle sticks, I'm certainly hopeful I can do it!
Phil: That's a fine idea about UU, I joined a little while ago, so I'll take a look. Maybe talkbass, too. As for volume, fortunately I'm not good enough to bother playing with other people yet. Hopefully by the time I get there, I'll be able to afford an actual u-bass! If I add electronics, it would mostly be for the sake of using the Line In on my headphone amp to play along with MP3s. And for looking cool, but that may be a lost cause. One reason I think this 11x14 plaque could be great is because it's decidedly bigger than a normal bass uke, which I hope translates to more volume. I only worry that it'll be too big for those rubbery strings to resonate. If only I knew a dang thing about acoustics...
TN, for the tuners I'm sorta just planning to find whatever tuners I can get cheap, stick a zip tie or string or something through the hole, and tie the uke strings to the tuner. Bad idea? I'd buy the right tuners, but that and the strings will wipe out my budget before I even get started. As for the neck, that lamination sounds promising. Is it as simple as I'm thinking, just bring some strips of whatever wood vertical and glue 'em together?
Thanks for the replies so far, folks, I'm really hoping I can make this happen with your help!
I just built this one for my godson. Uses Ashbory tuners and the strings from Road Toad. I don't see how you could do it for under $50. The tuners and strings together will be more than that. Add in some fretwire and you will be closer to $70 at least. Mine is a 21 in scale with hardwood neck (shaved down nicely) that I pulled off of a pallet. I am using an ashton box here. These instruments are not very loud without an amp (at least the low E is not very loud). Good Luck.
Don't know why it keeps posting upside down. Here it is next to my 24inch 4 string at the beach house last week. My godson loves it and his mom bought him an ampeg 108 bass amp to play it through. It THUMPS!
From what I can see, it looks awesome! I got a used Peavey 12" bass amp for $60 on Craigslist. Thumps enough for me. I also play some of my ukes and my harmonicas through it.
I know this may not be a Bass Uke, but it's just something to show you that even a "stick in a box" can still sound decent (especially for a git you just plan on tossing around). It's not loud acoustically, but plugged in gets the job done. BTW, i had to run this in the video through a guitar amp (don't have a Bass one) so that's why she sounds a little thin. But through a half-way decent rig she sounds even better.
nice job. Looks and sounds great. Thanks for sharing
Thanks Brian, that is encouraging. I guess my biggest concern is that things will start going awry after taking the notes down the last octave to genuine bass guitar range. Seems to me that in that range there's a pretty high chance of acoustic silence if the box is the wrong size or the wood is the wrong thickness.
I will be honest, acoustically, with weed wacker line... my Bass is not very loud acoustically (especially the .115 mm low-E string). Overall the Bass is a little more than twice as loud as a standard electric Bass Guitar when it's not plugged in. With professional nylons I imagine the sound would only be better.
So far with my builds I have also found that no matter the size of the sound hole, anything that helps air to flow through the box should help acoustics.
I am an old woodworker and I have a simple piece of advice for you.
Next time you are up late alone in the evening without the kids and the Social Director, and the day has subsided, close your eyes and see what you want to build. If you can see it, envision it, or however else you want to interpret the exercise, you can do it.
When you have decided, imagine one small element of the project you would do first. That is where you start, even if it is sorting out your tools.
Projects are done, whether it is a cigar box instrument or a nuclear generator, they are all done the same way you eat an elephant, one bite at a time.
I've been at the trade and associated things for a long time and it is the only way.----John W Brown
I like that Mr. Brown. That's some really good advice.
I find the older I get (...and I know I am not old by any means at the age of 33) when I start stressing about a project, or a build... I just have to start making a list. I try to think in a logical order (something that makes sense to me, maybe no one else) and I make a check list. I used to be a Graphic Designer, so I don't have a problem invisioning much, but it's all the posibilities and everything that needs to get done to get it done.