Introduction: Making a Through-Neck Bass Guitar From Scratch

Picture of Making a Through-Neck Bass Guitar From Scratch

NOTE: You should read the whole thing before starting. Commit it to memory, because my style of writing is erratic at best. Important things *may* be out of order a little.
edit: Read this 'ible too before starting. It's where I went wrong and how I've gone about fixing it.

So there I was last summer watching Scott Pilgrim, and I think, 'I really wanna play bass'. A few short months later I have one. Jump to present day, I'm getting greedy. I want another. I can't afford one of those shiny Rickenbacker deelies, so I set about building my own.

This bass took 'inspiration' from a number of versions of Rickenbackers. The head's that of a 4001c64 reissue, the skunk stripe down the middle was featured on 4001s from the early 70's onwards. Other things I just made up as I went along. The thing is, I've never actually seen a real one, so I just went from the pictures that looked the nicest. Now, in the interest of protecting RIC's IP, I'm not going to put up the CAD files I've made, nor am I going to tell you how to make them. The fact that my bass came out looking like a 4001 is entirely coincidence.

Got a guitar with a broken headstock? Check out my other 'ible:

Step 1: Sourcing the Materials

Picture of Sourcing the Materials

You will need:

A nice long hardwood plank, mine was cherry and around 1100x250x30.
Rosewood (for me, but you could use ebony or maple or something) for a fretboard, roughly 650x70x6.
A thin strip of walnut or something with a radically different colour for a skunk stripe (if you want one) the same length as your plank.

Stringy Stuff:
Machine heads, make sure they're already set up for how you want your head (2, 3, 4 a side), some models are non-interchangeable.
Bridge - I found a pretty nice Rickenbacker bridge going cheap
Decent strings - I was unsure how much tension it would be able to handle, so I've got some real light gauges on there.

Pickups - I made my own, but you can buy them pre-made. There's plenty of instructables on making them, so I'm not going to cover it.
Selector switch - obviously redundant of you only have one pickup.
Potentiometers - Logarithmic for volume, linear for tone. 500k ought to do it.
1/4in socket - Y'know, for plugging in and whatnot.
Capacitors - a 47nF ceramic for every tone pot.

Misc stuff:
Fret wire
Position markers (inlay)
Truss rod(s)
Truss rod cover
Pickguard, or plastic for a bespoke one
Jack plate (or you can go in the pickguard, doesn't matter really)
Paint - I used tinted nitrocellulose lacquer.

All of this I got from eBay, totaling around £250.

Step 2: Tools You Might Want to Find

All I had when I started this project was a coping saw and a dremel. Now, you can do a lot with those two tools, but it'd take you an eternity, so don't. Fortunately for me, my friend has a decent home workshop and a helpful disposition. So without further ado, that list I promised:
Bandsaw, makes long cuts SO much quicker. You could maybe get away with a scroll saw or even a jigsaw.
Router - indispensable. There are ways around needing one, but it involves a lot of coping saw work and building the body out of layers.
Power sander, because I'm lazy and it's just so much less effort than using a damn block.
Coping saw, for finer work.
Dremel with sanding drum, for cleaning up aforementioned 'fine' work.
Drill - you might want to invest in a decent corded drill for working with harder woods, but for most a cordless will do you right.
Bits for the above, drill bits, spare sanding sheets, saw blades, etc.
Hella clamps. Like, 6.
Radius block - you can pick these up on ebay for about a tenner. They round off your fretboard in conjunction with sandpaper.

And of course, PVA glue.

Step 3: Design

As I mentioned earlier, I'm not going to tell you how to reverse engineer an existing guitar. What I will tell you is how to make a decent design of your own. The first thing you need to decide upon is your scale length. This is the distance between the bridge and the nut. A really nice tool is located here:

Once you've decided on a scale length (I personally like the 820-880 region), grab yourself a sheet of A0 paper. Then stick a bit of A4 to the top, because it's not quite long enough. Now, leaving yourself about 200-250mm of room at the top for a head, draw a straight line the same length as your scale length. Mark along it the positions of your frets. Congratulations, you've just taken your first real step to designing an instrument.

Now, sketch a body (any shape you like, it's your creation remember), around the bottom bit of your line, leaving about 120mm below the endpoint of the line for the bridge to attach, and meeting the neck somewhere around the 19th/20th fret. Looking nice, isn't it?

Draw a line 42mm (for a 4 string bass, look it up if you're making a different config.) perpendicular to the scale line, centered on it's tip. This line marks the narrow bit at the top of the neck where the nut sits.

Where the scale line meets the body, draw a line roughly 60mm across, parallel to your nut line. See where I'm going with this? Yeah you do.

Connect the endpoints of your lines. Look! A neck!

At the body end of your neck, extend your lines, but parallel this time, to the tail end of the body.

Draw on your pickups, then go about 10mm around them. These will (well, won't but let's say they will for now) be your pickup routs.

Do the same with your controls, making a decent sized cavity for them. Connect the control cavity to the pickup cavities.

You can now draw a pickguard that will cover all them unsightly holes. Clever, eh? Now draw your pickguard again on another sheet of paper.

Step 4: Making a Start

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Remember that lovely drawing you spent so long on in the last step? Well, it's time to take the scissors to it. Sorry. Cut out the two body sides from the neck (which runs through the centre of the body, remember). Stick all three to your plank and draw around them. If all the stuff doesn't fit, well, you're gonna have to design a ukulele or something aren't you. Or buy a bigger plank, whatever works.

Step 5: Take a Saw to It

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Pretty self explanatory really, stick your wood in the bandsaw. NOT THAT WOOD YOU FOOL! Oh, god, someone call an ambulance!

Joking aside, don't stick any part of yourself in the bandsaw. It will result in the loss of said part. I don't know about you, but I'm rather attached to my parts. Attached by stuff that hurts real bad when severed.

Step 6: Add a Skunk Stripe (optional)

Picture of Add a Skunk Stripe (optional)

You have a neck, yes? Well, saw off 6mm or however thick your stripe is, then saw the remaining bit in half. Sand it down fairly smooth, then ply them all back together, replacing the thin strip with your accent wood.

Step 7: Rest for a Bit

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Sit back and admire your work. Have a cold drink. NOW BACK TO WORK.

Step 8: Smoothing the Edges

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Putting your power sander to good use! Smooth off the edges now, because you can't get in the bastard corners when you've glued the body to the neck. Yes, I found that bit out the hard way.

Step 9: Gluing the Thing Together

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The method shown in the picture is, helpfully, wrong. Remember those bits of wood that were exactly the right shape to give the edge a flat surface? Well I should have kept them and used them here to stop it slipping, and so should you.

You may as well do the head now too, I didn't, but then you have the benefit of learning from my mistakes.

Step 10: Fretboard Inlays

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Steer clear of this step. Read it anyway because parts are still relevant, but just use dots instead. I didn't use a respirator, consequently I had a horrible cough for two weeks. Hot rosewood dust is nasty. As is hot shell dust. The latter may even be carcinogenic, I can't remember. The only reason I'm including this step is because it took me ages and the final product looked pretty good.

Position your fretboard on your neck, then using your lovely neck drawing which you ABSOLUTELY DID NOT THROW AWAY, mark out the fret positions. If you're using dots, lucky you. Drill into the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 12th, 15th, 17th, 19th, and if you have it, the 21st frets. Glue your dots in. Lucky you, you can move on to the next step.

If you're using shaped inlays, then break out the dremel. Using the above positions, draw around your inlays with a fine pen. Cutting inside the lines, make a hole just a little bit too shallow for your inlay to fit in. It's better than it dipping. Glue the bugger, fill the edges with a combination of rosewood dust and either pva or cyanoacrylate (super glue). Don't use araldite, it gives it a funny dark colour. Now repeat.

Sand off the excess with the power sander, just because it's quick. Now get your radius block if you have one, and get sanding.

Step 11: Fill in the Body

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Hopefully this shouldn't be necessary, but if you only shoddily finished the joining edges of the body and neck, you may have to. Collect a load of dust from the bandsaw, mix it with PVA glue and jam it in the cracks. No innuendo to be had here that I can see, so I'll just leave it.

Step 12: Cut Out the Head

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Whip out your trusty coping saw, and cut out the head. You did make sure there was enough room between the machine heads for the mounting plates on the back, didn't you? Ah well. Told you to read it all first. Now dremel your edges nice and smooth like.

Step 13: Routing the Various Cavities

Picture of Routing the Various Cavities

Routers are scary. They're all noisy and sharp and spinning metal death. Get someone else to use it, like I did.

Get your pickups and draw round them as precisely as you can. Now go about 3mm around that line. See what I did there? I made you overcompensate with the scratchplate so it'd definitely cover all the holes. Now measure the height of your pickups. Set the router depth to exactly that, no deeper. If the chuck isn't tight enough, the bit will slowly move lower. This makes for a horrid looking rout and potentially a hole through your creation (and table).

Get the truss rod channel done while you're at it. It should be exactly the same depth as the rod is high.

Step 14: Have Another Rest

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You can have a hot drink this time. Go on, you deserve it. While the kettle boils, take a peek at my excellent bass, all placed together.

Oh, and sand the faces smooth. Don't forget that. And shaping the neck. I did mine with the trusty power sander. No photos I'm afraid.

Step 15: Start Painting!

Picture of Start Painting!

Yours will be different to mine, but this is what I did: Get a few layers of clear coat down first. Gloss is nice. Wait for it to dry solid (a day or three).

Next, realise you forgot a crucial rout and go back to step 13.

To do the sunbursty thing, I got a can of tinted nitro lacquer and sprayed at a 45 degree angle, aiming at the edge from the centre. Came out quite nice, but not close enough to the edge for my liking really.

Give it a few more coats of clear, wait for it to harden. Sand it down with some real fine paper, then give it one last clear coat.

Step 16: Glue the Fretboard On, Add Frets

Picture of Glue the Fretboard On, Add Frets

The fretboard needs plenty of glue, plenty of clamps and plenty of drying time. I left mine 2 days to make sure.

A tenon saw was just about the right width for the fret wire I used. They went in a treat. The ones that were a bit loose had a dab of super glue on them. The ends were filed down with a dremel.

Step 17: Other Stuff

Picture of Other Stuff

Now it's time for you to make up your electronics. As this is entirely dependent on the set up you've chosen, I can't really comment on what you should do here. Only that you should do it. There's hundreds of websites dedicated to guitar electronics, and probably a fair few guides right here, so why go over old ground?

Truss rod adjustment and intonation are the same story. Look it up. I did.

I've probably forgotten something vital. Comment, why don't you.


DanielG294 (author)2016-03-29

Hey there, seems you left out instructions on the truss rod, how does one "put it in"?

BaileyW12 (author)2016-03-26

I see all the comments are from 4 years ago. how's this thing holding up?
What does it currently look like?

Seph Cameron (author)BaileyW122016-03-26

I did a follow-up instructable about a year later covering the modifications and things I'd learned since.

But yeah, it's still all together. The neck's still perfectly straight on account of the two truss rods, nothing's warped, etc. I keep telling myself I'll redo it from scratch now that I'm much better at it, but I quite like the half-shitty charm of it.

duane jameson (author)2012-03-16

did you put an angle on your head stock?

I did, yeah. Only 5-10 degrees though. Didn't have all that much thickness in the wood to play with.

Nice I'm building the same bass but having troubles doing the head stock do you have any close up pics of the side of it.

skuishingbugs (author)2011-12-09

I love your bass, my only concern is its playability. Does it play like a standard bass? And how long did it take you? i loved the rickenbacker design too, it looks spot on!

There's the mods I was on about.

Well something I forgot is the step (or whatever you'd call it). This is a where the neck is slightly higher than the surrounding body and raises the fretboard to meet the strings. This is because of the through-neck design, something I've since found Rickenbacker solve using a much thicker fretboard than standard. This resulted in rather high action at its lowest setting, something I'm currently writing an instructable on fixing. Other than that and the slight difficulty in slapping cos of the massive bridge pickup I've got on there, it's just like any other bass.

It didn't take all that long, about two months working on and off. After making a couple more guitars of different designs I can do them in about a fortnight now.

genghistron (author)2012-02-05

So, how does it play/sound? Anything you would have done differently?

Seph Cameron (author)genghistron2012-02-05

It sounds great, but as far as playability goes, the action's a fair bit too high. I'm in the process of modifying it and writing an instructable chronicling it.

bconway1 (author)2011-12-17

Loved the ible, Every guitar/bass building one ive found is so dry and boring. Ive been inspired to make one. Thanks!

Seph Cameron (author)bconway12012-01-10

Inspired, you say? I'm a luthierical genius, you imply? You win best comment.

ski4jesus (author)2011-11-30

Heyy bro, Nice job on this bass. I have always wanted to completely build a bass from scratch, but frets scare me away. Is the neck really that easy??

Seph Cameron (author)ski4jesus2011-12-01

Depends, if you've got the right tools yeah it is. If you don't, you can still get good results but it's gonna be much harder. On more recent guitars I've used a rasp to do the necks, giving a much better shape than with the power sander I tell you what. The frets are easy enough if you've got a long rule, a square and a relatively thin tenon saw (remember to keep it level!).

My next instructable (probably after christmas) is going to be on performing neck alterations, but most of it could be applied to making one from scratch so it might be worth a view.

ski4jesus (author)Seph Cameron2011-12-03

Alright thanks. I might try this Winter. Very impressed by your instructables so far, great job.

tli (author)2011-10-16

epic tut, but where did you find the wood?

Seph Cameron (author)tli2011-10-17

eBay dude, best site ever (also the most dangerous when used in conjunction with this one and payday).

tli (author)Seph Cameron2011-10-18


tli (author)tli2011-10-19

how much did you pay for your bridge?

Seph Cameron (author)tli2011-10-20

'Bout 50 quid if I remember...

mrmerino (author)2011-09-02

I'm attached to my parts too.

Seph Cameron (author)mrmerino2011-09-02

Good to know, dude. Good to know. If you weren't, well, you'd probably have a video game made about you.

mrmerino (author)Seph Cameron2011-09-02

I think I went to High School with that guy

friger (author)2011-08-20

I love it, you made me laugh out loud (notice I didn't use LOL there). I really liked the band saw bit. All fun and joking aside this looks like a great guitar. I have built many guitar type instruments so if you left out crucial bits I probably mentally filled in the blanks on my own.

I see you used a dual rail truss rod, I've only used singles (Gibson style because they are easy to make). What I was getting at is how is it for adjusting the neck?

Seph Cameron (author)friger2011-08-20

Cheers. The truss rods actually barely need adjusting, I'm assuming because they're twice as rigid (heh, rigid...) as one and my neck was straight to begin with. But the main advantage of usign two is they can be used to compensate for the slight twist that occurs with any guitar due to the tension difference between the top and bottom strings.

friger (author)Seph Cameron2011-08-20

Makes perfect sense. I'm deep into a Les Paul (wanna be) build and will hopefully have the instructable done in time for the new Prolog contest. I intend to fully document the wiring including the selector switch. It will be my first of this type but not my last.

Keep up the good work.

Seph Cameron (author)friger2011-08-20

Ah, you're going for a carved top? Lovely. Is that maple? I'm doing a couple of hollow bodied things somewhere between a strat and a prs next, but the real interesting one is after that. Going for the same body shape again, I intend to do a thin bodied resonator 12 string. Gonna be an experience, that...

thomas_c (author)Seph Cameron2011-08-31

I just saw this after my original comment;
Thin bodied resonator? 12 strings? I am intrigued! Make sure you document it well, I made a solid body resonator hybrid and sadly did not document it well / take loadsa pictures before I sold it.

thomas_c (author)2011-08-31

Excellent stuff all around, congratulations on that sexy beast!
The only thing I could critisize is your heavy reliance on power tools instead of the old fashioned way (files, rasps, sanding paper, elbow grease) but that's just two different schools of thought.
Keep it up!

youtees (author)2011-08-22

One of the biggest reasons I(or anybody for that matter)makes stuff is the ultra cool feeling you get when you use something that you made yourself. I'd be willing to bet that Geddy or would sign that if you met and asked him! Just because of the motivation and effort involved. Do you make other stuff also? Does not seem like that cool bass was your first 'deep' project. (?)

I think Geddy's Mom used to laugh when he would not put the bass down while she changed his diaper. Come to think of it...that guy is a genius...he may have skipped the diapers stage entirely! If Geddy won't sign it...ask Chris Squire. He left the fifthgrade to join YES(guys have been around a while!).
Enjoy your awesome bass!

youtees (author)2011-08-21

Wow! Even if your bass came out with some questionable playing issues(not assuming it did)it is awesome and says a lot about your motivation that you dug in and did this. Impressed! There is more to a bass than people imagine and of course there is no way this approaches a Ric in reality...but the bass is not just the bass, it is the player and VERY few guitarists/basists have even attempted this task. I love bass. Would I build one? No. And that is coming from a guy who has built many things. If I would be more on the likes of a Steinberger...I just like them. Even though my favorite bassist(Geddy Lee) prefers the Ric. As for explaining it?...I have built over 3,200 screen printing set ups and even today...explaining the intricacies of doing so(it is very unique and the most accurate available)on paper is another thing. I think my dog will write a novel before I ever attempt to write down everything I do on that equipment. Thanks for your post!
Very cool.

Seph Cameron (author)youtees2011-08-22

Well I'd imagine you're right that it's absolutely nothing on a Ric, they've just got such amazingly skilled people and such high standards. But at a 1/10th of the price I can't complain :D

Nah, it doesn't say Rickenbacker on the truss rod cover, because it's not. It's 'Impossible', and it's yet to see a final version, the text isn't even curved on this one (and it's just a bit of paper stuck to the back of some perspex).

youtees (author)2011-08-21

...cannot quite read it. Did you actually put 'Rickenbacker' on the headstock?

danmc91 (author)2011-08-21

That is an awesome job on the guitar. Thanks for taking the time to write it up. I'm curious about a couple of things. What amount of woodworking experience did you have going into this project and do you have a rough guess as to how much time this all took? I have some experience but not loads and nothing where the dimensions are as critical as a guitar or bass.

My other question is are you happy with how the fretboard turned out? I've toyed around with the idea of trying a project like this and have always worried about how difficult it may be (and maybe it is not as bad as I've wondered) to really get all the frets in the right spots to make sure the thing is in tune with itself. I used to have a low end hondo guitar and you simply couldn't get it fully in tune which I chalked up to the fretboard not being precise enough. When I finally replaced it with a much better guitar the difference was *amazing*. So... if I bite of a project this size, I obviously would have great sound as a high priority.

Thanks again for the way cool instructable

Seph Cameron (author)danmc912011-08-21

Yeah it didn't really take that long all in all, about 2 months of working on it on and off (like, 3 hours an evening for a week then a fortnight off). As far as experience goes I have a bit of GCSE DT (or for our American readers, high school woodwork), my friend helped me an awful lot (read: did it for me) with the bandsawing and the first few routs, but I'd feel confident doing the sawing myself now, as it's only rough. The honing of the shape was done primarily with the power sander.

The main issue with making fretboards isn't so much the position of the frets, they can be to the nearest millimetre, it's getting them level. A really nice long flat file would be ideal if you can't get it right with the radius block if you use one (which I'd recommend, they're only like £10), just to get rid of the buzz. If you do want tips on positioning them, the way I did it was I took the centrepoints of the two ends and joined them up with one long line, marked the positions on said line then used a square to get them all perpendicular.

I should really have put that in the instructable... Maybe I'll write one on fretboards in a couple of weeks.

About This Instructable




Bio: Guitars and booze. Pretty much sums up what I make. A booze guitar? Totally already thought of that, stop trying to steal my ideas. You ... More »
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