James Builds A Custom Pfretzschner

….A  sneak preview of one of the chapters in our new book  on vintage bass restoration.

 

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A guy calls me up out of the blue. ‘Sez he’s got grandpa’s old  bass out in the barn; seems grandpa liked to whoop it up and the bass is pretty hammered with as much rough patina as it has stories to go with it. It’s aluminum.  The neck is trashed.  Am I interested?  We work out the numbers  like some kind of illicit deal going down.  Vintage bodies with a new Condino neck and setup are my favorite.  Hopefully the shipping guys won’t do more damage than grandpa’s 40 years of thumpin’. I’m excited  to get the vintage Pfretzschner.

I took apart the body and cleaned out 75 years of junk. You can disassemble an entire Pfretzschner – top, back, ribs, blocks, bassbar: simple .050” pre-war soft alloy aluminum sheeting  stamped,  bent into position, and then screwed into the blocks. There is usually a green layer of felt acting as a rattle dampener on all of the seams and the inside is usually painted a rust colored primer. Occasionally there is a label stuck inside, but when the primer flakes off, so goes the label.

The shipping guys did their best and put a baseball sized dent in one of the lower bouts, so while everything was apart, I took a big rubber mallet and a giant block of Honduras mahogany  as a backer / pound relief board  and hammered  out the few dents in the body. Bronze age technology, but it works great. One of the things I like about these old Pfretzschners is that  someone with minimal skills can completely disassemble the body and take care of any issues or modifications with ease and  put everything back together.  Folks are about 50 /50 on the polished vs roadworn mojo look, so I usually leave the bodies in as found condition. If someone is excited about a perfect polish look, I send them out to a profesional  hotrot or motorcycle chrome and polish shop. This one had a couple of areas of serious raccoon piss issues from the barn. A bit of OOOO steel wool  polished  up those spots; the rest was left in the vintage patina.

The original neck was smashed up and rebuilt poorly multiple times and the pegbox was crushed beyond use, so I took a few liberties with a whole new neck. I’ve rebuilt aluminum Pfretzschner bodies using  old salvaged Kay  necks- you can make one fit; you’ll still want to make a few modifications to the standard Kay specs. I’ve had the Englehardt factory make some that left the whole heel area uncut and oversized, so I could make a traditional mortise.  I’ve used very nice factory cut German neck blanks  with similar uncut heels: very nice, but just the blank is at least $500. Leave the cheap Chinese bass shaped junk for Walmart.  The original fingerboard was a hard and durable striped (Macassar?) ebony and  still had some life left to it, so I wanted to incorporate it into the new neck. The  pegbox was smashed up, but the scroll itself was pretty intact, minus years of battle scars; the original tuning machines were salvageable. I  considered  a scroll graft onto a new neck. When the inspiration for  making a modular system with aluminum  cheeks hit, it seemed to make perfect sense. Why had nobody else done that????? A few trips to the local metal  scrap yard, an $11 blade for the old Walker Turner bandsaw, a few hand tools,  the old drill press, four broken taps ( who said that the scrapyard aluminum wasn’t tough!!!!) ….all  turned  a $15  I -beam  into a cyborg scroll. I tried a few different art deco ornaments, a  figurine, and a modified old billiards 8 ball; the original scroll up top seemed to add a little bit of steampunk recycling to it.

The main beam of the neck was made  from  30 year old Honduran mahogany, bloodwood, and dyed European  pear (for the black pinstripes). There is a warmth and complexity of overtones with a mahogany neck  on  an old aluminum bass;  they help take a bit of the edge off the sound compared to traditional maple.  I wanted to use a giant old board of Brazilian rosewood, but in today’s market, that is a VERY expensive gamble. A couple of beams of carbon fiber hdden inside the main body of the neck ensure two things:

1)  the neck will be bombproof

2)  I can  plane and dress out the fingerboard close to dead flat and when everything comes up to string tension I’ll have almost he perfect amount of relief.

The shim of bloodwood under the fingerboard got the overall neck thickness up where I wanted it and gave a nice art deco bolt of color. The more double bass necks I make, the more I like a baroque-ish transition at the end of the fingerboard.  A standard right angle cutoff where the neck ends seems to leave the fingerboard hanging out in space and there is a huge transition of tension and movement in the neck right there.  The new neck was designed so that it is completely removable from the body in  a few minutes. Remove the string tension,  back off the two heel bolts and button screws, pull the endpin. It detatches right away; no need to remove the strings. The whole neck fits in a Fender P bass gig bag or a Pelican style hardshelll shotgun case.

As far as I know, this is the only professional grade removable neck  Pfretzschner in existence.  As soon as I start to show off the photos, I’ve got a feeling there are going to be a LOT more vintage Pfretzschners  joining that club.  As someone who has been  giging with a removable neck double bass for six years, I don’t know how you could not have at least one in your quiver. Never is there a question about….well…I’d like to take my bass, but it will take up half of the van, blah, blah, blah….. Now it can fit in the trunk of a small rental car and ALWAYS goes with me. Depending upon how road tested you want to go, the entire scroll and pegbox comes apart in about ten seconds and can be stowed in a military ammo can: old school. Try explaining that to the TSA guys at the airport.

I tried four different bridges:  The test one I made from a scrapyard 8” I beam was too heavy.  It looked like it came off the Apollo 11 mission, but it choked the sound of the bass; the same thing for a heavy aluminum tailpiece I made.  I initially wanted a Deuce bridge, they make great products,  but were backordered for a while, so I got to work on other options. The single tree Despiau bridge with aluminum adjusters  worked very well- no surprise there. That is the #1 bridge that I install.  A bass nerd friend & apprentice called me up  and mentioned a funky 1950s aluminum Framus bridge  that showed up on an old Epiphone bass.  I asked if I could  check it out, but inside I knew I had no intentions of returning it. It sounded  better than I expected after the poor results with the my prototype aluminum bridge and the vibe was perfect.

After years of pounding on it far beyond my best expectations, my old titanium mountain biking frame broke. Thanks to the new owners of the company absolutely refusing to honor the lifetime warranty, I have some nice 3/2 titanium tubing in the shop that was repurposed onto a very cool oversized fixed endpin – and a completely new custom built titanium frame from a different company!

My intention was to take the neck into the spray booth and sunburst the heel and volute, and then airbrush a matching bridge and tailpiece. As with most of these pfunky Pfretzschners,  before I get them built up, there is a line of people eagerly asking about them.  Within the first day of offering it out to the public, it was sold as is and shipped out to London eeeeeeaaaaazzzzzzyyyyy with the neck removed! For all of our friends in the UK, this is scheduled to be on display at the London Bass Guitar show 2015, March 7-8.

I’ve rebuilt a lot of these old Pfretzschner basses, from unbelieveably beat up old rat rods to elegant custom  pieces that tour with some major bands and are displayed like fine art. Give the shop a call if you like what you see or if you have some new creative ideas that push the envelope; you are only limited by your imagination. I can resurrect an old one for you or we can also set up a private workshop where you can come in and the two of us will work together  to  help you realize your vision. ‘Fix your bass for a day, or teach you to fix your bass for a lifetime.

Getting the hang of these old aluminum basses in a traditional factory spec. setup was stage 1.  This level of mild custom work is stage 2.  Phase 3 is already in the works:  watch out!

For anyone curious about the images of the old Pfretzschner next to the shop resaw: it is a 1942 Yates Y30 bandsaw, with the “snowflake” covers that came out of the original Troy, Ohio Waco Biplane factory: an art deco T-rex!

j.condino

September 2014