On trolls and truss rods, braggadocio and bridges: follow-up on my “first impressions” YouTube video about the Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass

Whew, that title is worthy of a master’s thesis. (Note: The majority of what follows is adapted from the script I wrote for a follow-up video that I have since decided not to make.)

About 3 months ago, I bought a Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass, and the day I took it out of the box, I made a YouTube video demoing the instrument and giving my first impressions:

In the time since I made that video, I’ve played the bass a lot, and I’ve had some ongoing frustrations with one specific aspect: I just can’t seem to get the action set to my satisfaction. The frustrations were exacerbated by a comment the video received last week, criticizing the high action on this bass due to the Fender Hi-Mass bridge… and also my abilities as a player.

Feeding the trolls

I’m not thin-skinned, but I do take criticism to heart. I know I’m not the most technically dazzling player, and I don’t aspire to be. I’ve been playing bass since I was 15 — that’s 34 years, if you’re into math — but I’ve never become a “shredder” for three reasons:

  1. I just don’t have the manual dexterity for it, especially as I’m getting older.
  2. I have not made my living as a professional player, so I have limited time (and motivation) to practice.
  3. Flashy technique is not the pinnacle of good bass playing.

I want to focus for a minute on that last point. Yes, technique matters. But playing fast is rarely the most important part of playing bass. Tone, groove, and fitting into the context of the rest music, where the bass is almost never the focus, are all, I would argue, far more important than ripping 32nd note runs at 200 BPM. Of course it depends on the genre, and on your goals as a musician.

These are my goals as a bassist: to play with a good tone, to lock into the groove, and to play lines that fit the music. And I think I’m in good company.

No, I am not implying that I am anywhere
near as good a bassist as Tony Levin.

I’m saying that he prioritizes the
music over flashy technique.

(Also, when he does want to do the flashier
stuff, he uses the Chapman Stick.)

Photo CC-BY-SA 2.0 Ian Muttoo

There’s also a fourth factor limiting my bass skills: since I’m a multi-instrumentalist, I’ve never tried to express all of my musical ideas on the bass. Playing other instruments has given me a measured perspective on the role of the bass in my own music.

OK, enough feeding the trolls. But even trolls sometimes make good points, and there is definitely a point here: even with the 10% discount I received from Fender, I expect a little more for $2000 than what I got with the Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass.

First impressions should never be made in the dead of winter

When I made the initial demo video, the bass had just arrived 24 hours earlier. (I let it sit for a day because it was the middle of a classic Minnesota January “deep freeze” where the high temperature was -8ºF.) I literally took it out of the box on camera. I shot the entire video, including doing what setup I could on a bass that was still adjusting to a new climate, that afternoon. I hadn’t had time to get to know the bass and really learn its strengths and weaknesses. Now that I’ve had it for three months, I understand it better.

There are a lot of really great things about this bass. But there are problems too. I’m judging it against my 2018 Fender American Professional Precision Bass. That bass, to me, is perfect. I mean, the Precision Bass and the Jazz Bass are very different beasts. But in terms of build quality, my American Professional P-Bass is as good as I’ve ever seen with a production instrument.

2018 Fender American Professional Precision Bass
Antique Olive, pickguard and pickup covers customized
La Bella Deep Talkin’ Bass Gold flatwound strings

2022 Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass
Arctic Pearl, no mods… yet
La Bella Deep Talkin’ Bass White Nylon tapewound strings

When I decided to get a Jazz Bass early this year, I admit I was swayed by the “Ultra” label… I decided that if I was going to spend a good chunk of money on an American-made Jazz Bass anyway, I might as well get the best production instrument Fender makes.

Well… OK. I will admit it. It’s (probably) not.

You can’t always get what you want

I used to want an American Elite Jazz Bass:

Source: Sweetwater

Then, Fender replaced the Elite with the Ultra. Overall, it seemed like mostly a lateral move. One really odd thing though, was the switch from the modern 3-screw high-mass bridge — the one that’s in my P-Bass — to the chunky 5-screw Hi-Mass bridge. Especially since it eliminates the string-through-body option. (They also changed the truss rod access in a way that definitely seemed like a cost-saving downgrade.)

3-screw bridge on the American Professional Precision Bass

5-screw bridge on the American Ultra Jazz Bass

This is the same bridge I had bought from Fender’s parts department to install on the “Frankenstein” fretless Jazz Bass I assembled a few years ago. It’s decent, but it’s not as nice as the 3-screw bridge, although it has the benefit of being drop-in compatible with the classic 5-screw bridge design, so it increases the mod potential.

The Squier Classic Vibe ’60s Jazz Bass that was the basis for my “Frankenstein” fretless. Source: Fender

But… who wants to mod what’s already supposed to be the “Ultra” bass? Hmm…

The bridge or not the bridge? Many factors affect the action

The Fender Hi-Mass bridge on the Ultra is chunky, and it affects how low you can set the strings. But how much does that really matter? Today we’re going to find out.

What is the goal of adjusting the action — a.k.a. the string height? Most players I know want the strings as low as possible, because it makes it easier to play fast notes… or really, just easier to play in general, because you’re not having to press the strings down as far, or as hard, to cleanly fret the notes.

I definitely want low action, because I want it to be easy to play. But the lower the action, the more likely you are to get fret buzz. Why? When you’re fretting a note, you’re basically creating a very long, thin triangle between the string, the bridge, and the neck.

Buzz happens when the vibrating string makes contact with other frets, so you need the angle between the string and the neck to be just large enough to keep the string from making contact with other frets. There are three ways to minimize buzz: adjust the truss rod to add curve to the neck, raise the bridge saddles, increasing the length of that “side” of the triangle, or… pluck gently, so the strings don’t vibrate as much!

It sounds like a joke, but the last point is important… turn up your amp and use a light touch, and you can really help this problem. It’s the only solution that doesn’t result in higher action. Still… this has been gnawing at me for 3 months with this bass. I’ve tweaked the truss rod and the saddles a bunch of times, tried modifying my plucking technique, and I just can’t get to a buzz-free sound without high action.

Some who have criticized Fender’s design of the Ultra Jazz Bass cite the height of the bridge as the problem, but I’m not convinced that is it. I can very easily lower the saddles and adjust the truss rod enough to get satisfactory “low action” on this bass… but at the cost of terrible buzz.

So, is it the bridge? We’re going to find out. As I mentioned earlier, I bought one of these bridges for a fretless Jazz Bass I was putting together — which, incidentally, I sold to help pay for this bass. The body of that bass was a Squier Classic Vibe ’60s Jazz Bass in Daphne Blue. I still have the stock bridge that came with that Squier. And now I’m going to install it on my American Ultra Jazz Bass, to see if a different, thinner bridge design can solve the problem of the high action on the Ultra Jazz.

Yes, I’m modding my Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass… by installing the bridge from an Indonesian-made Squier. Here we go.

Or… maybe not

That was the end of my prepared script for the video. The rest was going to, necessarily, come after I had swapped the bridge, which I was planning to do this morning as part of producing the follow-up video.

I woke up this morning not really wanting to spend the entire day making a video, not really wanting to swap the bridge on my Ultra Jazz, and… after having some coffee, realizing that I was still feeding the trolls (this post is too, but at least it’s less effort). I thought back to those diagrams of the “triangle” (which were still just images in my head at the time). And more importantly…

I realized that there was no possible way that swapping the bridge would help the situation.

Think about it: if the complaint is that the bridge is too thick, then I should already have the saddles bottomed out. Specifically, the action should still be too high when the saddles are bottomed out. And I’ve already verified that’s not the case. If I lower the saddles on the Hi-Mass bridge all the way, the action is fine. Beautifully low. But there’s terrible buzz. Putting on a different bridge that lowers the strings even more isn’t going to get rid of the buzz — it’s going to make it worse.

Clearly the issue I have is different. And it could probably be chalked up to my lack of expertise in guitar setup. The problem most likely could be fixed with a more careful truss rod adjustment, or possibly by shimming the neck.

I don’t have a caliper, so I can’t take a super-precise measurement of the string height. But I got out a tape measure and I compared the string height at the 12th fret on both the P-Bass and the Jazz.

String height on the P-Bass

String height on the Jazz Bass

It’s a bit hard to see because of the camera angle but… yeah, they’re pretty much the same. Within a millimeter of each other, at least. On both basses, the bottom of the E string is about 4 mm from the fretboard. (Yes, that is from the fretboard, not the top of the fret itself. It was just easier to measure this way, in this moment.) Both basses are set up fairly well in terms of fret buzz — not absolutely perfect, but little to no buzz unless I’m really plucking hard.

So… uh… what? The action isn’t really unusually high at all. It’s just my perception. But why is that?

I’m not saying it’s the strings, but… it’s the strings

The one factor, I think, that is making the biggest difference here is the strings.

I’ve had these La Bella gold flats on the P-Bass for about 6 months. I think they sound good, but I don’t really like them otherwise, for two reasons: first, they have a much higher tension than I’m used to, so it kind of hurts to play them after a while. And second, the alloy seems to have corroded slightly on the surface, making the strings a bit “sticky” to play, and they leave a distinctive metallic smell (and sometimes even black residue) on my fingers when I play.

I discovered the joys of tapewound strings during my shortlived ownership of a Schecter Stiletto Studio bass last year. (That bass had its own unique problems so I returned it.) When I got the Ultra Jazz, I immediately replaced its stock strings with these La Bella “white nylon” tapewounds. They are super-smooth and a joy to play. They are also much lower tension than the gold flats. I am now convinced that this is probably the biggest reason why I’ve had more issues with fret buzz on the Ultra Jazz than on the P-Bass.

I’m not in a huge hurry to test this theory though, for one kind of silly, superficial reason. I really like the look of the silk wraps on the ends of the strings, but I’ve learned that if you remove the strings, that silk frays really easily. So I’m trying to avoid removing these strings unless I absolutely have to.

Fortunately, for my next mod, I won’t. I’ve got a wild looking replacement pickguard coming next week. I can’t wait to see how it looks. (And, if it looks like crap, it’s easy to go back!) For now, those measurements I took are easing my mind.

Update (May 4, 2023): After I posted this, I continued to encounter some fret buzz issues, so I decided I would go ahead and try different strings. I had a set of D’Addario “half rounds” sitting around that I hadn’t tried out yet, so I put them on. They were better, but the E string was completely dead. Utterly useless… plunky and zero sustain. So I did a bit more research and decided to try DR flats. At least they call them “flatwound” but they seem almost more round than the D’Addario “half rounds”. Anyway, they’re much nicer, and seem to suit the instrument quite well.

Also… here’s that crazy pickguard I mentioned:

Which bass does Geddy Lee use for each song on Moving Pictures?

I have a reason, which will be revealed on my YouTube channel next week, for considering which type of bass Geddy Lee plays on each track of Rush’s 1981 masterpiece album Moving Pictures. There seems to be much debate out there in the world over which basses he used especially on Permanent Waves (1980), Moving Pictures, and Signals (1982), because he was known to play a Rickenbacker 4001 almost exclusively on their late ’70s prog albums, but he briefly worked a Fender Jazz Bass into the mix before going all-in on Wal basses in the mid-’80s (with an occasional Steinberger thrown in for peak ’80s futurism). From the mid-’90s on, Geddy has almost exclusively gone back to the Fender Jazz Bass.

So Moving Pictures really is kind of a pivot point, both for the band stylistically and for Geddy in terms of his bass gear. It is (I think?) well known that he used both the Rick and the Jazz on Moving Pictures, but which one does he use on which song, and how can you tell?

Well, “how can you tell?” comes down to ear and familiarity with the sonic characteristics of the different instruments. The Rickenbacker tends to have very deep, round low end and a ringing high end, with a bit of a scoop in the middle, whereas the Jazz Bass has a lot more midrange growl. That’s oversimplifying it, but once you know the sound, it’s not too hard to tell. So, let’s investigate, track by track.

“Tom Sawyer”
This one is kind of tough, actually. I feel like I could make a good argument for either, but I think my impression of the whole thing is too muddled because I’ve heard so many subsequent live versions of this song — Rickenbacker on Exit Stage Left and then Jazz on the 2000s live albums, plus the 5 times I saw them live — and Geddy kind of has “his sound” regardless of which instrument he’s playing, that I just can’t tell. Fortunately I do not just need to use my ears. The band produced music videos for several songs on the album from the recording sessions at Le Studio, and we can easily see in the video that Geddy is playing a Rickenbacker.

Update (3/8/2023): Not so fast! Geddy himself says in this video that he used a Jazz Bass on “Tom Sawyer.”

“Red Barchetta”
This one, I am fairly certain, is a Rickenbacker, even though Geddy has the mids cranked up. It’s really that first note he hits at the beginning of the guitar solo around 3:20 that is the giveaway to me. There’s no Le Studio video for this one, and on Exit Stage Left he’s playing a Rick, but he plays a Rick on pretty much all of that, so no help there. Not that we really need it.

It’s kind of hard to nail down the bass tone here because there’s a bunch of chorus on it, but I am fairly confident it’s a Jazz Bass. It has that Jazz Bass growl (as opposed to, y’know, that Rickenbacker growl). Once again you kind of have to focus on the bass during the guitar solo, because when Geddy and Alex are playing together in unison their sounds blend too much. I just think I am hearing the snarl of a Jazz Bass bridge pickup here. My introduction to this song was the A Show of Hands video from the late ’80s, and there, of course, he’s playing a Wal.)

OK, in listening to this one I absolutely thought it was the Rickenbacker, but hey there’s another music video from the recording of the album, and Geddy is playing a Jazz Bass. Of course the video also cuts to some fake “live” footage that shows Geddy playing a Rick, but that’s from the A Farewell to Kings era, carefully edited to make it (sort of) look like they’re playing “Limelight.” So I think it’s safe to say we definitely have a Jazz here.

“The Camera Eye”
This one is definitely a Rickenbacker. Probably the easiest one to tell on the entire album. I think the verse that starts at 7:30 is where it’s easiest to tell. No question on this one. I was lucky enough to see the band on the Time Machine tour, where they played this album in its entirety, and of course at that point Geddy played it on a Jazz Bass. (Side note: No disrespect to Geddy, but you can tell he is really reaching for some of those high notes, 30 years later. Reaching, but generally hitting them!)

“Witch Hunt”
This song really doesn’t sound like any other in the band’s entire catalog. And the bass on it is unquestionably a Fender Jazz Bass. I think once again the thing that distinguishes it for me is the midrange. The Rickenbacker has a scoop in the midrange but the Jazz Bass seems to be pumping out consistently at all frequencies. (But if your eyes can handle it, you can check out Geddy playing it on a Steinberger on the Grace Under Pressure tour a few years later.)

“Vital Signs”
This one also definitely sounds like the Jazz Bass to me. I think around 1:20 is where it is very easy to pick out the bass tone. Fortunately this is another one with a Le Studio music video, so we can confirm it.

So there you have it. To put it another way, here’s how I break down the album:

Rickenbacker 4001: “Tom Sawyer,” “Red Barchetta,” “The Camera Eye.”
Fender Jazz Bass: “Tom Sawyer”, “YYZ”, “Limelight,” “Witch Hunt,” “Vital Signs.”

Update (3/10/2023): Over at Scott’s Bass Lessons, my fellow Minneapolitan Ian Martin Allison has his take on each track. Our only difference, once I corrected my take on “Tom Sawyer” two days ago, is “YYZ.” But I still say I think he’s playing a Jazz Bass on that one!

A detailed look at my “Frankenstein” fretless Fender Jazz Bass

I got my first bass — a black Fender Standard (MIM) Jazz Bass — when I was in high school. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a great starter bass. And even though I didn’t really like the black body — I’ve always found black and sunburst to be the most boring and overused guitar finishes — I loved that bass until I could afford to buy a better one, ten years later.

But I always felt like that bass was flawed because of something that was my own fault. I was a curious kid, and one night I decided to take the bass apart. I mean, absolutely as far apart as I could. I removed the strings, the neck, the pickguard, the control plate, the pickups, the bridge… I think I even removed the tuning machines and bridge saddles. And then I put it all back together again.

But I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know that the pickup height should be adjusted for optimal volume balance, so I just cranked them all the way down. I didn’t know that the bridge saddles needed to be adjusted in two dimensions for optimal tuning and playability, so it was out of tune and had terrible action. I didn’t know that the neck tension rod should be adjusted so there was just the slightest concave curve to the neck, so I had fret buzz.

Basically, I just thought it was a mediocre instrument, when in fact I had made it that way.

The lesson I learned was that I should not make any adjustments to my instruments, and it took me decades to get over that.

Fast forward to 2019. I’ve been playing bass in a jazz quartet for a couple of years now, and I’ve been buying new basses! For the past decade I’d owned a really nice Fender Jaguar Bass (MIJ) — red with matching headstock and block inlays — and a kind-of-crappy 5-string MIM Jazz Bass. I decided since I was playing jazz, I needed a fretless, so I went for a minimal expenditure and bought a Squier Vintage Modified Jazz Bass.

I couldn’t believe how good the Squier was for the price! Better than my MIM Fender! So I decided to sell the 5-string. I was hardly playing it anyway. I was curious about short-scale basses, so I bought a MIM Fender Mustang. But I hated it. The quality was crap. I don’t know what’s going on in Fender’s Ensenada factory these days, but I’m not impressed.

For those who don’t know, Squier is Fender’s entry-level sub-brand. Originally a mid-level line made in Japan, then for many years they were very poorly made in China. These days, I’ve since learned, they’re mostly made in Indonesia, using mostly CNC robots (rather than overworked and mistreated human laborers) to keep costs low but consistency and quality much higher than their reputation would lead one to believe.

I also realized short scale was a bad choice if I was simultaneously trying to regain my feel for fretless, so I returned the Mustang and bought… a Squier Vintage Modified 5-string Jazz Bass. It’s also surprisingly great!

Then earlier this year I sold the Jaguar and upgraded to my first ever Precision Bass, an American Professional. It looks just like the bass I learned on that I borrowed from my high school, before I got that first black Jazz Bass. I love it!

But that got me thinking… now that I have a nice solid American Professional instrument, I wanted to tinker a bit with another bass.

As good as the Squier fretless was, I hated two things about it: the synthetic fingerboard material (it just didn’t give enough of a “woody” sound), and the boring sunburst finish. (See above.) By now I’m comfortable adjusting the neck tension, action, tuning, and pickup height, so the idea of doing some customizations (just not to my expensive American Professional!) is not intimidating anymore.

For 2019 Fender introduced a new “Classic Vibe” Squier series, and there I saw the bass of my dreams… a “Daphne blue” Jazz Bass. But it only came in fretted. So I decided this would become the basis for my Frankenstein monster!

Fast forward a few more months, and now the monster is complete. Pretty much the only parts of it that are still the original Squier are the blue body, the tortoise shell pickguard, and the control plate. Everything else is new, with the exception of the tuning machines, which I stole off the Squier fretless (I’ll get to that).

I just love that look of the Daphne blue body paint with the tortoise shell pickguard. That was the inspiration to make all of this happen!

Yes, there’s a bit of headstock vanity, as much as I’m ashamed to admit it… gotta have that Fender logo! But the main reason I wanted this Fender neck, instead of just sticking the Squier fretless neck I already had onto this (which I did, initially), was to get that nice rosewood fingerboard.

Funny thing… when you buy a stock neck from Fender, they really just send you the neck. It just has 4 holes in it for the tuning machines, but you have to supply those yourself. I could have bought a set, but I figured I’d just use the ones from the old Squier fretless neck that I didn’t need anymore. Of course, the screw holes didn’t line up quite right, so I had to drill new ones.

Nuts. The other thing about the stock neck is that the string grooves in the nut aren’t really there… just little pilot notches. You’re supposed to file it down yourself. But a set of nut files is like $80! I considered buying some, but then I learned that this synthetic nut material is soft enough that you can actually “file” it with a set of roundwound strings… so that’s what I did! (I play the fretless with flatwounds.) It’s not totally perfect, but it worked surprisingly well and didn’t cost a thing!

Seriously? Did I really need to swap out the neck mounting plate? Well, yes and no. No, of course I didn’t. But I kind of wanted to, to get rid of any traces of “Squier.” But there was actually a good, practical reason for this. I wasn’t 100% sure the screw holes for mounting the neck would line up properly between a Squier body and a Fender neck. I was pretty sure they would. But not positive. This was an inexpensive (about $15) way to confirm that it would work, before spending a couple hundred bucks on a neck. It worked!

A Fender hi-mass bridge. The stock Squier bridge was perfectly fine, but I didn’t care much for the changes they made to the bridge saddles with the Classic Vibe series. Initially I swapped in the saddles from the Vintage Modified fretless, but a hi-mass bridge is not a huge investment and it does improve sustain… plus it just looks better.

DiMarzio noiseless pickups. Without a doubt this was the best upgrade across the board. The stock pickups just had kind of a weak and undefined sound… it was impossible to get that classic Jazz Bass “twang” from the bridge pickup. Plus you could never really solo one pickup because the 60 Hz hum was awful! These pickups are a lot hotter than the stock ones and give a very distinctive tone. But most importantly, they’re wired as split coils so there’s absolutely zero hum with one pickup soloed!

Of course, there’s always something. These pickups are taller than the stock ones, and they couldn’t be seated low enough to have the proper distance from the strings. I needed to rout out the body cavities deeper for them. But I don’t own a router, or a drill press, or anything that you should probably have to do this job right. But I was determined to handle this the way I’ve handled everything else on this project: fast, cheap and out of control. I found the most suitable bit I had on hand for my hand drill, and set to work removing wood. The end result was pretty ugly (and honestly, still not quite deep enough), but it’s hidden, and now things look and sound great!

In the studio

I just spent a couple of hours working on my newest track, the one that inspired the whole project in the first place: “Candor Stetson.” I’m not quite ready to reveal it to the world yet, but I did want to share these photos I took of my gear at the ready. (Note the pile of children’s instruments on the desk at the far left of the first photo… these will be used… soon…)

Sorry for the quality (or lack thereof) in these photos. The iPhone’s camera is adequate at best, less so when there’s a film of whatever’s in my pocket on the lens.

I’m in love

Don’t tell SLP, but I’m in love. It happened this afternoon at the new Best Buy at the Mall of America. No, it’s not an affair. It’s a Jaguar Bass.

I’ve been planning to buy a new bass for several months now. My standard Fender Jazz is OK but it’s just not cutting it. The pickups are the big problem. Too buzzy. And one of the volume pots slips. I took off the cover plate and tried to tighten it, but I couldn’t. It’s a fine bass, but I just want something better. I got spoiled when I had an American Jazz Bass a few years ago. So I’ve been planning to upgrade to the Deluxe Jazz. Not quite as nice (or as expensive) as the American, but it has the same Made-in-USA pickups, plus active electronics, at a more reasonable price. And of course it is a 5-string, which has become second nature for me.

So as much as I was dazzled from the first time I saw it a few years ago by the Jaguar’s overwhelming array of switches, knobs and dials, the fact that it doesn’t come in a 5-string model was always a deal breaker for me.

But as long as I was there at Best Buy today, and it was too, I figured, why not just pick it up and try it? Big mistake. Before I even plugged it in, I could tell what it was going to sound like, and that I was, like, totally going to want it! And I did.

The sales dude really knew how to work it too. He was friendly and helpful from the get-go, and then he backed off and just let me play. After a couple of minutes of noodling around and testing the intonation across the fretboard (the next most critical thing about a bass after good pickups), I started playing a bit of the bass line from my favorite Yes song, “Heart of the Sunrise.” A minute later, “Roundabout” started playing on one of the PA demo units across the room. Wrong song, but right album. Kudos to him. If I do get the Jag (which seems more likely with every passing second as I write this), I’ll probably go back there for it. And he doesn’t even get a commission!

It doesn’t have 5 strings, but it sounds great and it looks great (and it comes from Fender’s Japanese shop, which is second only to the one in Corona, California for quality, at a significantly lower price), and it’s pretty much the same price as what I was planning to pay for the Deluxe Jazz. Good deal! (Of course, I also want to get a microKORG, but maybe I can kill two birds with one stone.)