It's well known around these parts how much I love Firstman. Over the years I have collected A LOT of Firstman stuff from guitars and basses to catalogues and keyboards. Part of this appeal, apart from just being very cool guitars, was that this company essentially turned into Mosrite Japan in around 1970. Some of the history of Firstman is covered in other blogs but the bodies and some necks were made by Teisco Gen Gakki and the remaining necks, mainly on their Mosrite style guitars, were made by Kurokomo in Omachi who along with Kazuo Morioka (who owned and operated Firstman) would play a VERY important role in Japanese Mosrites soon after.
I've owned (and sold) a few of these First Man Baroque basses and they're always great and don't last long in the shop. The Hofner violin bass has a huge influence in Japan and there were many, many copies and inspired basses (and guitars) made by many brands and factories.
Firstman (or First Man) guitars and basses can really be broken down in to two main categories. They had a cheaper line that was essentially the standard "Teisco" style of guitars branded, along with Firstman, as many different names like Apollo, Kent, Liberty, Silvertone, Norma etc and then Teisco Gen Gakki also made higher end guitars for brands like Firstman, Idol, Burns, Excetro and Honey. These higher end guitars were filling a gap between "cheap" Japanese student and intermediate guitars and expensive imports and were, for the most part, very well designed and made.
All of Firstmans unique and crazy shapes were in the higher end series including these Baroque basses and they all feature multi ply binding on arch top and back hollow bodies and good quality finishes and hardware.
This one differs slightly to other Baroque basses I've owned in that it has the rarer blade style pickups that were used on Firstman guitars and basses and the neck is slightly different construction to the last two I've sold in the shop. At first glance it's almost identical but the nerdier among you (yeah, I include myself in that) will notice this one has an actual Mosrite Avenger style trussrod cover, not the usual triangle cover. Of course, Kurokomo made the necks for the Avenger/Mosrite style necks so this is a little "missing link" that fascinates people like me. This one also has a serial stamped in the end of the fretboard, like Mosrite which I have on some other Firstmans, but not seen on these Baroques.
I had been playing this bass around the workshop for some time and figured it was time to let it go as I've been selling a bit of my "non Mosrite" Firstman stuff along with a lot of my vintage Japanese stuff simply because I'm just not using it, and someone should be. It's always played well and I like these pickups. I'd put two of these in the shop recently and both went almost instantly so I figured someone would put this to good use.
I cleaned it all up and did a set up on it and the neck had just the slightest bow in it which was bugging me. The action was good and it played and intonated well, but that bow just bugged me ... I thought "I'll give that rod a quick tweak and this'll be sweet" ....
Well, I took the trussrod cover off and there it was. The end of the rod had been broken off by a previous owner with no end thread showing at all. No tweaking available. This one needed a new trussrod.
I took the neck off and removed all the hardware and made a cup of tea.
Removing a fretboard is a big thing for a guitar. It's not something I go into lightly and in the past I have removed fretboards that quite literally fall off as you try to remove them. I have also spent days removing them in pieces when they don't want to cooperate. The type of timber (both neck and board), construction method and age are all contributing factors to how I look at this job. Slab fretboards like this are generally more straight forward for removing but of course things like binding, blocks and material make every one of these slightly different. I generally use heat and/or steam to remove rosewood from most neck timbers.
I start with seeing just how cooperative the fretboard is going to be. forcing steam into the join at the nut end will give me an indication as to weather it wants to let go or not. I put a heat lamp on the area and when everything is warm, I force some steam into it and see if it's going to "lift" with a wide chisel. This one looked like it was going to play.
If there's no movement here after a couple of tries I'll remove the first (or third) position dot or inlay and work steam in from there. Animal glues usually soften well however most of these Japanese guitar manufacturers seem to have embraced PVA glues well before their overseas counterparts and these can be harder to soften. Having said that, I have removed fretboards from "boutique makers" who use epoxy, so PVA's are a walk in the park compared to them.
So, this one was moving and the steam was softening as I went. Once I'm satisfied the board is coming away from the neck, and not bits of board and bits of neck (which does happen) I slid a scraper under the board to stop the glue resetting as I worked down to neck. With each pas of the steam, the glue would soften, the chisels would loosen and I could move them along. You really have to keep an eye on how the glue and timbers are working with each other here. It's easy to get confident and try for large areas only to find you've taken some neck with the board or, split the fretboard.
A lot of these vintage Japanese guitars used good quality timber, especially by this period which helps immensely in jobs like this. Cheap, unprepared timbers usually crack and split with shocks like this and I've removed quality US made fretboards that splinter easily. Binding and inlays can also cause issues with big big block inlays weakening the board and making it harder. Remember, this piece of wood has 22 cuts across it that has the potential to break at any point if forced too far. I guess what I'm saying is, if you're thinking of doing this yourself, be careful.
It took about an hour to remove this board completely and it came off cleanly on both neck and board side. I like to clamp the fretboard on a piece of thick aluminium as soon as I get it off to keep it flat (ish) and let it dry. Depending on how much steam I've used/how drenched the board is, I might put it in the sun like this for a few hours.
I cleaned up the neck after letting it dry overnight (I put my heat lamp on it for 20 mins after the surgery) I removed the old rod by taking out the filler strips, which in this case were made of pine. These are inserted before the board is attached as the trussrod is curved downwards so when you tighten it, it tries to bend straight, and puts pressure on these strips which "bends" the neck against the string tension. I was going to use a modern double acting trussrod which uses a flat channel so I wasn't going to need these for reassembly.
I'm a huge fan of these flat channel rods in both single and double acting and I used these in later Wosrite and Tym guitars after they became commercially available. I used to make my own single, and later double acting rods myself but it was time consuming and these were cheap and great.
I routed the channel for the new rod after glueing some of the old filler strips into the centre of the original channel to give me a flat base. The new rod is slightly wider and shallower but needs a wider opening at the adjustment end for the Allen key end so I routed all of this and dropped the new rod in.
The fretboard had shrunk slightly (it's common on vintage guitars) before the operation with a VERY slight lip along the edge of the binding/neck and once removed and no longer supported across its surface area it settled slightly smaller than the neck. On a more expensive, collectible guitar I would have done things differently but on these I reattach the fretboard and match the neck to it once everything is dry and set. With both surfaces clean and dry the board goes back on with PVA and dries overnight in the clamps.
I usually set necks back with a VERY slight backward bow if I'm using a double acting rod. A guitar (or bass) neck lives it's life with considerable tension on it and being made (or repaired) with a slight back bow, for me, just helps a little, and if you've got a double acting rod, you can move in both directions anyway, although you rarely need to move forwards. I have a block of jarrah from my days of making fretboards that has the slightest bow in it but has been drying like this for 15 years so it's perfect for clamping necks in.
With everything dry and set I carefully sanded the neck edge to match the fretboard/binding and into the booth where I sealed it with some clear lacquer. I masked off the binding and sprayed black to repair the finish on the back of the neck blending it at each end and then a couple more coats of clear. Cut and polish and BAM, we have a working neck again.
The fretboard behaved beautifully and the binding stayed perfectly intact throughout, showing yet again the quality of these guitars. I cleaned the fretboard, glued the string guide back in and put the tuners back on and bolted the neck to the body and strung it up. I adjusted the rod for the slightest amount of tension and tuned it up.
After adjusting the action and intonation it played like a dream. Now, I didn't even give this a fret dress after this major surgery. I was prepared to after seeing how it played but the fretboard had gone back on so nicely, and the neck was so straight (straighter than before) that it played wonderfully all the way up the neck. I'll let it settle in more and see what it needs?
There are repairers who wouldn't have thought this job was viable on a "cheap" guitar like this and sent the owner away feeling guilty for not buying a "proper guitar" ... I've seen it, and I've never thought something wasn't worth fixing. These wonderful conglomerations of wire and wood mean different things to all of us and looking at them as "viable jobs" doesn't make sense to me. If I had more time I'd fix more of them. As it is I have plenty around to keep me busy for years.
Jobs like removing fretboards, resetting necks, removing/replacing timber on guitars is a big job and can affect the tone and playability of a guitar and jobs like this should be well explained to a customer before going ahead. It's impossible to say "how" a guitar will be effected before the operation but the shock to pieces of wood glued together for fifty years or more, suddenly released from their binds and reassembled can, and usually does make a difference, and owners need to be aware of that before going into these types of repairs. Personally, I think any repairer who says "It'll all be fine. I'll just fix it and it'll be exactly the same" is being a little ... carefree.
Having said that, this bass now plays and sounds great, and has a working trussrod which means it can live and make music for another fifty years or more.
I want to live in a world where we can fix things and keep them working, not add to landfill. I have spent over twenty years working on guitars, effects and amps with a leaning towards vintage Japanese (and Mosrite), as they are my passion and it's nice to see the newly acquired appreciation for some of these amazing guitars in the more mainstream. There's some incredible gear from this period and country and a lot of it has been scrapped over the years, passed off as "cheap Japanese" and discarded which is unfortunate, as, as I keep saying, these guitars, amps and affects are still completely playable (and repairable) after fifty to sixty years which shows the original design and manufacturing quality. I can guarantee I will not be able to say that about most of the guitars coming out of Asia in the last ten years, but some other, younger guitar repairer will.
This will be in the shop from Sunday. Drop in and have a play.