Contributed by Zack Messick of Re-Education Camp. Their album Psyop’s Boombox is available on iTunes.
Every musician remembers their first instrument. Some got it for a birthday, others for Christmas, or maybe it was purchased with money save up from a summer job. No matter how the instrument came to be owned, it holds a special place in the heart of the owner.
I remember my first bass. It was Christmas, and I was 12. After we had all opened our presents, there was a note that led me to the closet. When I opened the door, there was a brand new Squier P-Bass in cherry red with a white pickguard. It was beautiful.
The trouble is, that a lot of times a starter instrument is cheaper and lower quality. As a musician progresses, sometime they need more versatility or a different sound. Unfortunately, this often means that the first instrument gets traded in, or left forgotten in a closet.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. My first P-bass is still my primary instrument. Now it is nothing like it was when I first got it. In fact, the only thing still original about that bass is the body itself. But it’s soul is still there.
I’m, of course, talking about instrument modding. This can seem like a daunting task if you’ve never tried it before. Especially when you get into wiring of pickups or completely stripping down the instrument to the wood to repaint it. There’s always that fear that maybe you wont put it back together properly, or maybe it wont sound the same, or have that same feel. But I’m going to show you that with a little research and confidence, it can be done, and done well. On top of that, it is so worth it.
Most of my instruments have had several major modifications done to them, from new electronics or hardware to painting. Take my P-Bass; it has had all the electronics replaced in it, from the pickups to the pots and wiring. It has had a new neck placed on it along with tuner keys and bridge. It has also received about 4 different paint jobs. In fact, I just recently repainted it and will walk you through the process, in case it is something you’d be interested in doing. All this can be done for about $30-$40 dollars, depending on what you have on hand already.
First Things First
The first thing is obviously, to pick what color paint you want. Do you want flat? Gloss? Metallic? It all makes a difference. Most instruments are painted with a gloss paint, so that is what most will go with. You also need to decide if you want to use spray paint or get an actual paint sprayer. I have found that spray paint looks just as good and is much easier on the wallet (and what musician couldn’t use a few extra dollars?) The example I’m using is an early 90’s Dean bass. In this particular instance, I noticed that the base wood is maple and has a very nice grain pattern, so I decided to go with the natural wood, with some Danish Oil and flat polyurethane finish.
Once you have decided the color that you want for your new paint job, the next step is to remove all the electronics and hardware. This means bridge, strap buttons and all. You will also remove the neck (if removable). This particular bass is a neck-through design, so the tuners were also removed.
Now for the fun part…sanding. I recommend using an electric sander if at all possible as it will make the process a lot easier. First, you’d start with a rough grit of sand paper to get all the finish, paint, and any primer off. Once you are down to the wood and any surface blemishes are sanded out, you need to get it smoothed back out again by going over the instrument several times with a progressively finer sandpaper. Typically, a 320 grit will get it nice and smooth.
Primer & Paint
From here you will apply a primer coat. This is usually white or gray. Just something that the paint can sit on that is neutral, and wont blend with the wood grain. Spray 2-3 coats of primer on the instrument to make sure that all the wood is covered and even. After it cures, take that same 320 sandpaper and very gently remove any impurities on the painted surface. After that, simply wipe away any dust with a slightly damp cloth and it’s ready for paint.
You will want to spray several coats of paint onto your instrument. At least 4-5 coats should do. I usually just spray the entire can on, which is about 5 coats. Once this is dried, continue the same process as before, removing any impurities and cleaning the instrument off. In this example, I applied several coats of danish oil to bring out the wood grain patterns.
Which Lacquer Should You Use?
Here is the important part, the finish. There is an eternal debate amongst musicians about whether polyurethane or nitrocellulose lacquer should be used on an instrument, and how the tone is affected by each (if at all). Polyurethane will leave a stronger more protective coating, but the nitrocellulose lacquer will be like many older instruments and wear down with time and use, giving the instrument a nice vintage worn look. Either will work fine and can be purchased in spray paint cans. You’ll also have to decide between a gloss or flat finish. I chose flat, but most instruments will be gloss.
Once the instrument is clean, begin spraying the finish coat in thin coats every 30 minutes or so. You will need many coats. 10-15. This is usually two to three cans worth of finish, but trust me, it is worth it.
After the spraying is done, leave the instrument in a cool dry place to let the finish cure for about a week. You are almost done at this stage. The last step you will want is to polish up the finish. This can be done in a few ways. You can get some steel wool and rub it all over the finish, then wipe it off with a damp cloth, or you can use a polish (even a car polish). Both of these should bring out a nice glassy shine in the finish. Once finished, just put it all back together and give it a go.
I hope this helps anyone who has maybe been thinking about giving an old instrument a paint job, or making any other modifications to it. It is a great way to learn about how to do these things, but it also makes the instrument much more special. Not only does it have a sweet paint job now, but it was done by you and is the exact color you wanted it to be. Putting a little work into your gear just makes you appreciate it even more. Happy modding!
– Zack Messick