Jesse Blue O’Neal
Building the first Warrior 12-string bass
Very few instrument builders will tackle the complexities involved with 12-string and 15-string basses. Custom guitar builder Jesse Blue O'Neal is up to the challenge!
Please tell us a little about yourself. How did you get involved with designing and building guitars?
I started drawing up guitars when I was about nine years old, and doing repair work when I was twelve. It was the 1980’s so putting Floyd Roses in Strats and scalloped fretboards were among the first things I learned to do. I just wasn't afraid to take a router to somebody's axe. Dad is a carpenter so I just figured that it wouldn't be much different and I had access to tools.
When did you become interested in the 12-string bass?
I started toying with the idea of a 12-string after becoming a King's X disciple. They're still one of my favorites: Faith, Hope, Love has 'full rock power'. But I hated the narrow string spacing on the Hamer 12's, about the only ones available at the time. I then went to work at a 'boutique' bass factory, and pushed to make a 12-string the way I wanted to. So on my own time I did all the design work, and everything (we ended up having to redo the bass with a wooden bridge because the hardware just wasn't available) twice, but I was really happy with the end result.
Is this is your first 12-string bass? I'm curious about the headstock and why the tuning machines are arranged 7 on one side of the headstock and 5 on the other, rather than being the standard 6 on each side.
Yes, that's the one. It was really just because I'm not into tradition, so I typically will move stuff around as long as it doesn't hurt anything. In fact, if you can tell in the pics of the guitars I sent you (see below), the tuning keys are reversed, and the string goes over the top of the posts, but because the 'treble' strings are on the bass side and vice versa, the direction you turn the button stays the same. But yeah, that's the beast - 5-piece Purpleheart / Wenge neck, walnut wings, with zebra top. Bartolini pickups, and Macassar ebony bridge and fingerboard.
Warrior went to the '97 LA NAMM show, which is where I met one of my best buddies in the whole world- Jauqo III-X. He immediately took to the new 12-string. Jauqo had played two Hamer 12’s that were built in the 1980’s. Jauqo reported, “I noticed Warrior had a 12-string bass, one of the better ones I had seen. I was very impressed with it's playability and it was similar to the bass I had in my head. Between each group of threes it had a spacing that was similar to a J-Bass spacing. Even though it was a 12 the spacing allowed me to play it as if it was simply a 4-string but it gave me the big sound of a 12. I was very impressed.”
Jauqo had the bright idea for a 15-string with a course of high C strings. To show how brave he is, he also specified that it be a fretless! Jauqo happens to like super-ultra-thin necks, so this bass (and all that have been made for him since) presented a series of design obstacles. The neck we made on that first bass still has the thinnest neck of any I've ever done - .625" thick! Obviously it had to have a custom truss rod made for it. The good news is that Jauqo also uses the lightest strings of anybody I know. I think the E string on one of his basses is like an .084" gauge... that's lighter than Mark King!
I'm amazed at how thin the neck is! How well is it handling the string tension? I presume that with lighter gauge strings the tension isn't nearly so severe.
As far as I know the 15-string bass is doing fine, again, it's a nine piece neck, Ebony fingerboard, and really light strings. Also, the truss rod is something I made using 5/32" carbon steel stock. Typical truss rods use softer steel and 3/16" stock, making the route shallower by a significant bit.
Do you have certain woods that you prefer to use or does that vary with each instrument?
If I were making a 12-string or 15-string bass, I tend to prefer multi-lam Purpleheart, Maple, or Wenge as they're quite dense and stable, after that, I don't have any preferences for wood use. I just don't like to use tops on bodies anymore, especially figured ones as I prefer the more 'open' sound, and I tend to do a lot of carving that I can't do on thin tops. Also particularly quilted figures tend to move around a lot.
Finally, do you play an instrument?
I play a 4-string bass, and when I want the coursed sound, I use a DigiTech Whammy pedal. Sorry, I know it's cheating, but in a bar nobody notices either way. It's a bass I made, in fact it's to the point now that I can't play another bass. I've just gotten so much into the feel of this one that it's become too awkward.
Thanks Jesse! And good luck on your future projects!