Last week I achieved a goal that I've had for seven years, one that's even documented back in the earliest days of this blog: I bought a Jetglo Rickenbacker 4003 bass. Bass Northwest may have one of the world's most hideous store websites, but they delivered where it counts. And while I was there, putting my name on the list to get this bass, they told me an interesting story.
Rickenbacker only makes fifty basses a year, they said, and those basses are made in what (from a store's perspective, not Rickenbacker's) is essentially a random order. The company doesn't tell stores what color or type they're making on any given day, or when they can expect an item to arrive. Instead, a store will just get a note from the Rick factory in response to their standing order, letting them know that an instrument is on the way. You might think that this unpredictability would make it difficult for stores to sell these basses, but in fact the extreme rarity of Rickenbackers (not to mention the voracity of their fanbase) means that they find homes almost immediately.
Why does the Rickenbacker company make so few instruments each year? I don't know the exact reason, but I suspect it has a lot to do with it being a family-owned business--one that's extremely possessive of their designs (Ric is notoriously litigious towards "generic" versions of its guitars) and therefore still builds everything here, where they can retain close control. The management at Ric is obviously really proud of their domestic manufacturing. Each bass comes with a little "made in USA" sticker on the pickguard, which (on a black and white instrument) makes it look a bit like it's wearing a flag pin on its lapel. I almost expect it to run for office.
For whatever reason they've chosen to do it, Rickenbacker's stubborn refusal to move production overseas stands out. Practically nothing else that I own is built here, musical or otherwise. It's possible that a lot of things can't be produced domestically anymore: the New York Times had an article the other day on bringing manufacturing back to the US, and the difficulty of reviving an industry after so much of the skills and infrastructure supporting it have been outsourced. It turns out that manufacturing, which would seem like a largely solved problem, really isn't--and it's not easy to catch up if we fall behind.
Stop me if I get too Friedman-esque, but for me, seeing that little flag sticker on my new bass highlights a tremendous tension in today's globalized marketplace. I think Rickenbackers are probably designed better than instruments built overseas (they'd have to be, since there's no economy of scale to subsidized waste) and I like that their manufacturing is subject to our regulation. But the irony is that I might not have learned to play bass if everything was made like (and cost as much as) a Rickenbacker. My first bass, which I still own and play, was a $300 factory-made Yamaha BB404 from Taiwan.
So I'm trying not to be incredibly snobby about where my new bass is made, because I owe my ability to play it to cheap construction. Simultaneously, though, I think there's a lot of value in Rickenbacker's model, and I wish we did more to encourage domestic production--not out of jingoism, but as a way to keep our skills sharp and our products humane. Maybe that's a lot of baggage to lay on a single bass, but I've been waiting seven years for it, after all: I think it might be forgiveable to obsess a little.
Reminds me of the Rondo Retro that I wanted so badly in a bass version. It's interesting, that Lace seems to have been motivated partially by environmental factors:
The Helix bass is equipped with the revolutionary Alumitone pickup, designed by Jeff Lace. These Alumitones are a 'current driven' design, rather the traditional voltage based pickups, allowing the musician a higher fidelity or 'broad-band response' that helps to create a tighter top-end, more mid-range and a huge bottom end. This passive pickup outperforms many active systems, and the sonic output level generally exceeds that of similar preamp equipped basses. With today's increased environmental concerns, Lace also wanted to create a lightweight, advanced pickup that doesn't contribute to pollutants caused by discarded batteries. "By using the Alumitone, the need for conventional pickups with a preamp and battery are eliminated, and you lose almost two pounds of weight, without compromising output or performance," states Jeff Lace.Ignoring the marketing-speak, I hope that this is something more luthiers will start to keep in mind. I doubt that the industry is equivalent to e-waste in terms of impact, for example, but the use of exotic hardwoods has often been something that made me wince about Warwick's basses, for example.
It's not terribly expensive, either. The bolt-on version is $420 at Musician's Friend. Not that I need another bass.
This is a hard instrument to describe. "Conservative" may be the most accurate word--not in the political sense, but in the way that it really takes no chances with either its styling or the modeling technology. I tend to think that's a disappointment, but the Variax does make it a phenomenal recording instrument. After five months with it, I'm not sure I'd take it live, but it's a real asset to the home studio, especially at the current, reduced price.
Physically, the Variax is kind of a Super Stingray. The body style, neck width, and the sheer heft of the thing are all very similar to the revered Music Man basses. It's a heavy, chunky bass with a solid feel. Clearly, the Stingray has been a broad success, and Line 6 probably made a wise choice to ape its look and feel. But the imitation is also a little stifling. For one thing, what I tend to notice first is the wide string spacing. Ever since replacing the bridge on the All-Star with an adjustable Gotoh model, I've stuck with a very narrow distance from string to string, which feels faster to me. The Variax's wide neck and bridge put a lot more space between each string, and aren't adjustable. That's understandable, since I'm sure creating a fully-adjustable piezo bridge is very difficult, and it's great for slap-happy Stingray fans, but it's frustrating that a modeling bass (with several small-scale or narrow-necked instruments on tap) locks players into a single bridge configuration.
Of course I'm going to complain about the fret access on the Variax as well. But it's not so much that the frets are limited--21 still seems a little cramped after learning on 24, but it's honestly only 3 fewer semitones, and that's why I own a Whammy. I'm more frustrated by how hard the body style makes it to reach those last few notes. Like many Fender-style instruments, the Variax has a lower cutaway but it's not contoured into the body to accommodate the fretted hand. It's painful trying to reach up past the 19th fret or so. Players who tend to stick to the bottom octave of each string aren't going to find this objectionable--but again, why make a modeling bass so stingy and unforgiving, especially since several of the models (particularly the Thumb and the Alembic) prominently featured the high frets?
Let's talk about the models, while we're on the topic. With more experience using each of them, I've definitely found some favorites. The usual suspects (Fenders, Stingrays, and Rickenbackers) are for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from their inspirations in the mix. The Hofner Beatle Bass and Gibson EB-2D models offer a very cool glimpse into instruments where their flaws have become strengths--the Hofner's lack of sustain and the Gibson's woofy, indistinct bassiness are both modeled well. The acoustics are wonderful, especially since real acoustic basses (either acoustic-electric or upright) can be so finicky. With that said, the flatwound models are still not terribly convincing, and the eight-string bass is still awful, with pitch-shifting artifacts all over the place. I'm not sure why the twelve is better-behaved, but it's much more convincing, as long as you don't let notes sustain too long. There's one caveat on that, however: I've noticed that sometimes the EQ for the 12-string goes out of whack, and notes become unbearably tinny. It's not something I can reproduce reliably, but it does seem to happen more often when playing chords. I'd hate to imagine it going haywire live.
Even setting aside the useless flatwound settings, there are still several models on here that just seem to have been included for trivia purposes and not for any distinct sonic character. It seems silly, for example, to imitate a Steinberger on a bass that's so physically its opposite. I also can't imagine that anyone actually needed four jazz basses just for the fretless and active preamp options, especially since the Variax effectively adds active EQ to all its passive models. I'd have easily traded several of these models for the ability to create custom presets like on some of the guitar Variaxes--considering that I'll never use the eight-string bass, it's kind of a pain that I always have to hit an additional selector knob to skip it and go to the 12-string. The fusion with the PodXT Live (which also powers the bass, eliminating the intrusive power adapter) no doubt addresses these picked nits, but it's another $400.
All of these little frustrations make the "user interface" for the Variax a slightly mixed experience, one that doesn't make for a lot of customization in either software or hardware. And the sounds themselves, while excellent in quality, are also fairly conservative. There's nothing really off-the-wall here. The bass even feels a little stiff and unresponsive--although it has no problems with dynamics and it never feels "computerized," what it doesn't do is respond to playing on different parts of the string. I suspect this has to do with the piezo inputs, which only see the string at its very end, compared to the wider central viewpoint of a traditional pickup. It's disconcerting, after learning to manipulate tone manually on a passive bass, to move from plucking at the bridge up to the neck and not hear much of a difference.
Yet that same control is part of what makes the Variax a great recording tool. You can be pretty sure that you can get any classic tone you want out of it, without too many variables to mess it up (the noiseless piezo is very nice in an unshielded electrical environment, I must admit). And although the generic feel of the instrument is inferior to your favorite, customized bass, that's not the point. Once you get used to it, the Variax provides basically the same thing for instruments as the Pod did for amps: it's a good sound in a very small space, accessed in a way that isn't going to thrill anyone, but also isn't likely to send them screaming for the hills either. You need some small amount of engineering skill to get the best out of the Variax. You shouldn't expect it to replace a primary axe, especially for live use. You absolutely should not learn to play on a Variax. But I'm rather fond of it as a utilitarian tool for doing fast, effective recording. If you go in with that as a goal, I think you won't be disappointed.
The problem with judging the Variax bass is that it really needs to be put into a live or recording context for a real evaluation. For one thing, the differences between the modeled instruments are often not entirely apparent at low volumes, so you need to be able to turn up the volume. Also, like all instruments, it sounds different in a band context, and that's really where the models come into their own. When solo'd, they tend to sound very similar, because at heart all basses are still just vibrating metal strings bolted to wood. But with other instruments, the individual attributes of the modeled basses start to come through--the bounce and snap of the Stingray's preamp, for example, or the thick boom of the T-Bird's humbuckers. At the very least, you need to hear these basses with drums. So to get a bit more of that perspective, I took the Variax to one of my band auditions this weekend. I don't think the band is likely to work out, but I'm happy with how the bass sounded.
The space itself was a small practice room, which tended to accentuate the treble a bit. On most active basses, you'd want to turn down the highs, and you can do that with the Variax on both passive and active models. Unfortunately, when you change models, the knobs reset to their saved positions. So the first performance lesson is that room-tuning has to be done from the amplifier--probably the best place to do it anyway.
The band concept this audition was a kind of funk/hip-hop/rock fusion, and the tracks I played with had lots of synth pads and samples already worked into them. The bandleader said he was interested in the kinds of extended-range bass that I do, but that kind of music (Tupac meets Prince, in his words) really calls for an old-school thump from the bass. I used the Thunderbird and the P-bass models for the most part, and was pleasantly surprised by them. I'm not entirely sure if they're accurate models, but they're both good bass sounds. They've got plenty of impact, and they cut through the mix to support it without really stepping out in front.
In fact, that tends to be what I find most interesting about the Variax so far, and also what I find disturbing. When my main axe was the All Star, which is a J-bass clone, I learned a set of techniques for getting different sounds on it: variations on where to pluck the strings, the interactions between the pickups, and the tone knob. I had to learn those, because a passive instrument doesn't really have much in the way of tone-shaping. On an active instrument, you have an EQ built in, which adds a new layer of versatility. The Variax actually models both the passive and active tone circuits of its basses, but I found myself using the models themselves as tone presets instead of spending much time with the treble and bass controls. Until I get to know them all better, that's probably how it's going to go: I've basically got about 10 new basses to learn, after it took me three years to really feel like I was wringing good stuff out of a single instrument.
We also played some of my own stuff, which is... interesting... when adding a drummer and guitarist. The Rickenbacker has rapidly become one of my favorite sounds on the Variax, and it sounded the way I thought it should. There's definitely some of that piano-ringing clarity to the sound that I would expect from a Rick. I also flipped back to my J preset, which solos the neck pickup, and got pretty much exactly what I'm used to, although it seems a little stiffer than the All-Star. It's so hard to do precise comparisons of these things, especially since they're not modeling my instruments (although that would be a nice touch), but a set of vintage basses that I've never touched.
Overall, it was a pleasant experience. The Variax never felt digital or artificial, although I didn't expect it to. I did find that the synth sounds, using my presets, came across as thin and weak, although with a little tweaking they started to stand out a bit more. But the bass sounds are solid, and they really do start to distinguish themselves a bit more in context. I don't think it's a good first instrument, because I think musicians need to learn (as I did) on something that makes them work a little harder and develop their technique to compensate for any limitations of the hardware. The Variax doesn't replace a great instrument, either--now that I've heard the model, I'm even more interested in a real Rickenbacker. But it does replace the instruments that players can't afford, or wouldn't play enough to justify buying. And it's definitely got value as a workhorse for people who only want to carry one bass, or who want to experiment with different tones.
There are fourteen people "watching" my Cort bass on eBay. They've been there pretty much the whole week. No-one has bid on it yet. No-one has asked any questions. Maybe they just like to watch.
It makes me kind of nervous.
I like it. But then, I like just about anything for three days or so. I've made an .mp3 of a few of the better models, complete with rambling narration. The executive summary is that the jazz bass sounds are pretty good, the Stingray's not bad, the 12-string is better than the 8-string, the acoustics are believable, and I really love the synthesizers. There are a few that I can see being useful--the Alembic is a good sound, but I've never even been near an Alembic, so I couldn't say if it's accurate. I think the weakest models are the flatwounds, the Hofner, and the Gibson EB-3, but the worst of all is the Jaco fretless imitation.
So far I don't feel ripped off. Let's see what I think next week.
A couple of days before Christmas I got a call from Larry Hartke. Hartke is the man who owns and runs Hartke Amplifiers, which you may know better as "those bass amps with the aluminum speakers and the reputation for blowing up." Of course, he didn't just call me out of the blue. For the last few months, the back page ad for Bass Player (and probably other bassist magazines) has featured Larry and his cell phone number, and asked people to call. Then they updated the ad, and said that Larry wanted to hear people's music. I'm a sucker for futile promotion efforts, so I called and left a message.
Larry called back a couple of days later, and we had a brief chat. He asked what kind of gear I used, and what kind of music I play. I mentioned the web site for the pretentious solo project, for which I have been woefully unproductive this vacation, and asked how the response to the ads has been. Hartke said he gets between 50 and 60 calls a day. "I've missed a lot of playoff games," he said, but added that he'd heard from bassists all around the country. Have hearts and minds been changed? Probably not, but that sounds like a pretty good connection to the community--and now people know who to call if their amp has problems, until he changes his number.
He's also sending callers a free set of bass strings, so if yours are sounding a little dull, it probably wouldn't hurt to ring him up.
The Cort Curbow requires some degree of explanation just for the name. It was designed by the late Greg Curbow, a luthier well-known for extended range basses. Curbow doesn't manufacture this bass, however--they pass that on to Cort, maker of lots of odd low-end instruments. The Cort Curbow is also interesting in that it's not made of wood. It's actually built from luthite, a kind of synthetic foam that's supposed to sound like wood while being much lighter. The bass certainly looks futuristic enough.
Here's the problem, and it's a killer: the Cort Curbow has serious dead spots. Dead spots occur when the materials and construction of an instrument resonate with the strings, so that the vibration energy is dampened. The effect is basically that the note fades almost immediately. Almost all basses have dead notes somewhere, some worse than others. Fender-style basses are usually dead between the 7th and 9th frets on the G string.
The Cort has dead spots on either side of A# all up and down the neck. That means within a few frets of the 13th on the A string, the 15th on the G string, and the 8th and 20th on the D string. In fact, I'm not sure that they're dead spots in the traditional sense at all, because they move when the strings are tuned up or down. It's more that the whole bass resonates at multiples of 440Hz.
Is that such a problem? After all, the Cort Curbow is a cheap bass, and incredible sustain is perhaps more than we could expect. But dead notes to this extent also cause problems for someone like me who plays chords or double stops on a regular basis. Play a B chord up on the neck, and the B's decay, leaving only the fifth playing (in this case, F#). The problem is made worse with distortion, so that my fuzz chords lose important notes, and sometimes turn into different chords altogether. Clearly, I can't just work around this, never playing an A chord. That's a fundamental flaw in the instrument.
If I got a bass with this problem once, I would (and did) write it up to a manufacturing error. But this is the second Cort Curbow that I've ordered. Perhaps it was silly to try again, but the first instrument came from an online retailer and might have been faulty. For the second time, I ordered directly from Curbow, the luthier. For a price premium over the online shops, Curbow sets the Cort-manufactured bass up in their own shop. I wrote to them, mentioned the dead spot problem, and asked them to check before they shipped the new bass out. Getting a second bass with the exact same problem, down to the location of the dead spots, implies that this isn't a manufacturing problem--and indeed, the bass itself is very well-constructed. I'm guessing it's actually a design issue, probably centered in the luthite material that Curbow doesn't usually employ.
Whatever the explanation, it's not a usable instrument. I hate to say that. I really wanted to like the Cort, but all those extra frets don't do any good if they can't be used to play several notes from each octave. Return policy permitting, I'm sending it back to Curbow this weekend.
UPDATE: Curbow doesn't issue refunds. They're in discussions with Cort, but I'm not filled with confidence that this will end well. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to alter this bass so that it won't resonate at these frequencies? I'm considering replacing the body with re-routed parts from an Epi SG or a cheap Ibanez.
Everyone's favorite cheap-but-quality instrument shop, Rondo Music, has a guitar with the exact body shape I'd love to see on a bass:
I love everything about it. Classic-looking, but still a little edgy--what William Gibson called "raygun gothic." Even better, when I e-mailed them about it, Rondo says they're considering making a bass version. I suggested two single-coil pickups and the same switching scheme as the guitar version. Whammy bar optional.
As I wrote my review, I recently bought a Cort Curbow bass. I ordered it from Curbow Stringed Instruments directly because I hoped that ordering straight from the designer would be a safer proposition than one of the online retailers. Indeed, Curbow representative Simon Griffiths assured me in response to my concerns about instrument problems:
Sadly, Mr. Griffiths exaggerated his case. The bass is faulty to the point of unplayability, due to a pronounced resonance issue. And, he then informed me when I let him know about the problem, Curbow does not back these instruments with a refund policy. And because they state as much at the bottom of their terms and conditions, although not in any of the e-mail interactions I had with Mr. Griffiths, my credit card company can't do anything except advise me not to buy from them again. I'm stuck with an instrument that is unplayable--a defect that appears to be a recurring part of the design.
I'm writing this because I've found that Mile Zero sometimes rises to the top of the Google stack when searching on more obscure topics--and the Cort Curbow is a pretty obscure bass. I can't recommend this bass, but more importantly I would urge any prospective customers to forgo purchasing an instrument from Curbow Stringed Instruments, period. Their refusal to stand behind their own "optimum playability," for which I paid a premium of about $70 over the price of other online shops which would have offered me a refund, is craven. I wouldn't buy another Cort Curbow from them, and I certainly wouldn't send them the high-dollar fees for their custom bass solutions.
It pains me to say this. I've heard very good things about Greg Curbow, the founder of the company and by all accounts a fine luthier with a genuine concern for his customers. But if that was the case while Greg was alive, it does not appear to be true now. Caveat Emptor.