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Skjold Drakkar Catacomb 6 String Bass Review

Skjold Drakkar Catacomb 6 String Bass Review

Skjold Drakkar Catacomb 6 String Bass Review

  • 34” Scale length
  • Obeche (African whitewood) chambered core
  • Figured walnut top and back
  • 1 piece quarter sawn bolt-on maple neck
  • Pau Ferro fingerboard
  • Evo Gold narrow fret wire
  • Skjold integrated playing ramp
  • Skjold/Armstrong dual coil pickups
  • Skjold/East Uni-Pre preamp.
  • Skjold/Hipshot proprietary bridge with graph tech string saddles
  • Hisphot tuners

 

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There is a particular kind of satisfaction that comes with playing a bass that is just plain exceptional. More often than not, if you look hard enough, you can find something about an instrument that could have been done better. Between my part-time job reviewing basses, and my own twisted obsession with seeking out the worlds most skilled bass luthiers, I’ve had the pleasure of playing some truly wonderful basses. Through all this, I’ve grown to deeply respect the rare and small group of bass luthiers who are able to consistently produce great instruments. By great I mean: instruments that are exceptionally well designed and thought out, perfectly constructed with the best materials, which nail their target tonal goal, and play almost better than imaginable. When Pete Skjold stopped by my house to deliver my new bass on his way to a local expo, he shared with me the 5-6 basses he had on hand for the show. I was stunned (not only by how my instrument turned out, but) by how incredible each and every bass was, in its own right. No matter the bass, it seemed like Pete just nailed what that instrument was born to do. Like a master sculptor who sees a slab of material and naturally understands how the medium wants to be worked, Pete seems to have a sixth sense about how the pieces fit together toward the desired outcome. Its no wonder he’s called “the wood whisperer”. His deep command of how to combine elements toward a desired end result is frighteningly sharp. Every one of his basses I picked up was better than the last! I remember looking at him after playing 4 or 5 different Skjolds and blurting out “So… you’re kind of a freak, eh?” I meant it in a good way!

Many people familiar with Skjold’s work will recognize his distinctive shapes. The clear vision of Pete’s design goals is evident in all of his models. Skjold recently unveiled some new models, several of which are revamps of his previous designs, having evolved naturally over the decades that Skjold has been building. The Drakkar model evolved from the Damian Erskine signature Whaleback, Pete’s flagship single cutaway bass. The Drakkar includes several aesthetic and functional tweaks, including a somewhat more rounded and streamlined appearance than the Whaleback. For my tastes, the visual refinements are spot on, and the result is an extremely pleasing looking and feeling instrument.

Besides the new Drakkar body shape, this instrument features Pete’s heavily chambered and extra thick body, appropriately designated as a “Catacomb” model. Pete wanted to design a semi-hollow bass that imparts desirable acoustic properties such as “air”, “depth” and “bloom” to the sound, but doesn’t lose the low mid punch and focus that can sometimes result from semi-hollow construction. This is a tough balancing act, as many builders will attest to, and the Catacomb truly does nail the best of both worlds. Having played a handful of high end semi-hollow/chambered instruments, this bass has the focus and authoritative push of a solid body instrument, but has an unmistakable bloom and depth to the notes that really add dimension to the sound.  As Damian Erskine puts it: My Skjold Catacomb was an attempt by Pete and myself to develop a bass that was 100% even across it’s entire range, had a bit more ‘wood’ in the sound when necessary but also still gets growly and burpy with the best of them. I don’t know how he did it, but he nailed it. It’s the only 6 string I’ve ever loved the PASSIVE sound of. I bypassed the preamp in the bass and only play it passively because it just sounds perfect to me.”

Construction-wise, there is literally nothing on this bass that is out of place or could even remotely be considered a flaw.   The neck is slim and buttery smooth, with nicely rounded edges and impeccably dressed frets, and the whole bass sports a satin finish that lets you feel the wood grain under your fingers.   The gorgeous walnut top and back is slightly enhanced and glows with a rich warmth. The one-piece maple neck is rock solid and feels lovely under the fingers. The Pau Ferro fingerboard is a lovely specimen, and the fretwork is, literally, second to none.

I ordered this bass with Pete’s custom Kent Armstrong dual coil pickups, and the East/Skjold pre, which is based on the new John East Uni-Pre preamp.   The firm warmth and solid low end of the pickups was very well complemented by the powerful and versatile preamp. In addition to active bass and treble boost, a semi parametric midrange stack, volume, blend and passive tone, the East preamp features some impressive controllability via settings in the control cavity. There, you can adjust the individual pickup volumes, the frequency for the treble knob, and the bass “window”. Two thumbwheels allow you to tailor the center frequency and width of the bass boost/cut. You can also select whether you want a flat tonal response, or the classic upper-midrange curve that many familiar with the popular East Retro/Deluxe will recognize.   All of this is pure gold, if you ask me. No two basses are alike in their frequency response, not to mention that bassists have a wide range of preferences for how they like their onboard eq to work. The East offers the ability to customize your preamp to your tastes, your instruments’ inherent tone, or any other variable. Having owned a bass with this preamp in the past, I an enamored by the ability to tailor my onboard EQ so that it performs JUST how I like it to.

Two dual coil pickups are located under the pickup “ramp” that Skjold sets into the body. The integrated Skjold ramp is an elegant and highly functional solution for those who like playing ramps. Rather than two pickups with a slab of wood in between, the Skjold ramp offers a uniform playing surface with no edges or contours to navigate, and makes for a very satisfying experience for guys like me, who have adapted their technique to using ramps.  Skjold offers ramps made from exotic woods (to match the top, for example), but I ordered the standard version, made from a cast resin, which is nicely textured, feels solid, and has the Skjold logo laser etched in a very classy and subtle way.

Gigging is of course the great litmus test for an instrument, and I always like to see how a bass will perform ‘when the rubber meets the road’. Any sonic weirdness or tonal imbalances usually become pretty obvious when stuck in a busy mix on a loud stage. The thing that immediately impressed me about the Drakkar (besides how shockingly even it was from top to bottom) was how big and authoritative it sounds. It speaks with a huge, deep voice that really commands the bandstand. Band mates were quick to say that the Skjold sounded decidedly more assertive and full than other basses I’ve played. The Drakkar’s sonic authority sound made it easier to ‘play the band’: keeping everyone on point, driving the rhythm, informing the melody, and generally shaping the direction of the music.

The Drakkar came strung with a medium gauge set of Skjold Hybrid strings, which employ a combination of steel inner wrap with nickel outer wrap, resulting in a taut, focused sound with fantastic clarity and fundamental. I requested the bass with low action, and what I got was what I like to call “stupid low”. I could barely play the darn thing, and it had zero fret buzz! (Who is this guy?) Raising the saddles a hair resulted in low action with fantastic playability and tone. In an effort to bring out the woody and complex midrange, I tried a set of Skjold light gauge flat wound strings as well as a set of GHS Pressurewounds. The Flats offered just that: woody complexity and strong fundamental (and were surprisingly articulate) but I couldn’t quite get used to the flatwound feel on this particular bass. The GHS were a great middle ground, with their compressed outer windings. These hit the mark nicely, taming the highs and upper mids, while offering wonderfully smooth tone and feel. I also experimented with a set of Skjold Tension Balanced strings, which brought out a lot more clarity and detail in the upper mids and high end. I loved how each set really brought out different aspects of the Drakkars complexity, but at the end of the day, went back to the trusty Skjold Hybrids as the best overall matchup. Go figure, Pete nailed it again.

I ordered this bass from Pete to use as my main instrument, as I play six string most of the time. I am the first to admit that I’m very picky about basses, especially six strings. It’s pretty tough to make a bass that excels in its entire frequency range, and that was one desire that Pete and I discussed at length. We had many conversations about tone, feel, and aesthetics, and when the bass arrived, I was blown away by how well the instrument exceeded my expectations (which were admittedly very high). Whatever I thought this bass was going to be, I was shocked by how well it suited me, and how precisely he nailed the various and hard to describe attributes I had in mind for this instrument.

Skjold’s customers are really the best testament to the quality of his work. If you ask a Skjold owner to tell you about their instrument, they invariably gush over how great the bass plays and sounds. In fact, I know of more than one connoisseur/collector of the world’s finest basses, who have said that even though they own a variety of killer instruments, their Skjolds are the ones they would grab, god forbid, in the event of a disaster. If that’s not a true endorsement, I don’t know what is.

Having played a wide handful of his basses, it’s abundantly obvious that Skjold ‘gets’ bass building on another level. He understands not only how wood sounds and behaves, but also how each ingredient in the recipe acts in relation to the whole ‘dish’. He knows how to not only craft a bass that is rock solid, reliable, and sensitive, but one that is specifically tailored to his customers requests. These days, it may not be that hard find a luthier to build you a custom instrument, but finding one with the intuitive knowledge and expertise to consistently produce flawless, perfectly balanced basses is still a very rare and special thing.

Find out more about Skjold Design Guitars by visiting website www.skjolddesign.com.

 

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