In last month’s column (Sep/Oct ’07), I laid out my goal for the Top Shelf: to review top-notch gear for the discerning player, pointing out the more distinctive aspects of each piece. For this month’s issue, my players and I were lucky enough to have three spectacular fretless basses: a 5 string, a 6 string, and a 7 string. We also got to add the Aguilar Agro distortion preamp to our house rig for the week, which was a blast.
F Bass Alain Caron Fretless 6 String
This instrument has a 34.5-inch scale three-piece maple neck. The fingerboard is ebony and has twenty-eight positions with a highly functional, as well as ornamental, marking system. The electronics feature a magnetic pickup and an ebony bridge with a piezo system. EQ is handled by a bypassable, three-band, boost-only preamp. The body is chambered maple with a wonderfully figured redwood top. The description that fits best is “orchestral.” The bass has a certain gravitas that makes it seem as though it would sound great in environments ranging from classical to jazz. The two types of pickups and the three-band EQ give it an amazing variety of tones, ranging from punchy and purring electric voices to acoustic-flavored tones that we all felt were truly beautiful. No one noticed the scale length, regardless of what length they normally played. Because of its very balanced and ergonomic design, the Caron feels great on a strap and is quite playable in all positions. The bass had several regular, enthusiastic visitors, as well as one player who actually came back to have his picture taken with it—a first for us (other than a customer taking a long-coveted piece home). This man felt that the Alain Caron F Bass is a rare, special instrument that is also an astonishing work of art, and so did a lot of the rest of us. Visit online at www.fbass.com
This instrument came to us with such a super-low setup that it had more “mwhah” than any other fretless in the shop; you almost had to try to stop it rather than make it happen. When we raised the action, the balance flipped to favor the solid note, making the bass sound deeper and more authoritative while still retaining its signature growl. Its beautiful acrylized bloodwood board adds warmth to the graphite neck and makes the growls a little more organic than a composite board. The incredible bishopwood top capped off the bass’ pleasing, well-balanced shape. The mids of the proprietary BEE pre were perfectly voiced for anything we tried to do with them. The overall voice is nice and open, and the adjustable, full-range pre gain allowed for either boost or unity pre-EQ. The very exotic look and wide range of tone, along with a neck that looks a lot bigger than it feels, make for a great bass. A few players got lost in the 7-string woods, but nobody was tripped up by the size of the neck or stretches. This would be amazing for a solo stylist or other boundary pusher. Visit online at www.beebasses.com
Our players scampered up and down the ramp and pickup of this nimble bass, and especially liked the hand-friendly slender, tapered neck. It is no surprise, given the source of the design, that the ramp and pickup placement encourage a thumb-and-fingers approach. The combination of an ash body, ebony board, and three-piece maple bolt-on neck makes for a fairly vintage starting platform. This is one reason why the passive sound of the single Bartolini was several players’ favorite voice. One of the best Bartolini features is a lot of pure gain boost for the overall pre-EQ output. This allows for close volume changes capable of being easily utilized mid-song as well as enormously boosted tones that are completely massive. The tuners—which have a somewhat eccentric look about them—work well and feel smooth and fast. Visit online at www.ibanez.com
We loved this preamp, and having it here during Fretless Week made for some wild stuff. The Aguilar is extremely well-thought-out, with an end result of being really easy to use in a variety of ways and with a wide range of tones. It comes with a foot switch to engage or bypass the effect. I was especially impressed with how it performed as a stand-alone pre. In front of a Bergantino IP3x10 or IP112 stack, the bypassed tone was in-your-face clean and punchy, which suited the hi-fi cab quite well. With the pre engaged, it was a true channel, with a ton of EQ, a saturation control, and a master volume to either match the bypassed sound or get out above it. We also used it an effects loop that could be switched between series and parallel. In series, the Aguilar was well integrated as a second channel in the amp. In parallel, it functioned as an effect, blending anything from just a hair of fuzz to extreme fuzz with the tone. Speaking of extreme tones, they were in there, with very tight, defined notes with fur around them. At maximum saturation and up a little in the master, we were able to use the contour knob and the mid control to get some very synth-like tones with intense harmonics. The Agro sounds great in dropped tunings: the deep switch fleshes out the bottom end, and the contour and treble can be used to define the top end of the heavy stuff. Visit online at www.aguilaramp.com
That wraps up Fretless Week here at the Top Shelf. Hope you get the opportunity to try these pieces. Let us know your experience with them, and tune in for the next issue for more impressions from the Top Shelf.