It is always fascinating to examine signature instruments to see how an exceptional player’s technical, tonal, and aesthetic desires and concerns are met. Both of the basses on this month’s Top Shelf are the result of intense interactions between player and builder. Likewise, it can be intriguing to discover electronics designed and manufactured by high quality small shops. I’ll look at two lines of pickups that reflect the innovation and excellent output from such specialty shops.
Carvin BB75 PF Bunny Brunel Signature 5-String Fretless. The bass designed in conjunction with the spectacular Bunny Brunel proves once again that Carvin offers an amazing package of features and quality not usually expected at this price. That said, the BB75 PF absolutely stands on its own and should not be thought of as a bargain bass. For starters, Carvin’s custom shop offers a wide range of options, which makes each bass distinctive. The bass we tested had a tight fit and finish and the following noteworthy construction details. The thick, beautifully surfaced fingerboard leads to a deep growl and offers you the ability to set up the instrument with very low action. The substantial Maple neck runs through the body, adding fundamental and allowing for a smooth transition to the body. The BB75 PF’s body is slightly wider than Carvin’s standard, pleasingly modern shape, and the upper horn has been elongated. This helps with balance and keeps the left hand free from weightlifting; in addition, the bass hangs further toward your right side, making big stretches in lower positions easier to intonate. The neck, slightly asymmetrical, is thinner on the treble side, which provides a very comfortable anchor position for your thumb and helps combat fretting-hand fatigue. This particular model had Carvin’s top electronics package: two soap bar magnetic pickups and a piezo bridge. The piezo has trim pots for each string’s output, plus a trim pot for overall piezo gain and overall magnetic gain. External controls include a master volume, a blend between the two magnetic pickups, a blend between magnetic and piezo volume, and a three-band EQ with sweepable mids. Having variable mids allows for tuning the growl and purr to a specific timbre. Players can first balance all the sound sources and then shape them with the powerful, well-voiced EQ, making a huge range of sounds possible from this 5-string. The signature tone is mildly compressed with a smooth, massive bottom end, growling mids, and a nicely defined top end. With its elaborate electronics and solid construction, the BB75 PF is a great desert-island instrument and could easily scratch the fretless itch of a wide variety of players.
Kot Basses Signature Singlecut 5 String. This striking bass cuts a bold path through the current field of single-cutaway boutique instruments. The beautiful Pink Ivorywood top is set off from the Ash back with a thin, contrasting laminate and sports an elegant F hole. The neck is a five-piece construction of Maple and Pink Ivorywood. The fingerboard rounds out the drool-worthy wood list, with a gorgeous slab of Macassar Ebony. The transition from the extended, non-cutaway upper horn to the body is achieved with an elegant scoop, which gives easy access to the top frets and doesn’t require altering left-hand position (except for not being able to hang your thumb over the top). Final luxury appointments include matching wooden covers for the battery box and electronics cavity, Pink Ivorywood headstock facing, Ebony knobs, and Hipshot hardware. The electronics are truly a custom package from Bartolini: three (count them, three) Jazz-style pickups that feed a proprietary circuit, three individual volume controls, a passive tone control, and three bands of EQ with a three-position mid-frequency select. The frequency points of the EQ are specific to Kot basses. The addition of a middle (or second bridge) pickup and the ability to blend in whatever amount is desired of each pickup makes for distinctive, new combinations. Other circuit highlights are an active/passive switch, a bypass switch, and a special presence control, which everyone at the shop felt should be left on all the time. The preamp is voiced for a muscular low-mid push to get out on top of the kick drum, and the presence switch adds a different sort of top-end impact than the usual Bartolini transparency (which is still available when the presence switch is not engaged). The Signature Single Cut was one of the lightest, best balanced 5-strings we have had in the shop. The tone struck a fine balance between warm-and-woody and modern clarity. Playability and physicality were a delight to all.
Delano Pickups. A line of pickups tends to have an overall character: the warmth and transparency of Bartolini, the growl and cut of EMG. The Delano brand has a powerful voice of high-fidelity definition and presence, retaining this personality across a deep, diverse line. Standard fare includes six variations on the Jazz bass pickup—most of which are hum-canceling—and soap bars for four- through seven-string basses. Delano also has many flavors of MusicMan-style pickups, including seven 5-string MusicMan models with more than one string spacing. For this month’s review, I will highlight two models: the JMVC FE/PMVC FE series, and the Hybrid system. The JMVC FE and PMVC FE series are hum-canceling J- and P-pickups with 9.5mm pole pieces similar to a MusicMan. These pickups are drop-in replacements for standard routs. They have a stronger attack, rounder bottom-end, and glassier high-end than stock pickups. Many players felt these pickups sounded as if they were being played through a high-quality preamp with a judicious amount of treble and bass boost, even when the pickups were installed as a passive load. The JMVC FE/PMVC FE work very well with active electronics, too. As with the rest of the Delano line, this series is available as either matched sets or as singles designed to function with other Delanos for custom configurations. The most exciting part of the Delano line is the Hybrid system. Delano has attacked the current favorite MusicMan/Jazz combination and the age-old problem of getting more than one usable voice out of an instrument, and come out a winner. The Hybrid system is a remarkable new MusicMan replacement with a matching Jazz neck pickup. The Hybrid MM pickup has one exposed set of large MM-style Alnico 5 pole pieces, and one set of smaller Jazz-style Alnico 5 pole pieces. Under the cover, a second MM coil nests within the Jazz coil. The Hybrid system reproduces the classic voice of both pickup sets more convincingly than other available products because of the proper coil design and pole piece arrangement. The other neat trick in the Hybrid’s bag is a switch that controls the mode. In the dual Jazz mode, the preamp is bypassed, the proprietary treble pot becomes a roll-off, and you get volume, pickup blend, and tone like a classic J-bass. In the MM mode, the preamp is active and you have the ability to blend the neck pickup into the tone. Delano also offers several fine-sounding preamps to mate with this system, including a new preamp dubbed “The Sonar,” which unfortunately didn’t arrive in time for this review. With excellent customer service, a full custom shop, and many more pickups than I mentioned here, Delano is just starting to be a force in the U.S. market and is certain to become one of the top players.
Rio Grande Bass Pickups. This is a wonderful small shop with a potent line of bass pickups. The overall vibe is vintage with attitude. Two unique offerings are the Pitbull and the Vintage 51 for P Bass. The Pitbull is a replacement for the small-format humbuckers found in Steinbergers, aluminum-neck Kramers, Travis Beans, and B. C. Rich basses. The name is not for show: this pickup is truly fierce. Rio Grande also has a huge-sounding single-coil replacement, the Vintage 51, for early P-Basses. The center of the Rio Grande line is a series of Precision, Jazz, and double-Jazz pickups available either in Vintage output or in the super-hot Muy strength. The Vintage series is articulate and growly and retains a stock look. The Muy series has oversized pole pieces and a huge boisterous sound: think boutique version of the venerable Quarter Pound pickups. Four-string pickups are available in both Vintage and Muy as Precision, Jazz, and Double-Jazz. Five-string pickups come in Vintage Jazz and Vintage Double-Jazz sets. Many Rio pickups can be ordered with fancy covers, such as black pearl, white pearl, and brown tortoise to match pickguards, and toasted nickel and diamond plate. Customer service is top-notch, and build quality is nearly military. Rio Grande is spot-on for players who want a hot vintage sound in their passive instruments—or for those brave souls who would combine them with a preamp.
Please feel free to email me at chance @ fearlessguitars.com with feedback about this column or items reviewed. If you are a manufacturer and are interested in submitting a piece for review, please contact me.