Willcox Saber VL Fretless Review
At first glance, you’d think that the Saber VL from Willcox Guitars is missing something; pickups.
And while you’d be correct (it does not have traditional magnetic pickups), the Lightwave system that is the heart of the bass opens it up to a lot more ways of playing and approaching the bass. And, in the case of yours truly, translates into what I would call the most responsive fretless bass I’ve ever played.
The Saber VL (the deluxe model from Willcox Guitars) features a chambered swamp ash body with an AAA flame maple top, a three-piece rock maple neck with a custom composite fingerboard. The neck profile is a comfy low-profile C shape with a very sleek feel. While both the fretted and fretless VL models have chambered bodies, only the fretless has the top cutout.
Now, onto the Lightwave System.
Unlike traditional magnetic pickups (that create a magnetic field for the string to interact with), the optical sensors in the Lightwave capture the vibration of the string, and translate that into the sound you hear. Because there is absolutely no magnetic pull the string can vibrate freely, which translates into a truer sound. One bonus of this is that you are not limited to typical strings; if you wanted to use a set of phosphor bronze strings on the bass, you could and would have no ill effects. The other is that the bass is dead quiet; there’s no ground hum or anything to interfere with the signal. This is particularly useful in the studio or when you’re running effects, as the full signal is going through your signal chain.
One of the highlights of the Lightwave System is how you can dial it in. Adjustments for traditional bridge design are there to dial in your preferred action, and the optical sensors can be raised or lowered for the optimum sound (something that is recommended whenever you change string types). On the underside however, are individual trimpots to allow you to adjust the volume of each string so that the bass sounds perfectly even across the entire fretboard.
The EQ is simple but intuitive. Controls for bass and mid (with a frequency sweep) are very easy to use. Personally, I don’t mind the omission of the treble control, as I’ve rarely if ever used it on an active bass. There is also a “warm/cool” toggle switch to get some major tonal sculpting. For a simple reference, the shift between the two is kind of like going from just the neck to the bridge pickup on a jazz bass.
The IceTone is a unique feature, as it blends a piezo element into the optical signal. Please note that you cannot use the IceTone by itself, although when the knob is rolled all the way counter-clockwise, the piezo is out of the signal. I found that this gave the bass tone a little crisper attack and definition in the notes, while also giving you a bit of a percussive feel to the sound. For me, I found this was the perfect control to use if you needed to cut through the mix just a little bit more, but didn’t want to boost the signal per se.
So, how does this tech translate into the most responsive fretless I’ve ever played?
The combination of the chambered swamp ash body, the neck profile and the tech work in a beautiful synergy. Allowing the string to fully vibrate capitalizes on the chambered body, giving the fretless a deeper resonance than standard solid bodied basses. The optical sensors are very quick to capture the nuances of your playing style, especially when you’re using dynamics.
Suddenly, the quieter playing is VERY quiet, and the more you dig in really opens up the sound. For myself, I found that really playing into this capability yielded a lot more musical phrases and passages when playing in a band setting.
The above tracks were recorded running the bass completely flat, with exception of using the IceTone control and the warm/cool toggle switch. In each of the demos, the IceTone is completely off (counter-clockwise), at the center detent, and then completely open (clockwise).
I took the fretless with me to a couple of studio dates that I had in town, and the sound engineer was amazed with the quality of the signal that he was getting into the board (we went direct). In fact, he was such a fan of the sound, that I got a couple of extra studio dates BECAUSE of that bass.
The Saber VL series from Willcox Guitars is not your typical bass. The Lightwave System adds a subtle complexity to the tone of the instrument, and the simple onboard controls allow a wide range of tonal motion to cover a lot of ground. Add in a chambered body and a very comfortable neck profile, and you have a bass that once you play, everyone will be “hearing the light.”
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