Roundup: Acoustic Bass Guitars
By BRIAN FOX & ED FRIEDLAND
Fri, 9 Mar 2012
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WHILE IT AIN’T EXACTLY THE BIG CAT in the bass jungle, the acoustic bass guitar (ABG) has definitely earned its place in the ecosystem. Unlike uprights, ABG’s can’t usually be heard in a live situation unless they’re plugged in; some manufacturers try make them louder by building them larger, but bigger bodies can be awkward to play. With good amplification, however, an ABG can produce open, earthy tones that perfectly compliment other acoustic instruments. To get a lay of the land, we took a look at four recent arrivals to the ABG landscape.

BOULDER CREEK EBR1-TB4

The charming little hamlet of Boulder Creek, California is a downright idyllic spot nestled in the redwoods. Rootsy, woody, and organic, it’s the perfect point of departure on this acoustic tour. Longtime bassist Mike Shellhammer heads up Boulder Creek Guitars, a relative newcomer to the bass market. Boulder Creek, like one or two other manufacturers in this roundup, offers 5-string and fretless ABGs as well, but for testing we went with a group of fretted 4-strings.

From its rich tobacco sunburst finish to its pearloid binding, the EBR1-TB4 has all the trappings of a high-end ABG. But where the Boulder Creek really excels is the low end; not since hearing the Violent Femmes’ Brian Ritchie bludgeon his massive Ernie Ball Earthwood at close range have I heard such powerful booty come from an ABG. The Boulder Creek is among the larger acoustic bass guitars, but it also has a massive acoustic sound; the small soundhole above the fingerboard projects volume quite well, and the side-position soundhole adjacent to the preamp controls seems to emphasize the lower frequencies. I found the Boulder Creek’s neck profile to be fatter than I normally like, but that neck girth didn’t keep me from having a blast playing the bass.

The Boulder Creek is one of scarce few ABGs that could hold its own in an acoustic jam without need for amplification. Should you need to plug in, the bass offers two options: a standard q” instrument jack, and a balanced XLR jack. Roll up to an open-mic, run the balanced signal to a mixing board, and you’re good to go. The 3-band preamp, which boasts a tuner and phase switch, worked well to shape the ABG’s amplified tone.

With its big booty, jam-worthy acoustic volume, gig-friendly balanced XLR jack, and reasonable price, the Boulder Creek is more than deserving of an Editor’s Award. —BRIAN FOX

FENDER T-BUCKET BASS

Fender’s new T-Bucket Bass is a small-bodied entrant to the genre, with tasteful hot rod-inspired graphics and electronics by Fishman. An unplugged Bucket won’t send you running for earplugs, but its smaller, Grand Concert-style laminated mahogany/ maple body works well for close-miking in the studio, and when you do plug it in, its diminutive profile also helps reject feedback. The 1.650” nut width gives the 32"-scale neck a comfortable feel, and the dual-action truss rod makes accurate adjustments easy and effective. The onboard preamp is Fishman’s Isys III system, with volume, bass, mid, and treble controls, as well as a built-in tuner/mute function. The EQ is flexible enough that you’ll only have to twist a knob to go from bright grind to warm, upright-like thump.

I took the T-Bucket out for several acoustic-oriented gigs and was pleasantly surprised at how well it fulfilled the bass function, and how easy it was to play. On a Django-esque guitar trio gig, rolling off the highs, bumping up the lows, and plucking by the fingerboard gave me a texture that came close to an upright tone—the medium scale length gives the bass just enough tubby-ness to help simulate the doghouse. (A set of nylon tapewound strings would have nailed it.) On an acoustic singer-songwriter gig, I played with more treble; the zing of the factory-supplied Fender Phosphor Bronze strings blended nicely with the acoustic guitar, while still supplying a welldefined bottom in support.

To be honest, I am not usually a fan of acoustic bass guitars. I’ve found only a few that I enjoyed playing, and I wouldn’t take most ABG’s to a real-world gig. But the T-Bucket is an exception: A modest, laminated acoustic instrument whose easy playability, familiar neck, and flexible electronics go a long way toward making this hot rod ready to race. —ED FRIEDLAND

WARWICK ALIEN DELUXE

Warwick has built its reputation on highend German-engineered basses, but it has also won fans with thriftier Chinese- and Korean-made basses and amps. The Rock- Bass Alien Deluxe, like all the basses in this roundup, comes by way of China. With its out-of-this-world visual impact, the Alien is certainly the most radical-looking ABG of the bunch, something that might be attractive to some and a distraction to others. Sizewise, the Alien sat right in the middle of the other basses; its body was big enough to give it a goodly amount of acoustic volume, but wasn’t uncomfortable. The Alien’s satin-finish mahogany neck felt much like its electric Warwick kin. For body wood, Warwick opted for bubinga, a tonewood it often employs in its solidbody instruments.

 
The Boulder Creek’s side soundhole, doin’ it to you in your earhole.
Unplugged, the Alien sounded balanced, full, and loud; plugged in, its Fishman Presys+ preamp offered all that I would want in onboard controls. My only gripe with the Alien is with its setup. There was a bummer of a buzz midway up the neck on the G string, and since the bridge lacked individual saddles to adjust string height, I had to twist the truss rod, bringing the rest of the strings a little further off the fingerboard than I would have preferred. Still, a higher setup resulted in a bit more of a ballsy acoustic attack, so I could live with it. In all, anyone looking for a well-built ABG with good acoustic volume and a flexible preamp at a competitive price would do well to check out an Alien Deluxe. —BRIAN FOX

WASHBURN AB40SHNK

With its 32" scale length and sparkly finishes, Stu Hamm’s signature Fender Urge bass remains an iconic instrument of the 1990s. But in recent years, Stu—who recently got the gig as Director or Bass Programs at Hollywood’s Musician’s Institute—has been teaming up with designers at Washburn to build signature electric and acoustic bass guitars. Hamm’s radical techniques—plucking, tapping, slapping and more—require certain things from a bass. In the case of an ABG, Stu pushed for his signature bass to have an intonatable bridge. Where most acoustic bass guitars have basic bridges that lack any sort of adjustability, the AB40SHNK’s bridge allows the player to set string height and intonation. Improper string balance with piezo-equipped bridges can make an otherwise awesome ABG a killjoy, so props to Washburn for tackling this problem headon. In the preamp department, the Stu signature has a top-mounted 2-band EQ with a volume control. Another cool feature of this ABG is that trim pots controlling the output of each individual string lie embedded in back-side control panel.

 
Balancing act: the Washburn’s trim pots.
Much as I appreciated the AB40SHNK’s design features, I found its acoustic sound a bit of a letdown; it didn’t seem to have much more volume than an unplugged solidbody. Plugged in, the bass had the punch of a solidbody with just a shade of the shimmering, airy highs that come from piezoelectric pickups. The Washburn was the most “electric” sounding of the bunch, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you’re looking for more bark and less woof from an ABG. If you plan to always play with the aid of amplifi cation, the AB40SHNK might be the way to go. —BRIAN FOX

Perhaps even more so than with electric basses, selection of an ABG comes down to personal preference. In terms of aesthetics, ergonomics, and sound, your own visceral reaction is what matters most. If you’re in the market for an ABG, you could do well with any of the instruments from this review—and probably with a number of others. Get out there, try a few, and if you have the means, pull the trigger on one. Unplug, tune up, and rock out!

BOULDER CREEK EBR1-TB4

Street $699
Pros Superior acoustic volume and lowend oomph
Cons Chunky neck

Contact bouldercreekguitars.com

FENDER T-BUCKET BASS

Street $399
Pros Great playability and tone
Cons Don’t expect to be heard in an acoustic jam

Contact fender.com

WARWICK ROCKBASS ALIEN DELUXE

Street $650
Pros Good acoustic volume, flexible preamp
Cons Required compromise in setup

Contact warwick.com

WASHBURN AB40SHNK

Street $849
Pros Intonatable bridge, output control for each string
Cons Shy acoustic voice

Contact washburn.com

BOULDER CREEK EBR1-TB4

Top Spruce
Back & sides Mahogany
Neck Mahogany
Fingerboard Rosewood
Scale length 34”
Electronics Boulder Creek AB4-T
Made in China

FENDER T-BUCKET BASS

Top Maple
Back & sides Mahogany
Neck Mahogany
Fingerboard Rosewood
Scale length 32”
Electronics 3-band Fishman Isys III
Made in China

WARWICK ROCKBASS ALIEN DELUXE

Top Spruce
Back & sides Bubinga
Neck Mahogany
Fingerboard Rosewood
Scale length 34”
Electronics Fishman Presys+
Made in China

WASHBURN AB40SHNK

Top Spruce
Back & sides Maple
Neck Mahogany
Fingerboard Rosewood
Scale length 34”
Electronics Washburn 2-band
Made in China
Made in U.S.A.

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