Review: Ernie Ball Music Man Cutlass & Caprice Basses

October 6, 2016

In 2015, the folks at Ernie Ball Music Man were digging around their vault and unearthed a 40-year-old unfinished guitar designed by Leo Fender, the Cutlass. It might be hard to believe now (given their iconic status), but in the early days, Leo’s Sabre and StingRay designs had not done as well as he had hoped, mostly due to their bright tone and physical heaviness, so the Cutlass was his attempt to rework those two models into something more reminiscent of the famous designs for his eponymous company. Upon finding this hidden gem last year, Music Man set out to continue where Leo Fender left off and modernize the Cutlass guitar, while also staying true to Leo’s original vision. With a host of tweaks, add-ons, and state-of-the-art enhancements, the Cutlass guitar was a big success when it debuted this year. It soon became clear that the Cutlass guitar model needed a complement in the bass world. (Previously, Music Man had partnered with Modulus Graphite to produce two short-lived basses named the Cutlass I and II.)

Since the Cutlass guitar was a hybrid of Leo Fender’s Sabre, StingRay, and original classic Stratocaster designs, it was thought that the bass version should be a blend of their same characteristics, but applied to the iconic Fender Precision and Jazz designs. The goal was to craft modernized versions, utilizing all the elements that made those vintage instruments so widely beloved and used on countless albums over decades. Ernie Ball Music Man wanted to create something that combined all of the classic qualities while updating and refining them to a new level to meet the times. The resulting basses are the Precision-style Cutlass and the Jazz-style Caprice.

TRUE TO TRADITION

The Cutlass and the Caprice basses are as sleek and aesthetically pleasing as the legendary instruments they emulate. On the Cutlass, the body shape and pickguard are an attractive blend of Stratocaster, Precision, and StingRay. Like the P-Bass, the controls are limited to tone and volume. Staying true to the P-Bass tradition, the bridge is like a skinnier version of the vintage StingRay; a super-solid, top-loaded, chrome-plated steel bridge plate with nickel-plated hollow steel saddles. It’s a tour de force of modernity, elegance, and accuracy.

A complement to the other high-functioning accoutrements is Music Man’s unique compensated nut, which gives these basses incredibly good intonation. As with all Music Mans, the easy-access trussrod is adjustable without a special tool or requiring neck removal. The neck pocket is sculpted beautifully. The shapes of the neck and body fit together seamlessly, giving a silky neck-through feel. If you like the upper register, this is a huge improvement to the chunky vintage Fender neck joint. Five bolts and a custom plate anchor the neck solidly to the body, and the asymmetry of the shape and positioning are smart and subtle artistic flourishes. In keeping with the blended styles, it has a satin finish and a slightly elongated StingRay-style headstock.

The Caprice sports all of the same hardware and electronic features as the Cutlass, but with some modifications that make it more like the Fender Jazz. The Caprice body is smaller than that of the Cutlass, but with a similar pickguard contour. Like the Fender Jazz, it has three knobs: neck pickup, bridge pickup, and tone. The neck is styled after Music Man’s Sterling bass, with a narrow taper near the headstock.

The Cutlass neck size and string spacing are like that of the StingRay, but the tapering near the headstock feels more like a Precision. The same can be said of the Caprice, though the body shape doesn’t look as retro as the Cutlass. The action is light and fast on both and my testers’ roundwound Ernie Ball Super Slinky strings kept everything bright and rich.

OLD MEETS NEW

The Cutlass has a contemporary sound with a retro look and feel—punchy and robust, with sharp and clean high. Rolling off the tone mellows the shimmer for a warmer full-voiced, yet edgy tone. Note definition is remarkably even throughout the whole register, with a wide range of harmonic partials. The humbucking pickups extract maximal amounts of the frequency spectrum up and down the whole length of the neck, representing the lows, highs, and mids evenly. This even temperament is particularly appealing in studio settings, lessening the need for processing and allowing the instrument’s true sound to speak. The brilliance of the high end lends itself well to slapping, and the dark and brawny side is great for fingerstyle.

Similarly, the Caprice has the same robust, even temperament of the Cutlass, but with slightly more sonic options. With the PJ configuration I could tweak the midrange for a warm, punchy Jaco-style sound. The pickups really shined in this setting, too. The addition of the J pickup just enhanced all the great qualities mentioned in the Cutlass, as it grabs even more of the juicy harmonic information near the bridge. The narrow 21-fret neck plays very comfortably, with low action and Super Slinky strings. This is a boon for folks who like to utilize the upper register for soloing.

The legacy of Leo Fender is a marriage of style, functionality, and integrity that never sacrifices any one of those things over the other. With a keen attention to that level of detail and the subtle touches of the Cutlass and Caprice models, the folks at Ernie Ball Music Man completed the work of a master, and by picking up the mantle left behind, they have made the old new again. With these new Cutlass and Caprice basses, like their timeless predecessors, they created something that was built to last.

SPECIFICATIONS

ERNIE BALL MUSIC MAN

Street Cutlass $ 1,650; Caprice $ 1,700
Pros Stylishly retro, but with a modern sound, boasting even-tempered sonic accuracy that packs a punch
Cons Some neck dive; occasional buzz in intonation-adjustment springs
Bottom Line Solid working-pro basses with style and substance.

SPECS

Construction Bolt-on
Body Alder
Neck Maple
Fingerboard Cutlass, maple; Caprice, rosewood
Frets 21
Bridge “Vintage” Music Man top-loaded chrome-plated steel bridge plate with vintage nickel-plated hollow steel saddles
Neck width at nut 41mm
Tuners Schaller BM with tapered string posts
Pickups Caprice, Music Man offset and in-line humbucking; Cutlass, Music Man offset humbucking
Scale length 34"
Weight 9 lbs

Made in U.S.A.
Contact music-man.com

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