Review: Sandberg California TM Bass

June 30, 2014
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Across the Atlantic, there exists an entire world of bass building that many U.S. players know nothing about. For years, Euro builders have challenged the status quo with cutting-edge designs that meld ergonomics, eye-grabbing style, and state-of-the-art electronics. Germany’s Sandberg Guitars has definitely made a mark in this genre with its Euro-centric Custom, Panther, and Bullet series basses. With its California line of instruments, Sandberg takes the classic Fender bass platform and adds some Teutonic flair.

Like its American inspiration, the California series comes in two basic flavors: The V models are Precision-based, while the T series have their roots firmly planted in Jazz Bass territory. The review instrument was a TM model, the M indicating the presence of a Music Man-style humbucker in the bridge position. The body follows classic lines, and the neck is securely affixed with six counter-sunk bolts. The 34"-scale fingerboard (35" on 5-string models) is slightly flatter than on a typical Fender. The review bass had the blank fingerboard that many wood fetishists prefer (position dots can be found along the top edge of the neck), but dots or block inlays are available options. The nut width is the J standard of 1.5", and its nicely rounded profile felt great in the hand. The zero-fret gives the open strings a tone more consistent with fretted notes, relegating the nut to string-holder duty only. The bass received Sandberg’s Hardcore Aged relic process, which replicates the wear and tear of 30 years of stage use. The yellowed varnish simulates long-term exposure to secondhand smoke, and even the nickel hardware is oxidized to give it a worn patina. Sandberg also offers a Soft Aged option with subtler notes, and a Hardcore Aged Masterpiece process that includes “strongly aged” hardware, fingerboard aging, as well as a vibration treatment that is said to coax a more vintage tone out of the wood.

The metalwork on the California TM is impressive in its own right. The Sandberg bridge is a hefty chunk of brass, with individual locking saddles and separate allen-screw adjustments for height, spacing, and intonation. The mass contributes to the TM’s excellent sustain, and the sculpted contours give it a sexy Art Deco look. The open-gear tuners have the classic cloverleaf keys, and feature a unique allen screw at the bottom of the shaft to adjust the tension. The knurled control knobs have appealing double lines engraved as position markers, and like the control plate, also receive the aging process. Another small touch that adds to the overall cool factor is the metallic Sandberg logo embedded in the body near the neck joint—it’s purely cosmetic, but très classy.

While the California TM’s chassis is pure Americana, the power plant is strictly Euro-turbo. The Delano pickup set has the grind and grit of traditional Alnico V designs, but they spark up quickly when you apply the shimmering highs of the bass/ treble preamp, built by Glockenklang and modified for Sandberg. The TM pickup configuration (first popularized by Lakland) allows you to switch from the classic J-Bass tone to a StingRay vibe with the flip of a switch and turn of a knob. With the coil tap in single mode, the bridge humbucker’s rear coil is blended with the single-coil pickup for perfect J-Bass tone. While Sandberg usually outfits the bass with a Delano JMVC 4 FE/M2 Neck pickup (split-coil humbucker) and MC4 FE Bridge Dual Coil humbucker, the review bass came with Delano’s swanky Hybrid 4 Bridge and matching JC4 AL-H set. The Hybrid 4 pickup’s rear coil has a set of dual polepieces that match the single-coil J neck pickup; they combine to create the classic hum-free tone of two reverse-wound/reverse-polarity single-coils. The front coil of the bridge pickup uses 9.5mm polepieces like the StingRay, helping the pickup get close to the signature MM tone in dual-coil operation. To tote your fraulein around in style, the included Sandberg gig bag is a well-designed hybrid hard/soft case that offers great protection, ample storage, and carrying comfort.

California Dreaming

As a longtime “Jazz Bass guy,” I found playing the California TM to be a familiar experience—the look, feel, and tones were all classic J. In active mode, the Glock preamp makes dialing in the coveted modern J slap tone a breeze, but it can just as easily deliver the big thump. In passive operation, the bass speaks with an articulate midrange that carves out its place in the mix. When bypassing the preamp, the treble knob works as a passive tone control, giving you the full range of shading. I was less impressed with the bridge pickup’s “StingRay tone”; while it is in the ballpark, the TM’s dead-on J-Bass sounds overshadow its Music Man palette. When blending the two pickups, the humbucker tends to dominate, and as expected, there is a volume jump. While not totally accurate as a MM clone, the humbucker has excellent cutting power and can turn your cooperative J into an attention hog with the flip of a switch. The construction quality is top-notch, and the end result is an instrument with tonal integrity: All of the notes vibrate freely, and in particular the low E has the authority to lay down the law.

Sandberg’s aging process produces credible results, and with the wide range of available finishes, exotic tops, and wood choices, you can customize your build in virtually any direction. Sandberg’s handy online configuration tool is a fun, practical way to visualize your dream bass. While Sandberg is relatively new to the U.S. market, for the past 28 years, it’s been a sought-after European brand, particularly loved for its interpretations of American classics. In the crowded “Leo lookalike” market, the Sandberg’s California T series basses are true Uber Fenders.

SPECIFICATIONS

Sandberg

California TM Bass
Street As tested: $2,760; stock: $2,150 (gig bag included)
Pros Classic J-Bass tones, excellent build and features
Cons Hybrid Bridge pickup is not quite “MM” enough
Bottom Line Killer J-style bass capable of delivering vintage or modern tones.
Contact sandberg-guitars.com

Specs

Construction Bolt-on
Body Alder
Neck Canadian hard rock maple
Neck width at nut 1.5"
Fingerboard Rosewood
Fingerboard radius 14"
Frets 22
Nut Graphite w/zero-fret
Pickups Delano Hybrid System
Preamp Glockenklang/Sandberg, boost/cut
Controls Volume, blend, treble (±18dB @ 8kHz), bass (±14dB @ 40Hz)
Tuners Sandberg
Bridge Sandberg
Weight 9.5 lbs
Made in Germany

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