The annual migration to Southern California’s Orange County for the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show is many things, a lot of which have nothing to do with music. There are the has-beens, relishing the one weekend a year where their once-hot star seems reignited by legions of Sharpie-wielding fans. There are the hordes of retail reps, manufacturers, marketers, players, and press, all colliding with each other in a cacophonous flurry of stressful deal-making. There are, too, those circles of long-time industry friends whose schedules and distance make NAMM the only time they get to catch up, hopefully somewhere near an open bar or buffet. Finally, there’s the gear. NAMM feels like the world’s biggest, best-stocked Guitar Center, which means it’s both the coolest and most annoying place on earth for those of us whose lives revolve around such things. Not surprisingly, the most typical greeting at the show is, “Have you seen anything cool?”
This year the serious buzz was about the bass you see here, the drop-dead-gorgeous Marleaux Contra. Combining old-world building techniques with contemporary boutique details, the Contra not only stood out aesthetically in an enormous sea of basses, it also seemed to impress all who heard it—no small feat on the deafening NAMM-show floor.
OLD, MEET NEW
I’ve had a chance to review several Marleaux basses over the years, and while they’re not widely available in the U.S., I’ve always touted their superb and thoughtful construction and elegant tone as reasons to seek one out. The Contra more than reinforces my perspective on the brand. First, there are its arresting good looks. Luthier Gerarld Marleaux is as skilled as they come, and his mission—to infuse violin-style construction into a modern semi-hollow bass—has resulted in something that exudes the burnished warmth of the former with the sexy spirit of the latter. Just like many classic stringed instruments, the Contra combines hard, reflective flame-maple back and sides with a soft and resonant spruce top. The Contra’s more violin-like upper half (the side facing up) is hollow, with classical-style purfling and thick edges that protrude over the instrument’s “rib,” or side. The lower half sports a contour similar to Marleaux’s other solidbody instruments, but retains the maple body. The combination exudes a timeless neoclassical look, especially with the beautifully applied polyurethane finish.
In my hands, the Contra’s quality was immediately palpable. The expertly machined hardware inspired confidence, and I especially appreciated the handsome, contextually appropriate stop-tailpiece bridge. The instrument’s matching wood control cavity and battery covers continued the detailed high-end look, and the fretwork and electronics installation were flawless. The Marleaux’s playability was no less compelling. At first I feared that its singular shape would lead to awkward balance, but strapped and lapped, the Contra sat beautifully. The neck’s shallow-C profile felt pleasantly chunky, with just enough meat to convey a substantial but navigable feel.
BODY NEVER LIES
While the Contra’s beautifully anachronistic design is as aesthetically pleasing as any boutique bass out there, its loveliness is almost a by-product of Marleaux’s sonic objective. With the Contra, Marleaux sought to create an instrument that leveraged its old-world construction into rich and resonant modern tone. I used to think it was counterintuitive that the acoustic sound of an electric bass somehow migrated into its electric output, but I’ve since experienced first-hand the way differences in instruments’ physical design lead to substantial amplified variety. The adage is almost always true: Basses that sound good unplugged sound good plugged in.
Played acoustically, the Marleaux is airy and loud, with a freely resonating body that I could feel vibrate strongly in my hands. Plugged-in, the Contra is no less resonant: Its natural tone is deep and extraordinarily smooth, with a blooming note attack and an organic, gorgeous envelope that inspired nuanced, technically thoughtful playing. Its electronics do nothing to detract from its intrinsic personality, instead offering shades of the same basic hue. As ever, I was glad to see the Marleaux offer a legit passive mode with accompanying passive tone control. In fact, I may slightly prefer the passive sound, although the active tone, with its slightly extended high-register snap and more percussive attack, is also musical and rewarding. Again, I’ll emphasize the Contra’s exceptionally smooth and almost syrupy vibe—I loved coaxing out chords and lyrical melodies (taking advantage of the excellent high-fret access), only to bounce down to the lowest range for a walking line or big, beautiful whole-notes. The Contra I tested also had even string-to-string balance, with a B string that spoke coherently and clearly.
The Contra is a strange bass, to be sure. It isn’t, perhaps, the ideal bass for the typical meat-and-potatoes gig. But to players wearied of the average boutique bass—as sublime as they are—the Contra offers a singularly handsome and rich-sounding alternative. It’s the classic “keeper,” something to cherish and play for a lifetime.
Contra Street approx. $7,455
Pros Elegant aesthetic; gorgeous, resonant tone
Bottom Line The Contra defines a category of its own. It sounds as beautiful as it looks, and would reward players with a subtle and dynamic touch.
Body Semi-hollow flamed maple
Scale length 34"
String spacing 19mm at bridge
Pickups Delano humbucking
Preamp Marleaux V2 2-band with active/passive switch and passive tone control
Hardware Custom ETS bridge; Schaller custom tuners and strap-locks
Case Marleaux gig bag included
Made in Germany