When you’ve opened about 50 bajillion bass cases in your time, you develop a certain instinct for vibe. There’s some subtle combination of hardware, aesthetics, and design that triggers a gut reaction informed by years of bass scrutiny. When the Rock N Roll Relics Thunders arrived at the BP office, Senior Contributing Editor E.E. Bradman and I immediately gave each other that “look”—the Whoa, this thing looks friggin’ sweet look. Made in San Francisco by an ex-L.A. hair-metal guitarist, the Thunders is a sort of mishmash of rock-bass design greatest hits which, in the end, seems like an instrument that’s somehow been available for decades. Instant vintage.
Since designer Billy Rowe isn’t a bass player, a short-scale bass was an obvious design direction. He was also a big fan of the Gibson EB-O that Gene Simmons favored for a while in the ’70s: a Les Paul Special-style double-cutaway (not the earlier EB-O associated with Jack Bruce). When it came time to source a pickup, Rowe opted for a ’60s Gibson Thunderbird-style humbucker, placing it in a slightly bridge-biased position to maximize cut without compromising bass response. Wanting to expand on the pedestrian finish options of the original Gibson bass, Rowe decided to offer an array of groovy finishes like Surf Green, Shell Pink, and the lovely tobacco burst of our tester. He also blinged out the Thunders a bit with body and neck binding, block inlays, and a nice flame-maple top. Finally, to give the bass that irreplaceable worn-in look and feel, the Thunders (like all Rock N Roll Relics instruments) is artificially aged with scratches, a few well-placed dings, and a nice patina on the hardware.
The Thunders is a beautifully constructed instrument. The jumbo frets were faultlessly installed, the binding well inlaid, and the hardware tight. It gave off the air of a well-loved vintage bass, not just because of its antiqued look, but also because of its broken-in feel. Given its diminutive size and short scale, it balanced well and had a barely-there feeling on a strap. I found the neck to be on the slightly chunky side, but nothing like the clunky baseball-bat feel of a vintage ’60s EB-O. The double-cutaway design made upper-fret access a breeze.
PICK IT UP
While a vintage-style short-scale bass like the Thunders often makes me want to throw flats on it and play near the neck for huge booty, the instrument’s Kiss heritage, Thunderbird pickup, and snarling pickup location are more geared toward bright and edgy pick playing. The obvious amp pairing was an Ampeg SVT, but I also checked out the bass with a range of vintage and contemporary amps.
By design, there’s not much variety in the bass, tone-wise. Its one pickup and simple volume/tone circuit mean it doles out a single essential sound with increasing amount of treble, depending on the tone-knob setting. But that sound is it. If you like edgy grind with a pick, perhaps enhanced with a bit of distortion, but you don’t want to sacrifice colorful mids and a short-scale rubber-band attack, the Thunders is for you. The pickup placement is interesting in practice, giving the bass a good amount of midrange output that really helped wake up an overdriven sound to cut through a dense mix. While I tended to favor a pick with the Thunders, fingerstylists will undoubtedly dig the solid articulation and remarkable clarity.
The Thunders is not versatile, nor is its look and feel for everybody. But for a certain kind of player, it’ll be a constant companion. It has a lot of that special something that makes vintage instruments command insane prices, yet it’s brand new. In an ocean of Fender retreads and super-fancy boutique “coffee table” basses, the meat-and-potatoes Thunders is a welcome break from the norm.
ROCK N ROLL RELICS
Pros Cool rock & roll look; excellent construction
Bottom Line The Thunders is a superbly executed stab at making a modern vintage instrument. It’s got vibe for days.
Finish Aged sunburst
Neck width at nut 1.75"
Bridge Advance Plating stop-tailpiece
Pickups D. Allen Thunderbird-style humbucker
Scale length 30"
Controls Volume, tone
Weight 8 lbs
Made in U.S.A.