Following on from yesterday's Part 2 of our 2011 roundup of 65 killer basses, we continue from number 12 down to number 4... do you agree with our choices?
12 Höfner Violin Bass
The ‘Herfner’, as it’s never pronounced (but should be), was made famous, of course, by Sir Paul McCartney, who bought one because he couldn’t afford a Fender – and then, having fooled about on the Violin bass and discovered that its tone was much cooler than its looks would suggest, decided to stick with the cute little chap. Nowadays only indie bands of truly aching levels of irony play the things, but no-one can deny how massively influential they were in their day.
11 Gibson EB-1
Jack Bruce was one of the most accomplished bass player evers to stalk the earth, and he made his bones with a teeny little Gibson EB-1. This nifty instrument was Gibson’s first bass and proved to be a worthy competitor to Höfner’s Violin bass, which was also based on a small, narrow-waisted body shape. Although the EB-1 hardly offered a wide tonal range, it did have a middy sound that cut through the guitars if you turned it up loud enough.
10 Aria Pro II
Metallica’s Cliff Burton and Duran Duran’s John Taylor both used the highly underrated Pro II in the mid-80s, a mark of just how versatile the damn thing was. Burton overdrove his Aria and beat the life out of it, while Taylor’s funky, clipped approach was practically the polar opposite – and yet this elegant instrument gave them exactly what they wanted every time. Although the Pro II’s shape makes it look like a timid, even fragile instrument, underneath those gazelle-like horns and modest headstock there’s a bass of immense power and versatility. A five-string version was also made, although few of us have ever had the chance to play one.
9 Alembic Series I
Alembics have an indefinable something that has attracted the world’s finest bassists to them. Perhaps it’s the unique, rose-shaped body, the frankly wonderful electronics or even (for the show-offs among us) the LEDs that run along the neck and look amazing when the stage lights go down. Whatever it is, Alembic wouldn’t be the world-beating brand it is today without a giant dose of quality all over its instruments.
The American company began life in the late 1960s as a manufacturer of pickups and electrical components used in the sound systems of giant bands of the day such as the Grateful Dead, before making a gradual move into bass and guitar construction. And thank heaven they did, because the investment the company made into their instruments’ construction established new levels of awesomeness.
But don’t take our word for it: a whole host of world-class players have risen up across the decades to play Alembics. Stanley Clarke was among them, bending his wrist at that painful-looking angle to deliver the jazz, while Greg Lake and John Entwistle soon followed suit. You can even hear an Alembic on certain Led Zeppelin recordings, and it doesn’t get much bigger than that, does it?
8 Overwater Progress
Luthier Chris May has spent decades refining the art of bass construction to levels that most of us wouldn’t even understand if he explained it to us with a blackboard and chalk, and it’s just as well, as the results speak for themselves. Overwater basses offer the discerning player a package that combines the most tonally responsive woods with the most versatile electronics: the instruments have few equals in the rarefied upper strata of the bass industry. Sure, your bank manager will wince, but you pay for what you get, right?
7 Warwick Thumb NT
It’s hard to believe that Warwick’s bestselling bass has been with us for 30 years and more, as it’s such an inescapable feature of the bass guitar landscape. What’s the Thumb’s secret? Perhaps the trademarked ‘sound of wood’ is the answer, or maybe it’s just the instrument’s solidity and quality in combination. Of course, the fact that players right across the spectrum, from well-knowns like Jack Bruce to lesser mortals such as Ryan Martinie, used the thing gives it a boost – but we reckon that the Thumb’s position in the market is its key selling point. Those angled machine heads took a while to ‘bed in’, as it were (we’re old enough to remember how some reviewers detested them at first), but now they’re part and parcel of the Warwick image. It could also be argued that Western bass players’ taste for exotic woods was first stimulated on a large scale by the Thumb, without which the words ‘bubinga’ and ‘wenge’ would be just high-scores in Scrabble.
6 Spector NS-2 Doug
Doug Wimbish, now of Living Coloor and once of the Sugar Hill house band, is an unfeasibly talented bassist and also one of our favorite people, so we’re delighted to report that his American neck-through Spector signature model is a deservedly splendid instrument and worth the attention of every single person who has ever applied finger, thumb, or pick to string. A maple bass with a variety of options, the ‘Doug’ (we like Spector’s minimalist approach when it comes to names) will set you back the best part of six thousand bucks, but then again you can appreciate every one of them in the frankly jaw-dropping wood and hear them in the tone circuit.
5 Gibson Thunderbird IV
Show us a bassist who doesn’t have at least a little bit of affection for the old T-Bird and we’ll show you a bassist without a heart. How can you fail to warm to the old warhorse, when it’s been such an integral part of our world since what feels like the Jurassic era? Musicians from all genres have been known to deploy a Thunderbird, most obviously because of its mids-heavy tone but also because it looks so cool. Based on the Firebird six-string, which Gibson also launched in the early 1960s, the Thunderbird actually began life with a body shape that is the reverse of the one we rock with today – that is, with an extended upper horn. Perhaps fortuitously for us, Fender – then promoting the Precision body shape – slapped an injunction on the Thunderbird and Gibson were obliged to swap the horns round. This was the beginning of a path that led to the Explorer bass and the various small-top-horn-plus-sticky-out-bottom-horn guitars that dozens of luthiers knock out these days. It’s a living legend, although some users whine about its lack of bottom end. Who cares – it looks great…
4 Fender Precision
The Fender Precision is the original mass-produced bass guitar, and even after 60 years in production, many thousands of players believe that it will never be surpassed. It’s a persuasive argument, too. After all, its build, tonal range, balance, simplicity of construction and affordability are the features that have defined it for decades, as well as being the benchmarks for bass guitar construction as a whole. What can we say about it that you don’t know already?
Perhaps this. The P-Bass is a miracle of design for many reasons. While every field of technology has expanded beyond all recognition since the 1950s, its late designer Leo Fender – who based the Precision on his Stratocaster guitar – was nothing less than a prophet. The body is usually alder or ash, the neck maple and the fingerboard rosewood or maple. In its standard form there is a single split pickup, and a simple tone and volume setup that takes minutes to adjust or troubleshoot. All those specifications were essentially the same back in 1951: nothing has changed radically in the interim, because change hasn’t been necessary. That’s the essence of great design, in a nutshell. Bass guitar technology has moved in many different directions since Fender first applied pen to paper, but the basic design – two horns, a headstock with machine heads, a pickup and a scratchplate – holds true for at least 90 percent of the bass guitars we know and love today.
So why isn’t the P-Bass the number one on our list? Only because we feel that in certain areas, primarily versatility and visual appeal, it’s been outstripped over the years – but not by much, and not in any way that is significant. No-one will ever topple the Precision from its perch as the bestselling bass of all time, and deservedly so. Without it, your instrument of choice would be radically different, and we wouldn’t have jobs.