Dingwall Basses occupy a unique space in our crowded bass landscape. Take a look at the picture. Notice something a bit askew? That’s the Novax fanned-fret system, intrinsic to each Dingwall instrument. Dingwall uses fanned frets to provide each string with a scale length appropriate to its gauge and pitch. For example, on a conventional 5-string bass the narrow G string is comparatively brighter and more harmonically dense than the heavier E and B strings. The resulting imbalance is an integral facet of our instrument’s sonic identity, but Dingwall basses add to this profile, with low-string pitch definition, clarity, and richness that’s unlike anything else.
Our three test basses represent a broad cross-section of Dingwall price points. Least expensive is the new Combustion, made in China, but assembled from highend Canadian and U.S. parts and electronics and given a final setup at Dingwall’s Canadian shop. In the middle lies the Canadian-born ABZ, among Dingwall’s simplest offerings, with its passive electronics and ash body/maple fingerboard combination. Near the top is the Afterburner II, a gorgeous semi-hollow boutique instrument with much bling, like a chambered walnut body, walnut neck with carbon fiber spars, and a Glockenklang 2-band preamp.
Each bass was constructed with a faultless attention to detail, and each features a few cool features that set it apart from the typical. The necks are attached with hardy countersunk bolts screwed into threaded inserts. The custom-made bridges feature a unique design, with saddles composed of two stainless-steel bolts that form a “V” to cradle the string. The Combustion’s bridge is slightly less exotic, but still impresses with its monorail design, burly string anchorage, and riser system for increased action adjustability. The ABZ and Afterburner II each incorporate a rotary pickup selector, as opposed to a continuously adjustable pot or dual-volume setup. The knob chooses between neck soloed, neck+bridge in series, neck+bridge in parallel, and bridge soloed. It takes some getting used to, and those accustomed to a more traditional blend control may find it initially off-putting, but it’s not a major obstacle, and it has some advantages sonically over a blend pot. The Combustion features two volumes and an EMG preamp. Worth special note is the Afterburner II’s Glockenklang preamp’s treble control. When the bass is in active mode, it functions as expected, with active boost and cut. In passive mode, accessed with a push/pull pot, it behaves like a passive tone control, effectively making the bass’s passive mode more than a deadbattery workaround.
Of course, the initial question everyone has when confronted with a fanned-fret bass is whether it’ll require a major adjustment of their technique. Mostly, the answer is no. It’s strange but true that in the low registers, up to the 12th-fret or so, it just somehow works. You see these weirdly canted frets, but your fingers end up where they’re supposed to go, without much thought. The biggest compromise of a fanned-fret bass comes in the high register, where the angle increases and the fret-to-fret distance narrows. Chords are particularly tricky, and if that’s a big part of your repertoire, it’ll take some ’shed time to adjust. Singlenote lines up high also felt a bit odd, but with time, my muscle-memory got with the program.
The Combustion’s groovy monorail bridge is a nice touch on a mid-priced
Each Dingwall bass delivers on its promise of clear, clean, and articulate tone way down into the low register. Each also has a distinctive personality of its own, but they all share these admirable qualities.
The Combustion sounded precise and focused, with a solid host of well-textured tones. Its EMG preamp was clean and crystalline, with extensive top-register response and immediacy in the lows. Compared to the more expensive Canadian basses, it gives up nothing in terms sonic sophistication, and is an excellent initial foray into the fanned-fret universe. The first time you dig into that 37"-long B string, it’s addictive.
The ABZ was less bright and authoritative than the Combustion, and not surprisingly, blessed with a more traditional sonic palette. As always, I am a big proponent of passive tone controls, and never found myself missing EQ. The rotary pickup selector substantially changes the bass’s character, from dark and wooly with the neck soloed, strong with the humbuckers in series, scoopy and sizzly in parallel, and burpy and midrangey with the bridge soloed. The FD-3 pickups, designed to combine the best qualities of both J- and P-style pickups seemed well suited to the passive bass.
The Afterburner II’s chambered-walnut body adds an audible air and spaciousness to its tone.
The gorgeous ABII is the sexpot of the bunch. Not only in its stunning looks, but with its sultry sound. It’s always good to play a semi-hollow instrument that actually sounds that way—the tone’s air and resonance is clearly perceptible, regardless of pickup selection, EQ setting, or active/passive status. The added depth this lends the tone is inspiring, provoking a sensitive attack that uses the bass’s beautiful note envelope to best affect. The ABII’s rotary pickup switch results in much the same tone-zones as the ABZ, but the ABII is more burnished on the whole, with a bit more texture and sweetness. Its B string is ridiculously huge and clear, with extraordinary pitch definition way down to the available-via-Hipshot Xtender A.
I can understand why the Dingwalls aren’t for everyone. But if great tone, appreciable attention to detail, and supreme clarity are important to you, they more than deserve investigation, whatever your preconceived notions may be.
DINGWALL COMBUSTION, ABZ, & ABII
Street Combustion, $1,448; ABZ, approx. $1,935, depending on options; ABII, approx. $4,088, depending on options
Pros Excellent construction; extraordinary clarity; To-die-for B strings on the 5’s
Cons Fanned frets make high-register chords extra challenging
Weight Combustion, 8.5lbs; ABZ, 8 lbs; Afterburner II, 8.6 lbs
Made in Combustion, China from Canadian and U.S. wood and components; ABZ and Afterburner II, Canada
Warranty ABII and ABZ, lifetime limited; Combustion, three-year limited