By Rod Taylor
One of the things I love about the electric bass is that it’s still a young instrument, and its role in music is still evolving. This means that instrument design is still up for grabs as well, a fact evidenced by the growing popularity of extended-range basses (ERBs). Such flexibility in design and purpose logically leads to innovation. Case and point: Last month we reviewed a bass dulcimer, and this month we take a look at the new Ibanez Ashula, a beautiful 6-string fretted/fretless hybrid.
I dug the look of this bass from the moment I saw it. The white transparent paint over the light ash body highlights the stained wood grain, giving the bass a stylish look. The neck is delightfully thin, making it easy to navigate the fingerboard, which features four fretted strings tuned normally (EADG), plus two fretless strings, tuned to the same D and G as the fretted strings. I imagine you could string the bass like a normal 6—but be aware that the nut is cut specifically for these string gauges, so you’d probably have to make adjustments there and at the bridge.
As you can see in the picture, the fretless section of the neck is lined and also a slightly different color. The neck/body joint on our test bass was tight and clean, and the Mono-Rail IV bridge, which works to minimize stringto- string vibration, was carefully installed. Construction, for the most part, showed attention to detail and to symmetry. Our test model, the prototype, had a slight surface crack/splinter on the back of the neck near the nut—but since this instrument has been traveling the world at various trade shows, it’s easy to imagine that it got this blemish along the way. The recessed input jack also showed a bit of burning on the wood from the drill that made it.
I have to admit, the first couple of days I had the bass, I just glanced at it occasionally, wondering what I would do with it at a normal gig. Finally I began playing around with it, seeing where its design might take my ear and my hands. I began by droning the lower notes while playing the fretless D and G strings. That was cool, so I then added my loop pedal into the mix, using the bottom four strings to create a groove and the top two for laying down a solo. The onboard Ashula EQ worked well with the humbucking Sonic Arch pickups, producing a thumpy, clean, thick bottom and crystal- clear highs. The pickups use an Alnico magnet and are double coiled in a single-coil housing. The tone knobs provided ample room for tone-tweaking. More interesting, however, is the mini-pickup for the two fretless strings, which you adjust separately via its own volume and tone controls. The placement of the pickup—far back toward the bridge—makes dialing into that sweet and singing fretless sound a breeze. If you’re planning on using the bass as a conventional 4-string, you can turn off the pickup for the fretless strings altogether to avoid unintentional noise, although I never experienced this when leaving it on.
After playing around with the bass in a solo capacity (clearly what it’s designed for), I wanted to see how it might work in a “normal” gig. I plugged it into my Tascam mp3 bass trainer and jammed along with the first track that came up, Sade’s “Smooth Operator.” Muting Paul Denman’s bass part, I played along with the song, waiting for the solo that we all know and love. When it came, I used the fretless D and G strings, dropping back down to the “4-string” section of the bass afterward. It was groovy to switch between such different voices on the same instrument. The market for this style of bass could extend beyond those who want to use it only as a solo instrument; perhaps it will emerge as the instrument of choice for Victor Wooten/Steve Bailey-type players.
Speaking of Bailey, on its website Ibanez claims that the Ashula is the “world’s first fret/fretless hybrid bass guitar.” I did a little homework, and it seems that Ibanez was a bit ambitious with this claim. In 1986, Steve Bailey worked with Larrivee Guitars to create a fretted/fretless hybrid 5-string that he debuted at that year’s NAMM show (and I have a mullet-sporting Steve Bailey pic from the show to prove it). While Ibanez might not be the first to create this kind of bass, it’s probably the first manufacturer to offer a production model to the general public.
For a limited time, Ibanez is offering the Ashula in unlimited quantities—so if you have a hankerin’ for a bass that can serve two masters, then you might want to check it out. Although basses like this aren’t for everyone, their existence testifies to the versatility of our instrument and the innovation that accompanies such freedom.
Pros Fretted and fretless sounds in one bass
Cons Some construction issues on test model
Pickups Ibanez Sonic Arch
Weight 9.5 lbs
Made in Japan
Warranty One year