Martin Keith may be a newcomer to the boutique scene brand-wise, but he’s no dilettante. A long-time colleague of veteran Woodstock luthier Joe Veillette, Keith helped build and design basses, as well as assist in administrating Veillette’s successful shop. Capitalizing on this invaluable experience, Keith has recently hung his own shingle, making basses conceptually different than Veillette’s, but sharing their exceptional quality and thoughtful design. Like many boutique builders, Keith seeks to provide customers with a musically satisfying instrument, whatever that might mean to a given player. Numerous facets of his designs are customizable to achieve this goal, but certain priorities are consistent throughout his work, especially ergonomics and playability.
Martin Keith offers four body shapes. Our test basses are both the Elfin style, which means a single-cutaway bolt-on (although he’ll do a set-neck as an option). Keith’s also offers the Leo, a single-cut similar to the Elfin, but with a more vintage aesthetic. Across the line, Keith tends to favor ash, poplar, mahogany, or walnut for bodies and a variety of fingerboard woods.
The two test basses Keith sent exhibit the diversity of his skill set and approach, although to my eye both reveal a tendency to favor subtlety over gaudiness. For example, the fretted Elfin’s AAA English maple top is beautifully figured, but in a refined, mellow way. So to is its gorgeous birdseye maple fingerboard. The fretless is also low-key, with its atypical-for-an-electric spruce top, walnut body, and richly figured ziricote fingerboard.
Both instruments were faultlessly constructed from components intrinsic to their high price. The Hipshot hardware was topnotch, the fretwork was detailed and smooth, and the neck joinery felt solid and substantial. Each instruments finish was without blemish and skillfully applied; I particularly liked the smooth satin feel of each bass’s maple neck. Since excellent playability is one of Keith’s stated goals, I took special note of the instruments’ balance, string spacing, and neck profile. Each bass was well balanced, sitting in a perfect playing position with no right-hand support when I played seated, and falling into a comfortable spot when I stood up with a strap. The string spacing of each was on the wide side of normal to my hands, although this is a subjective matter. The neck profiles were of medium depth, chunky but not clunky. The fretted bass’s radius is also fairly flat, so that, coupled with the wide spacing, made it an easy bass to play evenly and precisely at quick tempos.
FRETTED ELFIN SOUND
The fretted Elfin is the first bass I’ve encountered, other than Lace’s own instruments, to use the Lace Alumitone pickups. As we’ve observed in the past, these unusual pickups have a rich and dark sonic signature with a furry lower midrange hump and mellow top. On our tester, Keith coupled the Alumintones with active Bartolini electronics, a preamp also known for its slightly dark, more midrange-focused personality. Well aware of these qualities, Keith intentionally coupled the dark and reservedsounding electronics with a bass made with a traditionally bright-sounding ash body and maple fingerboard combination, thinking that the resulting tone would strike an intriguing middle sonic ground.
The fretted Elfin had a slightly aggressive vibe with a highly detailed midrange. With both pickup blended, the tone was fuller in the lows and mids than highs, though not exactly dark. It did yield a remarkable amount of color and authority on the front-end of notes, but wasn’t harsh. It arrived strung with D’Addario XLs, a string I’m intimately a familiar with. It seemed like a perfect pairing, with the XL’s resonant low-mid hump mating sweetly with the Elfin’s midrange clarity and propulsion. Soloing the bridge pickup gets at the typical monster-mid vibe, but it’s definitely no J-Bass. The neck pickup, conversely, is more P-ish, with that special combination of big bass response and punchy presence. I particularly favored the neck with the well-voiced treble rolled off. Considering all these qualities, this Elfin was an excellent and authoritative fingerstyle and pick-style bass. It did not offer the sucked-out-mid, pickups-blended slap tone, although I’m sure a different electronics package would easily get there with this wood combination.
FRETLESS ELFIN SOUND
Happily, Keith chose to go the passive route with the fretless. I’ve long championed the power of passive, and I think fretless basses are a particularly good venue for passive electronics’ surprising versatility. Passive electronics are especially well served by good pickups, so I was also happy to find Citron humbuckers on the Elfin, courtesy fellow Woodstock-resident Harvey Citron. All told, this bass exuded a promising vibe straight away.
The Elfin fretless delivered on its promise. It was everything that a fan of long-sustaining, sweet-and-singing fretless tone craves, and its simple electronics offered a big spectrum of universally usable tone. With both pickups blended and the tone rolled off, the bass sounded rich and thick, but with a musical and dynamic sensitivity that helped high notes burst out with grace and presence. The soloed back pickup was pretty Jaco-ish, especially with the tone slightly rolled off. The soloed neck tone was dark and woody, but the bass’s long sustain was not anything like an upright.
Because Keith is a big fan of passive electronics, he dreamt up a clever bit of wiring to extend his circuit’s versatility even further. The tone knob is on a push/pull pot. When pushed down, the blend control blends between both pickups, as expected. When pulled up, both pickups remain on, but the blend selects between the two pickups outside and inside coils. The results are a new palette of sounds, from a hollow and open sound with the outside coils to a more focused Music Man-style sound with the inside coils full up.
The Martin Keith basses are an excellent addition to the boutique bass marketplace. They have a player-focused design that’s extensively customizable, and offer an opportunity to partner with a builder that thinks creatively about achieving musical goals.
MARTIN KEITH ELFIN BASSES
List Fretted, $3,350; fretless, $3,210
Pros Comfortable and customizable with excellent construction; beautiful singing fretless tone
Weight Fretted, 9.2 lbs.; fretless, 8.8 lbs. Included Custom gig bag
Made in U.S.A.
Warranty Limited lifetime