Whether it’s the two enormous oceans separating us from most of the rest of the world, our national DNA, or the understandable result of having enough resources (at least historically) to sustain every imaginable industry, Americans can be a bit self-centered when they spend money. Yes, there are ethical and even patriotic reasons for favoring stuff “Made in the U.S.A.,” but an honest self-assessment yields an undeniable truth: We’re not the best at everything. Eat a croissant in Paris, break the bank on a Swiss watch, or marvel at the latest Chinese-made cell phone—you’d be hard-pressed to find an American equal. But when it comes to boutique basses, we’ve long been the leading light. The true innovators—guys like Michael Tobias, Vinnie Fodera, Ken Smith, Stuart Spector, Ned Steinberger, Ron Wickersham, and Carl Thompson—invented the “boutique” concept, pushing the limits of design and materials to make bespoke beauties that satisfied the unique needs of their customers. And while the American boutique market is as healthy as ever, it’s no longer the only player. In fact, after getting our just rewards for inventing the concept, it’s arguable that we’re effectively tied with Europe. The French Aquilina basses reviewed here are an excellent example of the Continental breed, especially if obscurity is as impressive to your friends as luxury.
Made in the beautiful coastal province of Brittany, Aquilina basses emerge from the one-man-shop of Sébastien Aquilina. His chief aim as a luthier is to make an acoustically resonant and rich instrument that’s light and balances well. Aquilina cites late-’60s car design as an inspiration, thus the model named Bertone (for the Italian design firm responsible for many iconic European sports cars), and Shelby (for American racing and design legend Carroll Shelby). Like the auto designs he idolizes, Aquilina’s basses are sleek, svelte, and sexy. Our two testers make an interesting review pair. They have most materials in common, but the Bertone is a bolt-on double-cutaway and the Shelby a set-neck singlecut.
The Aquilinas each bear all the beautiful touches that scream boutique. While there are only so many ways to make a bass, I always appreciate when a particularly expensive one has at least one unique design feature other than its shape. In the case of the Aquilinas, it’s the chambered section of the body that lies under the bridge, to increase its resonance. Some might argue that this interrupts transmission of vibration into the body, while others would laud the addition of air into sound production. Regardless, I appreciate when a luthier tackles a sonic goal with thoughtful design. I mean, that’s the point of spending the money, right? The basses’ subtle-but-sophisticated aesthetic will suit those who like their figured wood on the tame side. Interesting is the extensive use of sycamore, both for the tops and in the case of the Bertone, the fingerboard. It’s a relatively uncommon tonewood in basses, although it enjoys some popularity in the flamenco guitar world. Its figure is sort of like maple-light. Sycamore notwithstanding, the bulk of the tone contribution comes from the bodies, and in this case Aquilina stuck to a tried-and-true formula: mahogany. For the Bertone, Aquilina uses some walnut-based grain-filler, which gives it a darker, denser appearance. Both basses exhibited gorgeous attention to detail and excellent fit-and-finish.
Each bass pairs two Aguilar pickups with a custom-designed John East preamp, with the Bertone sporting Super Singles (burly single-coils in a humbucker-size cover) and the Shelby getting DCB humbuckers. I’m a fan of the East preamp because it utilizes active mixing, essentially treating each pickup as a separate output and buffering them so that neither loads the other. In practice it means the blend knob actually works as advertised, offering a complete suite of different sounds throughout its travel. Also, as ever, I was glad to see passive tone controls included alongside the EQ.
Playability for both was excellent, especially because each is under nine pounds. I’d give the slight nod to the Shelby for overall balance, but the Bertone also distributed its weight near dead center on a strap or in my lap. The shallow-profile necks seemed to suit the overall svelte vibe of the instruments, as did the small frets.
Naturally, I was anxious to see how similar (or different) the basses sounded, given their overlapping materials. I tested the basses with a bunch of good rigs (Aguilar, Markbass, Ampeg, and Demeter) and did some recording into Logic Pro X with a Universal Audio LA-610 front end.
In terms of similarities, the basses give an overall impression of immediacy and evenness. Top-to-bottom, each instrument had a clear and aggressive snap to its attack and a lovely blooming, overtone-rich decay. In terms of the solidbody-looking chambered basses I’ve played, I’d rank the Aquilinas somewhere near the middle in terms of audible “air” in the sound. There’s clearly a little more resonance going on, but it’s not a huge contributor to the presentation.
The arguable scuttlebutt on bolt-ons is that they have a punchier attack but reduced sustain compared to set-in or neck-through basses. Having played a bajillion basses of both types, I will officially declare that I can’t tell the difference. To me, the advantage of each type is more practical: Bolt-on necks are easier to repair, while set-in necks offer better high-fret access. The sonic differences between the Bertone and Shelby are evident, but I’d attribute that to the electronics. The aggressive single-coils in the Bertone give it a spankier, more forward personality, with an especially punchy bridge-pickup snarl and a deep and well-textured low end. The DCB-equipped Shelby is the milder bass of the two, although it’s fairly close. It sounded absolutely gorgeous for intricate chordal playing or uptempo high-register fingerstyle work. Neither bass is tubby in the trad sense, but both can do a decent P-style tone with the pickups blended and the tone rolled off. Each bass has an excellent slap tone— shimmery and colorful with just the right touch of midrange scoop.
Whether you dig the double-cut Bertone or the more lithe singlecut Shelby, the Aquilina basses are lovely through-and-through. They’d be an excellent left-of-center choice for a player looking to drop some coin on a bass, especially if you seek clarity and precision in your sound.
Aquilina Bertone & Shelby
Street Bertone, $3,600; Shelby, $4,250
Pros Gorgeous construction; sophisticated look; clear and balanced sound
Bottom Line Be it the bolt-on Bertone or the set-neck Shelby, the Aquilinas make the case that Europe is the source of some of today’s sexiest basses.
Body Chambered mahogany w/walnut grain filler
Neck One-piece maple w/carbon/steel trussrod
Pickups Aguilar Super Single
Preamp John East w/volume, blend, 2-band EQ, passive tone
Body Chambered mahogany
Neck Three-piece sycamore, maple & ash
Fingerboard Rosewood w/sycamore binding
Pickups Aguilar DCB humbuckers
Preamp John East w/volume, volume, blend, 2-band EQ, passive tone
Frets 24, small
Scale length 34.25”
Neck width at nut 1.75”
String spacing 18mm
Weight 8.6 lbs