Before you even roll your eyes, let me pre-empt by acknowledging that Bass Player has reviewed a good number of J-style basses lately. This is partly a function of the instruments’ continuing popularity, but also a genuine in-house fascination with the many ways in which builders seek to modify and improve on Leo Fender’s iconic Jazz Bass design. A unique bass may display a builder’s singular concept, but when the same builder is challenged with the limitations of a particular format, it reveals a lot. All that said, I would have hesitated to review another J-style bass this month if it weren’t for the Bottom Wave basses’ unique heritage. The brainchild of Japanese vintage-instrument guru Isamu “Hochi” Hosokawa, Bottom Wave is just the latest in a long line of brands attached to a series of similar instruments emerging from the same shop. Basses much like those reviewed here have been variously sold under the F Clef, NYC, Fodera, and Rough Neck brands.
Rather than some indictment of the basses’ quality, the branding schizophrenia is merely a reflection of the industry’s fickle, low-margin import scheme. Japan has a significant density of excellent luthiers and other instrument-production personnel (as well as some of the most hardcore Fender nuts on earth), but it’s become a tertiary-at-best source of instruments for the U.S. market. A Japanese luthiery is simply too expensive and small-scale to compete consistently with Chinese and Southeast Asian manufacturers. Nevertheless, when a Japanese-made bass does make it to U.S. shores, it’s worth a closer look, as its quality is often indiscernible from domestic basses, but at a lower cost.
These basses evoke two different eras of Fender’s Jazz Bass history. The 4-string is built like a ’60s-style Jazz, with an alder body, rosewood fingerboard, and perhaps most important, ’60s pickup spacing. A ’60s Jazz Bass bridge pickup is about a half-inch closer to the neck than on a ’70s instrument, and the subtle change results in a markedly different sound. In that vein, our 5-string test bass featured distinctively ’70s-style qualities, like an ash body, maple fingerboard, block inlays, and a slightly moved-back bridge pickup. One anachronistic touch on the 4 is its binding and block inlays, purely cosmetic features that didn’t appear on the Fender landscape until the ’70s.
Bottom Wave assembled each bass skillfully. The fretwork was impeccable and the glossy polyurethane finish polished to a mirrored sheen, the origin of which was made more obvious when I noticed some leftover polishing compound in the neck-bolt ferrules. The neck profiles are typical shallow-C in the style of Fender, and thin at the nut in the J-Bass tradition. The Gotoh hardware performed admirably, although adjusting the 510B bridge is a bit convoluted, especially compared to a more traditional design.
The Bottom Waves utilize one of my favorite configurations on an active J-Bass: two bands of EQ with a tone control and a preamp on/off switch. Bottom Wave says the preamp is its own design, although it seems to have some common ancestry with the Fodera/Pope preamp. This may not be surprising, given the company that is now Bottom Wave once produced Fodera’s J-style NYC line of instruments. It’s a good-sounding system that runs at 18 volts for increased headroom, but there’s so much gain on tap that boosting any frequency quickly yields overly dramatic results. The electronics installation was clean and featured conductive shielding paint throughout the cavity and shielding foil on the cover. Interestingly, although the electronics are accessible via the top (as with Jazz Basses), the primary entrance is through the rear cavity cover.
There were no surprises with the instruments’ playability. The ergonomics were excellent, although each bass neck-dived a bit. The sculpted neck heel made high-fret forays as comfortable as one could reasonably expect from a Fender-style bolt-on.
It was interesting being able to compare an alder/rosewood and ash/maple bass with similar pickups, although the added string of the 5’er did not make the comparison a particularly accurate one. Nevertheless, the basses seemed to communicate the common wisdom on the differences in sound between these two sides of the J-Bass divide. Our 4-string was mildly warmer overall, slightly more colorful and rich in the mids, and to my ear, the more vintage-y sounding of the two, although it did not sound like an old bass at all. Its neck pickup barked a little snarkier, and its soloed bridge pickup sounded a little more polished and less aggressive than the 5-string’s. It was my preferred fingerstyle bass, especially when I ran the EQ flat and tamed the treble a touch with the tone control.
The 5-string, by contrast, was edgier, with a harder attack and less bloom to the note envelope. The B string was above average, although it didn’t really wake up until I swapped the strings with a slightly looser-tension set. The ’70s pickup spacing is most noticeable when the two pickups are blended for the iconic, slightly compressed and hollow thumbstyle tone à la Marcus Miller. Given the bass’s look and overall sonic presentation, it’s an excellent option for those seeking a high-end option to ape Miller’s classic sound.
The Bottom Wave basses aren’t innovative, but they fulfill their mission with quality, excellent tone, and the palpable impression of skilled craftsmanship. In the glut of J-style basses out there, the Bottom Waves check all the boxes with grace, and do it at a reasonable price.
Street 5-String $2,525; 4-String $2,195
Pros Excellent construction; versatile electronics
Cons Preamp EQ gain is intense
Bottom Line The Bottom Wave MB Series are exceptionally well-built and smartly appointed additions to the J-style bass landscape.
Body 4-string, alder; 5-string, ash
Fingerboard 4-string, Asian rosewood; 5-string, maple
Scale length 34"
String spacing 19mm
Pickups Aero JB
Preamp Bottom Wave 2-band w/tone control & on/off switch
Made in Japan