WHO AMONG US HASN’T DREAMED of playing fretless bass fearlessly, exploring new levels of slippery, sexy mwah-liciousness while staying in perfect tune, night after night? Perhaps you’re one of the many bass players entranced with the fretless sound, but who’d rather touch a hot stove than gig or record without frets. Even worse, maybe you own a fretless and don’t trust your intonation enough to play it, except in private. If you fit this description, raise your hand. This one’s for you.
The Dominique Di Piazza fretless bridge, the product of a long collaboration between the French virtuoso and the luthier Mike Sabre, promises to make your fretted bass sound like a fretless. Imagine having a fretless’ warmth, sustain, and swelling note envelope without the possibility of poor intonation. But does it actually work, and how does it sound?
CROSSING THAT BRIDGE
The technology is simple: The strings get their mwah by vibrating against the Di Piazza bridge’s precisely carved wooden saddles. Sabre says the bridge is based on the principle of the Indian sitar, where the string vibrates freely over a “culminant point,” a slightly curved long surface, creating a distinctive buzz.
Installing the Di Piazza after removing our Dunlop nickel roundwound-equipped MTD Saratoga tester’s bridge was a breeze. Dialing in the bridge wasn’t so simple, however. The bridge’s four hex adjustment screws alter sound and intonation by pivoting each saddle to move the critical vibrating point. Even the slightest alteration totally changed the sound. For each saddle, we set the string height and then found the sweet spot by rocking the saddle backward and forward. Once each of the Saratoga’s strings was somewhere near the ideal intersection of intonation, sound, and height, we tightened the two hex screws on the side, locking the saddles in place.
Apparently, all this fuss is the reason Sabre hasn’t set up a serious production line, although Di Piazza’s been using this bridge for five years. “Unfortunately, this is not a ‘plug and play’ product that anyone can buy, install with four screws, and fool around with,” he says. “Installation is tricky. I manufacture the product myself, one by one, sell it only through my website, and try to be honest with my clients, telling them that just like a racing car, this bridge is not for everyone. But when properly understood and set up, it is a fabulous tool.”
BACK TO INDIA
Sabre has devoted considerable energy to refining the bridge, but the original inspiration came from Di Piazza, the French bassist best known for his rapid-fire righthand fingerpicking, dazzling chordal technique, and early-’90s tenure with the John McLaughlin Trio. Di Piazza, who began using a fretless bridge in the late ’80s, was already rocking it by the time he laid down his signature solo piece, “Marie,” on McLaughlin’s Que Alegria, in 1992; the trio’s subsequent U.S. tour found him playing in front of heavies such as John Patitucci, who reportedly came up after a ballad and complemented Di Piazza on his intonation.
Fortunately for me, there was a lot less pressure at the last-minute rehearsal and yoga-studio gig that hosted my public debut of the fretless bridge. I plugged the MTD into an Epifani Piccolo 600 head and Euphonic Audio VL-108 1x8 cab at rehearsal, and the bandleader, a renowned kirtan singer, was immediately taken by the instrument’s possibilities. Our set list was short and my job was simple: Evoke the tanpura, the drone over which the singers and other instrumentalists improvised.
Normally, arriving at a gig and seeing a camera crew setting up might make me nervous about playing fretless, but the Di Piazza bridge took care of that. We began our set with a spare, meditative intro, so I explored the bridge’s warm sound, playing a simple ostinato, milking the mwah, and enjoying the long sustain. I had set up the bridge so that the B string was only minimally affected, the E string was slightly more fretless-sounding, and the A, D, and G strings were sensitive enough to sound fretless even when I played them open. Depending on whether I played back near the bridge or up on the fingerboard, I could begin to evoke a fretless electric, an upright, or a sitar, and the overall effect was that of a tanpura drone with occasional embellishments. The band loved it, and afterward, audience members came up to ask what effect I’d been using.
Does the Di Piazza fretless bridge do what it says it will? Go to Di Piazza’s website and watch him play it, and you just might be inspired to pull out your credit card. But there are caveats. First, setting up the bridge is no easy task, and it must be perfect. (Sabre jokes that some luthiers have put out a contract on his life after trying to get it right.) Second, getting your bass set up and intonated is more crucial than ever. Last, although the bridge makes it easy to get an in-tune fretless tone, the sound is still in your hands: You’ll have to spend time working on your fretless phrasing, experimenting with right-hand placement, exploring note length, learning your neck, and getting to know the bridge. In other words, buying the Di Piazza is just the beginning. What happens after that is entirely up to you.
Dominique Di Piazza
Direct 4-string bridge, $290;
Pros Fretless-like tone without intonation problems
Cons Setup is tricky; results may vary
Bottom Line An innovative, wellcrafted bridge that walks the line between warm fretless tone and sitar-style buzz.
Bridge saddles Mahogany
Made in France