I bought my first acoustic bass guitar in the early ’90s, primarily so I could jam unplugged with my guitar-playing buddies in college. It was one of those inexpensive Applause basses, and at the time, I hardly gave much thought to using it in an amplified setting, even though it had a pickup. Basically, I tried it through my amp once and thought it didn’t sound nearly as good as my Fender. Over the last few decades, however, ABGs have improved greatly in their design and electronics, and I’ve long since adjusted my thoughts on plugging them in. Like regular acoustic/electric guitars, the tone of modern ABGs varies with the combination of shape, wood, and electronics. As such, ABGs offer players a variety of “plugged in” tonal options that substantially differ from their solidbody siblings, but they still provide every bit of bottom end a player wants on the bandstand. British luthier Michael Gillett beautifully taps into that sonic space with his Contour acoustic bass guitar series.
While this review focuses on the fretless Gillett Slimline Contour 4-string, I spent over a month playing the full-body fretted and fretless 5-strings as well, and much of what I have to say applies to all three models, although the larger instruments have two pickups instead of one, and a blend control. Ultimately, I preferred the Slimline 4 (for reasons I will get to), but each of these instruments was a pleasure to play.
The first thing you’ll notice about this bass is the craftsmanship. I had barely pulled the bass out of the carton before snapping a picture and sending it to my father-in-law, who’s a master woodworker, with the caption, “Check this out!” Every aspect of this instrument suggests that it’s built by a thoughtful craftsman who considers himself both an engineer and an artist. While I reviewed the basses, I always kept one on prominent display in my living room, and everyone who visited commented on its beauty and admired its shape and unique design features. I also really dig the “sandwiched” construction and the contrasting wood choices that mark the instrument’s contoured sections.
Speaking of the contoured sections, they speak to Michael Gillett’s thoughtfulness; you can definitely tell he is a bass player. My right arm perfectly fit in the front contour, which allowed easy access to all 19 frets on all strings. The back contour tilts the bass up a bit, which is especially welcomed in the full-body models so that you aren’t reaching out too far to get around the instrument. For the Slimline, I found that it tilted just a bit more than I would like, but that’s a subjective call. Because of the contoured sections, this ABG is one of the most comfortable I’ve played.
After playing all three models for a week, I found myself gravitating toward the Slimline 4, primarily because it’s lighter, its body is 3" narrower, and it just felt more like “home” to me. Acoustically, the bass sounds softer than some I’ve played, but I didn’t mind that at all. You can still hear it well enough when playing alongside an acoustic guitar. Our review basses came with Rotosound Tru Bass black nylon-coated flats, which seem to help with creating a tone that gestures toward the upright. The strings go through the bridge and anchor at the very back of the bass, which can be conveniently accessed via a recessed cavity at the rear via a magnetic cover.
The controls on the Slimline are simple: tone and volume. Playing through my standard gigging rig, I had to do very little tweaking to get a beautiful tone that sat somewhere between a solid and hollowbody instrument. To be clear, it does not sound like an upright, but that is not what I’m after with an ABG. It might seem obvious, but when I pick up a handmade acoustic bass guitar, I want to hear a tone that makes it clear that you are playing just that—an acoustic instrument. The Contour bass knocks it out of the park here. Whether played acoustically or plugged in, the tone is always earthy and well rounded, the treble clear, but not bright. The Bareknuckle J-style neck-pickup placement surely plays a big role in that.
Handmade instruments are usually expensive, and that’s no exception here, although the prices listed at right include a conversion from British pounds to dollars, as well as shipping and customs-clearance costs. On the U.S. side of the pond, you can try out a Gillett bass via Chicago’s Luthiers Access Group (luthiersaccessgroup.com), where you can also see more pics and details of each model. If you’re in the U.K., you can demo one in Michael Gillett’s shop. If you do check them out, I’m positive that you will appreciate the comfort and playability of these beautifully designed instruments.
Contour Acoustic Bass Guitars
Street Slimline Contour 4-string, $3,900 (Contour 4-string, $4,200; Contour 5-string, $4,600)
Pros Superior comfort, no-nonsense controls, beautiful aesthetics
Bottom Line A handbuilt, custom ABG that’s expertly designed and a pleasure to play.
Top Sitka spruce
Body Canadian maple “sandwich,” with options of American cherry and walnut, zebrano, or mahogany
Neck Canadian maple
Scale length 31.5"
Fingerboard Indian rosewood
Nut width 41mm (1.6")
Pickups Bareknuckle J-Bass, Schatten Transducer
Controls Blending system by Custom Circuits with side-mounted controls
Bridge Tufnol, 19mm spacing
Tuners Hipshot Ultralite
Finish Oil and wax
Made in England