Branching out into selling basses is an unusual move for a string company, so I was surprised when I learned that La Bella now offers a Precision-style instrument. While intrigued, I also considered an obvious question: “Does the world need yet another P-style bass?” They are hardly a rare breed, and great-playing examples can be had for relatively little coin, so why introduce a $3,000 version of such a ubiquitous creature? But upon discovering that the Olinto basses are hand-built by master luthier Mas Hino, I was hooked: “Yes please, send it right over!” Hino established his reputation at Rudy’s Music in New York City, where he built Pensa-Suhr instruments and cultivated a client base full of New York’s top-tier players, including Victor Bailey, Richard Bona, and Christian McBride (to name a few). Eric Cocco, La Bella’s general manager, filled me in on the story behind this unique expansion of the business.
The Olinto bass is named in tribute to Cocco’s grandfather, Olinto Mari. Olinto and brother Emilio came to the U.S. from their native Italy in 1913 and formed E&O Mari Strings, which eventually became known as La Bella. The Olinto bass celebrates the long connection between La Bella and the mighty Fender Precision—in particular, the way they came together in the hands of James Jamerson. If you were a pro electric bass player in the 1960s, chances are you played a P-Bass with the La Bella flatwound set now known as 1954 Stainless Steel Flat Wounds—Jamerson, Duck Dunn, Chuck Rainey, and Bob Babbitt did. Considering the recorded legacy of these players (as well as many others), it’s safe to say that a La Bella flatwound-strung P-Bass is the quintessential vintage bass tone, particularly when played through an Ampeg B-15. Known for their strong attack, clarity, and warmth, La Bella flatwound strings also have a well-deserved reputation for longevity. Jamerson never changed his strings unless one broke, and when his 16-year-old G string finally did break, he sent it to the factory in the hope that it could be soldered back together. While initially bright, the strings warm up after a couple of weeks, and slowly break in over a period of time to produce the velvety thump that drives vintage tone freaks wild. My own ’73 P-Bass has an 18-year-old set of La Bellas on it, and they sound better every year. I could look at it this way: At a low average cost of $33 per set, by not changing them every two months over 18 years, I have saved $3,564 (excluding tax), making the Olinto’s price tag sting way less.
LATE DECEMBER BACK IN ’63
The Olinto is also an unabashed tribute to the second iteration of the Fender Precision Bass. Luthier Mas Hino told me “We started with a ’63, took it apart, and made templates.” The first run were all completely hand-carved instruments, but with increased demand, the bodies and necks are now roughed out on a CNC machine, leaving the final shaping to Mas. La Bella sent two review basses that both follow the familiar alder body/maple neck/rosewood fingerboard recipe, but I was curious as to why an instrument of this caliber would use flatsawn instead of quartersawn maple. Hino schooled me: “Fender didn’t use quartersawn necks until much later. Quartersawn is more stable, but with that comes brightness, and I think flatsawn sounds warmer. Also, the trussrod doesn’t work as well with quartersawn.” The one-piece maple neck has a deeply rounded C profile, and with the 1.75" nut, it’s a handful. But unlike the flatter profiles of the later-’50s P-Basses, I found I could comfortably monkey-grip the neck with my strap set low and still reach the E string. The narrow vintage-size frets and slab rosewood board add the final touches for that archetypal feel. And true to form, the trussrod access is buried in the neck pocket, forcing you to take off the neck to change the relief. I personally found this to be a bit of a pain when having to help the necks adjust to the central Texas climate. In the old days, we’d go at that with a sharp object, carve out the pickguard, and enough wood to get at the trussrod screw. (In the old days … we did many stupid things.) The trussrod itself is dual-action—a minor concession to modernity, and never a bad idea.
Hipshot HB3 reverse tuners save some weight at the headstock, look correct, and work smoothly. Down at the business end, Mas chose to use a Fender Pure Vintage bridge with grooved barrel saddles for a period-correct look and function. The Olinto is loaded with Hino’s own split-coil pickup, built using the slow, scatter-wound method on his Singer sewing machine. “Slow scatter-wound takes more time, but gives you more airspace in the windings, like a vintage pickup.” The pickups are then potted in wax to prevent them from being microphonic and causing feedback. Of the two review basses, one came in brand-spanking-new condition with a silky-feeling nitrocellulose lacquer over the iconic three-tone sunburst finish (tortoise pickguard, of course!). The second sample was Daphne Blue with a medium relic job by James Carbonetti.
DO YOU BELIEVE IN MAGIC
There are few things in life I enjoy more than playing a great P-Bass, and the Olinto twins do not disappoint. The sunburst sample has that holygrail vibe of a new-old-stock ’63, and the tone to match. The fit and finish are at peak levels, and it weighs in at a manageable nine pounds. The blue relic is a tad lighter at 8.5 pounds, and while opinions on the merits of relic-ing are mixed, the treatment certainly relieves the stress of getting that first ding in the finish. The necks are satisfyingly big and beefy, contributing greatly to the super-chunk tone, while providing much-appreciated stability for one of the highest-tension string sets on the planet. The two basses sound remarkably similar, as you might expect, but more significantly, they both sound remarkably great.
In the course of an average year, I play many P-Basses, and while they all share enough characteristics to identify them as a group, it is rare to find one that has the “magic.��� As subjective as that term is, it’s a combination of feeling good in the hand, the note response, and the overall vibe—and for me, both Olinto basses have it, big time. It’s all there: the fat bottom that inspires us to play fewer notes, the creamy thump that makes the young folks dance, and the throaty articulation that claims its right to be present in any mix. While the headstock is an obvious diversion from the original, playing this bass feels 100 percent legit.
Yes, if you search through piles of instruments, you may find one that has the elusive magic; they are out there. But in the realm of the boutique tribute bass, the Olinto has just captured the flag for nailing the important stuff. And, if you compare the price against similarly high-born instruments, it’s quite reasonable. Factor in that you may never have to replace the strings, and the bass will eventually pay for itself!
Pros A top-shelf example of the world’s most popular bass design
Cons Old-school trussrod access
Bottom Line The Olinto bass captures the elusive magic of a fine, vintage specimen.
Neck Flatsawn maple
Fingerboard Madagascar rosewood
Fingerboard radius 7.25"
Nut Hand-shaped bone
Neck width at nut 1.75"
Bridge Fender Pure Vintage
Scale length 34"
Pickups Handwound Alnico V split-coil
Controls Volume, Tone
Tuners Hipshot HB3
Weight 8.5 lbs
Made in USA