Luthier Marco cortes might not have universal name recognition, but the builder has deep experience. Starting with humble beginnings in his native Brazil, where he used broken Coke bottles to carve bodies, Cortes went on to head repairs for a large Japanese manufacturer and eventually immigrate to the US, where he began making basses under his own marque. Until recently, his focus has been on high-end, expensive boutique models that show off his unique design philosophy, but like many independent builders before him, Cortes has expanded his line to include a Fender Jazz-style bass. My take on this near inevitability among boutique builders is two-fold. First, I believe passionate luthiers find inspiration in the challenge of building a better mousetrap, or in this case, a better Fender. Second, as one of the two most frequently played basses on Earth, J-style basses make good business sense.
To keep its price point sane, the N1 is a no-frills workhorse. That doesn’t mean it’s low quality, though. Quite the opposite, in fact. For a handbuilt US-made instrument, the N1 is extremely competitively priced. To keep costs down, Marco limits options and fancy touches, but many of these things are merely aesthetic. The N1 delivers the essential framework of a top-shelf instrument. Its construction was excellent, and while there’s a smattering of generic bits in the hardware department, it’s all good stuff expertly installed. The ergonomics are exactly what one would expect of a J Bass, and the neck is a sleek, relatively thin and shallow design that helps realize what players love about fast-playing J-style basses.
The N1 has a few intriguing characteristics that are of debatable merits. First, it has flat “railroad tie” frets. Rather than a sharp and definite crown, the fret top is filed such as a broader area is in contact with the string. It’s similar to the design most often found in Gibson instruments. I’m not sure how I feel about them. I don’t have another N1 with more typical frets to compare this to, but I do think the more precise witness point of a crown fret can have an audibly more snappy attack. Moreover, the relative vagueness of the strings’ final contact point with the fret could theoretically give birth to intonation problems. The second weird thing about the N1 is the value of its tone capacitor. On its website, Marco calls the cap “unique.” That it is, but only in its capacitance in a tone circuit—it’s not some sort of proprietary capacitor (there is, in essence, no such thing). Tone controls work as resistive-capacitive (RC) circuits arranged such that they become first-order lowpass filters. The resistive part of the RC circuit is a product of the pickups’ resistance and the value of the associated potentiometer in series with the signal, while the capacitor is wired in parallel, with one end tied to ground. When you turn down the tone control, an increasing portion of the signal’s high-frequency content is shunted to ground. The larger the value of the cap, the deeper the filter’s cutoff frequency, resulting in a darker tone. The bass world seems to have collectively agreed that the ideal cap value for a J-bass is somewhere between 0.022-0.047mF. The tone cap on the N1 is nominally 0.56mF. That is absurdly large, making the rolled-off-tone sound completely devoid of mids as well as highs. While the circuit has now influence when the pot is full up, the circuit’s crazy-deep cutoff makes the breadth of its effective range extreme. It’s not for everyone, and it’s definitely not traditional J-bass-like. All that said, if you don’t like it, a new cap would cost less than a dime.
Beyond the tone circuit oddity, the Marco possesses some seriously throaty, punchy, high-output pickups. I love boutique builders that make their own pickups, as it seems to better reflect the totality of their vision. In this case of the N1, Marco has stuffed some serious single-coil mojo into the plastic cases. They are ultra-midrangey and hot. Gentle, this bass isn’t. I was also surprised at how well the pickups resisted single-coil hum, especially considering the control cavity was not shielded.
COMFY AND BIG
The N1 proved itself a wickedly aggro J-style bass, once I replaced its strings with a set of Dunlop Super Brights (the set it arrived with had a wonky E string). Played through a variety of rigs, including everything from a zippy and modern Bergantino rig to an all-tube Sunn 190L that is basically the Bergie’s polar opposite, the bass’s authoritative and attention-grabbing sound ruled the day. While I wasn’t a fan of the tone control’s extreme depth, I could imagine a true dub/electronica/hip-hop fan might dig how easy it is to get subby. The bridge pickup sound was well textured and rich, and easily poured forth with vigorous Jaco-esque punch. The neck had a ton of woody bark—perfect for Paul Jackson-style trills and slides. Blended, the bass retained its stout nature, but had enough of the full-bodied elegance and snap that thumb-thumpers tend to appreciate.
The Marco N1 is an excellent value, particularly if you want a mildly left-of-center take on the well-worn Fender-style formula. There’s something satisfying about giving small operations like Marco Bass Guitars your business, and doing so would not just be good for your community karma, but also a sound choice.
MARCO BASS GUITARS
Pros Excellent construction; thick and aggressive tone; superb ergonomics
Cons Tone control is perhaps too effective; flat-topped frets not for everyone
Bottom Line The Marco N1 manages to deliver some of the special appeal of a hot-rodded-J-bass in an affordable, durable, and comfortable package.
Bridge Fender-style with threaded steel saddles
Pickups Marco handwound
Tone controls Volume, volume, tone
Scale length 34"
Made in U.S.A.