Review: Michael Kelly Rick Turner B4 Bass

The acoustic bass guitar (ABG) is a quixotic beast in the low-end jungle.
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THE ACOUSTIC BASS GUITAR (ABG) IS A QUIXOTIC beast in the low-end jungle. While it’s possible to build an instrument with as much craftsmanship and beauty as any fine acoustic guitar, the acoustic output of many ABGs is essentially useless. They can be amplified to gig volume, but dealing with feedback is inevitable, and one often encounters poorly tuned piezo systems and janky electronics. These realities inspired veteran luthier Rick Turner—who has been on the leading edge of electronics and custom lutherie since helping to start up Alembic in 1970— to approach the ABG from a new perspective, ultimately resulting in his groundbreaking Renaissance Bass. A custom-ordered, U.S.-built Renaissance Bass starts at $2,300, and Turner’s workload means it’ll take some time to complete. To make the Renaissance Bass (and guitars) more accessible, Turner teamed up with Michael Kelly Guitars to produce a more affordable Korean-built version, and the results are terrific.

Michael Kelly has a strong foothold in the ABG market, with a lineup that ranges from the relatively plain Firefly and Club Custom models to the Dragonfly’s quilted-maple top and ornamental inlay. Powered with Fishman electronics, the Kellys are solid representatives of the classic “acoustic guitar but larger” ABG concept, and being built in Asia keeps the price-to-quality ratio in the customer’s favor. Their Rick Turner B4 model follows the Renaissance design closely, but substitutes an okoume body and top for the U.S. version’s cedar/mahogany construction. The B4 is currently available in a beautiful cherry sunburst finish with attractive abalone purfling around the top and headstock overlay. The bolt-on mahogany neck has a smooth satin finish, and the well-executed scarf joint leads to a nicely carved volute and angled headstock. The general fit and finish of the test bass was remarkably good.

The chambered body is only 1.75" deep, which allows for higher volume levels without feedback, and while surprisingly lively when played acoustically, a ukulele is still louder. The B4 gets considerable muscle from the excellent DTAR (Duncan–Turner Acoustic Research) Wave-Length under-saddle pickup system; it produces full-range tone without the unpleasant “quack” of some piezos. The preamp has tons of headroom, even though it takes just two AA batteries. There are internal trim pots for shelving bass and treble controls, set for a max boost of 5dB at 100Hz and 2.5kHz, respectively. The top-mounted volume and tone controls are detented, making it easy to dial in specific settings, and the pots have a high-end feel.

The B4 bridge employs a seven-degree saddle tilt which, according to Turner, “reduces the friction between the front of the saddle and the front wall of the saddle slot. The stiction (kind of an inertial friction) that builds up there is one of the major causes of string-to-string voicing imbalance with under-saddle pickups. It provides a more even pressure contact between the bottom of the saddle and the pickup.” The strings are mounted through the body and hug the bridge platform, which doesn’t have a big effect on tone, but does have some bearing on the string length required to clear the nut.

NEW BEGINNING

Being intimately familiar with the Turner Renaissance, I had definite sonic expectations for the Michael Kelly version, but out of the box, it fell short until it was properly equipped. A significant factor in the signature Renaissance Bass tone is the use of Thomastik-Infeld Acousticore nylon-core, phosphor-bronze-wound strings. Turner developed the concept for these strings years ago at the request of Brian Bromberg, who was looking for a nylon-string piccolo-bass sound for a recording; Turner designed the Renaissance Bass with these strings in mind. The Kelly B4 ships with standard nickel roundwounds, and while perfectly appropriate for an electric bass, on the Turner, they sound strident and brittle. However, since a 4-string set of the Thomastiks costs $70, they would be prohibitively expensive to supply on a $700 bass. If I had never played a U.S. Renaissance, I might have better accepted the string choice—but having full knowledge of how this instrument was intended to sound, I wasted no time taking off the factory strings. My first try was a set of D’Addario tapewounds, which I’ve liked on piezo-equipped basses. Unfortunately, with the extra length needed to string through the body, the silk wrap at the end of the string was just shy of clearing the nut. Oddly enough, I found it did not significantly affect the strings’ sustain or tone. With the tapewounds, the bass mellowed out and started approaching the sound I expected. However, another aspect to the Ren is the supple, lowtension feel that gives each note an almost classicalguitar- like purity. The D’Addarios are more flexible than other tapewound sets I’ve tried, but they were still too stiff to achieve the intended feel. Finally, I slapped on a set of the Acousticores, and the bass came to life with deep and rich tone. These strings may require some technique adjustment, as they feel looser than electric bass strings, and they tend to roll under the plucking-hand fingers, but they’re rewarding once you acclimate. The Thomastiks are a perfect match for the full-range response of the DTAR system, giving the bass surprising punch and detail, with no trace of the harshness some piezos produce. If you bought a U.S. Renaisssance Bass for $2,300, it would come equipped with these strings, but with the Michael Kelly B4, spend the money to get the Acousticores—you’ll still be $1,530 ahead of the game. My one minor complaint came from trying to look inside the bass: The control-cavity cover was insanely tight, and when I did manage to get it off, I found the cavity to be a bit cramped (although all wires were neatly bundled), making a battery change much more of an ordeal than it should be.

While the B4 does not offer the slightest possibility of performance-worthy acoustic volume, once plugged in, it treats you to some of the sweetest acoustic tone you’ll hear from an ABG-style instrument. When you take into account the build quality, tone, and price, it stands out as an exceptional bargain.

SPECIFICATIONS

MICHAEL KELLY GUITARS

Rick Turner B4 Bass Street $700 Pros Amazing acoustic tone with punch and clarity Cons Control cavity cramped Bottom Line Michael Kelly remakes the classic Turner Renaissance Bass in an affordable package with great results.

SPECS

Construction Bolt-on
Body Okoume with abalone purfling
Neck Mahogany, satin finish
Fingerboard Rosewood
Fingerboard radius 12"
Frets 22
Nut Bone
Neck width at nut 1.68"
Bridge Rick Turner Design
Scale length 34"
Pickups DTAR Wave-Length system
Hardware Chrome, die-cast
Weight 7.5 lbs
Made in Korea
Contactmichaelkellyguitars.com

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