MARYLAND LUTHIER KEVIN Brubaker has been building drool-inducing boutique basses for over 20 years. His designs have a few distinctive qualities, notably their eye-popping multihued finishes and “Bolt Thru” necks, essentially a bolt-on neck with a long flange penetrating deep into the body. As is the case with most handmade boutique instrument, Brubaker’s basses are expensive. For example, the Brubaker we reviewed in February ’05, a 6-string KX-B, boasted a $4,850 direct price. I’m sure it’d be more now.
Acknowledging that these high prices, though well earned, are a barrier to most players, Brubaker began investigating overseas production a few years ago. Working in close conjunction with a Chinese factory, the JJX-series basses seek to bring the Brubaker sound, playability, and look to the masses.
As is most often the case these days, these Chinese-made instruments are exceptionally well built for the price. Details that used to be the province of upmarket instrument are now de rigueur with Chinese basses, thanks to improved quality control, more experience, and the numerable benefits of Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines. The JJX basses had excellent fretwork and an overall high level of fit and finish. That’s not to say that someone whose had some experience with highend basses won’t notice the compromises, like slightly rough nut slots and generic hardware and electronics, but for the price, the JJX’s construction offers good value.
The basses’ playability is a primary attractant. Both the 4- and 5-string were exceptionally well balanced and ergonomically sound. The distinctive Bolt Thru neck not only, according to Brubaker, combines the sonic benefits of a neck-through and a bolt-on, it also makes for one of the most comfortable bolt-on neck joints in the biz. The transition from neck to body is barely noticeable. The JJX’s neck contours are a matter of taste. They’re definitely on the shallow non-Fender-esque shred-friendly end of the spectrum. Both instruments have notably flat fingerboard radii, with the 5- string being the flattest of the two.
Popping off the big P-Bass-ish pickguard reveals a remarkable roomy body cavity and some typically slightly messy Chinese-assembled electronics. The control cavity was well shielded with conductive paint, and there’s a lot of space in there for an upgrade. The 5-string’s MM-style humbucker has a 4-wire output, although in the JJX-5’s configuration, only two are used. Tweak-happy modders could find a lot of uses for those extra two pickup wires. One gripe: the 5-string’s volume and blend knobs are reversed for my taste. Though I’m sure one would eventually get used to it, I’m not sure why they’d want to.
The JJX instruments sounded bright, aggressive, and a bit edgy. The J-style JJX- 4 was definitely in the J-bass universe, especially a spanky hey-look-at-me corner of that universe. The growly 5 was quite Stingray-ish. Some MM-style pickups don’t offer that uniquely fur-tinged Music Man grit, but the JJX-5 most definitely did. Top-to-bottom the JJX basses were well balanced, although the JJX-5’s stock B string left something to be desired. A swap out for a new set of D’Addario XLs solved it, bringing focus and coherence were there was blurriness and flop.
Given the instruments’ personalities, they excelled at slap (pops were particularly tart and authoritative) and dugin fingerstyle and pick playing. The JJX’s would not be the best choice for a rootsy cat that likes to palm-mute with flatwounds or play sensitive pop, plucking way up on the neck. I do think that the addition of a midrange control, paired perhaps with a treble cut, might help add a little pretty texture to the tone, bridging the divide for more touchy-feely styles. All that said, for the price, the JJX’s are a lot of bass—they look fantastic, play well, and sound great, especially if you want to be seen and heard.
BRUBAKER JJX-4 & JJX-5
Street JJX-4, $580; JJX-5, $599
Pros Authoritative and punchy tone; excellent ergonomics
Cons Weird knob layout on the 5-string
Weight JJX-4, 8.5 lbs; JJX-5, 9.4 lbs
Made in China
Warranty One year