THE FIRST FENDER BASS DESIGN, IN 1951, had a body much heavier and larger than a normal solid-body guitar, so Leo Fender gave it cutaways for better balance. In doing so, he locked in what would become a traditional look for almost all electric basses in the future. Since that time, many bass manufactures have stuck to some form of this conventional look, but occasionally a company pushes the envelope of design with a mass-produced instrument, and such is the case with Lace Music’s Helix basses.
Primarily known for their innovative pickups, Lace Music stepped into instrument design back in 2008, using their own Alumitone pickups in the “L” bass (Soundroom, March ’08). At the 2009 NAMM show, I dropped by their “Lace Mobile Sound Room,” a groovy 1950 Silver Streak trailer, and gave one of their newer bolton neck basses a spin. It was nice, especially for the money ($420 street).
With the Helix neck-through line of basses, however, Lace changed the place of manufacture (Indonesia instead of China) and doubled the price. So, with a fretted and fretless 5 string in hand, I put the new version through the paces.
Let’s talk body. The shape of the Helix gestures back to the 1978 Ovation Magnum, especially in terms of the upper horns. Like the Magnum, the Helix also sports a mahogany body and unconventional knob design. Known for its warm and thick tone, mahogany has a rich heritage in basses (Gibson’s ’53 EB-1 was made from mahogany, for example), and the neckthrough design of the Lace basses may add to the wood’s long sustain. In terms of aesthetics, symmetry is the name of the game here. The body’s shape is mirrored in its headstock and even in the truss rod cover.
The newest versions of the Helix are made in Indonesia, a move that makes it possible to manufacture a neck-through bass for under $1,000, but the construction of the bass left a little to be desired in terms of attention to details. The test model fretted 5-string had several blemishes in the finish, and the lines between the laminate in the neck were uneven, giving its accents a painted-on look. Although both models required quite a bit of adjustment, for the most part I was able to dial them in; the action, however, must be kept at medium to high to avoid fretbuzz if you tend to play aggressively.
The Helix sports a pair of Lace’s signature pickups, the Bass Bar Alumitone, which feature zero noise, ultra-wide frequency response, and light weight. Overall, the five strings weighed a mere 7.6 lbs, thanks in part to pickups that use 95-percent less copper wire then standard pickup designs, need no pre-amp, and only weigh around 3 ounces each. Lace pickups rely on “currentdriven” technology only available through Lace and are passive (check out the March ’08 review for more on this intriguing pickup design). The low string on both basses felt a bit loose for my taste, but the B string was throaty, with good presence. Favoring the front pickup control, I got a muddy, tubby sound, but bringing in the rear pickup made it punchy enough to cut through a mix. Still, as a whole, these basses’ tones were a little on the dark side, although I could get a bit more distinction thanks to a tone knob that doesn’t play around; the Helix’s tone control provides much more cut than the typical circuit.
These two basses share all the same features, woods, and electronics, except for the twisted “H” inlay that is found on the fretted version. Unfortunately, both basses also shared a common problem: dead notes. Each test bass had areas on its neck where notes lost their resonance. Also, both basses exhibited another perplexing phenomenon. Playing the octave on the “G” string, and those immediately surrounding it, produced a particularly wolf-y note that seemed to fluctuate in and out of tune. It would be nice to see these issues addressed in the next model so that players aren’t required to avoid certain areas.
In the end, I applaud Lace for pushing against convention in their design. The basses excel at dark and dubby tones and have an interesting midrange texture and personality, but for this kind of money I look forward to a better construction.
Helix Neck-Thru 5, Neck-Thru 5 Fretless
Street Neck-Thru 5, $829; Neck-Thru 5 Fretless, $829
Pros Artsy design, interesting pickups, and excellent thick and dubby tones
Cons Some dead notes on neck
Weight 7.6 lbs.
Made in Body, Indonesia; pickups and assembly, U.S.A.
Warranty Five years limited (bass); lifetime limited (pickups)