Nashville’s status as America’s hottest metropolis has turned Music City into far more than a country and western town – a point well-evidenced by a jam-packed Summer NAMM and line of gawkers eager to get their hands on half a million square feet of the latest in gear.
As doors open, we beeline for the Fender booth, which is already buzzing with a diverse crowd; hip pickers of both sexes in polyester flares and wide-brim hats, pre-teen shredders nailing Dimebag licks, and NAMM’s most common look: grizzled roadie for ELO. (That’s us.)
First order of business: Fender’s Vintera line, the next step in the evolution of their Classic series. Each model has been made as era-specific as possible, from redesigned pickups to exquisite finishes that are “old” in an entirely new way. We start with a 1950s Precision in a spot-on shade of Seafoam Green that handles era-specific Bill Black runs with slick action and feelgood handling, all the way up the C-shaped neck. This doll seems like a deal for $899.
Next, we try a ’60s short-scale Mustang in Fiesta Red, which serves up a gnarly mix of surf punky angst and grit. Nifty, for sure, but at $949, we’d pick the Precision. A ’70s Jazz completes the tour. George Clinton is on hand to be honoured, so we slap a bit of “Unfunky UFO” and find the J-Bass bright and full as expected, with tight spacing and plenty of bark. The Jazz in Aged Natural tops out the series at $1099.
One last new Fender to see: the long-overdue Phil Lynott P-Bass lands with a signature mirror pickguard, handwound ’78 split-coil, and 20 jumbo frets for two-fisted thunder and lighting. At $12,500, this tribute to classic bass badassery comes complete with Anvil roadcase, matching shades and studded leather strap.
Next, we hit Trace Elliot to check out their Elf combos. We lift the 1x8 with two fingers, yet find it powerful enough for smaller gigs. There’s a beefier 10” that’s only one pound heavier. Both sound amazing for the weight. Pair Trace’s new combo with an Elf micro-amp and you’re mobile in under 20 pounds.
Spector introduces a five-string Performer and upgraded Legend 4 and 5 with rounded body and tweaked hardware. The Legend 5 plays even and easy all the way up the 24-fret amara fingerboard, and with active soapbar sound, offers a lot of bass for the money at $599.
Headphone amps have come a long way since the Scholz Rockman, and the $45 Blackstar Bass amPlug 2 Fly fits easily in our pocket, with classic, modern and overdrive channels that sound plenty good for warm-up or practice. The amPlug features six rhythm loops with tap tempo and a 17-hour battery time. We suggest a good set of cans to get the most out of this tiny monster.
We were delighted to hear that Phil Jones Bass scooped a Best In Show award for their Bighead Pro. We're big fans of this high-performance, multi-function headphone amplifier/digital audio interface around here.
Vox’s Starstream bass sits like a spaceship nearby, and we can’t resist its futuristic curves, with Aguilar pickups, alder body and graphite fins for advanced ergonomics. There’s a lightspeed action on the 30” scale, and it’s featherlight on the shoulder as well. The $1599 price for flight might feel a tad hefty for some players, but it’s an attention-grabber for sure.
The British Invasion is mere steps away with Vox’s Mini SuperBeetle Bass amp. At 50 watts, the mini-stack features an 8” driver with closed back and bass reflex to keep the lows rich. We grab a Hofner and with a flick of the onboard fuzz, go all ‘Helter Skelter’. Looks cool, sounds cool – is cool.
Yamaha’s Andy Winston shows off their latest bass, the BB Professional 35. “It’s got a wafer of maple right through the middle of the body,” he brags.
“What’s that do?” we ask.
“Density,” Winston replies, as we pluck the low B. “Faster note response. The maple gives it the pop of a neck-through.”
The BBP35 has a defined bottom that’s thick but not flabby, and the rich, earthy tone testifies to its handmade status. The Midnight Blue model we test retails for $1599 but the BB series starts at $299. We also try the BB735A, which earns praise as a versatile and solid instrument for nearly $1000 less.
It’s only fair to mention that we run both basses through the just-released Ampeg Heritage 50th Anniversary SVT. With period-correct details down to the font, the beast that once powered the 1969 Stones combines both Blue Line and Magnavox amps into one killer head. We’d say the classic is back, but this rig never left. You’ll still spot old school SVTs at high-end gigs all around Nashville.
Day two of NAMM is even more crowded and our morning begins at the Boss booth to check out their Synthesizer SY-1, which boasts 121 tones in one stompbox-sized pedal. We’re dubious but sure enough, our borrowed StingRay morphs into a fat synth as we twiddle the knobs. At one setting, we burst out of our ectomorphic pod for a raunchy ‘Big Bottom’, and on the next, we’re the Star Child beaming down from the Mothership for a flurry of face-melting bass. The knob twisting continues. Shades of . . . Hawkwind? Mingus on Neptune’s ninth moon. Would anyone like to hear Don Airey’s ‘Mr. Crowley’ intro played on bass? Certain textures might be a little thick between notes for band play, but it’ll be good for loopers. We’re not sure how we would best utilise the SY-1 – but we give this miracle stomper a personal Best Of Show, simply for its mind-blowing fun.
Boutique basses remain hot and a magnificent Adamovic five-string catches our eye. The Saturn features a plethora of sonic options, allowing us to blend pickups from Jaco in the back to Flea on a soulful front side. Every setting sounds rich and like a fine, handmade piece of furniture, the Saturn fits us instantly and feels like a sweet old friend. Nimble, warm, clear as a bell all over. A beautiful creature at $4695.
New York City’s Aguilar adds the SL-210 to their Super Light line of amps. With two 10s and a phenolic tweeter, we find it flexible with punchy lows, clear mids, and a good standalone for smaller venues. With bassists becoming more aware of injuries, why go heavy when you can go light?
Warwick debuts a Sunburst RockBass Idolmaker for this year’s show. We can’t get over how comfortable this axe feels, sitting or standing. The mahogany body, maple neck, and wenge fretboard make for a stunning package and with push/pull volume for active electronics, the Idolmaker has a nice bite and feel of basses that cost much more. All the tone we expect from Warwick.
Eventide’s Christian Colabelli navigates us through the H9 Harmonizer’s Harmadillo tremolo algorithm. We tried the Toasted Marsh-molo and Epic Windmills pre-sets, all manipulated endlessly from lush to deeply psychedelic through the iPad interface. Obsessive noodlers risk getting lost in this dreamy sea. We recall when an Eventide pedal would set us back two weeks’ pay... now, the iconic maker offers its classic effects on iOS for the price of a decent lunch.
With Jackson located in a separate booth, we’re able to crank their X Series David Ellefson Concert CBXM V without fear of reprimand. It’s built for technical prowess with a maple board that flattens as the frets go higher, and enough spank and growl to ensure you’ll never get lost in the mix. There’s a three-band EQ, EMG J and P pups, and a Hi-Mass bridge for max sustain. You’ll pay $1,020 for the Snow White five, but the mean and mega-fast Ellefson is also available in four-string and Gloss Black.
On a final note, it’s nice to see our old friends at Hiwatt. The legendary Brit maker isn’t unveiling new product, but rather celebrating the availability of their classic wares on this side of the pond.
And with that, another Summer NAMM is done. We ponder all we’ve witnessed, from cutting-edge tech to classic tones, a fascination with both tomorrow and yesterday, capturing the nth degree of vintage detail while pushing technology into the space-age starry skies. So is our past the future? Or does a brighter future lie beyond the past?
As the sun sets, we exit and spot a blonde busker on the streets of Music City, her hands wrapped around a 1976 Gibson with a backpack amp that sounds like a stack, and effects routed through her iPhone. As she croons a jazz-torch take on ‘Old Town Road’, it hits us. Einstein said time is only illusion. For the true visionary, both past and future exist at once.