In the long list of basses I’ve reviewed for BP, many stick in my mind for their exceptional craftsmanship, tone, or look. Others are notable because of what they lacked in those departments. Yet, as a guy who’s played a ton of basses, many of the most memorable instruments are those that bucked the status quo in some significant way. To that short list I’ll now add the Tensor basses reviewed here. In facets functional and aesthetic, Tensor basses take a consistently alternative approach. The Tensor basses manage to sound and feel good, all while existing as a playable platform for an intriguing mix of left-of-center design concepts.
Before I dive into the Tensor basses’ most radical feature—the “Tensor Force Balance System”—its unique aesthetic deserves special attention. In a world of Fender clones, sinuous boutique bodies, and ungainly “ergonomic” instruments, the Tensors’ long, narrow, and semi-symmetrical contour definitely stands out. Beyond the basses’ singular shape, each model features a striking, thematically styled pickguard. Each pickguard consists of a piece of fabric encased in epoxy at Tensor’s California shop. Whether you dig the styles on offer is subjective, but I for one found the look to be a funky and charming departure from the norm. The bass’s finish is a thick and durable lacquer and clear-coat combo.
Further idiosyncratic touches abound on the basses. The three-piece neck is composed of maple and mahogany, with the maple’s grain running perpendicular to the fingerboard for added stability. A zero-fret is combined with 25 regular frets and an aluminum nut. While the bass may look like a set-neck from the rear, it’s actually a bolt-on; the joint is accessible from the top with the pickguard removed.
In a laundry list of quirky features, the Tensors’ Force Balance system is its most notable. It represents a mechanically elaborate departure from the trussrod as the standard means of controlling the degree to which string tension influences a neck’s relief. The Force Balance system uses the strings themselves as the source of the counter-tension. Since the strings are the source of both the neck’s tension and counter-tension, the two forces “balance” each other out. This results in two distinct differences from a conventional trussrod design. First, since the wood in the neck is no longer a counter-tensioning component, it resonates differently than in a conventional design. Second, the bass is more resistant to the impact of weather on neck relief. Neck-relief adjustment is unorthodox: You access the adjustment bolt by removing the bottom strap button, insert a long s" allen wrench into the hole, and turn it opposite the conventional directions to provide more or less relief.
An argument could be made that the Force Balance system is an overly complex solution to a problem that is minimal given the prevalence of dual-acting trussrods, carbon-fiber reinforcement, and thoughtful wood selection. Nevertheless, it represents a legitimately clever bit of engineering that did work as advertised: relief never changed on our test instruments, despite some fairly drastic El Niño-induced weather changes.
In a further departure from the norm (because at this point, why not?), the Tensor basses utilize Lace Alumitone pickups. These current-based designs (as opposed to the standard voltage-based designs) utilize the pickup’s aluminum case as the “primary coil” in a close-coupled transformer, with a small “secondary” hidden beneath the pickup that steps up the signal to a level appropriate for amplification. The design virtually eliminates the many turns of copper wire in a standard pickup, reducing weight substantially and making it less susceptible to noise. Alumitone pickups also have a broader frequency response than most magnetic pickups, resulting in a unique sonic signature.
The test basses were durably constructed from good materials, but they did have a few areas that could use improvement. The aluminum nuts were too widely cut, allowing for too much side-to-side motion in the strings. The base plate of the B-string tuner on our 5’er was not flush with the back of the headstock because the wood’s contour begins a little too soon underneath. There was a bit of glue residue visible at the nut end of the fingerboard.
The basses’ playability is a love-it-or-hate-it thing. First, they’ve got one of the strangest neck profiles I’ve encountered; it feels like a very shallow U, but with the shoulders of the curve being nearly square. The transition from the back of the neck to its sides is anything but gradual, but in practice I got used to it. The basses balanced nearly perfectly strapped or lapped, although the 25th fret is sort of a tease, as the neck-heel placement makes high-fret access quite difficult.
It’s easy to get bogged down in all of the Tensor basses’ design innovations, but that’s all irrelevant when it comes to sound. On that front, the Tensor basses are a big win, provided you like your tone gutsy, furry, and with a healthy dose of upper-midrange bite. The Alumitone pickups hold true to form: They’re dead silent and put out major low end. They also have an aggressive bark in the midrange and a mellowness in the highs. They don’t sparkle like modern “hi-fi” pickups—they project with an edge and authority that’s more akin to a beefed up, overwound P-style pickup. The basses play evenly across the neck, and the 5-string has an excellent, taut B string that spoke clearly with accurate pitch definition below E. The instruments’ 34.65" scale adds a bit of extra tautness to its feel.
I found the Tensor basses best suited for rock, pop, and other styles that require a big fundamental that still has enough color to cut through. The tone control could easily take the bass from edgy to syrupy. If you’re a style-conscious bass player drawn to innovative instruments that go against the grain, the Tensors are an excellent choice. Ironically, they have a meat-and-potatoes vibe that would sit well in any traditional setting, despite their progressive concept.
Street 4-string $2,495; 5-string $2,795
Pros Trad-sounding basses with exotic, non-traditional design
Cons Construction could use a finer attention to detail; odd neck profile
Bottom Line Solid basses that show off cool design concepts. The perfect aesthetic for a certain kind of player.
Construction Bolt-on with “Tensor Force Balance System”
Body Chambered maple
Neck Three-piece maple and mahogany
Frets 25 medium
Bridge Hipshot A-Style
Tuners Hipshot Ultralite
Scale length 34.65"
Pickups Lace Alumitone Bass Bar
Controls Volume, blend, tone
Weight 5-string, 7.8 lbs; 4-string, 7.5 lbs
Made in U.S.A.