Monday, October 22, 2018

Review: Music Man StingRay Special

While downsizing my collection and focusing on finding my "dream" bass, I had the pleasure of temporarily owning one of the new, 2018 StingRay Special's from Music Man.

What makes this new version of the Stingray "Special?" 

The folks at Music Man took their classic bass to the next level by tweaking a few things that essentially equate to working out the bugs of the design.  Here are a few of the new standout features:
   - Roasted maple neck
   - Stainless steel frets
   - Rounded body sides
   - Better balance via lighter weight body & parts
   - Newly designed 18v preamp

Each of those changes combine to make one heck of a great instrument!  

These changes are more about improvements to the model, rather than being a remodel.  Put another way, if you were to close your eyes and have someone had you the older model to play, then the new model, you wouldn't notice a difference.  However, you would certainly notice that the new one is lighter, with little to no neck-dive, and more control over its tone.

Now we are getting down to the nitty gritty, best part of this bass.  One of the downsides to the older model is the treble harshness where no matter how I would tweak the control knobs, I was always fighting that characteristic.  The Special addresses this problem with a newly designed 2-battery, 18v preamp.  The amount of control over the tone using this new preamp is a huge leap forward.  While the instruments default is the classic Stingray tone, the harshness is now controllable, and easily so.  Combine the new preamp with the two humbucker model StingRay and you have a bass easily capable of tackling any genre you can think of.  

Normally, I don't care for active basses as I find the tones to be cold compared to passive versions.  Surprisingly this new 18v StingRay captures the note qualities of passive basses, with the advantage of being an active bass-- primarily the dead-quiet sound when not playing.  The tones on this new Special are sweet and warm, with a bloom to sustained notes; I was completely won over by an active bass-- something I never thought possible.  Together with all the other improvements, this new Special model is sure to be a hit with Music Man fans.

Fit & finish:
Finish quality is fantastic.  The look of the roasted maple complements the deep body finish, and the feel of the neck is smooth and silky.  One note to consider when playing the maple fingerboard model, is the contrast between the dark colored neck and black position markers; the black side dots are difficult to see on a dark stage.  On models with the rosewood fingerboard, the white side dots are nicely contrasted on the dark rosewood sides.  

Overall, the quality of this bass can honestly be compared with any boutique maker.  However, as with any instrument where human hands are involved in its creation, this particular example did have one "flaw" which bugged me, but had zero negative effect on the tone/function of the bass-- a slightly over shaped neck pocket.  Again, these things happen with all builders to one degree or another.

Because my intention was to keep the bass, I decided the minor flaw was not enough to send it back.  The rosewood fingerboard was beautiful, and playing the thing was a joy.  On stage, its light weight was very welcome, as my previous StingRay would cause me to keep fighting with my strap to distribute the pain in my neck & shoulder.  

Buying tips:
Any time I think about buying an instrument, my preference is to try it out before buying.  Of course that's not always possible and thankfully we have the internet to fill the gap.  Price is also a concern.  In my state a 10% sales tax adds quite a bit to the price of the instrument (never mind my displeasure with the way my tax dollars are spent...) so buying online becomes even more attractive through dealers who don't charge sales tax.  Thankfully, I purchased my StingRay from an online shop which has a 45-day return policy; a benefit I previously discounted as a marketing ploy.  

If it was such a great bass, why didn't I keep it?
During that 45-day trial period I was still in the process of thinning the herd, and trying to envision what my ideal, core collection looks like.  Since the very beginning of my musical journey some 35-years ago, there was one particular instrument that captured my imagination and became my "dream bass."  Assuming that I would never be able to afford one of my own, I never gave it much serious thought-- until now.  Searching the internet I discovered two shops that had several versions of my dream bass in stock-- AND at an attainable price!  So my decision whether or not to keep the StingRay Special can best be described with this analogy:  "Do I want my primary instrument to be a luxurious, top of the line Lincoln Town Car (i.e. the StingRay Special), or a 1968 Dodge Charger...?"  Wow-- how blessed I am to have that choice!!   If you are curious what new bass I could possibly equate to an old Dodge... 

... Stay tuned & in tune!

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Review: Music Man Caprice & Cutlass Basses

Fender's Precision Bass is a well-loved platform that has seen many different modifications over the years.  Various interpretations have also been successful, from nearly every company that builds bass guitars. Ernie Ball Music Man is the latest, but perhaps the most interesting.

Music Man basses are known for active preamps, and its instruments are highly regarded.  The 2016 Cutlass and Caprice are Music Man's first venture into passive basses which is a very odd thing for fans of Music Man.  Many people have embraced the new addition, while expectedly the die-hard "traditionalists" have given the new line a cold shoulder.  

Luckily I had the good fortune to spend a few weeks with each of the two basses, which also began a new chapter in my bass-playing life.

- Cutlass vs Precision
As a huge fan of Fender's Precision Bass, I was eager to do an A/B with the Cutlass.  Long story short, the Cutlass is a somewhat more refined classic bass, with it's own flavor of Precision tone.  However, it is important to note:

**The Caprice is NOT a Fender bass**

Visuals aside, it has it's own sound.  Meaning, if you want that classic Fender Precision tone, buy a Fender Precision-- the company offers so many versions that you are sure to find one you like and can afford.  What the Caprice excels at is offering a classic-type bass that's more comfortable and unique.  

Tones from the Cutlass are rounder, and slightly darker than a Precision bass.  My baseline when comparing instruments is the Fender Precision, so when playing the Cutlass through my Mesa Subway 800, I kept wanting to turn the tone knob up-- but it was already maxed.  If these basses were whisky, the Precision would be freshly brewed, where the Cutlass would be aged 25 years.  The Cutlass sounds familiar, but it's smoother and lacks the clanky-mids of the age-old Precision; this could be a good thing... could be a bad thing.  Personally, I like the Precision and it's ability to dial back via the tone knob.

Feel, Fit & Finish:
Everything about the Music Man feels tight, and solid, while the finish is flawless.  It's neck feels comfortable with rolled edges, the frets are perfectly finished and plays as effortlessly as anything from small boutique builders.  The bridge is a little different from the standard version but you would probably have to look twice to catch it.  The body is VERY comfortable, with nicely rounded sides all around, and the weight is right about 9-lbs; enough to mostly offset neck dive.

The Caprice Twist:
Along side the single pickup Cutlass, the dual, P/J pickup Caprice adds those midrange tones lost on the Cutlass though its bridge pickup.  The particular example only weighed about 8.5-lbs, but had significant neck dive.  Everything else about the instrument was fantastic.  The Caprice also offers a slightly offset body, with a narrower sized neck.  If I had to choose between the two, that Caprice would be the one-- hands down.  

Cost & The Recent Price Increase:
Early this year and following suit with most of its California based competitors, Music Man increased it's prices.  Perhaps the increase can be attributed to the cost of doing business in California these days?

Comparatively, Fender basses increased about $500 more than they were last year as well; American Standards were about $1k, while the 2017 "Professional" models are approx $1,500. G&L had a somewhat modest price bump in 2016/17. Kiesel prices have slowly risen over the last few years as well. Rickenbacker has been consistently around $2K for some time now, and Taylor guitars have seen a consistent price increase over the last several years also.
Prior to the price increase early this year, the Cutlass was going for around $1,600. Now these are listed for $2200!  When compared to Fender's offering, the increase puts a lot of pressure on the Cutlass to be a better instrument.

Is It Worth It?
If I didn't already have a small collection of basses and was looking for a primary go-to instrument-- yes. This bass is worth that kind of investment. However, having multiple quality instruments makes it more difficult to justify the expense; is it that much better than those I already have? 

2018's "Special" Introduction:
While I was exploring these new Music Man basses, I began to reconsider my small collection of mostly P-type basses.  "Why have so many of the same type... especially while there are so many other equally enjoyable instruments?"  

As I was exploring that question, something Special was begging to arrive in our local music stores-- the StingRay Special.  AND the new Special is priced within a few dollars of the Cutlass & Caprice!  Test driving one for myself completely changed my perspective! But more on that later.

Not only do these basses have to compete with Fender's lower priced alternatives, but now the new passive basses must compete within the Music Man family; "why buy a Caprice when you can get a Stingray Special HH for the same price?!"   

Only time will tell what happens to the new passive line at Music Man.  These are fantastic instruments regardless of price.  However, with the newly redesigned StingRay Special hitting the streets, a whole new world of possibilities has opened up; an example of which I will review here very, very soon...

...Stay tuned & in tune!


Monday, October 1, 2018

Thinning The Herd. But Why?

It's a term many use to describe a major change in their collection of instruments.   But what causes people to take an otherwise great collection and totally change things up?   

In my case, the reasoning is two-fold:  
Different, but the same

First, I was beginning to feel overwhelmed trying to keep each of my many basses in top working order; bass strings are expensive, especially when multiplied over a collection.  Then I asked myself why so many of the same kind of bass?  It's nice having a bunch of P-basses, but I really only play one or two while the others simply serve as wall art.

Second, While I had was exploring basses other than Fender, Music Man released their updated version of the venerable StingRay Bass; the "StingRay Special".  So the logical question becomes, "why not sell those which I don't play often, to fund a new StingRay Special?"  That line of thinking resulted in a total re-evaluation of my collection, and the selling off of any redundancy.  Not only did I have enough money to fund the new Ray, but also to finally buy my dream bass... but that's a story for a different post...

While there's nothing wrong with having half a dozen versions of the same bass, I like to keep things simple.  For me, if something is not being used, why keep it around?  

With simplification in mind, I selected two of my favorite P-basses; a Steve Harris signature which has a maple neck & maple body, and a "parts" P-bass that features an alder body & rosewood fingerboard.  All others were sold, with the exception of two sentimental favorites-- both of which see a lot of use.

Trying something new
Firmly anchored in the world of passive Fender tones, I wanted to try something different.  The second bass I ever bought was a standard Music Man Stingray-- an active bass.  Having lived with the instrument for many years, it didn't get played much as the tone was pretty harsh, but I really loved the look and feel of the neck.  

Thankfully, as I was reevaluating my collection, the newly revised Stingray "Special" was beginning to hit the stores.  Excited by the possibilities of a different style of bass (active vs passive), the new Stingray really grabbed my attention.  Exploring options beyond my old passive bass perspective was inspiring!  It fueled a new excitement for getting back in the shed to practice, while exploring the new tones and enjoying the noise-free pickups; something that always bugged me with the old basses.  

Change in perspective
Changing things around can be fun and inspirational.  If something is always done with the same tool, in the same way, day after day... it's easy to become bored and disillusioned.  Changing your perspective can be achieved in may different ways-- either with a different instrument, a different location, a different method of playing (i.e. pick vs. finger style), etc.  Changing your perspective can inject new life into an old routine.  Simplifying and diversifying the basses on hand by thinning the herd is another great way of changing your perspective-- and having fun!

If you're not having fun,
you're doing it wrong!
Naturally, thinning the herd can be a means of simply generating income, but it can also be a way to bring fun back into your bass playing adventure.  Having fewer basses makes a collection easier to maintain, while diversifying a collection provides more tonal options and stimulates inspiration.  Always remember that the goal of this adventure we are on is not only to make music and a joyous noise, but to have fun along the way.  Thinning the herd is simply one part of the larger adventure. 

...Stay tuned, and in tune!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Review: Steve Harris Signature Precision Bass

Longtime readers of the blog know that I am a huge fan of the Fender Precision bass.  Fender, G&L, Lull, Music Man, you name it-- if it's a P-bass, you already have my attention! 

However, I've never been a big fan of signature basses; I can appreciate them for what they are, but none appeal enough to me to spend the money one one-- until this one.  

There are two bassists that really grabbed me from early on: Geddy Lee, and Steve Harris.  Seeing Geddy playing his Rickenbacker on, "Exit... Stage Left" was what inspired me to play guitar.  Steve Harris was the stand out sound to me when I first listened to Iron Maiden after buying "Maiden Japan" at our local MusicPlus record store.  Rush and Maiden were huge influences in my musical life.  

When evaluating my collection recently and deciding which basses to sell, which to keep, the less expensive Steve Harris Precision survived where other, much more expensive basses did not.  How did that happen?  While some of the reasons are personal preferences, there are some objective points as well:
Fender released this new version of Steve's signature in early 2015.  What makes this version different than the others is the white color (vs. blue), the pinstriping with West Ham football club sticker, Seymour Duncan pickup, and Fender's BadAssII bridge.  Detailed spec's are available on Fender's website, so no need to repeat those here.  What appealed most to me was the nod to it's 70's roots with the big headstock, bold lettering, and the fatter neck.  The other details are nice too-- especially for the price.  

Fit & Finish:
Neck pocket: Left, Steve Harris/ Right, American Standard
Compared to my Fender American Standard Precision, the made in Mexico Harris model actually has some advantages.  The Harris neck pocket is nearly air-tight compared to the significant gap on the US version.  Weight on the Harris model is quite a bit heavier, which is attributable to the different body woods: maple body on the Harris, and alder on the US.  Action was fantastic on the Harris, while I had to spend a few hours dialing in the US model.  Fretwoork was great on the Harris, but slightly better on the US with the fret ends being more rounded on the US.  This November will mark 1-year living with the bass, and I haven't had to adjust a thing on it-- just plug & play!

Feel & Sound:
Even though I'm a huge fan of Steve Harris and Iron Maiden, I'm not interested in replicating Steve's sound.  The bass is supposed to come strung with rounds, with a set of flats in the case.  Mine was missing the flats, but I didn't pursue the issue with the seller-- why make a fuss about something I will never use?  As you might guess, the bass sounds like what it is; a big, aggressive Fender P.  However, roll off the volume just a bit and you can get all the classic tones your heart desires.  Comparing the Duncan pickup with the MFD in my G&L SB-1, I discovered the two sound very similar.  That just made my SB-1 redundant!

A lot of press and advertisement call the neck a "U" shape.  How Fender comes up with that stuff is beyond me.  It is not a large neck on it's own; compared to the typical Fender bass, this neck is better thought of as a chunky "C" shape.  There is a little more depth front to back, hence calling it chunky.  Make no mistake, this is not a large neck-- it's simply larger than the modern Fender necks.  Should someone only have experience with a skinny-necked Ibanez, then pick up this bass... perhaps that person would be surprised by the size difference.  Otherwise, the neck is nicely rounded and feels really comfortable.  

The weight is about 11 pounds, but using a wide padded strap really zeros out the  feel of having such a large instrument.  Again, part of the appeal of this bass is it's nod to the 1970s, a time when the P-bass was considered a "man's bass."  Fender nails it with this one.  

When evaluating my collection and deciding which basses to keep/sell, one of the reasons the Steve Harris model survived the purge is that big, bold, beautiful headstock!  That was the style I grew up with and when someone mentions "Fender Bass" the 70s style is the image that comes to mind; it's what it should look like.  Then consider the Harris fit & finish, bridge, pickup, neck feel, sound... it represents the quintessential Fender Precision bass.  
Richly colored decal & stripes are under the clearcoat
Ultimately, I chose it over the G&L LB-100, SB-1, Fender American Standard, AND the new Music Man Cutlass Bass.  The fact this one is a Steve Harris signature model is just a bonus; the pinstriping & castle/hammers sticker simply make it more fun to look at than the typical bass.  It should be mentioned that those finish details are actually part of the bass-- under the clearcoat so there is no option to remove them.  At the same time, for those who like the unique finish details, being under the clearcoat makes it even more resistant to wear.  For those who don't follow football and have no idea who or what Wes Ham United is, the decal looks great on its own-- again, a fun detail.

If the Steve Harris P-bass looks like your kind of instrument, either as a collector item for Maiden fans, or simply as a fun solid bass guitar, you might want to consider buying one sooner than later.  Many of the signature basses have specific production time frames as did the previous Harris models, and considering that this version has been on the market for several years, it's likely nearing the end of its production.  These are great instruments and are a great value within the Fender catalog.

If you aren't a fan of Fender basses, perhaps you would like Music Man's take on the Precision and P/J platform; I've got a review of both coming soon-- till then...

...Stay tuned & in tune!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Quick Tips: How To Sell My Bass?

Most of us eventually decide to sell a bass either to upgrade to a better one, or to thin a herd that became a collection now requiring its own room in the house(!)

Once the decision is made to sell, you have a lot of options; sell online, to a friend, or even a music store-- just to name a few.  

Popular places include eBay, Reverb, or your favorite instrument/maker specific forums.  Be ready to pay additional fees for selling via eBay or Reverb.  Shipping charges have to be factored into the sale price as well.  In this case, photos are your friend.  Don't be stingy with the photos, and include enough that detail the condition so the new buyer knows exactly what to expect.  DO NOT attempt to hide flaws, or something that might raise concern.  Doing so will not slip a flaw past someone -- a lot of folks expect perfection, so being up front about the life your instrument has lived will weed out those who will likely return it to you.  Be honest, take pride in your time as the instruments custodian, and be willing to have it return if need be.

Selling locally:
Either to a friend or through CraigsList will save you having to pay fees or shipping.  However, there is an old, wise maxim that teaches selling anything to a friend is never a good idea.  Again, photos are a great way to provide a visual description of the instruments condition and will flush out some of those CraigsList Flakes.

CraigsList (LetGo, OfferUp, etc.) exposes you to a whole list of unsavory characters along with a few actual prospective buyers.  The frustration with using CraigsList may be worth the effort to find the right buyer, just be sure to set specific boundaries for prospective buyers and don't let yourself become a sheep among wolves.  A few basics:

- Don't hesitate to turn away a buyer that makes your Spidey Sense tingle

- Arrange to meet at a public location of your choosing, but NEVER at your house.

- Be clear on the type of payment you will accept, and only meet when you agree on a specific price

- Take a friend with you; there is safety in numbers

- Always be aware of your surrounding, handling cash as discreetly as possible

Selling to a store:
Don't expect to get full price; it is buying from you in order to make a profit selling to someone else.  Selling to a shop is convenient and frees you of having to sift through all the flakes and tire-kickers to find the right buyer.  The downside is that most places will give you about 60% of what they will sell it for.  

Do your homework before selling to a shop; check various online retailers yourself to get an idea what your shop will sell it for.  Stepping into the shop with a clear, realistic expectation will make the process go much smoother for both you and the shop employee; doing so may also result in receiving a little more for your item in appreciation for your pleasant disposition.  

Always try to keep things in the proper perspective; you are selling a musical instrument, and the process more often than not will require a good deal of patience.  Thinking of the process as an adventure will position your mindset in a way that elevates much of the stress associated with selling an instrument.  Have fun and look forward to meeting the next person who will be caring for your beloved instrument~

Stay tuned, and in tune!

Thursday, August 16, 2018

2018 Updates!

Wow-- seems like my last post was just a couple of weeks ago, but it's been much longer than that.  The old saying, "Time flies when you're having fun..." has proved accurate-- especially when one is a home owner(!)

Catching up:
To start off the new year, I sold the 5-string G&L JB-- you know, the one with the teal metal flake finish.  As much as I tried I could not overcome the distraction of that low B string.  

Being a visual learner, I have catalogs of fretboard position "shapes" in my head, and adding the extra string kept tripping me up-- my finger memory kept going to the B thinking it was the E.  Beyond that, I very rarely needed one of the five extra notes that additional string provides.  The bass ended up being a 50th birthday gift for a local player, so everything worked out great!

A short time after selling the JB5, my Plum Crazy G&L LB-100 ended up on the disabled list with a busted truss rod(!)  In all my years of playing I'd never had a trussrod break; have heard it happen to others, but never personally experienced it.  

While initially upset, I soon recalled that these instruments for which I tend to be sentimental, are in fact tools and tools occasionally fail.  With a short phone call, my dealer gave me with the customer service contact info, and in a very short time the kind folks at G&L got back with me to arrange for a repair.  

The total down-time was only about five weeks.  G&L's repair work and customer service was top notch!  Looking back on it, the experience has just amplified my appreciation for the company and its products.

Good News!
Sometimes instruments get sold/traded to make room for something new.  Part of the fun of getting a new bass is the search, or hunt if you will.  In this case, I had been keeping an eye out for a certain Fender Signature bass of a longtime favorite of mine; Steve Harris.  

A few years ago Fender released a new Steve Harris signature model, and if history is any indication, the model is likely to be unofficially removed from the catalog after three or four years.  Having come across a really good deal at the same, rare moment I had a little money in hand, I enjoyed a New Bass Day.  A full review is in the making...

What's to come:
As Ferris Bueller famously noted, "Life moves pretty fast.  If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."  In the months to come, I'll make more effort to catch some of those Bass-Adventure moments and record them here.  Here are a few of the things I currently have brewing:
     - New bass test drives
     - Notes on selling/trading basses in today's market
     - New Bass Day reviews
     - Musical notes from the stage
                                                 ... and more!
Stay tuned & in tune!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Test Drive: Rickenbacker 4003

Last month I took a test drive of a major icon in the bass world; the Rickenbacker 4003.

Geddy Lee & his Rickenbacker; "Exit Stage Left"
The reason I was so excited to take the Rick for a test spin, is 100% due to seeing Geddy Lee playing his Rig 4001 on the "Exit Stage Left" video-- the very thing that inspired me to play guitar/bass.  Knowing nothing about guitars back then, I looked at the Rickenbacker's non-symmetrical headstock on Geddy's bass and thought, "Wow! His guitar is busted and he's still playing the heck out of it!"  Now, many years later I get to try out the modern version of that classic bass for the first time-- I couldn't wait!

New Rickenbacker 4003 is a beautiful thing!
Located in the "Platinum Room" of a national guitar retailer, the salesman climbed to the top of a ladder, freed the bass from a locked hanger, then handed me the black beauty.  Finding a uncrowded corner, I admired every aspect of the instrument.  
Fit & Finish:
Its black finish was flawless and all the parts felt stout.  However, the tuning posts (where strings are wound) were much smaller than those found on Fender-type basses, though the tuning keys were very similar.  Medium-jumbo frets looked properly finished, the rosewood fingerboard was rich in color and the binding/distinctive pearoid inlays looked fantastic!  

Oh my, that string action!
Overall the bass felt somewhat smaller than I imagined it.  Its slim body felt comfortable to play and was relatively lightweight.  The neck felt chunky and nicely rounded at the sides, but from front to back was somewhat shallow (not chunky like a baseball bat).  

The only disappointing element was the super high string action, a problem that this particular store is infamous for.  Normally, string action is a fairly simple problem to correct on most basses... but not on the Ric due to the bridge design.  
A "Platinum Room" setup by a national guitar retailer
A good luthier could probably adjust the bass to correct the high action, but at additional cost.  On an instrument costing over $1800, located under lock & key in a "Platinum Room" I expect it to at least be within factory specs.  Despite its crazy string action, it sounded fantastic-- just what one expects to hear.   

Prior to the test drive while on my way to the shop, I was secretly hoping to fall in love with the bass, and fantasized that my wife would happily encourage me to leave the shop as a new Rickenbacker 4003 owner.  The bass still hangs on the shop's wall today, waiting for someone with more money and patience than I.  A great instrument in every respect (sans poor setup), I hope to add one to my collection someday soon.  Until then,

...stay tuned & in tune!