Roundup: Short-Scale Basses

May 17, 2013
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THE OLD ADAGE THAT “LEO GOT IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME” WITH THE Fender Precision Bass is hard to dispute; the combination of styling, ergonomics, and tone from that design forms the core of our consciousness as bass players. But was Leo actually the first to get it right? It’s hard to say for sure, but we do know that as early as 1936, the Seattle-based Audiovox Manufacturing company, led by player/builder Paul Tutmarc, introduced its Model 736 electric bass guitar, a funky little number with a solid walnut body, a magnetic pickup mounted under a steel pickguard, and a 30.5" scale length. Only around 100 instruments were made and distributed around the Northwest. Had the bass received wider exposure, perhaps we might have ended up with a different Founding Father of the Electric Bass Guitar.

Leo Fender and partner George Fullerton settled on a 34" scale length after experimenting with shorter (and alonger) scale lengths for the 1951 Precision Bass, but theirs was not the only game in town for long. Gibson’s 1953 EB-1 was a 30.5"-scale affair, and the 1956 Höfner 500/1 had a 30" scale length. The production rate of Fender Basses—not to mention their unbeatable tone—went on to set a 34" standard for scale length that continues today. But if popularity of new short- and medium-scale basses hitting this year’s NAMM Show floor is any indication, we may be experiencing a sea change in that department. We’ll continue to review new 30"- and 32"-scale basses as they become available—we’ve got orders in for the new Guild Starfire Bass, the Lakland Hollowbody 30, the Ibanez Artcores, and the Blast Cult Thirty2, to name a few—but this month we check out three new stumpy thumpers from Fender, Warwick, and Warmoth.

 
 
 

FENDER PAWN SHOP MUSTANG BASS

 
Fender Pawn Shop Mustang Bass
Much like the Fano Alt de Facto basses we reviewed last month, Fender’s Pawn Shop series seeks to create “guitars that never were but should have been.” Of course, the Mustang Bass did exist. (Introduced in 1966, it was actually the last bass designed by Leo Fender before he sold the company and moved on to further revolutionize the instrument at MusicMan and G&L Guitars.) As a bolt-on bass with an alder body, maple neck, rosewood fingerboard, and 30" scale, the Pawn Shop Mustang shares much in common with the original. But while the original featured a split single-coil (like a P-Bass pickup, only smaller), the Pawn Shop Mustang Bass sports a big ol’ humbucker in its place.

Having a ’74 Fender Musicmaster—a close relative to the Mustang Bass—as a go-to bass around the office, the contours and balance of the Pawn Shop Mustang feel like an old friend (who’d had some work done). With a body size much like an electric guitar and a short scale length, the Mustang is a breeze to play. Without the mass to counterbalance the headstock, the bass neck tends to dive when played while seated, but it’s not much of a problem on a strap. The polyester finish on both the body and the back of the neck feels durable, but light enough so as not to obscure the nice alder grain under the 3-Color Sunburst. (The bass is also available in Olympic White and Candy Apple Red, both with a “competition stripe” crossing the body above the bridge.) I dig the look of the “tug bar” finger rest, but it definitely cramps my style when it comes time to slap. Not that the Mustang is much for slapping; the short-scale’s low string tension makes for a pretty flaccid slap attack.

Plugged in, the Pawn Shop Mustang Bass makes the added horsepower of the humbucking pickup abundantly clear. Though Fender’s bass humbuckers— for example, the neck-position “mudbucker” of the Telecaster Bass—can sound dark and unfocused, the pickup placement here seems to make a big difference, as notes are big, but not boomy. The Pawn Shop Mustang Bass is no Mini- Me P-Bass; it’s got a rich, round character that’s all its own. The signal is much hotter than with passive Precision and Jazz Basses, and what it lacks in singlecoil shimmer it makes up with humbucking thump.

The Pawn Shop Mustang Bass’s overall vibe is undeniably old-school. Those looking for pianistic snap in their bass might want to move along, but if it’s vintage thump and deliciously loose booty you seek, the Pawn Shop Mustang Bass is a pretty fly shorty.

FENDER PAWN SHOP MUSTANG BASS

Street $800
Pros Huge bottom end, super-easy to play.
Cons Tug bar finger rest impedes slapstyle playing.
Bottom line The Pawn Shop Mustang is a beefier-sounding version of an underappreciated vintage classic.

Contact fender.com

Construction Bolt-on
Scale length 30"
Body Alder
Neck Maple
Fingerboard Rosewood
Width at nut 1.5"
Pickup Fenderdesigned humbucker
Controls Volume, tone
Weight 8.7 lbs
Deluxe gig bag Included
Made in Mexico

 
 
 
 

WARWICK ROCKBASS CORVETTE BASIC MEDIUM SCALE 5-STRING

 
Warwick RockBass Corvette Basic Medium-Scale 5-String
Short- and medium-scale basses have a lot going for them: there is less of a reach to first position, easing strain on the wrist and shoulder; there tends to be less wood (or other neck materials) on the instrument, further easing shoulder pressure; frets are closer together, shortening the stretch to fight finger fatigue. All these benefits are amplified when it comes to 5- and 6-string basses, a fact that is not lost on Warwick. The company offers a limited number of custom instruments out of its state-of- the-art facility in Markneukirchen, Germany; for those looking for custom-style specs on a budget, Warwick’s RockBass offerings are bound to entice.

While most of the other short- and medium-scale basses coming out this year have a vintage styling, sleek and modern is the way for the new RockBass Corvette Basic Medium Scale 5-String. (In addition to the 32"-scale 5-string, Warwick also offers RockBass Corvette Basic 4-strings with 32" and 30.75" scale lengths.) The Basic Medium Scale 5-string is available with either passive or active electronics. For testing, Warwick sent the passive model, which boasts to J-style pickup and a control array of volume, blend, neck tone, bridge tone.

The medium-scale Corvette Basic is undoubtedly one of the most comfortable 5-strings I’ve played. By shaving just two inches off the reach, the lowest notes on the B string become much easier to grab. The Warwick’s small body feels more manageable than a bulky old full-size 5-string, and its extended upper horn keeps it from feeling toy-like. Both unplugged and amplified, the Corvette cops the trademark J-style snap—with the Basic’s basic electronics and with simple technique adjustments, the Corvette can bark and growl with the best of them. Though passive, the MEC single-coils give the Corvette a lot of its bite. It seems this 5-string has lost little of the spring in its step from a slightly lowered string tension. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Basic’s B string disappointing, but it does sound a bit flabby when compared to, say, the clarion ring of the 35"-scale Ibanez we reviewed last month. Especially when played gingerly, the Basic’s B string still brings all the low-end info needed for notes to speak clearly.

From headstock to tailpiece, the Corvette is well built; it even features such fancy accouterment as Warwick’s Just-A-Nut III bridge, security locks, and fully adjustable, locking saddles. The Corvette’s cutaway offers easy access to the first 22 of its 24 frets (not that you have any business playing that high), and the four-piece maple neck’s shallow “C” profile and smooth satin finish and bring comfort and class to an instrument that performs well beyond its class.

With the benefits of a 32" scale length intensified on 5-strings, it’s a wonder there aren’t more direct competitors on the market; we’d bet our bottom dollar there soon will be. In the meantime, Warwick has set the bar high with the RockBass Corvette Basic Medium Scale 5-String. Add to the mix the fact that the bass is available left-handed and/ or fretless free of charge, and the bass more than merits an Editors Award.

 

WARWICK ROCKBASS CORVETTE BASIC MEDIUM SCALE 5-STRING

Street $650
Pros Über-comfy 5-string with scrumptious J-style snap.
Cons B string is more tubby than taut.
Bottom line Easy on the hands, wrists shoulders, eyes, ears, and pocketbook, this shorty 5-string is hecka hip.

Contact warwick.com

Construction Bolt-on
Scale length 32"
Body Alder
Neck Maple with ekanga veneer stripes
Fingerboard Rosewood
Width at nut 1.77"
Pickups Passive MEC J-style
Controls Volume, blend, bass, treble
Weight 9.3 lbs
Options Left-handed, fretless with tigerstripe ebony fingerboard (no extra charge)
Made in China

 
 
 
 
 

WARMOTH SHORT SCALE SERIES

 
Warmoth (32" scale)
For years, Washington’s Warmoth Guitars has been offering high-quality, American-made parts for Fender-style bass builds, as well as a number of its own designs. While short-scale bodies and necks aren’t new to the company’s catalog, it has recently redoubled its efforts in that arena, citing growing interest among players. Warmoth does not sell fully assembled instruments, but it sells all the requisite parts (minus strings). To show what’s possible, Warmoth sent a customer-built J-style shortscale body along with two of its Warhead necks: a 30"-scale, and a 32"-scale.

With its dual single-coil pickups and iconic silhouette, the inspiration for Warmoth’s Short Scale J Bass Body is no secret. The bass arrived in its 32"-scale neck attached, so I wasted no time getting the feel for that configuration. The body contours and pickups felt familiar and sufficiently J-like, but the smaller size made the Warmoth feel somewhat like a cross between a J-Bass and an Ibanez SR-series bass. With both necks, the bass was remarkably easy to play, and it balanced very well both strapped and lapped. For tastes like mine, props to the customer who chose the individual components of the bass; the body/pickguard scheme and Seymour Duncan Antiquity II pickups are classic, and the Gotoh G201 bridge and Schaller BML tuners are worthy upgrades. High five!

Fit and finish were excellent on both the body and necks, though the knobs were a source of consternation, as the J-style knobs were mismatched with the pot shafts; without set screws to tighten them down, they would grip and spin the shaft, but would slip and stutter past the pot’s zeroed and dimed positions. Grr. Sonically, both the short- and medium-scale configurations split the difference between a snappy J-like attack and a more woofy, traditional Fender-style short-scale bass.

 
Warmoth (30" scale)
Subtle differences between the two necks help illustrate Warmoth’s range of options. The two necks had a lot in common—maple neck shafts, ebony fingerboards, 10" fingerboard radii, 1.5" widths at the nut—but the vintage tint gloss finish of the medium-scale neck contrasted with the clear nitrocellulose satin finish of the short-scale. Rather than run-of-the-mill maple, the 30" neck boasted a beautiful birdseye figure. I’d be full of it if I claimed it had an impact on the sound, but I have to say that the upgrade made the playing experience different in a meaningful, if purely subjective way.

I’d be hard-pressed to choose a favorite between the two scale lengths; the beauty in the case of the Warmoth is that a single short-scale body accommodates both, and a neck swap requires mere minutes.

Is a full-blown short-scale revolution upon us? Time will tell if players on a large scale will embrace what was once seen as the stuff of student models and toys. If shorties got a bad rap in the past due to shoddy materials and slapdash build quality, those paying attention will realize that perception is indeed outdated, and that there’s a growing number of superhip short- and medium-scale basses. Look for more reviews in the coming months.


WARMOTH SHORT SCALE SERIES

Street $1,110–$1,265 (as tested)
Pros Wide array of custom options
Cons Minor assembly issues
Bottom line The beauty of the Warmoth short scale basses— aside from the fact that you get to assemble them yourself—is the wide range of options available.

Contact warmoth.com

Construction Bolt-on
Scale length 30" and 32"
Body Alder
Neck Maple
Fingerboard Ebony
Width at nut 1.5"
Pickups Seymour Duncan Antiquity II
Controls Volume, blend, bass, treble
Weight 30"-scale, 8.5 lbs; 32"-scale, 8.6 lbs
Options Many; see warmoth.com
Made in U.S.A.

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