Ashley Pangborn Warlord 'Mark King'
It's Mark King time again. A handmade beauty with a gorgeous body. The bass, not Mark King
Ashley Pangborn has been producing basses and guitars for some five years now and despite early Alembic 'copyist' comparisons he's gone from strength to strength and must be one of the foremost luthiers around today. Mr Pangborn may not be a household name but most pro players will have met him either to repair their instruments or place an order for either a Warrior or a Warlord.
The Pangborn premises are in Dulwich, South London, and from there Ashley plus assistant produce about five instruments a month. At present the standard range of basses consists of five models starting at £478, but obviously custom one-off's are still produced. Despite Ashley's renown as a bass maker he doesn't neglect the six-string either, although he doesn't actually offer a standard model at present.
The range of basses are at present available through the London Bass Centre, CC Music in Glasgow and Gig Riggers in Surrey.
The Warlord is produced in typical Pangborn fashion with a straight-through neck, a five piece laminate of Brazilian Mahogany and Rock Maple. The body wings are Brazilian Mahogany which have an African Padauk facing. Contrasting the two similarly coloured materials is an English Sycamore 'sandwich' veneer. Nothing usual about all this then, but then the Warlord isn't a particularly unusual bass as far as construction methods go. However, the quality of the wood-working is superb. The neck lamination is perfect and the shaping of the neck itself is very fine — a flattish curved profile, very thin in depth. Behind the nut is a nicely shaped volute and surprisingly, despite the straight-through design, Ashley has shaped quite a traditional heel.
For a 34" scale two octave bass the Warlord is remarkably compact, the body is quite small in familiar Pangborn shape with the characteristic bottom point and small offset horns. Ashley has a habit of going right over the top on his more expensive instruments when it comes to decoration, but thankfully the 'Mark King' is devoid of such embellishments. The fingerboard is very straightforward — small mother of pearl dots on an Indian ebony board. The fingerboard has a wide feel, not that it's overly thick, but probably a combination of the flat camber on the fingerboard and the flat thin curved profile of the neck.
Graduated fretting is not a new idea but one that I've always thought sensible. On this bass all that is employed are two gauges of wire, a wide one for the first 11 and regular for the rest. It does improve intonation at the top end of the board and I really don't know why it isn't used on more instruments.
Ashley Pangborn must have a thing about points, as the headstock is an arrow head shape which I've always felt is a little too hard in relation to the rounded shaping of the body. Still, the head has a Padauk facing to match the body in a traditional manner with a round Pangborn logo plate screwed to it.
The bass was evolved with Mark King in mind (who now owns a couple) and features a 'Funk groove' — a shallow cutaway at the bottom of the neck to facilitate easier 'pinging'. The neck pickup has been moved nearer the bridge to accommodate this groove which is now quite a common feature on many of today's basses. Certainly the shaping of the body and neck reflect a subtle attention to detail; the body has a slight back contour and the edges are heavily radiused. On construction and overall feel this bass is impossible to fault.
The liberation of the bass player from a background voice to up-front virtuoso has meant that the hardware on the bass has become far more important. The bridge comes in for a vast amount of wear which has led Ashley Pangborn to design and make his own. The Schaller 3-D bridge fitted here apparently fell apart in the hands of Mr King.
The new Pangborn bridge, which I had a good look at on another bass, will now be fitted as standard. It's a two piece assembly with the four large saddles mounted into a trough and held in place with two allen-keyed bolts which not only provide intonation adjustment, but also lock each saddle in place. This unit is mounted on a half pound lump of brass and the strings are similarly anchored in a large grooved tail piece. The unit I saw certainly looked the part and comparing it to the Schaller assembly is like comparing a hand gun to a tank!
As yet there's no problems with the machine heads — gold plated Schaller M4's are standard here and do the job. A brass nut is fitted and again Ashley is getting a few repairs these days due to behind-the-nut bends wearing the brass away rather quickly. However, like the saddles on the new bridge, the nuts on the new guitars will be made from a steel material which won't wear as quickly.
The electrics on the bass are as well thought out as the rest of the instrument and despite the presence of five knobs, one rotary and one toggle switch, things aren't as complicated as they look. Firstly the pickups are humbucking and again made by Ashley. They are totally enclosed with Ebony covers and three adjustment screws passing through the unit, therefore doing away with a pickup surround. Kent Armstrong didn't have anything to do with these although Ashley often employs him to provide pickups on other instruments, holding him in high respect not only for his technical know how but the fact that he's 'the most together guy in the music business today!'
The control functions have both an active and passive mode operated by a small toggle switch by the bridge. The passive control is a single tone knob while the active part of the circuit feature three controls offering ± 15dB boost/cut at bass, mid and treble frequencies. The pickup selector is a rotary four-position switch offering the usual bridge, neck and combined pickup modes as well as a stand-by position which cuts off the sound without having to turn down the volume control or unplug the guitar. Power for the active circuit comes from a 9-volt battery which is switched via the input jack and there is also an XLR input for phantom external power, again a sensible inclusion. Lastly there is a red LED mounted on the surround of the toggle switch indicating 'power on'.
Certainly the electronics are very sensibly laid out — there's also a separate battery compartment on the back of the guitar. The 'in' thing at the moment seems to be parametric Eq and dual-functioning controls, etc, which can be very confusing. This layout is straightforward and subsequently dead easy to get to know.
Plugging a jack into the guitar illuminates the 'Power on' LED — it's a bit like turning on the ignition really: set the controls and off we go. First impressions of the Eq system is that it covers a wide range; I was surprised to find no flat detents on the control knobs, but I've no complaints about the sounds produced. Sounds available? Well I think it's enough to say that every modern bass sound is included here, variations are plentiful but above all the overall character of the sound is really hi fi.
The evenness of the tones and the overall sustain is excellent and this, remember, is without the large section new Pangborn bridge. It would be unfair to judge intonation as I know the strings are not new and consequently a couple of the octaves are out. Incidentally Ashley has his own strings now produced with a thicker core and thinner windings which apparently keep the brightness of tone but reduces the wear on the frets bridge and nut.
The neck and fretboard on this bass was nothing short of brill! The section won't be to everyone's liking I dare say, but it's very fast and helps not hinders your playing. The action on this sample was pretty good too — this really is a 'slappers delight'. The 'funk groove' may appear to be a bit of a gimmick but it isn't at all although its usefulness will depend on your style. For me the fact that the top pick up wasn't right by the fingerboard was enough to make quite a difference.
This bass really needs to be strapped high on your body and in that position feels heaven-made. It's not a heavy bass at all and certainly not cumbersome, and as so often is the case the two octave fingerboard doesn't give this guitar a top heavy feel.
In the short time I had the bass it was quite impossible to explore all the sound possibilities, yet every sound I tried to get I could and with the minimum of ease. Even in the passive mode the combination of the tone control and pickup selector give plenty of variation and this sound, to be honest, would satisfy a great many people alone.
I wasn't convinced about the rotary switch for the pick up selector though; I would have preferred a toggle switch, although this would mean the loss of the stand-by position which would be a shame. It must be remembered that I was changing and experimenting with the sounds far more than one would in a livesituation.
At £740 the bass isn't cheap, but I must say it's what I'd expect to pay for such obvious quality and attention to detail. The advantage of the Pangborn operation is that it's small and therefore each customer can be assured of good service with plenty of options on timbers etc. Although this sample has a clear polyester lacquer, custom finishes are available such as wine red, black, ivory and green. Fretless models and parametric Eq's are available to.
Apart from the bass itself the thing that impressed me about Mr Pangborn was his whole attitude to his craft. Firstly, he doesn't blow his own trumpet and doesn't harbour any grudges against his fellow makers. Quite simply he's not worried about the competition simply because his attention to detail, individual service and constant research in what the musician actually wants means that he can stay ahead.
The next step is to produce a carbon-graphite bass which will be launched at Frankfurt and will mean that Pangborn basses will be more available this year, but don't worry they'll still be plenty of exotic timbers incorporated into the new design — Ashley Pangborn is far too sensible to forsake what he's already achieved.
All I can say is more power to your router! If by the end of '85 there's a single musician who says "Ashley who?" I'll be most surprised.
RRP £740 INC CASE
Further info from Pangborn Guitars Ltd., (Contact Details).
IM would like to thank John Puttock for the loan of this guitar.