Billings Custom Bass
Hand-built bass review.
The principal attractions of Wolverhampton guitar maker Chris Billings' instruments are very slim necks and an unmistakeable hand-made feel.
The first thing you'll notice when picking up one of his basses is indeed the neck — if you've been used to one of the chunkier Fender tree-trunks, say, or the cheaper pleasures of some Eastern monstrosities that can fall so easily into the left hand, then the necks on Billings' basses will undoubtedly baffle on first encounter — but I predict you'll soon grow to see their charms. I've even heard the instruments referred to as "slim-line", for obvious reasons. But more on the anorexic necks in a minute.
The particular example of Billings work that we borrowed to try out came from Andy's guitar shop in central London, and was apparently about the third or fourth bass of his that had passed through this emporium of principally acoustic delights. The previous few basses had all found happy homes with Andy-shaped customers.
This one had obviously been around the shop for a while — it had certainly been well played and bore a few tiny knocks and bangs around the headstock and on the back of the body, both areas to look for shop-induced scuffing when you're buying.
Andy's predictably said that they had "loads of people interested in it", and once again the major area of comment and interest had been the ever-so-slim neck. Andy's price for the Billings we borrowed is £495.
It's a two-octave fretless, with markings on the top edge of the ebony fingerboard atop a maple through-neck, all merging with a paduak body. It's rather nice to look at — the deep brown of the paduak contrasting pleasantly against the through-neck's strips of maple.
The outer contact bolts of the bridge (there's a third, central bolt too) are beyond the through-neck, in fact, meaning that in theory the resonances of the strings are not being enhanced by the through-neck. This is in fact balanced by the strings themselves being passed through from the back of the body and thus resonating at these contact points, but this slight contradiction did seem a possible explanation for the staccato punch of the bass, as opposed to the sort of singing sustain of some fretless basses I've tried.
The bridge, while we're on the subject, corrects intonation via front-mounted standard screws, with a curious nut-and-locking-nut system on the shaft within the saddle-carrying area. The front-mounting of these screws made the setting of intonation a little tricky for me in that it was difficult to leave a note or harmonic ringing while adjusting the saddle position as the screwdriver would inevitably deaden the string. Maybe I'm just ham-fisted (bacon-fisted?), but it seemed awkward to me.
The two-polepieces-per-string humbucking pickup was wound by Sussex-based electronics man Kent Armstrong and is controlled by two large (and rather unwieldy) brass volume and tone knobs, along with two coil-tap flickswitches opening at 5000 ohms and 7500 ohms (acting in effect like tone boosts), and a front-mounted and therefore relatively yank-proof jack socket.
But enough of visuals — let's plug in our chum. Straight away a nasty buzz through the amp when fingers are not delicately stroking strings, meaning bad screening (usually). So round to the back of the bass to have a look in the control cavity.
This is guarded by a plastic plate, and even with the five cross-head screws removed it doesn't want to budge — one broken finger-nail and a helpful bent paper-clip later reveals a totally unscreened control cavity — hence, presumably, the racket.
Anyway, back to the sound, despite occasional interrupting buzzes. The pickup sits almost exactly mid-way between the end of the neck and the bridge, giving a good compromise somewhere in the middle of the potential range of a single pickup. Playing in the position suggested by the thin wooden thumb-rest gives an overall rounded sound. The bass actually felt rather heavy on a strap, and sat somewhat headstock-heavy.
But the neck — oh! the neck. I forgive everything else for the neck. Naturally there are arguments for and against such a narrow way. Those for, like me, will praise the speed available in exchange for a relatively small outlay in dexterity.
There is, too, the sheer joy of having so much so close to hand. Those arguing against would probably go all quiet and then mention something extremely fashionable (last month, anyway) about not being able to get their fingers between the strings for pulling and slapping.
They'll not get much of a funk twang out of this not-very-toppy bass anyway. But let them moan. I'm more than happy.
What I would moan about is the rather one-dimensional sound, the bridge mechanics, the buzzing (presumably) through lack of screening, and the slightly "worn" state of the bass. There's also a slightly irritating buzz on the fingerboard around the A position on the D-string that got in the way once or twice.
Chris told me that he built the bridge himself because it was difficult to find on that fitted the string spacing — hence the Gibson-like adjustments. He's aware of the headstock-heavy criticisms too, and is making his next bass with a slightly heavier body.
But it's the Billings neck that would finally persuade you, and so it could be worth getting Chris to build your own control requirements around it. But I wouldn't be too keen on the bass reviewed.
Review by Tony Bacon
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