Staccato Fretless Bass & Body
It was almost exactly a year ago that I first heard whispers about a revolutionary new guitar undergoing development in the rural fastness of deepest Norfolk. Over-heralded 'new technology' guitars aren't uncommon today, and the word 'revolutionary' is bandied around far too often to be taken with much more than a pinch of salt in most cases - but the Staccato did sound genuinely (not to say spectacularly) advanced. An investigation seemed to be called for. I made contact with designer Pat Townshend and his partner Chris Jagger shortly thereafter, and was introduced to what really must be the currently most futuristic guitar system (and you'll soon see why the word 'system' applies) - the Staccato.
Almost every aspect of the Staccato is the result of a substantial re-thinking by a brilliant young engineering designer called Pat Townshend. Pat's first foray into musical instruments was in the form of the ill-fated Staccato drum system which briefly flowered a few years back, but since then he has been working on the concept of a uniquely interchangeable necked guitar and bass, using his background in lightweight advanced materials engineering which he's previously applied to racing motorcycles. To re-state the Staccato principle, what Pat had developed was a single guitar body, made of advanced lightweight materials, into which you could slot the neck of your choice - giving you basses (fretted and fretless) and either 6 or 12 string guitar, all available by simply replacing one neck with another. The potential for both gigging and session players was enormous. The first Staccato I saw was an enormously impressive early prototype version. It needed work on the pickups and electronics, and Pat was still in the process of finalising his unique stringing and tuning system, but everything else worked - and how! Since then (with the backing of Bill Wyman and Mick Jagger), the Staccato has been steadily evolving until it has reached two crucial points in its history. Available now are fully developed bodies, with the options of both fretted and fretless bass and 6 string and 12 string guitar necks. Everything works, and (assuming you have the money) you can get one. Secondly (and hopefully coming to fruition by September this year), the Staccato team plan to offer a lower cost fixed neck bass model which will keep all the advantages of the materials and design quality developed for the up-market version, and could result in a widely affordable advanced bass - even cost-effective for semi-pro players. As the anticipated fixed-neck bass is still in the pipeline, I've been trying the 'luxury' interchangeably necked model, using one fitted with a fretless neck. When the fixed neck Staccato arrives, fear not - you'll be the first to know!
There's something almost weapon-like about the Staccato's looks. It comes out of its moulded fibreglass case gleaming and purposeful. Pick it up, and you can't help a sense of surprise at the negligible weight - just over 7lbs in the bass version, and yet balanced perfectly, however you hold and play it. Somehow, though, it doesn't have an insubstantial feeling despite the low mass. Neither does it give you any cause to suspect that the materials used in either the body or neck are particularly unusual. It's perhaps a little cold, but only at very first, warming to the touch immeasurably faster than did, for example, those old alloy necked Travis Beans or Kramers. Part of this is due to the determinedly traditional finishing materials used on the Staccato. The back of the neck and the body are both coated with the most orthodox pearlised lacquer (a la vintage Gibson) so that the colouring (purple on my sample, but available in a wide range of options) both looks and feels like a 1950s U.S. guitar that has come out of a time vault. The colour shimmers and shifts as you vary the Staccato's angle to the light, and the finishing standard is unimpeachable. Ground-up fish scales (the reputed constituents of such time-honoured pearlised lacquers!) might seem old fashioned, but they make plastics look like - well plastic, in comparison!
The body (the 'mother unit' of the system) is made of moulded fibreglass inside a polyurethane shell. Inset into this is a cast magnesium alloy section, which is what you fit the neck of your choice into. Frictionless in operation, the mag. alloy insert uses adjustable rollers which the neck slides against until it locks into a trigger catch. To remove the neck, all you do is pull the trigger, and the self-eject spring releases it. The neck fit on every sample model I've seen to date has been superb, and once the neck is in place you'd be unaware (unless you knew that the neck was interchangeable) that the instrument had anything other than a perfectly conventional fixed joint.
The body section also houses the normal jack socket and the controls for the pickups, which are themselves integral parts of each neck, thus giving you the appropriate pickups for whatever bass or guitar configuration you've chosen ready-supplied in with the neck. The independent necks come in their various versions, and all are made of cast mag. alloy. This material is used for racing car wheels, and indeed the supplies of the advanced casting technology used by Pat and his team comes from companies who also supply Rolls Royce Aerospace and Team Lotus, to name just two.
To ensure absolute stability in the Staccato's metal necks, there's more than just casting involved in the production. The accurately cast shape is high-precision milled, once removed from the mould, to ultra-fine tolerances and is then hardened in a chromate 'pickling' process. It's this technology which results in Formula One racing car wheels being able to take such a battering under such strain. Even Lemmy doesn't use his bass necks that hard!
Back when I first saw the Staccato, the idea was to fit the necks with wood fingerboards, but current and future models use a specially developed reinforced plastic which feels (and looks) uncannily like wood, but which won't move. Wood didn't, after much experimentation, prove to be up to the job - which is one of the many reasons why potential buyers of a Staccato can be grateful to Pat and Chris for the painstaking R&D which has gone into this instrument. Where frets are fitted (mine was the fretless version) these will be of a large profile type, although no doubt you could ask Staccato to fit whatever you happened to like. I've sampled fretted necks and can vouch for the accuracy of these. They feel (and play) fine.
Moving onto the nut system used, this is also made of mag alloy, and uses precision rollers for a frictionless operation and individually height adjustable per string. Usefully (perhaps especially on fretless types), the fret positions are marked on the side of the neck with fibre optic-fed markers, so that you can see where you are, even in total darkness, as these are quite clearly illuminated. Inside the instrument's body is a single light source, and the fibres channel this illumination to the dot markers.
The metal neck terminates in a rectangular plate section, which is what fits (silken smooth against its adjustable roller bearings) and locks into the body. As it does, the twin pickups are automatically connected to the control stages and the rest of the circuitry. They're carefully protected, though, so that when the neck isn't actually fitted to the body there's no danger of damaging exposed connections.
The pickups vary in accordance with what type of neck you're employing but all are the result of work by the hugely talented Kent Armstrong. Mounted flush with the body, both are twin coil types, controlled in an unusual but exceptionally effective manner.
You adjust volume by using two brass 'touch pads'. One functions as a re-set, the other as a volume control, with a digital readout of what setting you're at appearing in a small 'screen' fitted to the top bout of the body. I wasn't over-happy with the second generation volume control system I'd seen earlier last year, and the Staccato people have re-thought this (not on my recommendation alone, I should add!) so that you now don't tend to overshoot and find yourself running back to zero before you're aware of what's happening. You can adjust the speed at which the volume increases (an internal control undertakes this), and this now makes for a very manageable and controllable system. Tonal adjustments are made by another particularly ingenious process. You have a series of five small metal switches, the first being a pickup selector, followed by four others which enable you to select various pickup configurations as you choose. These options include having them set to either 6,000 Ohm or 4,000 Ohm operation, parallel (single), or 'humbucking' settings. Hence, without the need for complex parametrics and so on, you have a mass of tone colours on tap from just four switches.
In addition to carrying the pickups and head-mounted tuners, the neck section also, of course, carries the bridge. This, too, is cast mag. alloy, but has been chemically 'aged' to prevent discolouration. In essence it's quite a conventional design, but it does work wonderfully well! The hefty saddles are each fully adjustable, via allen screws, so setting the instrument up shouldn't be either unfamiliar or difficult.
Stringing the Staccato bass up isn't hard, either. The strings loop up through the bridge, the ball ends being held within the bridge-mounted coarse tuning adjusters. They then lead up to the headstock, where pegs screw down onto the strings and lock them into place. Before these pegs do their work, the strings pass under friction-free bars, which allow the rear headstock mounted tuners to act on the string tension - hence raising and lowering the pitch. The operating principle is that you bring the strings near enough to tension on these bridge tuners, and then complete the tuning (which you can do to an almost unprecedented degree of fineness) using the headstock mounted devices. Once set, by the way, the tuning stability I achieved was unparalleled by anything else I've encountered - these strings just didn't move - but, if they had (maybe under hot stage lights?) then getting them back in would be a piece of cake, as would restringing.
I've already commended the Staccato's light weight and easy balance, but I'm going to run the risk of repeating myself by drawing your attention to these qualities again. Whereas not everyone likes the odd feel of a Steinberger, the Staccato feels much more conventional in both its shaping and handling characteristics. The strap fits on conventionally to the body's base and fastens from there to a flexible bar which is mounted onto the back of the body. I can't imagine what you could be doing with your bass if you couldn't find a comfortable way of wearing this one!
Touch the volume sensor to bring up the wellie, start playing around with the selector switches to see how the tone varies. Sustain is what hits you first. Now, there's sustain and sustain. Normally, I'd reckon that a dense mahogany JayDee bass is unbeatable for sustain in conventional terms, and that you have to look at, maybe, a Status to find its equal in non-wood instruments. But the mag. alloy ingredients in the Staccato endow it with sustain of quite a new order altogether. It's a sustain which you could learn to make use of in all manner of clever new ways, no doubt, but which - initially, at any rate - just impresses you as something unique. Not only are the notes held, but they're pure too, something which can sometimes be lacking in advanced basses. Every nuance is there, giving a musical sound, full of resonance and character with an almost bell-like clarity and intelligibility. Tonally, the Staccato is equally outstanding. The pickups kick-out a hefty level (I had to watch my test amp's input sensitivity carefully to avoid overloads when both of Kent's units were set on humbucking, otherwise I was getting a beautifully rasping early Jack Bruce EB3-like distortion). In fact, I personally am probably in among that tiny minority of bass players today who actually like and use bass distortion, and the Staccato was one of the mere fistful of instruments I've tried in the past five or six years which can deliver it when asked. If you have the misfortune to share my odd tastes here, bear that in mind!
Set more 'normally' the essential clarity and resonance of the Staccato's basic sound is ultimately manipulatable by the series of flick switches handling the pickup configurations. On twin humbucking (deliberate distortion aside) the tone is fat and warm (yes, warm, despite being largely made of metal with no wood at all!), and quite capable of producing a cabinet-wrecking packet of frequencies when you're playing around the low frets on the E and A. For me, a fretless is difficult enough without resorting to fancy slapping styles, but (especially if you opted for the fretted model) those aggressive 'popping' effects are all there too, with a cutting edge available from the coil tap and single coil switches which would satisfy even the most dynamically inclined bassist.
I could rabbit on about the amazing tone colourations you can get out of the Staccato fretless for pages, but there is neither the room here, nor is there a great deal of point. What I can perhaps best say is that what you've got here is a huge range of eminently workable sounds, all shaped from what is the most hugely sustaining, ringing clear, fundamental sound that you're likely to discover. Tastes in sound are always personal, and whatever a tone circuit does or doesn't do, no bass will ever satisfy everyone. Nevertheless, even purely objectively, some work well and some don't - the Staccato sounds brilliant!
The neck is slim in depth and comfortably narrow in width, making it delightfully easy to handle. I personally didn't find the fingerboard material any sort of problem at all (if problems there were to be with feel, then it would be on a fretless that one would notice them first), and in fact it just felt like a good piece of ebony. One nice point is that it should withstand the wear of roundwounds on fretless boards, too.
Yes, it's always best to be cautious when people make claims to originality on new guitars and basses. We've seen dozens come and go in recent years. For my part, though, having watched the Staccato evolve (and knowing the vast amounts of work which went into it before that) then I do feel that it is one of the mere few 3rd-generation instruments that works and has a definite future.
Given that bass players tend to be the ones who are more prepared to look at new ideas, I'd imagine that it would be they who would be looking at a Staccato first. For a bassist it has very many attractions. To begin with it's amazingly lightweight. It's also fabulously easy to play and has outstanding sustain, sound and tone variability - in fact it can produce some of the best sounds I've ever heard. But, of course, there's more to it than even that. If for example, you currently take fretted basses and guitars to gigs, you could alternatively just take one Staccato body, a fretless and fretted neck and a 6-string neck (not to mention a 12 string). I've tried a guitar neck and that works a treat, too. The combined weight and bulk of such a system would be negligible, and you'd have a much more familiar feel to each type as you changed over. Whereas now you either have to have a twin necker or one type of bass and another guitar, here you'd have just the one - familiar - type of instrument, the necks of which just slotted in or out as you chose. It's a fascinating prospect! Couple this ease with the outstanding playing and sound qualities of the Staccato system and you've got a genuine revolution at hand. For the player who can afford one, the Staccato system offers unmatched potential. Later this year when, hopefully, the fixed neck Staccato bass arrives. I've been promised one of those to try. In the meantime, if the swap-over neck attractions and what I've said about the sound and feel of the Staccato appeal, don't wait!
Staccato Fretless Bass & Body (Inc Case) RRP £1,537 Inc. VAT.
Other interchangeable necks available as follows: 6 string guitar - £844.54; 12 string - £1,008.53; Bass necks - £725.65.
More details on Staccato from Scott-Cooper Marketing Ltd., (Contact Details).
Review by Gary Cooper
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