Westone Concord Bass 1
If you were a wily Japanese guitar maker who wanted to project a good image in a market still prejudiced in favour of Western instruments, would you call your guitars Matsumoku, or Westone? No prizes for guessing, but I'm afraid the game is up, Mr Matsumoku; the neck plate of this Westone bass has your name stamped on it. Not to worry, though. I don't know much about Westone, but I do know what I like, and I like the Concord. It makes me wish I needed a bass so I could buy one for myself!
When my friend and I were photographing the Concord, we also took my Precision and Jazz basses for present and forthcoming "Hot Wiring" articles. Now, I'd always thought that the Precision was a pretty good-looking instrument, and the Jazz even more so, but this neat slimline Westone made them both look quite lumpy, somehow! You can judge for yourselves, anyway, from the appropriate photograph.
The good impressions start earlier than this, in fact; the bass came in an exceedingly smart well-fitting shaped case (not included in the price) which contained a selection of freebies to further reward the lucky purchaser. There was an Allen key for adjusting the truss rod (although you shouldn't, really); there were two plectrums of different weights, and there was a connecting lead.
Quite simply, this is the best free lead I've yet seen with an instrument: I've paid actual money for worse leads than this, much worse. To begin with, it doesn't have nasty moulded plugs that break inside and force you to chuck the whole lead out; neither does it have crunchy plastic plugs that split when you step on them. No, it has proper metal plugs with strain relief springs, and it's made up with low noise cable. When you bend it, ordinary screened cable often makes a crinkling noise that is actually induced in the cable itself and reproduced through the amplifier. Low noise cable can be distinguished by the layer of black conducting plastic between the screen and the inner insulator.
On the debit side, this lead is a bright yellow colour (so you won't lose it, I suppose) and in a perfect world it would be a bit longer than three metres; say twice as long to allow for some energetic leaping about. Still, who's going to look a gift horse in the mouth? I make no apology for going on at such length about a mere lead; let's hope such thoughtfulness has been lavished on the instrument as well.
On first playing, without plugging in, the Concord felt quite stiff — unrefined, if you like — but it soon loosened up and was very pleasant to play from that point on. In particular the strings felt quite flexible, but not floppy, and playing with the fingers was especially rewarding. A little investigation with a tape measure showed that this was due in part to the scale length — the vibrating length of the string between the nut and bridge.
There are two scale lengths in common use on basses — 34", which is what Fender Precision and Jazz basses use, along with most other modern basses. The Gitison EB series, and Fender Mustangs and Musicmasters (among others) are short scale, 30", which makes them easier to play (especially when using string bending techniques) but their strings aren't taut enough to give that snappy sound that's so popular nowadays. Also, accuracy of intonation is worsened as the ratio of a string's length to its diameter gets smaller, and short scale basses can sound 'soggy' because of this; essentially, the notes' harmonics tend to be slightly out of tune with their fundamentals.
The Westone uses a 32" scale length, which is far more than a numerical compromise. Intonation, ease of playing, ease of string bending, and sound were all very good. The strings play a part in this too; the free plectrums have GHS stamped on them, and I don't get any points for concluding that this bass is fitted with their strings. They are certainly a worthy opponent for the ubiquitous Rotosound roundwounds. Thankfully, imported basses no longer appear in the shops with horrible flatwound strings fitted to them; not surprising, really, for uncounted prospective purchasers must have been severely discouraged by the dead clunk that was all that could be obtained when trying out one of these instruments.
The neck feels smooth, pleasant and easy, and is made of a single piece of maple with a separate maple fingerboard, plus a couple of extra little bits laminated on to the head to make up the width. I'm not too sure about the use of a single piece of wood for the neck; unless the timber used is very carefully selected — and it probably wasn't on an instrument the price of this one — warping could occur as time goes by, or if the guitar is subjected to a change of temperature and/or humidity. Maybe the fingerboard will hold things steady, but most manufacturers seem to use laminated necks nowadays. I'm probably being alarmist, since the neck has certainly survived the journey from Japan, but I wouldn't take the Concord to any rain forests if I were you.
The truss rod is adjusted from the body end of the neck via a cut-out which allows the Allen key in. I didn't try it to see if it worked, and neither should you unless you absolutely know what you're doing (despite the tool for the job being provided). The fret and dot inlay work is first class, but the nut is a grotty plastic item; I don't expect brass, or even favour it, but a bit more craftsmanship wouldn't go amiss. The open G string is a bit loose in its slot, and rattles if you 'whang' it too hard.
All maple fingerboards need to be protected from the player's grubby fingers — and some have exceptionally grubby fingers, no names, no pack drill... One guitar I renovated had green marks which had sunk into the fingerboard and really had to be scraped hard to remove them. A Martian rock star, perhaps? The protection usually takes the form of a glossy lacquer which needs to get a little 'worn in' before it feels right — to my fingers at least — but Westone have used a smooth matt finish which is much more pleasant and feels good straight away, with no apparent stickiness. The coating seems a little thin, however, so I hope it isn't going to wear off too soon.
The neck has 21 frets instead of the more normal 20, making the top note E. This is a lot more use than Eb in the keys commonly used in rock, and I found myself playing it quite a lot, since it's easy to get to and the accurate intonation and good strings really make the top notes sing out. Some reservations about the neck, then, but it's doing its job at the moment.
The body is contoured in all the places you hadn't previously realised you had a bulge, and is very light and comfortable; you could take this bass on stage for a long stretch without wearing a groove in your shoulder. The lack of weight doesn't seem to have had a detrimental effect on the sound, either, which is reassuring.
The hardware is mostly standard — the all-in-line machine heads look a lot like Schallers, but aren't. The bridge is Fender style, with individual string length and action adjustments, although no Allen key is provided for this. The pickup, again, is Fender Precision style, split into two halves picking up two strings each. In fact, the pickup looked a bit like a DiMarzio model P in a black casing, complete with adjustable pole pieces (no Allen key again) but I think I said the wrong thing when I suggested this to Andy Glover, F, C & N's demo engineer. They're probably still laughing about me in the Fletcher, Coppock and Newman canteen, because the pickup is Westone through and through. Very good it is too.
A beneficial side effect of all this look-alike business is that if after a while you decide you don't like some part of your Westone bass, it's easy to change it for something you do like from the vast range of replacement parts now available, most of which seem to be Fender style. There should be no reason to do this straight away, though; all the bits supplied as standard do their jobs properly. The machine heads worked smoothly, and retuning wasn't constantly necessary during the three weeks or so I had the bass at home — during which time the temperature fluctuated quite a bit.
The bridge may not be the heftiest I've ever seen, but if the Concord sounds this good with this flimsy piece of bent metal, what is it going to do with one of those massive brass items you can buy now? And perhaps Superwound strings as well? On the subject of strings, most manufacturers do string sets for 30" and 34" scale lengths, but none specifically for 32"; this bass is fitted with a long scale set, and the wound portions of the E and A strings (rather than their coloured bindings) are wrapped round the machine head posts. Apparently this can put a strain on the string's core and sometimes fracture it; this has never happened to me, but string makers don't guarantee their strings under such circumstances.
The action was set quite high — or at least it seemed high at first, but some flash playing soon proved possible despite this. Appearances can be deceptive sometimes. As high an action as you cam comfortably get away with is an advantage on any sort of guitar, but especially on bass with the violent playing styles that are currently in vogue.
The pickup is pretty good, as I mentioned, and I can't imagine that you'd be in a hurry to swap it for something else, except perhaps as an experiment. The rest of the circuitry is also standard; a volume control (which tends to come on suddenly at the end of its travel), a tone control with a decent range and a smooth action, and a jack socket on the front where you can see it, hurrah!
Put all this together, and what have you got? Quite a persuasive instrument, in fact. A bass which sounds good if you're a beginner, and will sound the way you want it to if you're more experienced; a bass which sounds good whether you play with fingers, thumb, plectrum or a big stick. The best news is that it won't break the bank; the Westone Concord I costs just £199.95. The case is extra to keep the basic price to a minimum, and that will set you back £39.50 extra.
All right, the Concord doesn't have the sheer authority that the best basses have, but I'd recommend almost anyone looking for a new instrument to at least try it out; you could end up with more change than you'd expected! I wonder what the other Westone guitars are like?
The Westone Concord Bass 1 is distributed in the U.K. by FCN Music, (Contact Details).