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Wilkes Fretted/Fretless bass

Article from One Two Testing, June 1985

British hybrid

IN NEARLY EVERY RESPECT, Wilkes' bass guitar makes no pretensions. It's an honest, British-built basic design that includes trusty chrome-plated Schaller machine heads and bridge hardware, and a single humbucking pickup of unknown origin. It's all put together competently.

The review instrument, which was black, seemed to have been lacquered to a high standard, reflected, literally, in terms of depth and quality of finish, and also with regard to resilience. Smooth-running control knobs (for volume and tone) are neatly grouped with a miniature coil-tapping switch and output socket in an ideal location that enables swift adjustments without causing any obstruction. Scale length is standard at 34in.

The headstock, though of common enough shape, is different in its layout of machine heads, one being placed on the bass side, and three on the treble side. This arrangement means that the strings lead into the machines at harmless but unusual angles, and the A and D strings are anchored by a retainer.

The whole guitar is fairly well balanced, showing only a slight tendency to neck-dive. But it is quite heavy — you'll know you're wearing it after half an hour of standing. The body is rounded at the edges but not otherwise sculpted. Aesthetically, I found the shape of the Wilkes pretty acceptable, if a little uninspired.

Of course, the distinctive feature of the bass, as you may have noticed from the picture, lies with the neck. This has been installed with frets that only run half way over the fingerboard (below the E and A strings). From there on they are ground away so that the portion below the D and G strings gives a fretless effect, with the ground-down sections gaining new employment as position markers. Inlaid dots are also present on the close-grained rosewood fingerboard (to which obvious attention has been paid, in care and detail).

The contour of the detachable neck runs from a V-shape at the headstock end to a more familiar rounded feel as you approach the heel, where it is secured to the body by four large screws. The only visible "faults" in the construction of the review model were a minor misalignment of the aforementioned screws in relation to the heel of the neck, and a slight mismatch of the pickup polepieces' geometry to the available string spacing so that the D and G strings were always marginally off-field.

The Wilkes returns a very generous sound indeed, not unlike that of the full-bodied Yamaha BB1600 reported on in last November's issue. Output is extremely hefty for a bass with passive circuitry, and the sound is deep and even all the way up the neck. Though the tone control is basically a top-cut device, it provides enough variation, in conjunction with the coil-tap switch, to render the bass with a useful selection of tone and shading with no thinning-out in evidence. The sound projects really well and very clearly right across the range, and is generally taut and responsive. Although directional hum and noise were of a low order, the circuit cavity is unscreened — maybe screening is unnecessary these days?

As far as the guitar itself is concerned, the Wilkes isn't the most adventurous design ever put forward, but certainly it sounds modern and lively. What puzzles me is the schizophrenic attempt to combine fretted and fretless bass. I just can't see any advantages.

Playing this guitar requires continual readjustment of train-of-thought and technique every time the left hand crosses over the two fingerboard territories. I found this to be increasingly frustrating, not least because of the constant interruptions to expression and flow.

If you are clever enough to do lots of thumb slapping on the E and A strings, so as to take advantage of the "clack" of the frets, while at the same time combining a fretless technique for the D and G, and still manage to produce a cohesive sound that you'd be happy to hear all the time, then the idea works.

I get the impression that there's a kind of mini-campaign afoot. Somehow, it is to "revitalise" the bass guitar and drag it into next year. But I don't think that adding more strings, or fitting tremolo arms, or cutting off half the frets, are the answers.

Fretted or unfretted, bass guitars are wonderful because of their very simplicity. It's the reason they sound so good and also why talented players have been able to produce such an amazing diversity of sounds, styles and possibilities.

To my mind, a far more exciting, dignified and fitting proposition is that of a properly designed, low-tuning, four-string bass. This, especially in fretted form, would return that ground which has been lost to bass players since the advent of synth bass, and yet retain the essence of simplicity which is the whole joy of the instrument. In the meantime I feel that this Wilkes is a well-meant excursion in the wrong direction.

WILKES fretted/fretless bass: £300

CONTACT: Wilkes Guitars, (Contact Details).

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Publisher: One Two Testing - IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.

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One Two Testing - Jun 1985

Donated by: Colin Potter

Gear in this article:

Bass > Wilkes > B1

Review by Andrew Bodnar

Previous article in this issue:

> Sequential Multi-Trak

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> Shredder

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