Dave Burrluck keeps his head with a headless newcomer
Yamaha have shown that they are capable of producing very solid, well made bass guitars but always very much in the traditional mould of the Fender Precision. Of course, like most of Japan's guitar manufacturers they'd be the last to admit the similarities but certainly all Yamaha guitars, including their excellent acoustic range, have strengths that lie in their conventionalism.
The new BX-1, then, is a bit of a surprise on the surface – a very stylish looking headless bass wanting to be more 'progressive' than it actually is. However, if we think that the headless concept is virtually an industry standard by now it isn't really too surprising to see this new instrument gracing Yamaha's already extensive range of bass guitars. Pitched at the medium to high price bracket the BX-1 will have a fair bit of competition in the wooden headless bass category, notably Washburns' Bantam.
However, it's early days yet for the BX-1 – the instrument is only available in black and cream, both with black hardware, and it will be interesting to see how it fits into the already well stocked headless market.
The BX-1 is heavily finished in a black lacquer making any observations of timber spec impossible. However, we are told that the body is constructed from a mixture of Nato, Maple and Mahogany while the 'one-piece' neck is from Maple and Mahogany! Also we are told that the fingerboard is Ebony when I'd stake a few bob on it being Rosewood. Nothing like a confusing start to a review! If it's of any consequence I'd guess that we have a straight-through neck made from Mahogany/Maple/Mahogany and attached to that are Nato 'wings' to form what little body there is.
The no doubt 'exciting new body shape' is, in fact, not too far removed from the Riverhead 'Unicorn' design headless bass, except here we have a top horn added which gives this instrument an extremely good balance. The lack of any lower horn means that the bass slips off your knee so one must obviously deduce that it hasn't been designed for playing without a strap. The instrument is cutaway at the bottom to allow access to the tuning system while the centre section is raised giving a possible thumb-rest position.
The severe shaping of the body allows excellent access to the top 24th fret on the long 34" scale neck. The neck is thin in width and depth with a comfortable round contour not a million miles away from Steinbergers' shaping. The top of the neck, beyond the string locking system, is a rather redundant stub which surely can't add to the balance of the instrument greatly but does, I suppose, ease the visual shock caused by the usual 'sawn-off' appearance of many headless instruments.
Certainly the fingerboard is a nice piece of work with medium gauge (2mm) frets well installed and finished. Pearl shell dot markers are used on the face of the board and contrast well with the dark Rosewood fingerboard.
The tuning system is yet another variation on the Steinberger original, but the system fitted here, while lacking the smart appeal of the Steinberger design, works adequately well. The saddles and tuners are mounted on a machined base-plate. The saddles are held by the front edge of the base adjustable for intonation via a hexagonal nut. (A spanner is provided but it was the wrong size). Two Allen-keyed grub screws take care of height adjustment in the usual manner. Very slight tracks are machined into the bass to give the saddles more stability under tension. However, because the saddles are held from the front of the base it's easily possible to push them forward and ruin the intonation. Ned Steinberger was not daft when he locked his saddles with a side mounting grub screw!
The ball-end of the string is held in a solid retainer which is held to the base of the bridge on a flat 'T' track. These are attached to the tuning knobs by a thread and the tuners work in a standard lateral manner. However, only a washer lies between the base of the assembly and the tuning knob and consequently the action of the knobs is a bit stiff but workable.
At the top of the neck the strings pass over a nicely cut black plastic nut and are locked by the four individual clamps. These are simply round barrels which are clamped down onto a groove through which the string passes via an Allen-keyed bolt. Unfortunately an Allen key wasn't provided to do the job and I didn't have the correct size key either so closer inspection was impossible. However, both the base of the locking system and the Allen-keyed bolts have suffered some corrosion; the base plate has a greyish hue while the bolts have simply gone a bit rusty. Quite why this has occurred I have no idea – lean only think that a thin metal coating and the British climate are to blame. However, the resulting corrosion is shoddy and isn't acceptable on a new instrument costing £600!
Two meaty looking humbuckers are fitted here. Each has a matt black cover and is held to the body with four cross head screws which also take care of height adjustment. Apart from the fact that each unit has eight hidden pole pieces and the pickups are of a new design no actual spec is provided. The controls are kept to a minimum too. A volume control for each pickup plus a master tone control which doubles as a coil-split for both pickups. This is achieved by a push/push switch in the pot – push it down for full humbucking mode then push it again and the knob rises up and also activates the coil-tap.
One is left feeling a bit short changed here with such limited controls; no pickup selector switch or pan-pot means that pickup selection is only achieved by turning one volume control down. Surely a more effective idea would be to employ a panpot, master volume and master tone, not to mention individual coil-taps or preferably series/parallel switching which would keep the pickups in humbucking mode with all the advantages regarding hum, etc. If, for example, the jack socket were mounted on the side of the instrument as opposed to the face there would be plenty of room in the control cavity for such improvements.
Strapping on the BX-1 is a pleasant surprise; as I've said it balances perfectly and has a light weight (6.5lbs) and sticks very nicely to your body. The neck sticks out quite a way but it's an easy stretch to first position, as well as making top fret playing very comfortable. It is the upper horn which makes all the difference by adding the much needed balance point – as this is where the strap button is fitted – and also by providing that bit of extra body area which gives it a far better and more traditional feel than, say, a Steinberger.
The tonal range is remarkably wide especially with the coil-tap facility adding a nice amount of top. Certainly the tone in this mode is very strong with a nice modern hollow 'twang' but without being too thin. In the full coil mode the sound is that much fatter and a bit muddy, especially on the low strings. The twin volumes provide a nice blend of tone with both pickups in action. By juggling these around, especially in the full coil mode, some nice 'nasally' tones can be achieved. As a general purpose bass the BX-1 would be excellent tonally as, while it doesn't have a particularly strong individual sound of its own, most types of sound can be covered.
The action and set up was okay – a little too high maybe at the top end of the board where those extra frets allow a lot of chording to be achieved. While the distance at the base of the neck between the strings and body is adequate for slappers, the top pickup does get in the way a bit. Again then not a slapper's delight but an instrument that could serve the part-time slapper well!
While the overall sound and playability couldn't really be faulted it does seem that the BX-1 is a bit run-of-the-mill soundwise, in trying to cover every sound and style it possibly has lost an individuality that its looks suggest. Mind you, this should have those Jap designers breaking open the vintage Saki as mass appeal is what they're after. Individuality is a trait best left to those Westerners!
At £579 including a sturdy fitted case as opposed to those awful gig bags, I think we have a bass here that delivers in terms of value for money and certainly sound. Its modern styling probably isn't its best point but the resulting lightweight and general playability are strong points in its favour. While it isn't as extreme as its mentor – the Steinberger – either in shaping or sound (let alone materials) it does offer the musician a 'wooden' sounding bass with synthetic looks. The pickups themselves seem very reasonable although the circuit does let things down a bit, but we must remember that despite its looks this is a remarkably conventional instrument in both sound and construction. It is always something of an irony to me that while Yamaha may lead the world in the synthesis stakes they haven't as yet done much for revolutionising the guitar world. It is especially annoying as the Japanese are the only people that have the technology and money to produce a truly hi-tech guitar at a good price and, with the exception of Roland with their guitar synth controller, are still happy to imitate. Still, don't get me wrong, the BX-1 is a remarkably fine bass.
RRP: £579 inc case
Review by Dave Burrluck
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