Alembic is a word guaranteed to set bassists' teeth a-gnashing with envy. Steve York supplies the necessary.
Alembic started as a San Francisco-based company specialising in recording decks and electronic equipment for recording studios. In the late Sixties they collaborated with both Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane and Phil Lesh of the Grateful Dead, adding a wide variety of electronic circuitry to their basses until at one point Jack Casady's Guild was literally covered in knobs and switches.
It was only natural that they should team up with a guitar maker who thought as radically in wood as they did in electronics, and along with Rick Turner they began eventually to produce their own basses, initially making only about two a month. Within a relatively short time the Alembic has come to be regarded as the Rolls Royce of basses, and is used by players as diverse as Stanley Clarke, Louis Johnson, John McVie, Marvin Isley, and Greg Lake.
I have been playing an Alembic for about a year now, and it is this instrument I will discuss here as it is difficult to write a general review of their instruments — each is sold with a leaflet explaining that no two Alembics are the same, and inviting ideas for improvement.
The scale length of my bass is 34in (the same as a Fender Precision or Jazz) but the neck is a lot longer than a Fender as it runs a full 24 frets, giving two octaves on each string. It is also available in ¾ scale. The fingerboard is ebony, which is a big plus to me as I believe that the use of harder, close-grained wood on the fingerboard gives a 'crisper' feel and sound. The neck is made from maple with a birch core inlaid with two rosewood strips, one each side of the core. The neck section runs full length through the body, and incorporates the bridge, tailpiece and pickups, a design which dramatically aids sustain and resonance. The bulk of the body is birch and the front and back are finished with a veneer of Peroba Rosa, a wood with a visually striking striped grain. The head is a six-piece laminate of maple and rosewood with a metal cut-out of the Alembic logo, which consists of a hand clutching a letter 'A' descending from a cloud. On my bass this is very crudely carved (I could never have deciphered it if I hadn't seen it printed on the leaflet) and it is also fixed to the head loosely enough to buzz a little when the bass is played acoustically. However, it does have the psychological effect of attracting guitar freaks in an audience to the front of the stage to try and figure out what it is!
The machine heads are gold plated Schallers' which have the smoothest and most accurate action I have found. They are adjustable for tension, but I have found this unnecessary.
The nut is made of brass and is set high. The frets are also high and rounded in contour. High, rounded frets facilitate string bending and lateral vibrato, and are ideal for players like Stanley Clarke and John Entwistle who favour light gauge strings and a low action, and who solo as a guitarist would. I found the high frets to be a hindrance as I use heavy strings with a medium action and use more vertical finger movement for note bending and vibrato, as one would on a fretless bass. However, the second and 11th frets were set slightly too low on my bass so I had to have the frets taken down and polished anyway to remove the fret buzz. This process lowered and flattened the frets sufficiently for me to be able to gliss up and down the fingerboard without getting finger burn. I might add that the frets would have worn themselves in after a period of playing anyway.
The bridge and tailpiece are made of brass, with the bridge set deep into the central neck section. The tailpiece is set about an inch back from the bridge: the use of a tailpiece gives increased string tension, with the strings slipped into notches in the tailpiece rather than threaded through holes, making string changing fast.
The four bridge pieces are individually adjustable for string length, but not for height. Height adjustment is governed by two screws, one each side of the strings. Being used to individual string height adjustment on Fender basses I thought this would be a drawback, but in practice it proved satisfactory, probably owing to the one piece neck/body construction. The height adjustment screws turn easily even with the use of a coin and it took me only a few minutes to find a comfortable balanced action.
After years of nursing basses, harmonic adjustment on the Alembic was a joy. I began by changing the strings to Ernie Ball heavy gauge flat-rounds (E-110, A-090, D-075, G-055) which have caused many a Fender neck to bend, after having had the truss rod adjusted accordingly. I later switched to D'Addario Half Rounds without further adjustment. Over an eight week period I checked the intonation on a Strobotuner and the bridge needed only minor compensation to bring the tuning true throughout the fingerboard, which in my experience is almost miraculous, considering the two octave neck.
The neck is fairly wide (about 2in) and parallel throughout its length. A player used to a Fender Precision would have little trouble adapting, but a player used to a thinner or tapered neck would find the Alembic hard going in the lower positions; a player used to a Gibson or Rickenbacker neck would find the Alembic neck deeper than they are used to. The neck joins the body at the 21st fret (E on the G string), and there is no heel construction, making it easier to play fast in the upper register than any other bass I have played. The edges of the fingerboard are unbound, and I found myself scraping my left hand on the edges of the frets until I had them smoothed.
Apart from the conventional pearl inlays on the fingerboard, the fret positions are marked by red LEDs along the top edge of the fingerboard (the edge you see when looking down in the playing position). On my bass these lights developed a disconcerting habit of going on and off on gigs, eventually packing up altogether, but when they work they do look very impressive, especially in blackout on a large stage. I've not bothered to have them fixed as they can look a bit daft at Barmitzvahs and jingle sessions, and I think an on-off switch should have been provided. However, they are useful until one gets used to having the extra frets at the top, especially as with this bass it is difficult to see the fingerboard from a standing playing position.
The basses come in two basic shapes at the bottom of the body, known as the Omega (as illustrated) and the Point. The Omega has two strap pegs at the bottom which give good stability to the bass when leaning upright. The point shape, however, is unstable in this position, and would need a guitar stand; the other strap peg is on the horn, as on a Fender bass, and when I first played with a strap the neck aimed itself at the floor. I solved this by screwing a strap peg into the middle of the neck section where it meets the body, but although I am now used to it I still don't find the balance of the instrument as natural as that of a Fender or Music Man. The bass is also pretty heavy, but this doesn't take long to get used to.
At first sight there appear to be three pickups. In fact, only two are active; the middle 'pickup', which is set flush with the body, acts as a passive humbucker for the other two. Two tiny metal three position toggle switches situated with the tone and volume controls change the phasing on each pickup. The sound differences obtained are very subtle and I can only say the different combinations give different degrees of ballsiness. The switches are very flimsy and I have already snapped one. Pickup selection is by means of a large switch on the right hand horn of the bass. This has four positions:— off; treble pickup on; both pickups on; bass pickup on. This is a very practical arrangement, and also means one can put the bass down without altering the tone and volume settings.
The tone facilities, as might be expected, are more comprehensive than I have found on any bass. The tone circuitry is active rather than passive, and each pickup has its own preamp which is powered either by two nine-volt PP3 batteries, or by an Alembic power supply which is provided with the bass and which runs off 110 volts mains supply. There are two output sources on the bass, one of which is a stereo jack socket, the other being a five-pin Cannon socket. When the jack output is used, the bass is running off the batteries, which seem to give about eight to ten hours' continuous playing using Duracells. The jack lead supplied by Alembic is of heavy duty Belden cable and has a stereo jack at the instrument end, splitting to two more jacks at the amp end, each carrying the signal from one pickup.
If a normal mono jack lead is used one gets the signal from the bass pickup only. As I don't want to have to use two amps or two channels I have had a stereo to mono lead made up. The Alembic power-supply box has two outputs marked bass and treble, but either output can be used to provide a mono signal incorporating both pickups. I have found the bass output from the power supply box to be completely adequate on its own for both live and studio work as it gives a very full range of sounds. The treble output gives a higher top range than I have ever heard on a bass, but I think this would be mainly useful for soloing or filling out the sound of a power trio. One advantage of the stereo output arrangement is the possibility of using effects units with the bass while maintaining a clear undoctored bass sound underneath. As I have found it possible to use both the power supply outputs and the jack lead outputs simultaneously, giving four outputs in all, it will be appreciated that the imagination could run wild in this respect.
The tone possibilities are pretty much indescribable. The advantage of any active tone circuitry is that when adding treble one doesn't lose bass, and vice-versa. Another advantage is that altering the volume doesn't affect the tone in any way. The sweep of the tone control is so comprehensive that moving either tone control, even a little, while holding a note, produces a distinctive and rich wall-wall effect. It would be worthwhile for Alembic to produce a foot-pedal to operate the tone controls, if they haven't already done so, as, aside from the wah-wah effect, there are so many different distinctive tones possible that it is impossible to exploit them all manually while playing.
When I first had the bass at home I compared it to three Fender basses for tone. Using firstly flat-wound, and then half-round, strings on all four basses, I found the Alembic was capable of duplicating any of the sounds available on a 1971 maple-neck Precision and a 1974 maple-neck Jazz bass. However, the Alembic could not duplicate the depth and bottom punch of a 1958 Precision fitted with flat-wound strings. The volume output is very high, and the Alembic really comes into its own when used with round-wound or half-round strings, being capable of the punch of either of the Seventies Fenders with flat wounds, plus a host of other useful sounds. It is possible to get many sounds one would associate with a high-quality string bass, including a beautiful undistorted 'growl' on the lower notes. The 'hollow' bass sound used by Jaco Pastorius is there, and the treble range will be familiar to anyone who has heard a Stanley Clarke solo. Pickup response to each string is adjustable by means of four screws set in a metal plate in the back of the bass.
Apart from my criticisms, all of which concern fairly minor points, the Alembic is a joy to play. It requires a little more mental and technical effort than many other instruments I have played, largely because it is so responsive that the slightest variation of right hand technique will produce a totally different tonal effect. Similarly, sloppy left hand technique is shown up. This is especially true in studio use. However, I am constantly finding new ways to play the instrument and this is very stimulating.
The main stumbling block against owning an Alembic appears to be price and availability. A bass similar to the one described retails in the US for around $2000, but there are cheaper models in New York shops for around $1200 which have most of the same features. At the other end of the price scale they will build you what you want, including 8-string basses (with carbon fibre strips in the neck for added strength), built in strobotuners, or separate stereo outputs for each string, with panning controls!
However, if a British player is prepared to make the trip to the US to buy a bass in the £400 to £600 range, it would be worthwhile looking at the many other basses from small companies which have appeared in the last few years. B C Rich basses can be bought with Alembic circuitry and an Alembic-style neck for around £600, and Bec-Var produce beautiful Alembic-style instruments designed by Rick Turner. The main advantage of owning an Alembic rather than a similar bass is that the company are committed to a policy of continuous research and refinement, and having bought an Alembic one knows it will be compatible with any of Alembic's innovations for years to come. Further information from Alembic, PO Box 759, Sebastopol, Ca 95472, USA.
Steve York is a freelance bassist, having worked recently with Elkie Brooks, Stan Webb and Sammy Mitchell, and having appeared on record with Joan Armatrading, Dr John and Charlie Musselwhite, among others.
Review by Steve York
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