As featured on Tomorrows World — a rubber bass! No, no really — well, a rubber-stringed bass, anyway. Dave Burrluck finds out it isn't such a daft idea after all.
The Ashbory bass is quite a unique instrument. Some people would say it is no more than a toy, others may feel it's a sales gimmick for the rich amongst us. The fact of the matter is that it's neither. What the Ashbory is can only be described as a 'new instrument'. After all, it was new enough to be featured on 'Tomorrow's World'. But why so much interest? Has the world gone mad? This piddly little thing with elastic bands for strings has got to be a joke, after all who in their right mind would seriously consider playing such a weirdo?
Confused? Well I was. On one hand I wanted to reject the thing back to whence it came with a note saying "Don't waste my time", but on the other hand, the sound that actually emanates from the Ashbory is quite something. In short – it's damn good!
The Ashbory story starts with Alun Jones of Ashworth Electronics who, when testing Ashworth transducers by twanging a rubber band over them, found that a fair bass tone could be achieved. Taking this one step further he realised that it should be possible to produces short-scale instrument with rubber strings that would actually achieve standard bass tuning. The next thing was to employ British guitar maker Nigel Thorbory and 'lash' up a prototype. The next problem was the strings – elastic bands weren't reliable enough and through many trials and different companies the resulting polymer elastomeric strings were born.
Last October saw the first prototype at the Barbican Guitar Weekend and Nigel and Alun were rather surprised at the interest shown. Chris Martin was so impressed he actually commissioned three more to be built, and for a time it looked like Martin guitars would manufacture the Ashbory on a large scale. However, at the time of writing the mass-produced Ashbory is still under negotiation although it does seem that one will appear with a proposed price of £125.
The Ashbory on review here is the handmade version, hence the steeper price. With an overall length of 28½" there's not a lot of it but what there is is actually made from Brazilian Mahogany finished with a dark pink polyester so heavily applied that it looks like plastic. It doesn't have any frets, although white plastic markers are installed on the 'fingerboard' along with six strategically placed white dot markers.
The headstock houses four ukulele-type friction pegs which look extremely low tech. In fact, because of the low tension of the elastic string a normal head with a ratio of 12:1 approx meant that you'd be winding the head all day without much change in pitch! These friction pegs have a gear ratio of 1:1 making tuning far more responsive.
Even more low tech is the string retainer which clamps the strings down on to the white bone nut. This is a single metal bar which actually seems to impair the string's movement as well as clamping it down on the nut. At the 'body' end of the Ashbory we have the bridge which hides the Ashworth transducer. A small Ebony affair, the bridge needs no intonation adjustment and looks like a crude acoustic guitar bridge – an anchor for the strings and a saddle over which the strings pass. Under that is the all-important transducer. Not surprisingly all this is covered up with a black wooden cover (again I thought it was plastic because of the heavy finish) which can also serve as a hand rest depending on what style you attempt to play in.
There might not be a lot to the Ashbory in terms of construction but the little body is crammed full of electronics. The specially developed transducer feeds the signal to either active or passive controls – bass cut/boost, treble cut/boost and volume. Also installed is a three position mini-toggle with red LED status indicator for active mode. In centre position the Ashbory is turned off (although the circuit still draws on the battery unless the jack is removed). In passive mode with the mini switch down the bass and treble controls still work but only cutting relevant frequencies from the sound. The jack socket is mounted on the side of the body on the bottom tip.
All the electronics are housed under a backplate and are well screened with foil; the wiring itself is very neat. The second of the three-ply backplates covers the battery, a single 9 volt PP3. However, the screws used have small brass slot heads which look very amateurish and already have burred slots – how about a little higher quality for the money?
The Ashbory hardly has any weight to it at all – about 1¾lbs – so it's quite easy to hold and play without a strap. If you feel happier with a strap, buttons are provided on the back of the body and headstock.
With rubber strings and fretless fingerboard you may well be wondering what it's like to play and herein lies the problem. Firstly the position marks correspond to fret positions so it is necessary to fret the string behind the marker as opposed to on it, as one would with a fretless bass with markers. Secondly it's initially very difficult to play in tune. The low tension of the strings means that only the lightest touch is necessary – indeed both left and right hand techniques must be greatly changed and softened. The makers recommend a liberal dose of talcum powder to aid sliding and cut down the resistance on the strings. If, for example, you slide from G on the E string to A on the E string – 3rd to 5th fret – you'll find that the A is flatter than if you were to fret the E string on the 5th fret. Conversely, the same slide in reverse would make the G sharp. This is an inherent problem of the strings – the only way round it is to slide, then let your finger off and replace it quickly restoring the string to the correct pitch. Talcum powder helps but the problem is still there.
Now, if you think that tuning is a problem try bending – you can't; the string just rolls under your finger. To get a decent attack from the string it's necessary to pluck it right by the bridge, moving away towards the nut results in a very soft tone with a great deal of 'flap'. Slapping is virtually impossible too, resulting in a dull 'thud', although 'pinging' is still possible.
The answer to these drawbacks is quite simple, you just have to re-learn your technique. I had the bass for a couple of days and I must admit I was beginning to get to grips with it – that should read 'actually managing to play in tune!' Although the board is marked with 24 positions, the 450mm (approx 18") scale length means that beyond the 12th 'fret' it gets very tricky indeed to play in tune, especially with the aforementioned tension problems. It's actually pretty difficult around the 12th 'fret' – it really does need a lot of work!
Why bother? Well it's the sound which is most unexpected, it doesn't really sound that much like a regular fretless bass, much more like a double bass – especially when sliding about. The tone controls prove handy in that there is a lot of fingering or pick noise which can be eliminated with the treble cut/boost while it's necessary to have the bass up full to give the Ashbory any depth. The passive mode is rather flat; I kept it in the active all the time. May be the passive is only included as standby in case of battery failure. But the sound is made individual by the soft character of the string, not much good for Motorhead fans but quite expressive in a subtle way. The bottom string is rather floppy to say the least and needs to be caressed rather than plucked, but time does seem to hold the answer to getting a decent and different sound out of the Ashbory.
I'm not sure whether the intonation problems and lack of tuning stability will be this instrument's downfall or whether people will be ready to persevere. While the sound is certainly unique it would only have a limited use. Indeed the Ashbory itself is only going to appeal to a few but if a mass-produced version were made available then things may be different. It is important also not to think of it as a 'mini-bass'; although the tuning is the same it really has a totally different sound and possible potential.
Review by Dave Burrluck
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