BC Rich Eagle Bass & NJ Series ST Six String
American from Japan and its guitar counterpart reviewed by Dave Burrluck
It's always interesting to check out any make of guitar with an American name even when, like these, they are designed in America and made in Japan. Certainly the shapes are borrowed from the legendary BC Rich instruments (with the exception of the ST) but little else remains. Despite what people would have us believe, the NJ Series is just another front for a Japanese budget range of guitars and the results are typical of that ilk. Still, in my books anyone who knocks out a guitar for (just) under £200 deserves a pat on the back. Mind you, one does have to question the inclusion of a Strat-shaped guitar into the range when the whole point of the NJ Series was to offer the outlandish American designs at a cheap price. Does the world need another bleeping Strat? I have a theory that there is a surplus of Strat bodies piled high in a used car lot in the heart of Japan's guitar industry: so large is this mountain that our inscrutable friends can't bear to waste a potential profit. Rumour has it that Japan itself is being geographically re-designed to resemble, you guessed it, a Strat!!
To be honest I reckon Mr Rich (Bernie Rico to his friends) had an off day when he designed the Eagle shape; I mean, it almost looks like a conventional instrument! Still, maybe that's where its appeal really lies.
The shape is extremely comfortable to play, especially in the sitting position where the lower horn tapers out to provide an excellent leg rest. The body is apparently Maple, although its lightweight belies this fact. Contouring is kept to a minimum with only a slight front 'forearm' curve. The edges are chamfered in a manner reminiscent of a Gibson SG which helps to reduce the otherwise 'plank' look of the body.
While the shape maybe visually pleasing the lower horn does not provide good access to the top of the neck; it's easy enough to get to the 22nd fret but reaching the 24th entails a very uncomfortable stretch. However, the neck itself is very well shaped – thinner in depth than the previous Rich Bich bass that I reviewed with a shallow oval contour. The bolt-on fixing is solid, no doubt helped by the extra timber that sits in the body join. Of course the quality of the Maple used for either the neck or body is impossible to distinguish due to the heavy black lacquer which is perfectly polished to a mirror finish.
A Rosewood fingerboard is fitted and while it's of apparent good quality it looks a little dull in colour – maybe the standard use of raw and then boiled linseed oil could be used to bring out the beauty and natural colour a little more. As is common on so many instruments in this price a good deal of polishing cream is left in the flecks of the grain, contributing to the dullness of the board. Mind you, the fretting is of a good standard, although a final polish would not go amiss just to give a more expensive feel and look to the fingerboard. According to the spec sheet, mother of pearl is used for the position dots but I'd stake a few bob on betting this isn't true. I was always taught to identify MOP by moving it in the light which should reveal a pink and bluish green colouring in the pearl. The dots on this bass are dull and one dimensional in colour – imitation I'd say without a doubt.
On the subject of natural material, a white bone nut is employed here which is nicely cut to g ive a good first fret string height. However, if there is a way of telling real bone from imitation I'm afraid I don't know it – I'll have to believe the spec sheet!
The BC Rich head stock design is quaintly traditional with its symmetrical design, a Rosewood facing (so I'm told) and fancy inlayed logo, this time from real mother of pearl. By comparison the gold screened 'NJ Series' logo is rather scrappy.
Keeping with tradition the truss rod is adjustable at the head end of the neck under a black anodised aluminium cover plate.
Gotoh GBT machine heads are fitted – chrome plated Schaller M4 copies – which do the job very well. (It's interesting to note that many makers prefer Gotoh machines to the German Schallers in terms of quality. One British maker told me that he only fitted Schaller heads because of the name although he actually preferred Gotoh heads – nothing like a bit of gossip eh?).
The large chromed bridge is functionally designed: four saddles adjustable for height and intonation with plenty of adjustment for both, mounted on an overtly large base plate which has a good 15mm of excess metal at the front. The raised sides of the base serve to stop any sideways movement of the saddles while the raised back anchors the strings and the saddle intonation screws.
Isn't it funny how nearly every Jap made instrument, regardless of price, has strap buttons fitted with a felt washer – maybe there's a surfeit of felt on the market! Still, the buttons themselves have a large section – one placed at the base of the guitar, the other on the back behind the top horn.
One thing the designers of the NJ Series won't be losing sleep over is the pickup configuration and control harness – it couldn't be more simple. A single-coil Precision-type split pickup with adjustable pole pieces enclosed in glossy black plastic covers is nicely fitted directly to the body in a closely routed hole. The controls are simply an unremarkable volume and tone, though the plastic knobs are nice! The jack socket is mounted on a square black plate on the side of the body. The wires from the pickup to the controls are unscreened, though the volume to tone to output wires are screened. Unfortunately the cavity and cover plate are all lacking any screening at all. At the price I suppose we can't expect too much but don't be surprised if you get hums and interference at high levels from this bass.
With such an ordinary pickup configuration you can't expect miracles soundwise, but this Eagle does sound extremely good despite your lack of variation. The sound is typically tight with a good strong middle and top and bass end, although the top is a little muffled which makes me question the quality of timber used. However, the instrument is certainly usable with a good sustain and overall good quality to the sound. The volume control has a smooth taper and still manages to retain a goodish top when turned down, while the tone acts in the usual manner – full top or no top; anything in between being a bit useless.
The bass, while being comfortable to play and light in weight, wasn't particularly well set up, with the action a bit on the high side, especially higher up the neck. With a 24 fret neck the action is even more important than usual and the combination of the high action and difficult access to the top frets hardly made the two octave board a plus.
Incidentally, I'm not in a habit of mentioning strings unless they're really awful, which wasn't the case here (although the gauge and tension was a bit of an effort for bends and slides) but a set of Dean Markley 'SLP's were lurking in the case so I bunged those on. The obvious result was an increased brightness that's to be expected, and my evaluation of the bass with the original strings is probably more accurate.
Still with these SLP strings fitted you get a good idea of the potential of this bass, which is a bit under-cooked in its standard format.
A good all round instrument, well made and well designed (if you think of it as a standard 21/22 fret neck) and above all very usable considering the price. With a bit of time and money on it this Eagle bass could really shine – an ideal instrument for anyone interested in guitar DIY.
On the minus side there is the lack of attention to the fingerboard as well as the bad access to the 24th fret. The lack of screening in the electronics compartment is typical for the price but that is not to say that you won't find a Jap bass for this price with well screened electrics. Apart from these points there isn't a thing wrong with the bass and it has a lot in its favour as far as neck, weight and sound are concerned. A better set-up would certainly warm the punter to it and just show that manufacturer and distributor do actually care.
This is obviously quite a sidestep for the BC Rich NJ Series – someone else's design, and we all know whose, don't we? Like I said a couple of months ago, every company must have one – a souped-up-Strat. On first glance this B.C. model differs radically (?) from the rest of the pack. It has a bright yellow finish which isn't too new although a change from black, but the big blunder on this guitar is the ssshh!... you know what... there's no locking wammy bar, not a Kahler Flyer in sight, just a standard old Strat trem.
In fact this is a very ordinary instrument indeed but typically, while it takes no risks, it is pretty well put together. The neck has a slim and flat profile, very American in feel, with a flat camber to the rosewood fingerboard. Surprisingly it only has 21 frets, all of which are heavy gaugewire with quite a round profile. The board doesn't feel particularly fast however despite the low action, and although the heavy gauge gives excellent string bending response a flatter profiling would give a little more speed to the board. The frets themselves aren't that well finished with the ends left angular, and a good polish would make the world of difference too.
Of course with a guitar of this shape and price we obviously have a four-bolt-on neck but a well fitted one nonetheless; I couldn't detect any movement or problems in this area. The body shaping is very chunky in the typical mid seventies Fender mould. The contouring could be more severe to add a bit more grace to the design, but it's also the bright yellow lacquer which gives the body a bigger than normal appearance. Mind you the guitar has a good weight, not too heavy or too light, and the balance as one would expect is excellent. The quality of the finish, which extends to the underside of the neck, is of a very high standard and whether you like the colour of the finish or not, quality like this can't be knocked.
I've left the unusual bit till last – the headstock, and would you believe there's actually a bit of original design here. Radical is probably the word. Actually the head is an angled back offset design with 6-in-a-line machine heads – still very Fenderish. No it's not, I hear you say?
Well just draw round a Strat head and then make a straight line where all the curves are and you have your B.C. Rich 'radical' head. Simple innit? The non-inlayed B.C. Rich logo on the head is of the 'autograph' design, less formal than the rest of the B.C. Rich range, and tacked on the end is the NJ Series logo which tells us – if we didn't already know – that it's made in Japan, but in this case more importantly that it sells for £200. I'm sorry, £199.(99p).
Now if you think reviewers have an easy life then dear reader you're wrong. The amount of guitars I get for review without any spec, is reaching epidemic proportions and this is no exception. At the time of writing neither Chase (the U.K. distributors) or Fiona (bless her cotton socks) handling the PR had any info on this axe at all. However a quick browse through a couple of American mags did reveal a few pertinent points. Firstly that it's called the ST and has 22 frets (this one only has 21 and I did check to see if one had dropped out in transit) and secondly all NJ Series guitars are fitted with Kahler Flyer trems. Wrong again, this one has a very standard Strat-type trem which works in a very standard way. It is in fact a bit on the stiff side. I really can't believe that anyone is still using three springs as opposed to the far better two angled spring arrangement, which gives a far lighter and more responsive feel. However as with any trem of this type the key to it's success is lubrication; 3-in-1 applied to the nut in usually improves things greatly. Still, as it stood the trem system was a little lacking but nothing a little attention wouldn't cure.
The chromed machine heads have an 'R' logo and follow Schallers' M6 design closely although the chrome plating looks cheap and is, on a couple of the buttons, pitted. Still they work well despite being a little unresponsive.
I've found on my own guitar, which has the same Strat-type trem, that making sure the strings are wound neatly and correctly when tightening the tension on the heads seems to help with tuning in heavy trem use.
The nut fitted here is white bone and very well cut to give a nice 1st fret action. This is obviously the area that causes most problems with this type of trem and again I've found that brass is preferable.
The control layout is typically Japanese with a humbucker placed in the bridge position and two single coils in middle and neck positions. The humbucker has adjustable poles while the single coils have flat non-adjustable types. All three pickups are mounted in rings with the usual adjustment for height. However we do have some sensible switching – three black mini-toggles (on or off) handle the pick-up duties, offering the standard 5 positions plus all three on and bridge and neck on together. No provision is made for splitting the bridge humbucker which would be nice, as would some phase alteration switching. All of this passes to a master volume and tone with those natty black knobs featured on the NJ instruments, and then out to the jack socket mounted on a black cover plate on the bottom side of the guitar. Ergonomically the guitar is well laid out for laid-back pickers, but thrashers and wammy whackers may find themselves colliding with the row of switches rather frequently. Removing the back cover plate reveals a tidy circuit with a total absence of screening apart from the pick-up and output linkages, which could result in some serious problems on stage at high levels.
While this ST isn't going to set the world alight with its stunning originality, it's not going to let anyone down in the sound dept. Top marks go to the bridge humbucker which has great power, depth and a nice top end. (Don't forget, if a guitar is a bit too cutting you can always remove some highs on the amp. If it sounds muddy don't buy it). Obviously designed as the solo pick-up it sounds brill with any kind of distortion, and false harmonics are really easy to execute. The other two units add the tonality to the guitar but their reduced volume and lack of sparkle remind you of the price. However the pick-up switching gives plenty of useful options – especially some Strat-ish combination tones – but nothing out of the ordinary. Volume and tone work as expected, although as usual the tone is a little redundant.
General playability is good. The strings fitted have seen better days (I hope!) but intonation is good and sustain is adequate. I don't think anyone would be fooled by the price, it plays and sounds like it should retail at £200, and with the exception of the neck profile it plays and sounds like thousands of other Strat-based instruments. That missing 22nd fret would be of great advantage as would an optional scale length. I think I would be tempted to fita Kahler and forget about the single coil pick-ups and tone control and let this ST be an out and out rocker; it's certainly where it's strength seems to lie.
Despite the lack of info on this guitar I would imagine that this is an early sample of the ST range which, according to the Americans at least, should incorporate a Kahler Flyer. This is going to bump the price up to around £280-£290 I imagine, but judging by the potential shown here it would be worth it. However if you're not into Van Halen-esque techniques then the ST shown here is a nice bargain priced guitar. Incidentally colour options on this model include black, metallic red, Glitter Rock white and violet and cherry sunburst. Yellow isn't offered at all. I suggest the people distributing these guitars sort themselves out, or maybe it's that B.C. Rich want to remain the Art of Noise of the guitar world!
RRP: £199 each
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Review by Dave Burrluck
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