The bass was made in England of true Electric Wood... Steve York investigates.
I first met Ian Waller, known to everyone as Wal, about two years ago. The pickups on an old Fender Precision of mine had been rewound twice, and I was still not happy with the results — Wal almost took the bass apart before I told him why I'd brought it to him, and finally did an excellent job.
At that time Wal and bassist John G Ferry had spent about a year designing and building a bass that would combine the best of a Gibson EB with the best of a Fender. Wal produced a medium scale bass for John with which they were both happy, and they decided to launch a company called Electric Wood with the intention of putting the instrument on the market.
Up until now Wal has concentrated on building custom basses to order, all designed along the same lines but with slight differences to suit the individual where required. Players using his instruments include Percy Jones (fretless), John Gustafson (fretted and fretless), Alan Spenner, John Glascock and John Entwistle.
Wal likes to describe his instrument as 'a very reasonable bass', explaining that every feature of the design is there for a reason. In designing the bass he has checked every detail with working bassists and sound engineers and has adopted many of their suggestions, finally arriving at a point where he now feels ready to market his instruments. I've had one of his Custom basses at home for some weeks now, and I've been playing it so much that it's been hard to find time to sit down and write this.
The neck of the bass is made from Canadian rock maple laminated with afromosia. Aside from the truss rod, the neck is further reinforced with two carbon fibre strips set inside, making bending almost impossible. The fingerboard has 21 frets giving a range of E to E, and is made of Indian rosewood — Wal takes great care in selecting his woods, and the rosewood is as dense as some ebony I have seen. Wal checked his neck design with many bassists and the final result feels somewhere between a Fender Precision and Gibson neck; it is certainly very fast and comfortable to play, and the fretboard is accurate - free of buzzes and dead spots. The scale is 34in but medium scale basses can be built to order. The scalloped head design is very strong and Wal will drop one of his basses on the floor to prove it. The machine heads are Schallers, and the nut is made of self-lubricating glass-filled nylon, giving a smooth ride when tuning. Wal uses a two-piece neck-body design, with brass inserts at the join to improve sustain. The ash body is small, contoured and comfortable to play, and the instrument is very well balanced.
The bridge is made of stainless steel with bronze saddle pieces which are individually adjustable for string length and height, and the bridge unit incorporates a tailpiece into which the strings are slotted rather than threaded, making string changing fast and easy. Bridge and pickup pole piece adjustments are made with an Allen key, which eliminates broken and protruding screw heads but could be inconvenient if you lose your Allen key on the road.
The bass comes fitted with James How's Superwound strings. Wal and John Berry helped in the development of these strings and, although I normally favour heavier gauge half-round or flat-wound strings for a heavier sound, I found that these Superwounds did more justice to this bass, mainly due to the ridiculously powerful and versatile humbucking pickups. These again were designed by Wal, and give an almost flat response — great for recording. However, with full bass on the bass pickup the sound goes far deeper than a Fender or Alembic bass, being rather similar to the sound of a Gibson EBO. This is a rather useless sound by itself, but when combined with a harder sound from the back pickup gives a tone which is heavy enough to eliminate the need for heavier flat-wound strings. The bass has a remarkably heavy sound in most tone settings, and there is a small switch mounted on the side of each pickup which will change the wiring from series to parallel. These switches have the effect of cutting the lower middle frequencies to cut out boom in poor acoustic conditions.
Pickup selection is by means of a 3-way (1 to 1+2 to 2) toggle switch which could be a little smaller as it is prone to being accidentally knocked while playing. The controls consist of tone and volume for each pickup, plus a master volume which enables the player to change volume without altering the pickup mix. Overall the tone range is broad and versatile.
Apart from a high impedance jack output, the Custom bass also has a Direct Inject three-pin Cannon output which eliminates the need for a Direct Inject box when hooking up to a studio or PA desk; anyone who has wasted time and energy over duff DI boxes at sessions and sound-checks will appreciate this. A three-pin Cannon to Cannon lead comes supplied with the bass, and Wal can supply a box which gives the facility to bypass unwanted effects pedals when using the DI output. The bypass is operated by a tiny switch mounted next to the DI output socket, and there is also an earthing polarity switch here to ensure compatibility with the desk. Wal is currently experimenting with an active tone circuit to give a brightness boost for an extra dicky sound for Stanley fans, but for all practical purposes the existing tone range is more than adequate and very even throughout the range of the bass.
All in all this is a very sturdy and impressive instrument; definitely the most exciting bass ever made in this country, and streets ahead of most American instruments in all respects. My only reservation is that it doesn't at first sight look as impressive as it plays and sounds, but Wal will tart it up with gold plating, and hand carve the leather scratch plate if you so wish.
The Custom bass sells for around £650 in the UK, including VAT and a flight case. A fretless version is available, with or without the fret positions marked by inlaid maple strips; it is certainly the best fretless bass I have seen.
Wal intends to market three models, based on the Custom, around the New Year. These will be: the Pro Bass Gigster, with a single pickup, high impedance version; the Pro Bass I, with one low impedance pickup, brightness boost and tone select switch on the pickup; and the Pro Bass II, which will have two pickups and will be similar to the Custom, with the addition of the active circuitry. If you can't wait however, or would like a Custom bass, Wal can be contacted at Electric Wood, (Contact Details), or through UK distributors Barratts of Manchester, (Contact Details).
rrp Production models £340-£519;
Custom models £600-£700. Not available in US.
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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