Warwick 'Thumb' Bass
Heralded as West Germany's finest craftsman-built basses, the Warwick range is now available in the UK. How does a Warwick compare with the established British and American specialist contenders? Gary Cooper lets his fingers do the talking...
Parallel to the growing stature of specialist guitar and bass makers in Britain and the USA, West Germany has also bred a generation dedicated to handcrafting the best instruments that money can buy. Flick through the pages of a German musicians' mag and you'll find plenty of equivalents to our Manson, Overwater, Jaydee, Wal & co., each of whom seems to be busily turning out instruments which (even if one can only judge from the pictures) look every bit as interesting as those made over here or in the States. According to many pundits, the leading West German craftsman outfit are Warwick, and they're certainly a large concern by the standards of anything we have in Britain, employing sufficient staff in their Bavarian plant to produce some 100 basses a month. Compare that with the average figure of around 6-12 from similarly regarded UK craftsman builders and it gives you an idea of Warwick's size.
Until recently, Warwick's instruments were mostly sold in Germany and Scandinavia, but their growing prowess (not to mention two invaluable endorsees in Jack Bruce and John Entwistle!) has encouraged the Wapping-based Bass Centre to begin importing and distributing their two basic bass models, the Streamer and the Thumb bass. Of the two, I chose the Thumb Bass to review, not so much because I consider myself a slap player (far from it!), but because the initial reaction to the first Warwicks to arrive seems to show that it's the more popular of the two designs.
Connoisseurs of esoteric basses won't fail to notice the marked similarity between the Thumb Bass and the much-vaunted American-produced Spector. This is neither the result of poaching nor of coincidence. Warwick actually licensed some of the Spector's ideas for their Streamer model, and have evolved the theme onwards into the Thumb's concept — hence the similarity.
IT readers are probably getting used to my boundless enthusiasm for exotic woods by now — but take a look at a Warwick for yourself and you'll see why even my stock of superlatives was threatened as I tried fishing for adequate words of praise for its materials and finish. The surprisingly small body is fashioned from a single piece of Bubinga, an extremely hard West African wood with a pronounced dark grain. Apart from the fact that Bubinga characteristically produces a tight bass sound with excellent high frequencies, it's also extremely attractive — particularly so when finished in Warwick's unconventional, almost unlacquered way. In fact, to keep the Thumb Bass in pristine condition, you are advised to use beeswax, a tin of which is provided with the instrument. My knowledge of German leaves me in no position to mock, but I couldn't help chuckling at the sales message on the lid: 'Long experience in factoring high quality basses helped us to develop the recepture of this nature stuff. It keeps the wood lifely, remains the physical conditions.'. Yes, well — I out of ze door go must, etc...
Whereas the Warwick's body is formed from a single piece of exotic wood, the neck has a sandwich construction of seven segments. The basic material is Wenge (another extremely hard African timber) into which are set strips of Bubinga and Rosewood, the final assembly running Wenge (as the outside section) -Bubinga-Wenge-Rosewood-Wenge-Bubinga-Wenge. The hardness of the Wenge/Bubinga sections contributes to what should, in theory, make for reinforcement of the tight bottom and accurate top frequencies already established by the Bubinga body, together with a resistance to torsional stresses in the neck — in other words, this through-neck should prove reliable in its straightness, even given what turns out to be exceptional slimness.
Yet more Wenge comprises the (unbound) fingerboard. Whilst this is an unusual choice, there are many more woods than the common Ebony and Rosewood that can be used in this role, and Wenge, whilst being an unusual choice, does the job of being sufficiently hard, looks superb, and should (once again) assist the bass's sound. For those readers who can relate to plain figures, the Thumb Bass has a scale length of 34" (odd, as it looks longer) with 26 wide gauge frets, an overall length of 43½", and weighs a fabulously heftable 7.7lbs. As you might expect, Warwick stick to fellow West Germans Schaller for their hardware, using gold plated M4 machines and a standard heavy duty Schaller bridge. The M4s, incidentally, are fitted to the Thumb Bass's small headstock at a cleverly thought-out angle. I don't know if this is a 'first' for the Bavarian team or not, but it's a clever touch, making rapid timing just that bit faster — certainly a point worth, er, 'borrowing' by other makers, I'd suggest! I shan't go on about the Schaller bridge, as I've heaped enough praise on it in the past to have swollen Schallers' heads beyond bearable dimensions. I'll just say that I reckon it's the world's best production bridge, offering superb stability, unsurpassed tonal transmission and accuracy of intonation and string height adjustment.
The pickups and controls are also 'bought in', the active circuitry (developed by MEC) being fed from three choices of pickups. As standard you get a pair of EMG's J-type units, but if you prefer (and can stretch to a further £25 for the bass) you can choose between Seymour Duncan or Bartolini units. Not having tried either alternative, I'd be perfectly happy with the EMGs, although I have a lot of time for Duncan's models and was once flattened by a bass fitted with Bartolinis. If you get the chance, it would be worth making the comparison to see which you prefer.
The Warwick's control gear comprises three knurled brass pots, the front two being single gang types providing volume and pan (ie pickup cross-fade) with a centre detente for both on, the rearmost being a two stage device offering active bass and treble, cut and boost with centre click stops on both 'halves'. Rounding off the hardware, Schaller locking strap buttons (once more gold plated) are provided, along with a brass nut featuring individual slotted screws that allow micro-fine adjustment of string height. Battery access, meanwhile, is via a click-locked plastic covered housing which is sunk into the sumptuously curved back of the instrument. Again, this is a hundred times more convenient than the usual screw-in plate, and seems very typical of Warwick's attention to fine detail.
I've often wondered why so many bass players seem to have a streak of masochism in them. Having fairly big hands, it doesn't actually bother me that so many basses seem to have their neck dimensions crafted with King Kong's big brother in mind, but surely — structural rigidity notwithstanding — it really isn't necessary for most basses to use half a tree trunk for their necks, is it? Anyway, someone over in Bavaria seems to agree with me, because the Thumb Bass has one of the slimmest, fastest bass necks I've ever wrapped my hands round — not a million miles away from the feel which makes Overwaters perhaps the easiest and speediest British basses.
Put into good old Imperial, the Warwick's neck dimensions work out to near as dammit 1 9/16" at the nut, but only widen out to just over 2 3/8" at the 24th. This, coupled with a remarkable shallowness, immaculate fretting and an action which measures no more than approx 1/10" anywhere on the neck, makes for a revelation in playing speed. Bare measurements can only ever tell you half the story of a neck's feel, however, and players looking for speed and comfort should sample a Warwick for themselves if they want to see how these figures translate into how fast you can play. I found myself managing complex riffs and runs which I normally fluff — especially when they call for jumps across the neck from low to very high frets. If my findings hold true for other players, you could expect at least a 15% speed and accuracy increase on this neck compared with the majority of more traditionally shaped necks.
Complementing the Thumb Bass's speedy neck is the lightest, most comfortable body around. In fact, I found the best playing position I've ever discovered using it, allowing the shallow dished body to curve against my stomach (hmm — perhaps it isn't such a shallow curve after all!), but swung slightly round so that the bass was almost worn against my right hip. Holding it like this meant I didn't have to go for the chest-high stance of Mark King (which, fine player though he is, I always feel looks a bit odd) whilst still being able to hit every fret with tremendous ease. Obviously how you hold a bass is a very personal thing (sorry, Mark!), but I bet you'll never have toted a bass as sensuously comfortable as this one! Even more to the point, the weight is so low that three or four hours at a time are perfectly possible with no strain whatever on the shoulder.
I could waffle on for pages about why the Warwick feels so good to handle, drawing so many different aspects into my appreciation of it that the result would sound like I'd been paid to praise it. Unfortunately I haven't, and all I can really hope to do is encourage you to try one and see if you agree with me that the Warwick Thumb Bass is dangerously close to perfection in playability.
Active basses seem to me to fall into two distinct schools — those with such a wide range of tones that they need some care to avoid developing sounds that you could never use, but which are, in effect, 'universal' instruments, and those which are more limited in their repertoire, producing one basic sound from which you can wander, but only to a degree. There are pros and cons for both types of instrument, and the Warwick Thumb falls into the latter category. Hiss-free in operation, it has a very distinctive sound, harder than many of today's basses, and on the face of it aimed squarely at the slapping player who needs to be able to get a solid rhythm thump going with his or her thumb whilst producing scintillating highs from the snapped higher strings. But don't worry if you're not a slapper; I'm not, and yet I found the Thumb superb for more conventional Rock playing, the driving edge of the sound cutting right through so that it can be used just as easily to give a lead/bass sound in a three-piece as for a funk bassist's stylistic quirks. In fact, through my Alligator 175 watt 2x10 combo (yes, I succumbed!) the Warwick drove along like a supercharged steamroller when pushed hard — now I can see why Messrs. Entwistle and Bruce have bought them! If you are a slap player, the fidelity of even the open E, and the way in which you can run around the top strings (notice how the bridge pickup has been angled to fatten the G and render the E clearer?) with perfect tonal balance, will thrill you, as will the penetrating clarity of every note on the neck — it really is exceptionally Hi-Fi-like, this bass! On the other hand, the Rock bassist will be equally delighted with the dynamism and attack this bass produces. Do I have no bones to pick with the Warwick? Only one, and a small one at that. For me, the two-stage pot which controls active treble and bass cut/boost seems a bit fiddly. On several occasions I went to tweak my sound and found myself grasping the top half of the dual concentric pot as well as the bottom half. As a result, I didn't get quite the tweak I'd sought without a little more care than I usually like to have to apply, especially when playing live. It's a small point, but there you go.
Without any hesitation I'd say that the Warwick Thumb Bass is one of the most satisfying instruments I've ever played. Constructionally flawless and eminently playable, it belongs in the same company as a mere handful of other craftsman-built instruments, including Jaydee, Overwater, Wal, Vigier, Manson and just one or two others. Which of these basses you'd personally choose to buy (assuming you could afford any of them!) wouldn't be a case of deciding which was better made or which had the definitive sound — it'd be a matter of personal taste. If the Warwick Thumb Bass is that good (and I firmly believe it is) then it ranks as one of the finest in the world. Anyone who wants to argue with that can meet me at dawn on Wimbledon Common — the choice of weapons can be theirs!
More details of Warwick basses (plus a list of stockists) from The Bass Centre, (Contact Details).
Review by Gary Cooper
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