The Bond Guitar
the stepped neck stuns
This is it, the one we've all been waiting (and waiting) for: the Bond "fretless" guitar has finally arrived. Almost.
As promised in our February issue, here is the "early review", only nine months later. But why the delays? You may well ask.
According to the Bond bigwigs, the non-appearance of production-line models is attributable to tooling problems; because of the unusual design specifications of the Bond, it has been difficult to find suppliers to provide equipment "capable of working with the high tolerances and temperatures of the materials involved." That sounds plausible enough...
Basically, the big deal about this much-vaunted new instrument is that it doesn't have yer traditional wire frets.
In place of a wooden fingerboard divided up by bits of metal, we are provided with a length of hard, plastic material known as phenolic resin. This is moulded into ramp-like steps, which take the place of ordinary frets.
The shape of these steps, a shallow incline towards the body of the guitar, with a sharp break and drop of 1mm where the fret would normally be, makes the Bond much faster to play than traditional guitars. Sliding up the neck is obviously easier, as there are no little railway-sleeper ridges of wire to impede the progress of your fingers; and the steps are sufficiently steeply angled so as not to slow downward slides, or make the notes any less crisp.
Because the fingerboard is constructed all in one piece, it has none of the idiosyncracies (ie dead spots) of normal necks. Intonation is excellent, right up to the highest (21st) fret/step. Should the phenolic resin wear down over the years, it will apparently be a simple matter to remove the relevant marker dots, unscrew the three screws, and replace the whole unit.
The Bond has been 'sold' to the press and hence the world through this slightly inaccurate "fretless" tag. This has tended to obscure some of the other innovations, such as the use of carbon fibre for the body and neck. The phenolic fingerboard is screwed onto a one-piece carbon fibre (not graphite), neck and body moulding. This material is light, very strong, and has a remarkably low coefficient of linear expansion, which means it doesn't go out of tune when it gets hot. As for its strength, I've heard stories about designer Andrew Bond standing the guitar up against a wall and kicking it in a futile attempt to break the neck off.
Not surprisingly, this all-black one-piece (sounds like a swim-suit, looks like a frying pan) gives superb sustain, as good as any guitar I've heard, if not better.
Beginning to sound like a pretty exciting prospect, huh? But wait. Before you hear what it sounds like, there's more techno-whizzery to come...
The shape of the body is a standard double cutaway, akin to Yamaha SG types, though the relative thinness of the body reminds me more of the Gibson original. Access to the top frets/steps is excellent, as the injection-moulded carbon fibre is butch enough not to need a heel joint to secure the neck. The feel of the back of the neck and the body is cold and smooth in an odd, but pleasant way.
The three, single-coil EMG type pickups are arranged in Stratocaster configuration, with the treble p/u 'leaning' back towards the bridge under the top strings. This in itself is common enough. What is new is the way the pick ups are controlled. Above the Schaller bridge and tail-piece, with its useful fine-tuning pegs, we find a small raised housing on the body of the Bond. Inside this peculiar bunker-like extrusion lurks an LED readout, which is angled so that all but the least slim-line guitarist will be able to read its glowing and colourful information.
Displayed herein is all you need to know about a guitar singularly lacking in control knobs. On the left, in red, is the volume output of the guitar; in the centre, in orange, is the figure for treble; and in green, on the right, is bass. These are displayed as digits, variable from 0 (nothing) up to 9 (full).
Just above these 8mm high figures is a further display, this telling you which pick-ups are currently in use: a green dot lights up above left, centre or right, or any combination of the three, showing why the Bond doesn't quite sound like your fingers are telling it to. The dots for the front (left) and back (right) pick-ups will turn red when they are put out of phase.
These jolly numbers are changed, and dots flashed about, by judicious use of the intelligently positioned switches below and behind the bridge. Five lightly sprung push-switches in a three/two formation control the pick-ups; the top row turn them on, either one at a time, or by pressing them in unison, in any combination you prefer. The two lower buttons change the phase of the outer p/us, allowing you to discover that two reversed phases cancel each other out, and thus don't change the sound at all.
Following these simply learnt lessons in elementary physics, we move on to the volume, treble and bass switches. These are mounted further back behind the tail-piece, and are colour-coded with dot LEDs, relative to the colour of the digital display.
When you first plug the guitar into its phantom power supply (using the spare channel of the stereo signal lead) the controls set themselves to zero. The active electronics are variable from a flat response of around four on the display, so it's necessary not only to turn a pick-up on and the volume up, but to adjust the tone controls before you start producing those screaming licks. The switches are of a rocker design, towards you (upwards) being up; they are sensitive enough to change from min to max (0-9) in about a second (ie — not very much time) while still allowing step-by-step increases if you wish. They work, and they work well.
My earlier mutterings into the typewriter about delays in production actually have some bearing on this review. As I write there are still only two operational Bond guitars in the world. One of them is leaning on my Fender Twin and the other is in the USA. Mine is the model that appeared in the Australian Music Trade Fair, helping to excite orders of over 20,000 units worldwide.
But when I was given this pre-production beast to toy with, it came with an inordinate number of provisos.
From the first moment of picking the Bond up and putting the strap over my shoulder, it was obvious that it was head-heavy. Apparently this is due to my pre-production model having a strip of aluminium in its neck, which according to Andrew Bond, adds 8 ounces of weight that will be absent from the standard guitar.
Another flaw that became fairly immediately apparent was in the overall volume level of the Bond. In the standard guitar, the pick-ups will be adjustable from the front, through the fixed scratch-plate. Access to the electronics will be through the back of the body. On my model, the back of the guitar was glued on and adjustment screws for the p/us were conspicuous by their absence, meaning that I had no opportunity to remedy their wild variations in distance from the strings. The front pick-up was too low, the middle pick-up too high, which meant an imbalance in relative levels. Obviously, on production models this should not be.
The switching is simple, and a joy to use, though the LED display could be mounted a little further forward in its bunker. There are limitations, however, and new methods must be learnt before the most can be extracted from the system. Most annoyingly, it's not possible to do a straight shift from a muffled rhythm sound to a piercing lead setting, as the volume/tone switches control the final output of the guitar, rather than individual pick-ups. On top of this, one has to learn how to deal with a new system (new to me, anyway) of summing p/u outputs. Basic principle is, the more p/us you use, the louder the guitar becomes. Logical, really, though it requires a certain amount of unlearning on the part of the guitarist.
Much was spoken at me about the necessity of using new techniques on the stepped neck, but I found it much easier to adapt to than the electronics. It requires less finger pressure, and less accurate fingering, except when bending notes, as it's not possible to bend the string against the fret as you normally would — you have to be careful to keep the string on the step.
I picked it up in ten minutes, though it might take better players a little longer...
The phenolic surface feels a bit like a maple neck, only more so. It's great, easy to play, comfortable, warm, clean, and accurate. Even if the design is (reputedly) 1500 years old, this represents a major advance for guitar mechanics.
Noise-wise, the Bond has a natural sound not unlike an old SG — hollow, and woody, The variations given by the 15 or so combinations of pick-up, not to mention the active electronics lift the Bond out of such humble comparisons by introducing an excellent tonal range. Given that my model was poorly set up, it was still possible to make it sound pleasing.
It wasn't loud enough to overdrive my Fender Twin, which surprised me, considering that the Bond has an external 15v power source. When I mentioned this to electronics designer David Sidley (the man behind the inside of the Bond, if you see what I mean), he attributed it to the waywardness of the pick-up positions.
I was only allowed the guitar for 48 hours before it was whisked off to the States to join its brother. In that time, it succeeded in impressing not only me, but Bo Diddley (who said "Ah lurvit"), and everybody else I showed it to. With the sole exception of the name-stencil on the body (apparently the marketing men insisted, saying 'that's where the TV cameras point'), the Bond is a supremely good-looking machine. The model I played actually made me want to play more, the true sign of a good guitar.
The Bond Electraglyde (terrible name) will cost between £450 and £500, including power supply and specially designed case. Plans are afoot for a bass version and there is the possibility that economy versions, sans electrics, will be available next year.
BOND electraglyde guitar: £450 approx
Review by Jon Lewin
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