Always on the look-out for fresh avenues to explore in the world of plucked stringed instruments, I stumbled across this re-issue of the scarce 'sixties Fender baritone guitar during a guitar-store crawl in London in the summer of 1996. Once again, the Japanese manufacturer's growing fondness for reproducing vintage American pop hardware, however obscure, resulted in this surprisingly useful guitar, equally effective either as a bass or as a deep, twangy sub-guitar.
Fender's original Bass VI was first introduced in 1961, to compete with Danelectro's Longhorn 6-string bass, popularised by Duane Eddy and featuring the distinctly twang-some surf tones of the day. Fender figured that guitarists would be better able to double on bass with this new instrument - its strings were tuned exactly one octave below the guitar - and was offered with the wobbly Jazzmaster-style "floating tremolo" system into the bargain. For the first two years of production, the Bass VI was issued with three Stratocaster pickups with individual on/off switches and a master tone and volume control. By 1963, the pickups were changed to Jaguar units (complete with notched metal cradles), an extra "tone" switch (a low-pass filter, rubbish) and the dreaded Fender Mute in front of the bridge. It's this version the Japanese have copied, and in value-for-money terms have done a very good job, though thankfully stopped short of the mute and the bridge cover.
Again, I have to cast some aspersions at the quality of the Japanese hardware and pickups; the housing for the tremolo arm parted company with its base plate very quickly, requiring some strategic soldering, and it's still a bit fragile. The pickup coils offer a resistance reading of around 6K ohms - OK for a guitar, but for a bass hopelessly inadequate. It's a shame, because it really wouldn't cost that much more to do the job properly. The bridge saddles are individual metal drums with a single string slot, adjustable for length but not height, making setting-up a lengthy and tedious process. The bridge itself is height-adjustable, but its "floating" action means that accurate intonation is virtually unattainable if the tremolo arm is used regularly. Though the frets are not terribly well finished, the rosewood finger-board does feature imitation Pre-CBS "clay" dot markers.
The body is of three pieces of bass-wood, with a gorgeous tobacco sunburst finish, the neck maple and perfectly shaped - it really is a joy to play, if you can stand the buzzy frets! Setting up the pickups and the string action took an age, but was worth it; this is a really versatile instrument that I've used in many different applications. The centre pickup delivers a hefty poke in the low-mid tone range, most effective for regular rock bass, while the bridge unit recalls those spy-theme moments, particularly when played through tube vibrato and a tank reverb.
They became quite fashionable in the post-"Pulp Fiction" 'nineties (and beyond); now that the Japanese have stopped making them, they're collector's items all over again. You could do a lot worse than check one out.
Recording debut: Out Among The Ruins (Cathal Coughlan, 1999).
Features on: various Remoulds (1997/8); XTC Apple Venus/Wasp Star sessions (erased, 1998); Black River Falls sessions (Cathal Coughlan, 1999); Brother Nature (Mitch Friedman, 2002)