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John Brown, the brains behind Brown’s Guitar Factory and a long-time Premier Guitar columnist, recently released his new bolt-on Fretted/Less bass at the 2007 Summer NAMM show. Based on the popular through-body neck designs, the premise of this bass is to provide the utmost in versatility: a bass fretted from the nut to the 12th fret and a fretless second octave – except for the 23rd and 24th degrees, which are fretted for funk-style slapping.
When I finally laid my eyes on the Fretted/ Less, my first impression was a Guild Pilot meets a Gibson Victory. Showing the bass off to four or five instrumentally-inclined friends confirmed that I wasn’t crazy – they all said the exact same thing. The other thing we all agreed on was there are two trends we’re noticing with boutique bass luthiers: designs are pleasing from most, but not all angles or they are a direct Fender knock-off. The alder body on this bass looks great from all angles and definitely captures a modern appearance without coming across as kitschy. Kudos to John for a fresh design.
Picking it up, the first thing you’ll notice is the impeccable fit and finish. The bass tested was Brown’s NAMM demo bass, so I expected some wear and tear. The thing I didn’t expect was how good the finish looked after hours of heavy use. The back of the instrument is painted a very chic piano black and it looks flawless. The top – made of AAA flamed maple – has a yellowish stain that from two feet away looks like old school Gibson, in a sort of korina/ TV finish way.
This bass is really a joy to examine, if only to find a new appreciation for all of the work that’s gone into the details. I was very pleased with the way the painted back stopped at the seam where the top joined the body – it was executed with amazing precision. The component routes were impeccable and the electronics were all perfectly trimmed and soldered. The hardware – including an optional Kahler 2410 bass tremolo tail, Hipshot UL tuners and good ol’ Schaller strap locks – was perfectly aligned, and the fretwork and setup on this thing was stellar. Brown’s Guitar Factory has covered even the smallest of appointments; the 9-volt battery resides in a nylon bag in the body cavity, the control cover is screwed into brass inserts – not directly into the wood, and it features a Neutrik locking input jack. A terrific feature in the cavity is a dual-dip switch, mounted to the PC board, that lets you adjust the frequency response four different ways (Center Frequency, 2.1 khz, 3.5 khz, 4.5 khz, and 7.0 khz) so you can choose the sound that’s right for you. All of this was packed into a comfy nine pounds.
The one thing I will say about this bass is that it was not off the rack. Each bass is finely tailored to your specifications and you can expect a four to six month build time. This Fretted/Less is available in a variety of configurations; 5 and 6-string options are available, along with a 35-inch scale length. The bottom line is if you can dream it, Brown’s will build it.
The Real World
Most bass builders model their necks and hang position in one of two manners: a) they emulate a Fender or b) have their own creative positioning. Brown obviously went with option B in designing the neck but in doing so did something very interesting. The bass hangs like a Gibson full-scale, like the Ripper series, and the right hand positioning felt very Thunderbird-ish. As a huge Thunderbird fan, I definitely welcomed this change. The left hand was a little different story. The neck from side to side is roughly on par with a Fender B-neck. The thickness from front to back seemed a little deep. Digging in for fingerstyle was fairly comfortable, but for tap and slap styles the neck felt a bit slow. For my tastes, if the neck was a touch wider at the nut and a touch thinner front to back it would be a real winner.
Despite the sluggishness, one of the areas this bass earns its stripes in is the fretless section. The board is raised and moving from fretted to fretless is nearly undetectable – there was no loss of volume and no noticeable altering of tone. The engineering and construction of the fretless section was dead on – there are position lines on the side of the neck but the board is naked. The playability of the fretless section is everything you would need it to be. The mwah is focused and the tone cut through. It cut right over my guitarist’s Marshall without any loss of definition.
The controls are in a great layout, consisting of a push/pull volume, stacked bass and treble and a pan. The pull pot is extremely trick – the tail pickup is actually two pickups in one housing and the pull separates the pickups and activates the boost circuitry so there is no loss of volume. The pots travel very smoothly and there is no drastic roll-off or roll-on of volume or tone.
The bass was played through three different rigs: an EBS TD650 with an Epifani UL410; a 1977 Ampeg SVT and a Hartke/ BagEnd 1x15 rig. In all three rigs, the first thing you’ll notice is the instrument’s prominent midrange. The mids can roll over the lows and squelch the highs if you’re not careful. It works great on the fretless portion but unless you’re doing some heavy in-your-face lines or some hard rock digging, the mids can be a little much. The mids can be tailored to your needs using the aforementioned dip switches, but I think some of this may come from the position of the tail pickup’s proximity to the bridge.
When playing through the EBS rig, we had to dial the mid frequencies down about 50% from flat to coax some sweetness out of the bass when playing delicate lines. The SVT didn’t mesh with the Fretted/Less – the input stage of the SVT seemed overwhelmed and the headroom was just not there. The bass seemed much more at home through a modern bass rig, and once it entered the studio, I discovered its amazing tracking ability – I actually used it to re-record some prior work I had done. Running directly into the console, the bass was stone quiet and very pronounced. The mids, which were very prominent in the live setting, actually made the recording come to life. The flat setting on the bass was ideal for studio use.
The Final Mojo
Overall, this is a solid instrument. The bass has a fantastic fit and finish, the fretted/ less neck is extremely well done, the controls are simple and effective, all providing exactly what you would hope for in this instrument. On the other hand, the bass may be a little too midrange prominent for some and the neck shape might take a little getting used to. That being said, this bass would be a great tool for the studio player, because it tracks so well and has a versatile neck – a Billy Sheehan-type player would absolutely rip with this bass. The average Joe should give it a try before purchasing simply because of the mid tones and neck depth, but odds are he’s going to buy it.
Brown’s Guitar Factory
Base Price $2100
As Tested $4000
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