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It’s pretty damn incredible how much bass you can get for well under a grand these days. Solid hardware appointments, quality electronics, and excellent playability straight out of the case are no longer just descriptors for pricey instruments. With advanced manufacturing methodology and much more attention to quality control than in years past, instruments produced outside the U.S. started shedding their second-class reputation some time ago. In fact, that line has been getting blurrier and blurrier over the past 10–15 years, with some imports being so good as to equal or even rival basses many times their cost in critical areas such as consistency, fretwork, and playability.
A number of basses from many different manufacturers could have fit into this roundup of sub-$1,000 instruments, but for the first of many future roundups we narrowed the field to five basses—three of which are essentially accessibly priced takes on classic, groundbreaking designs from their respective manufacturers. The new G&L Tribute Series M-2000 is modeled after the company’s famous L-Series basses, Fender’s Blacktop Jazz is a souped-up version of their time-tested J bass, and the Sterling by Music Man Ray34CA offers an easier entry into the StingRay arena. We also checked out the classic-looking Ibanez ATK800E Premium and, to make sure we had something for fans of semi-hollowbodies, we took Schecter’s eye-catching Baron-H Vintage for a spin.
Labeling something “moderately priced” is difficult, because it’s certainly varies for every buyer, but each of these basses represents a very solid buy in this price category. Whether you’re an intermediate player who’s recently outgrown your first instrument, a weekend warrior looking for an inspiring new bass, a gigging pro looking for a dependable backup—or even if you’re primarily a guitarist who needs a solid 4-string for home-studio work—this group of quality instruments will satisfy on many, many accounts. And to be able to do all that for under $1,000? Well, that’s pretty grand.
BY STEVE COOK
Once upon a time, Fender had only one or two bass models in its lineup, starting with the legendary Precision, and then the venerated Jazz. That was about it for the longest time. If you wanted something a little different in your low end, you had to get out your tools and soldering iron and mod it yourself.
Later, with tags such as “entry-level” or “Custom Shop,” different basses (with different price points) were introduced, offering something for almost everyone. In fact, it seems that almost every Fender model has been reborn, reworked, and reissued at some point along the way. The most popular mods that players used to do at home were finally featured in production models, and soon, just about every pickup configuration, neck radius, and color was readily available—but often at a cost that was not insignificant.
Today, whether it’s due to turbulent economic times or a fortuitous combination of creativity and more efficient production costs, many instrument companies have been working overtime to find ways to make quality, affordable instruments with interesting new feature sets. Fender is certainly one of those companies searching for ways to bring fresh ideas to an enticing price point, and one such effort is its new Blacktop series of guitars and basses.
The Blacktop series takes familiar Fender body styles and supercharges them with different pickup configurations than we normally see. Specifically, the Precision in the series features dual humbuckers, while the Jazz—the bass reviewed here—is loaded with a pair of split-coil, P-style pickups.
As a whole, the Blacktop Jazz is as familiar as any other. It’s a Mexican-made 4-string with an alder body and a C-shaped maple neck. The glossy finish in white chrome pearl is very sexy, and when paired with the black 3-ply pickguard and classic J-bass knobs, it makes for a great-looking instrument out of the gate. While the factory setup left the action feeling a little high, the neck was even and quick—giving me a first impression of a good overall build.
Lurking just below the strings is the aforementioned anomaly—the two sets of passive, split-coil Precision pickups. For all you DIY- ers out there, Fender did the routing for you! I’ve certainly seen P-bass pickups in J basses, J-bass pickups in P basses, and lots of other variations before, but after hearing all the rumblings in the bass community about this new value line, I was more than curious to see how Fender pulled it off.
Back in Black
For the run-through, I tested the Blacktop Jazz through both a Warwick CCL 210 combo amp and an Eden WT-500 paired with a 115XLT. I figured that putting the bass through its paces with both speaker configurations would give it a fair shake, as some instruments are certainly voiced better for different speakers. As it turned out, the Blacktop Jazz didn’t really care what kind of amp I was using—it told me what it was going to do.
Announcing its presence with authority, the tone from the Blacktop Jazz was big and totally unexpected. I had the control knobs set as high as they could go, and the result was a thick, punchy tone that begged for a hard-rock band. Rolling off the neck pickup really opened the throat of this J and added some low mids and warmth. When I rolled off the bridge pickup slightly, the more familiar Jazz-bass snap came to life. Sonically, the Blacktop Jazz seemed ready to handle a wide range of musical settings, and could be a good low-cost solution in a home or project studio. It’s in that subtle, in-between zone of not exactly a P and not exactly a J, but rather a nice blend of both that can echo tones not usually heard from one or the other.
With its combination of value and tone, the Blacktop Jazz made quite an impression. If you like the body style and thinner neck of a Jazz bass but want more in a pickup than the usual options, then this could be your workhorse. The Blacktop series prides itself on a more powerful stance, and it doesn’t disappoint with this model. Taking a left turn from such successful traditions can often be risky, but Fender hit blacktop with this Jazz.