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From its humble beginnings as a supplier for custom replacement parts, ESP is one of a handful of guitar companies that has paid just as much attention to bassists as guitarists. While most modern players associate their name with heavy rock and metal, ESP has always had an eye and appreciation for vintage flair (check out their Navigator series from the late ’70s and early ’80s to find some stunning examples). That influence continues today with their distressed models, one of which is the high-end, Vintage-4 bass. And understanding that bassists on a budget might want to partake in the all-in-one, yesteryear stylings of the Vintage-4, the company has released the Vintage-204, a much more affordable version from their LTD line.
Straight to the Point
Over the past several years, ESP's LTD line has come a long way in build quality, and the Vintage-204 is no exception. The finish of the Vietnam-built instrument is cleanly applied with a smooth-satin sheen, and the distressed makeup gives it the appearance of a well-worn instrument that has rocked many a gig. The look of the Vintage-204 evokes thoughts of ESP's traditional, Fender-influenced aesthetics that they first built their name on, before moving into hot-rodded, metal-style territory.
The alder body is finished with a traditional, three-tone burst. While the worn areas give the bass a very convincing vintage look, they don't necessarily have a worn feel to the touch. As I ran my hand across the distressed areas of the body, there was no discernible difference in texture between the spots where the bare wood was showing and the finished areas. While it's a minor detail, being able to feel the grain of the wood in the worn areas gives an element of authenticity to a relic’d finish. With that said, it's hard to complain about this detail with sincerity given that the Vintage-204 commands a price of only 350 bones.
The 34"-scale maple neck that’s bolted to the body is comfortable, thin, U-contoured, and capped with a rosewood fretboard. The convincing, greyish stain on the back of the neck indicates years of wear, though the neck doesn't feel worn with its glossy-lacquer finish. The fretboard’s 21 frets are dressed with extra-jumbo fretwire, and a set of ESP vintage-style, open-gear tuners holds the strings taut with the chrome, string-through ESP DB-4 bridge on the body.
The Vintage-204 utilizes a P/J-style configuration for its output, consisting of an ESP LDJ pickup in the bridge and an LDP pickup in the neck. A single set of neck and bridge volume controls allows the player to adjust the output level, along with a master tone-knob for rolling off the highs. While there’s nothing revolutionary in terms of this traditional electronics setup, it’s effective and known well by most bassists.
Plugging into a Verellen Meat Smoke amplifier running through an Ampeg 4x10, the Vintage-204 dished out some nice, smooth, bass tones with a copious amount of punch in the low end. The lows from the bass had a very tight quality to them, especially from the LDP neck pickup. Moving from straightforward rock with a quick picking style to softer and fingerpicked walking-melodies was much easier with the neck pickup, due to its expanded frequency response. The LDJ in the bridge on the other hand—which had a sharp, distinct high-end—didn't kick out as much low end as I hoped it would. In fact, the difference in lows, volume, and overall fullness was almost night and day between the two. I chalked this up to differences in pickup height and the fact that the LDP is placed closer to the neck.
While the LDJ’s tone and sustain were not as full and blooming as the P-style LDP—even after making some adjustments to height—there were some good tones to be had from mixing the bridge and neck pickups together. With the bridge volume at full blast, I needed to up the neck pickup's volume to about 70 percent to blend in its low-end frequencies, which matched up nicely with the bridge's snappy qualities. Moving through various genres from funky slap to pop, and metal to classic rock and blues showed how well the Vintage-204 is able to cover many bases, though not necessarily exceling at any one in particular. Most of the tones were completely usable and easily coaxed out, though some sounded slightly hollow to my ears. All said, even with the varying levels of character across the tonal spectrum, the tones of the Vintage-204 were able to get the job done across a variety of styles.
The Vintage-204's overall playability was very, very good. I had no problem moving up and down the neck's super-comfortable profile, and the rounded edges of the neck made it easy and effortless for quick movement.
ESP's lower-priced LTD iteration of their Vintage-4 probably isn't going to replace your vintage P or J bass, but it certainly is a contender for a solid backup. It’s also an excellent option for a beginner to intermediate bassist. There are plenty of basses in its price range that could learn from the stellar playability and comfort of its neck, which gives it high marks in that category. Tonally, it accomplishes its goals, though with a great set of aftermarket pickups, the Vintage-204 has the ability to be a monster player. And that’s a small price to pay for an excellent bass at such a low price point.