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5 Basses Under a Grand: Fender, G&L, Ibanez, Schecter, Sterling by Music Man

December 10, 2012

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.


Fender Blacktop Jazz
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.

Hot Pavement
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.

Ratings

Pros:
Distinct tones. Good value.

Cons:
Not for the hardcore J- or P-bass purist.

Tones:

Playability/Ease of Use:

Build:

Value:

Street:
$499

Fender
fender.com

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.

The Verdict
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.

Watch our video demo:



G&L Tribute M-2000
BY DAVID ABDO

It’s not uncommon to hear marketing speak describing economy-class instruments with statements like, “these basses use the same parts as our flagship models” or “it utilizes identical construction and build philosophies.” They’re statements that appeal to our sensibilities as well as our pocketbooks. But when woods of lesser quality, cheaper electronics based on originals, or compromised craftsmanship are part of the equation, these frugal forays can often end up in disappointment.

But there are a number of builders that show a commitment to consistency throughout their entire lineup, and G&L is one that’s known for building quality instruments across the board—from their U.S.-made models to the imported Tribute series. The latest addition to the G&L family is the Tribute series M-2000 bass, which incorporates a brand-new preamp into the template that has made G&L basses so popular for over three decades.

Variation on a Theme
Modeled after G&L’s well-known L-Series, the Tribute M-2000’s recognizable body shape is a hybrid of previous designs brought to prominence by Leo Fender. The M-2000 reviewed here boasts a nice honeyburst finish, but it’s also available in transparent blueburst, 3-tone sunburst, or gloss black.

The M-2000’s neck design relies on the best of past G&L accomplishments: Six bolts support the satin-finished, C-shaped neck, which feels smooth and solid. It maintains the company’s standard 12" radius, though it is slightly narrower—down from 1 3/4" to 1 5/8".

Where the L-Series and M-Series truly differ is in electronics. Though the Magnetic Field Design pickups look the same as those found on the L-2000, the pickups on the M-2000 are wound differently and dialed in specifically for the M-Series preamp. The recognizable switches of the L’s preamp have been replaced by a more streamlined design, giving the M-Series a unique level of flexibility not found in other G&L basses. The 18V active system features volume and blend knobs, and a 3-band EQ with smaller, detented dials. This new preamp nicely complements the pair of MFD pickups, which deliver characteristic G&L tone—a combination of assertive lows with detailed high-mids.

Ratings

Pros:
Great tones. Excellent playability. Incredible deal.

Cons:
Cluttered electronics cavity.

Tones:

Playability/Ease of Use:

Build:

Value:

Street:
$699

G&L
glguitars.com

Most M-Pressive
The comfort and playability of the M-2000 were simply stunning, so kudos should go to G&L for their attention to detail with this bass. The weight and balance were just right, letting it maintain its position at nearly every playing angle. The neck was impressively smooth and allowed effortless shifting across all areas of the fretboard. And the M-2000’s design provides ample room between the neck pickup and fretboard for sophisticated slapping techniques. Aside from some bird’s nest-esque wiring in the preamp cavity, this is an instrument that doesn’t appear to have cut any corners.

Enhancing the frequencies of the MFD pickups, the intuitive, practical, and great-sounding preamp provided a wide tonal palette. This was particularly evident during a rehearsal with a horn band playing a variety of soul and funk classics. Plugged into an Ampeg B2R head paired with an Ampeg 4x10, the M-2000 could quickly go from Rocco to Jaco with a twist of the blend control. Fine-tuning the tones was simple—the slightest adjustment to the bass, mid, and treble knobs offered plenty of boost or cut ability. It couldn’t quite cop Marcus Miller’s exact tone, but many thumb players will still appreciate its aggressive, biting sound.

Although the M-2000’s tone-shaping capabilities are excellent, for me the most pleasing setting was with both pickups balanced and the EQ flat—it allowed the M-2000 to clearly convey whatever my hands asked it.

the Verdict
You know that feeling you get when you pick up a bass with no expectations and, in an instant, it triggers an explosion in your mind because it feels so surprisingly comfortable and contains such a nice variety of tones? The next thing you know, you’re trying to figure out what other gear to sell so you can buy the new wonder. This could be a possible scenario for anyone giving G&L’s Tribute M-2000 a go, because it rivals its U.S.-made counterparts in construction and playability.

Whether you’re a novice or a pro, if you like G&L bass tones, you’re likely to love the M-2000.

Watch our video demo:



Ibanez ATK800E Premium
BY STEVE COOK

Back in the ’70s and ’80s, a lot of guitarists and bassists knew Ibanez as the Japan-based maker of “lawsuit guitars” because of its high-quality instruments that borrowed rather heavily from the designs of industry mainstays. Today, the company is an undisputed worldwide powerhouse with a long and interesting history of making excellent instruments with unique designs and features that attract prominent players in almost every style of music. Bassists have gravitated to Ibanez instruments—from the Roadstar models in the Reagan years to the more current SR series—because of their great value and tone. With multiple bass lines in production, Ibanez has something for everyone—from budget-friendly to premium in price.

Ibanez’s latest boomer is the ATK800E Premium. In contrast with a lot of Ibanez basses that push traditional design boundaries, this mid-level 4-string (a 5-string version is available as well) has a more understated, classic look and feel—in a lot of ways, the distinct and practical ATK Premium looks likes something straight out of 1977. However, it still boasts modern electronics and playability.

I Like Your Style
The ATK Premium has appointments often found on boutique instruments, yet Ibanez has managed to sneak them in at a very easy-to- swallow price. It sports an ash body and beautiful rosewood pickguard that complement each other perfectly, though care should be taken with the pickguard, as it will likely be more prone to scratching than plastic. The strikingly enormous bridge envelopes the bridge pickup (and adds more anchor points to connect to the body), which yields a massive amount of sustain potential. The unfinished maple neck has black dot inlays and silky smooth fret edges, with Hipshot tuners finishing off the matching headstock. It’s really easy to appreciate this bass.

When I first picked up the relatively light ATK, I was amazed at how comfortable and solid it felt. Fingerstyle and slap players alike will dig the response and feel, as well as how blazingly fast the neck plays—the action was low and fast right out of the included gig bag. The ATK800E is strung through the body and sports a 5-bolt neck that adds even more contact between resonating surfaces. Unplugged, the bass rang true and sustained wonderfully.

Noon Sounds Good
Plugging in the ATK Premium with everything in the straight-up position, I was immediately impressed with how the 12 o’clock tone sounded. The active CAP pickups—a single-coil-sized humbucker in the neck position and a switchable, double humbucker at the bridge—have ceramic magnets and provide a nice variety of tones. Ibanez took it another step by tacking on a 3-band EQ that allows further exploration of a multitude of sonic landscapes.

Ratings

Pros:
Great playability. Comfortable ergonomics. Impressive variety of tones. Quality features with lots of flexibility.

Cons:
Tones lack vintage warmth.

Tones:

Playability:

Build:

Value:

Street:
$749

Ibanez
ibanez.com

From shimmery harmonics to driving, pick-fueled punk or Louis Johnson-esque slap, the ATK Premium welcomed it all. It’s a great-sounding bass—although I will also say that I expected a bit more from an active instrument. The EQ helped me get the bass closer to certain sounds, but the real control is with the pickup blend—and a little goes a long way. Favoring the bridge humbucker with some extreme EQ and blending, I got close to a slap-happy StingRay sound. Rolling up the neck’s pickup control and darkening the EQ, I was happy with the more mellow tones, but it missed the mark when trying to dial in something I would consider really warm. It’s just not that kind of bass.

I used the ATK800E through an Eden WT-800 paired with a couple of 410XLTs and an Avalon U5 direct box at a theater gig, and it sounded really good for the rock show—full and beefy, with just the right amount of punch and clarity—though I craved some of the round, vintage warmth I get from other basses. That said, the ATK has its own identity, and our FOH engineer loved the tone—he went out of his way to let me know he didn’t have to do much to my signal and that I made his night easy.

The Verdict
I love it that Ibanez released this body style. “Vintage” and “old-school” are terms that are thrown around a bit too much these days, so for the ATK, let’s call it “classically inspired.” Ibanez has raised the bar for mid-level instruments with the ATK Premium, and it would be hard to beat at this price point. In fact, I’d even put it next to a number of models twice its price, and the ATK would probably win. If you’re in need of a well-made, versatile bass, the ATK Premium is worthy of a long look.

Watch our video demo:




Schecter Baron-H Vintage
BY STEVE COOK

These days, Schecter Guitar Research is often thought of as the company that supplies heavy-rock acts with ominous-sounding models like the Omen, Stiletto, and Damien—instruments that tend toward the more modern end of the visual and aural spectrum, and that have churned out some of the hardest-hitting music of our time. But while players such as Avenged Sevenfold’s Synyster Gates and Zacky Vengeance and Disturbed’s Dan Donegan have enjoyed long-standing Schecter endorsement deals, the company actually built its reputation for quality with more traditional designs. In fact, it still offers many guitars and basses with more classic looks and tones. One such bass is the Baron-H Vintage, a “Frankenbass” in the truest and best sense of the word.

It’s Alive!
Taking a page out of a mad scientist’s notebook, the Baron-H Vintage takes a number of the cooler and time-tested features of a few old-school instruments and rolls them into one. Its T-style body offers a traditional look, but then it’s got a big Music Man-style Seymour Duncan humbucker, a thin J-style neck, and an f-hole for good measure. A cosmetic stunner right out of its included hardshell case, the Baron-H sports a mahogany body with an attractive high-gloss black finish. Although the binding around the f-hole was a little rough, the creme-colored binding on the body and neck adds a very nice aesthetic.

The Baron-H Vintage’s 22-fret neck sports jumbo frets and dot inlays, and I like it that Schecter went with a 34" scale instead of going with a smaller scale that could have made this bass feel toy-like. I also dug the T-style control plate. Our test bass arrived with unevenly secured knobs on the pots, but it only took a little hex-wrench turn to straighten them out. Overall setup was fantastic, and though the lightness of the semi-hollow body allowed the neck to take a bit of a dive when I wore it with a strap, the Baron-H Vintage felt comfortable when standing.

Baron von Growl
The design team at Schecter put some muscle under the hood of this bass. Instead of going with an expected piezo pickup or something on the light side, the Baron is equipped with an active, noise-cancelling Duncan SMB-4D pickup. I can’t say that I loved the thumb-pinching design of the 9V cavity, but the pain quickly subsided once the bass was plugged in.

Ratings

Pros:
Powerful, meaty midrange punches through a multitude of mixes. Light body reduces gigging fatigue.

Cons:
When worn on a strap, the light body contributes to neck diving. Limited variety of tones.

Tones:

Playability:

Build:

Value:

Street:
$679

Schecter
schecterguitars.com

For this review, I used a Warwick Pro IV head and matching 4x10 and 1x15 cabs. Right away, the Baron-H Vintage shocked me with how much punch and sustain it had, especially for a semi-hollowbody. The 2-band EQ can help shape the tone somewhat, but the bass always tends to favor midrange with tones that really jump out in front of the mix. With the EQ dimed, you can get pretty close to the classic StingRay sound—it misses the mark by just a bit. I suspect a solidbody version would get closer, but the Baron-H Vintage has a growl all its own and would be totally at home in a country band, a rock band, and many points in between.

Tonally, this book cannot be judged by its cover. The Baron-H Vintage has snap and bite—you simply aren’t supposed to get this kind of tone out of a bass that looks like this. The feel might take a moment to get used to, but I assure you that at the end of a long gig, your shoulders will thank you.

The Verdict
There are a lot of things to like about the Baron-H Vintage. The rosewood fretboard was smooth and fast, and the light finish on the back of the neck felt great—just a notch above unfinished but not over-lacquered and clumsy. And the Baron doesn’t feel shallow and weak like some hollowbody basses—you can really dig in with your thumb, a pick, or your fingers. I also appreciated that, even with its quiet, unassuming appearance, this bass can roar like a lion with a big, biting tone. All in all, Schecter has paired well-thought- out features with a classic-feeling design and managed to load very big tones into a user- and pocketbook-friendly package.

Watch our video demo:



Sterling by Music Man Ray34CA
BY DAVID ABDO

Ever since Leo Fender designed and released them under his new brand in 1976, Music Man basses have been highly appealing to players the world over because of their combination of punch and presence, great playability, and an impressive price-to-value factor that caters to the discerning bassist. There’s no denying the impact Music Man has had on the bass community.

The Sterling by Music Man line of guitars and basses pushes the bang-foryour- buck envelope further with impressive imports that incorporate many of the trademark characteristics of their higherend counterparts. Their most recent offering for bassists is the Classic Active Series Ray34CA, a bass that tweaks the famous StingRay formula while still sporting an easy-to-digest price tag.

Modern Elements, Classical Compound
At first glance, the physical features of the Ray34CA look nearly identical to its U.S.- made cousin: Its ash body is coated with a nostalgic, mint-green finish (it’s also available in vintage cream, black, and a tri-tone sunburst) and is paired with a maple neck and rosewood fretboard. Furthering the vintage styling is the protective glossy tint on the narrowly tapered neck, which also features a 38 mm nut and 19 mm string spacing that facilitates quick string-skipping motion. The latter specs will likely be especially appealing to fans of Fender Jazz or Music Man Sterling basses

For electronics, the Ray34CA is loaded with a redesigned pickup with alnico magnets. The 2-band active preamp provides a boost in the bass and treble frequencies for altering that signature tone with everything from a slight sonic bump and edge to a full, high-mid bite.

Solid and Comfy
Strapping on the Ray34CA, I was pleased to find that it’s a well-balanced instrument that keeps its position at different angles without any strain on the shoulders or back. While it’s possible that some players might lament the bass’ lack of forearm or belly contours, I didn’t feel any noticeable issues in my arm or against my, er … well-padded abs.

The Ray34CA’s construction is solid, plain and simple. The neck felt smooth while I shifted from one playing position to another, and not a single fret protruded along the sides of the fretboard. And all the hardware—which, to be honest, is probably more “modern” than “classic”—was installed securely, from the top-load bridge up to the tuners.

Ratings

Pros:
A good helping of StingRay sound with slick playability and a small price.

Cons:
Tones don’t quite match those of the iconic, high-end StingRay.

Tones:

Playability:

Build:

Value:

Street:
$699

Sterling by Music Man
sterlingbymusicman.com

Sonically, the Ray34CA sounded very familiar when I first plugged in. Compared to a 1977 StingRay, the signature sound was present, though it lacked a bit of that low-end punch and focus that the original produces. The bass knob didn’t quite bring the booty that one typically expects from a Music Man.

To put the Ray34CA through its paces in live settings, I took it to two contrasting gigs. Plugged into a Phil Jones D-600 driving a Glockenklang Space Deluxe 112, the bass fit in quite well with a jazz sextet. Although many bassists wouldn’t necessarily think of a StingRay-style instrument when going to a gig of this sort, the Ray34CA delivered warmth and a slight punch to walking bass lines when I rolled the treble knob down, slightly boosted the bass, and plucked close to the neck. Conversely, the brightness of the Ray34CA worked great on a funk/R&B gig—it enabled me to play tunes from Chic and the Brothers Johnson with authenticity: Slaps, pops, and plucks sat well within the mix, and the bass provided almost synth-like sounds when I employed a Boss OC-3 octave pedal.

The Verdict
According to Sterling by Music Man, the Ray34 Classic Active is for “the player looking for an older bass, but [who] needs higher fidelity and better playability.” And in that regard, Sterling by Music Man has delivered a pretty stellar product that both looks cool and feels great. While it might not replace the real deal, it’s an excellent option for players looking to get a bit of the StingRay sound and attitude at a very appealing price. Considering that you’d have to pay three times as much for the U.S.-made model, the Ray34CA gives you an awful lot of ‘Ray with very little sting to the wallet.

Watch our video demo: