Dingwall Guitars Z3 5-String Bass Review
September 20, 2011
It’s been 60 years since the electric bass was born, and since then bass builders have done their best to improve on an already solid design. Craftsman Sheldon Dingwall and his team at Dingwall Guitars challenge tradition by creating instruments that address many issues with bass design, while keeping their eyes on aesthetics and their ears on classic tones. A prime example of this is the Z3—a striking bass that challenges convention with thoughtful features and versatile sounds.
Under the Z3’s gorgeously deep, candy-purple finish is a unique approach to body design. The woods are chosen based on how they complement the different vibrations of the strings. For instance, the bass side of the body has a heavier, denser piece of swamp ash, while the treble side consists of a softer, lighter piece of swamp ash. Dingwall believes this dual-density approach achieves a greater tonal balance across the instrument.
While the body shape is one of the Z3’s more subtle qualities, the neck is the most eye-catching feature of the instrument. The thin, C-shaped neck is constructed from five pieces of maple, and it’s topped with a flat, beautiful wenge fretboard that uses small banjo frets in an arrangement based on the Novax Fanned-Fret system. Fanning the frets creates different scale lengths for each string, ranging from 34" on the 1st string up to 37" on the 5th string. While these scale lengths provide consistency in tone and tension, it could be a challenge to find replacement strings for such a long 5th string—unless you use Dingwall’s line of strings. To that end, the forum on Dingwall’s website has a section dedicated to helping players find suitable strings from other manufacturers.
The Dingwall-designed bridge is impressive, with qualities that almost make other bridges look inferior. Its plate is countersunk into the body, it features individual saddles for each string, and the strings are held in place by a pin that slides into the hole in the ball end of the string. Reportedly, the benefit of the latter feature is that it minimizes stress points on the string and makes it easier to remove strings after breakage. Other special Z3 features include a compound-angled headstock, a Hipshot Xtender key for the 5th string, and a brilliantly devised magnetic battery compartment. Throw in a Neutrik locking jack and heavy-duty mounting bolts, and you have an instrument built for durability and performance.
Good Things Come in Threes (and Sometimes Fours)
The Dingwall Z Series consists of three models—the Z1, Z2, and Z3. The only difference between the three is the configuration of Dingwall’s Super-Fatty pickups. The Z1 uses two pickups with spacing similar to a 1960s Jazz bass, while the Z2 clusters the pickups toward the bridge for a punchy, Music Man StingRay-like tone. The Z3 is loaded with three pickups and combines the positions of the Z1 and Z2 basses for the best of both worlds. The Super-Fatty pickups match well with the included 3-band Glockenklang preamp, which enhances the tone in active mode, and provides a treble cut in passive mode. Each pickup is also wired with a series/parallel switch.
While some basses use a blend control between pickups, the Z3 uses a 4-position rotary selector to engage different pickup combinations. Position 1 solos the bridge pickup, position 2 activates the two pickups closest to the bridge, position 3 turns on the outer pickups (J-bass style), and position 4 solos the neck pickup.
Don’t Fret About Fanning!
“How does it play?” When fellow bassists inspected our review model, every one of them asked that question. They are not alone, for this inquiry is discussed in bass chat rooms across the Internet. The fanned frets may look daunting, but they really aren’t. As with any new instrument, playing the Z3 entails an initial period of adjustment during which you recalibrate muscle memory for the new set of measurements and spacing. I’ve spent many years playing basses with a 34" scale, and I found it took very little time to feel at ease with the varying scale lengths of the Z3.
To get comfortable with the fanned frets, I stood in front of a mirror in a natural playing position and gradually slid my hand from half position all the way up the neck, which allowed me to watch the positioning of my fingers over the fanned frets. Surprisingly, my technique did not require much adjustment as I transitioned from the lower register to the upper part of the fretboard. After a few minutes of this, I looked away from the neck to allow muscle memory to take effect. There were occasions when I missed notes, but I didn’t find it to be any different than adjusting to a 35" scale bass with standard fret positioning. By the second day, I felt more confident playing the fanned frets and the Z3 actually began to feel more comfortable than the basses in my collection.
In fact, I found that the fanned frets were to be appreciated, not feared: They cater to the natural shape of the hand moving up and down the fretboard. Bassists with solid left-hand technique should find it quite refreshing. My only issue with the neck design was that it was slightly difficult to reach notes past the 21st fret on the 5th, 4th, and 3rd strings. Though these notes are available on other parts of the bass, an instrument of this caliber should provide easier access to the upper portions of the fretboard.
Out of the Practice Room . . .
If I had to describe playing the Z3 in two words, I would say “balanced” and “versatile.” The ergonomics are excellent. On a strap, the bass doesn’t shift, regardless of whether it’s at an angle or played horizontally. And the weight is evenly distributed, too—I never felt back pain or shoulder strain while playing it. I’ve never been a big fan of thin necks, but the neck on this bass—which is tung-oiled and thinly coated with polyurethane—felt smooth, fast, and very comfortable.
The aforementioned construction goals of the Z3 were confirmed when plucking the strings. Tension on each string was very even, making 16th-note runs and string crossing a breeze. Expert slappers may find the spacing between the neck pickup and the fretboard too narrow for two-finger popping, but Dingwall also offers other basses that will appease thumb players.
Tonally, the Z3 is a Swiss Army knife. I played it through a Genz Benz ShuttleMAX 9.2 head driving a Glockenklang Quattro 410 cab, a Glockenklang Soul head driving two Glockenklang Space Deluxe 1x12s, and an Eden WT800 driving an Eden 1x15 cab. With all of these rigs, I was able emulate the punch of a StingRay or the warm, plucky sounds of a Jazz bass with a simple turn of the pickup selector. I compared it to my 1964 Fender Jazz bass and a 5-string StingRay, and it was sonically spot-on. The only difference was that the Dingwall conveyed these tones with more clarity and a more even fundamental note.
. . . And onto the Stage
In live settings, the Z3 sat firmly within the mix and was so responsive that I easily articulated my own voice. Every note was delivered with great definition—from the lowest notes of the 5th string to the upper portion of the 1st string. I was also able to adapt it to many different musical styles. The deep growl of the neck pickup was great on blues gigs, the punch and crunch of the humbucker was ideal for rock, and the J-bass position worked well for R&B and fusion. In each scenario, I was impressed with the its ability to rise to the occasion.
The Dingwall Z3 is impressive in sound, look, and feel, and would suit studio bassists or players who perform multiple styles of music. The multiple scale lengths and slapping-space issues may frustrate some, but anyone else who invests in this boutique beauty will be thrilled with its quality components, impeccable playability, and pristine tone.
you seek a boutique bass with clarity, definition, and a multitude of tones.
you prefer traditional looks, slap a lot, or are on a budget.
Street $5610 - Dingwall Guitars - dingwallguitars.com