Luthier Bruce Bennett and self–taught visual designer John Backlund met on a gear forum several years back, and before long Bennett decided to help Backlund take his guitar art from paper to 3D reality. Since 2007, the two have been producing aesthetically and tonally impressive instruments under the moniker J. Backlund Design, and the guitars and basses have caught on with a variety of players, including Joe Walsh and Mark Slaughter.
Last year, the company started a Kickstarter campaign in hopes that the raised revenue would help them launch a line of more affordable instruments. After more than doubling its funding goal, J. Backlund established partnerships to build instruments overseas. The Retronix line of guitars and basses was born. Though manufactured overseas, Retronix instruments get a final, 55-point quality-control check at the J. Backlund shop in Hixson, Tennessee. Here, we’ll take a look at the R-800B, the imported version of the J. Backlund JBD-800B bass.
The Future Is Now
When I opened the R-800B’s included hardshell case, the bass’ futuristic angles and elegant curves instantly intrigued me—but what really grabbed me was the trio of passive single-coils, the result of a custom collaboration with Seymour Duncan. This trifecta setup is usually reserved for guitars, so I was curious to see how they’d sound in tandem with the simple control complement of single volume and tone knobs paired with a 5-way selector.
The R-800B’s mahogany body sports a scalloped lower-bout cutaway that affords easy access to the 22nd fret. Inside the control cavity, components were neatly soldered, and the overall assembly felt and looked very good. The only adjustment needed was a slight tightening of the output jack.
A rosewood fretboard tops the satin-finished maple neck, which has two walnut strips running down the back. The neck felt fast and easy to navigate, reminding me a bit of a thin J-style, but some players may find that their plucking hand is where playing adjustments are necessary: The unusual spacing of the three single-coils may require finding a new place to rest your thumb. I tend to anchor on a pickup cover, so this bass kept my right hand floating a bit more.
Despite its unusual looks and electronics, the 8 1/2-pound R-800B felt balanced and very comfortable when worn on a strap. Played unplugged, it exhibited astonishing sustain and tone—no doubt largely because of the 6-bolt neck and solid, high-mass bridge.
Single-Coils, Many Voices
To test the Retronix, I used an Ampeg B-18N, as well as an Eden WT-800 driving an Eden D410XLT.Starting with the bass’ volume and tone knobs all the way up and the pickup selector in first position (closest to the neck), I soloed the neck pickup. The tone reminded me of a quirky ’60s bass—like something you’d hear on a Beck record. It still had some bite—which isn’t normally what you’re looking for from the neck pickup—but that was soon remedied by easing the tone down to the halfway mark. This gave the R-800B a mellow vibe with shades of a vintage hollowbody, and it sang out especially well between the 10th and 14th frets.
Blending the neck and middle pickups warmed up the sound considerably, and after experimenting with the tone control I found that leaving it dimed keeps the bass open without being overly sensitive to string noise and bite. The bass seems to have been designed to be tonally wide open in order to let the player find his way with the selector switch. The response of these two pickups together was tight, robust, and slap friendly—like a fine blend of new midrange with vintage warmth.
The tone from the soloed middle single-coil is most like a very early P bass. It lacks some of an early P’s bottom, but I still think it would hold its own in a blind test. Moving to the fourth position, which blends the middle and bridge pickups, elicited more modern tones—everything from grinding rock to slap to solo-like runs and double-stops sounds great in this setting. If the selector switch ever broke off and I had no chance of getting it fixed, I would want it to be stuck in this position.
The fifth pickup position, the soloed bridge pickup, yielded a throaty snarl with just the right amount of bite. Many bridge pickups sound mousey and unusable on their own, but the R-800B’s really merits soloing. The J-bass-like articulation will have fingerstyle players playing high and fast with reckless abandon.
It’s a very cool thing that J. Backlund is now making instruments more price-accessible to the everyday player. The Retronix R-800B is a joy to play, the materials and features are very impressive for the price, and the controls are easy to navigate. The three single-coils add a great alternative to run-of-the-mill P/J setups. One downside is that the electronics hum a little in certain circumstances, but the tones are cool enough that many players will overlook the extraneous noise the way most Strat players do.
Players with traditional leanings may shy from the R-800B’s semi-quirky aesthetics and unique pickup complement, but if they give the bass a shot they just might find themselves pleasantly surprised.