Recorded direct to an Mbox and running with Logic X.
Clip 1: Rear pickup split into single-coil. Bass at 1 o'clock, treble at 11 o'clock, mid flat.
Clip 2: Both pickups equal blend. Bass and treble at 1 o'clock. Midrange at 11 o'clock.
Clip 3: Neck pickup split into single-coil. Pickups 70/30 ratio favoring neck pickup. EQ flat.
Versatile. Original design. Splittable pickups.
Significant volume difference with pickup split. No passive option.
$1,769 street (as tested)
Pennsylvania-based Balaguer Guitars is an intriguing company that borrows from designs of the past, but without leaning too heavily on history to create their own niche in the marketplace. The outfit offers three different lines of instruments built in either their China, South Korea, or U.S. facilities, and, impressively, provides loads of customization options through their online configurators. Balaguer also incorporates much of their own in-house-produced hardware and pickup designs—something that seems increasingly uncommon for brands where custom building makes up part of the business. I was admittedly not that familiar with Balaguer before receiving the company’s eye-catching Monoceros bass, but I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this new design in their Select Custom series, built-to-order in their South Korea shop.
Unicorns Are Real!
Monoceros translates to unicorn in Greek, and when I unpacked the bass, the choice of model name became quite clear. The Monoceros undoubtedly has influences not often seen together on the same instrument, but the modern design cues and practical solutions appeared to go hand-in-hand with the subtle nods to history that many players look for.
Once I had the bass in my grip, my impression was that the satin finish on the back of the 5-piece maple/walnut neck is an absolute home run. The Monoceros simply begged to be played right away. I did, however, have to tweak the truss rod somewhat significantly after its transport. Luckily, one of its impressive design features made easy work of it. The truss rod is operated by a wheel located at the base of the neck in a square cutout at what would be the 23rd fret.
Once the truss tweaking was complete, I tuned up with the Balaguer-produced machines, which have an 18:1 ratio and a sleek, minimalistic design. Two other big design features also stood out right away. The first is the neck/body joint, which is rounded off just enough to where it feels quite a bit more comfortable than a traditional block-plate setup.
The second is the very deep cutaway that’s matched with a very short horn. This makes the upper horn appear extra-long, and, in my eyes, it gives the entire instrument the look of an Italian sports car. For players used to traditional body shapes, the design may take some getting used to, but I think it’s a cool move for a trifecta of ease-of-use, brand identity, and balance.
Under the Hood
For electronics, the Monoceros is equipped with the company’s own Marracobucker pickups and a Darkglass Tone Capsule preamp. The 3-band onboard EQ is interestingly positioned in that the treble boost/cut is located down close to the input jack, while the bass boost/cut control resides up by the two volume pots—a reverse from most active basses I’ve played. Regardless, just looking at the double humbuckers and their large pole pieces had me poised to get this racer into pole position and out on the track.
At the Starting Line
I’ve found that some Music Man-style humbuckers can be a little click-y sounding in the highs for my personal taste. The first sounds coming out of the Balaguer with all the controls set flat were reminiscent of a StingRay, but with a smoother top-end and a deeper bottom. The sound is definitely modern, but not too stiff in the low-end. There is still enough looseness present to where one could get through a song where more vintage warmth is needed. But with all the horsepower in the Monoceros at my disposal, it was time to move away from the flat starting point and hear what level of flexibility the bass possessed.
First, I pulled out the push/pull volume control for the bridge pickup to run it in single-coil mode to see if I could get a little more growl out of the instrument. A familiar Jazz bridge-pickup tone was easy to get, and it paired surprisingly well with the huge, humbucker warmth of the front pickup. I then cut the treble control slightly, boosted the bass a click, and reached a fingerstyle tone I’d gladly use for any pop- or Latin-style-leaning gig. The tone was clear, but not too pretty, and had ample amounts of growl while still maintaining a nice fundamental.
In my opinion, even the most versatile instrument will have a specific lane where it likes to be driven. In the case of the Monoceros, it is definitely with both the bass and treble controls boosted slightly, the mid control cut a touch, and played slap style. Slapping this bass brought out the tone of the maple in the neck beautifully, and with the two pickups combined in humbucking mode, it delivered an impressive punch in the gut, much like a car accelerating rapidly. The slap tone of the Monoceros is distinctly different from many other basses, and that’s thanks to its vintage punch and personality mixed with modern sweetness in the top end. I think many smooth-jazz slappers would find this tone quite close to a sonic utopia.
But Can It Rock?
For my last test drive with the Monoceros, I split the front pickup to see if it could provide me a convincing P-bass-like sonic footprint while playing with a pick. Splitting the front pickup did result in quite a bit of volume loss from humbucking mode—a little more so than other splittable humbuckers pickups I’ve experienced. With the active EQ untouched and favoring the neck pickup 70/30, this modern bass surprisingly revealed a pretty convincing rock ’n’ roll voice. All that said, I would have liked to have been able to disengage the active circuit in this scenario, which would have been a good asset for pick-style rock as well, but that’s not an option with this bass.
It’s glaringly obvious the Monoceros is a very well-made instrument, from the incredibly smooth and solid neck to the beautiful sparkle grey/black finish. The bass has so many versatile qualities, and I applaud the forward thinking behind the instrument. Between the splittable pickups and the 3-band Darkglass pre, the Monoceros begs to be investigated thoroughly and applied to diverse musical situations. Who doesn’t like a fast car that can also 4-wheel around the countryside?