The term "doctor/lawyer instrument" is often used to describe a bass or guitar sporting a price tag that only a doctor or lawyer could afford without prompting massive overdraft fees, calls from debtors, and possibly threats of bodily harm (or worse) from significant others. In other words, they’re effectively out of reach for the average working musician. It might follow logically that a doctor who designs and produces instruments himself would put out similarly impractical instruments, but in the case of Nashville’s Waterstone Guitars and Dr. Robert J. Singer, M.D., the results are quality instruments at a relatively affordable price.
Waterstone was born out of passion and a simple idea. Armed with a pencil and butcher paper at his kitchen table, Singer (an avid guitar collector with roughly 85 in his personal collection) began sketching what would become the first designs for Waterstone—the culmination of his lifelong interest in music, art, design, and, of course, guitars. The young company’s instruments have already found their way into the hands of artists such as Cheap Trick’s Tom Petersson, Vince Gill, and Alan Jackson. One of their most recent offerings, the Meaden bass (named after ’60s British mod icon Peter Meaden), is a fine example of familiar, new, and vintage—all rolled into one. Here we take a look at the fretless Meaden FL.
Mod and Proud
Despite what I said above, the Meaden is, dare I say, an elegant bass. When first inspecting it after opening the huge case (storing it in an overhead compartment is not going to happen), I was struck by its classic look. The teardrop soundhole opposite the eye-catching gold pickguard gives it a sleek, Euro feel. I would have preferred chicken-head or more vintage-styled knobs, given the Meaden’s old-school vibe, but that’s an easy aftermarket fix for purists. The off-white body, neck, and headstock binding has a checkerboard pattern similar to the trim on a London policeman’s hat and, while the look of the bridge and tailpiece takes you back 50 years, the setup felt solid and reliable—unlike back in the day when similar-style bridges felt like they were going to fling off the instrument with any degree of aggressive play.
The body and neck of the Meaden are both constructed from maple, and the size of the instrument echoes the dimensions of other hollowbody basses of the past. So if you’re a fan of that, it’ll fall right in your wheelhouse. Our review model was finished in stunning high-gloss black, but I should add that I noticed a small splattering of paint when I gazed in the soundhole. Though disappointing, it had no effect on playability or tone.
Gliss and That
For a larger-bodied bass, the Meaden FL felt very comfortable in sitting position. But, like many hollowbody basses of this style, there was some neck diving once I stood and wore the bass on a strap.
The set neck is finished to match the body, so fretless players looking for a natural-wood, pseudo-upright feel are going to miss that. It shouldn’t be a deal breaker, however, and as I got to know the instrument a bit more while playing unplugged, the neck actually began to feel more “mature.” The unplugged tones sang with the swell and resonance of a classic fretless, although the growl sounded slightly midrange-y.
To test the plugged-in tones, I ran the Meaden through an Eden WT550 Traveler head and 610XLT cabinet. Right out of the gate, I was impressed with the deep, lush tones of the passive humbuckers. I love that Waterstone stayed away from getting cute with a piezo or active pickups. As I dug in, the 32"-scale rosewood fingerboard felt even and smooth up until the 12th fret, but from there on up the neck humbucker interfered with the 4th string, thus stifling efforts to unleash my inner Michael Manring. At that point, I lowered the pickup with a couple of turns of a Phillips screwdriver and was soon back in business.
With the 3-way pickup selector in the middle position, the Meaden FL’s tone was slightly throaty—true to its hollow nature—but it was also rich and smooth, without being bite-y in the upper registers. I got a more traditional fretless sound by switching to the bridge pickup, which had more presence without being overbearing. For soloing, this is your setting. And by switching to the neck pickup only, I got a deeper, slightly more aggressive kick that would be apt for a variety of rock settings. If you’re an experienced fretless player and aren’t intimidated by the idea of taking only a fretless bass to your next cover gig, the tones from the Meaden FL could probably carry the whole load.
By introducing a fretless version of the Meaden, Dr. Singer and his team have made a budget-friendly bass with a ’60s vibe even cooler. Waterstone Guitars may be a small company, but it has some big ideas. The Meaden FL exemplifies how Waterstone gives stylistic nods to the past while keeping a keen eye to the future. To that end, the FL is a classy, nicely toned, functional tool that constitutes an affordable entry into the world of fretless. Whether or not you were around in the ’60s, this bass will afford you the opportunity to pull on your winklepickers and slide around on a bass that, playability-wise, competes with other fretless basses in this price range, but could probably win out just by sitting there and looking so hip. Then again, wasn’t that what the mod movement was all about?