A handbuilt take on the J-style formula brings modern touches to the table, yet has a price reminiscent of yesteryear.
Recorded direct into Focusrite Saffire 6 interface into MacBook Pro using GarageBand.
Clip 1: Tone dial at 100 percent. Riff starts using both pickups, then to neck solo, then to bridge solo.
Clip 2: Tone at 100 percent. Slap riff using both pickups.
Active J-style tones in a passive package. Cool looks with excellent balance and playability.
Some construction imperfections on the test bass. Tone control cuts too much sonic information.
Marco Bass Guitars N1
Wait! You might be thinking, “another J-style bass?” But don’t turn away from this page. There are myriad reasons why today’s talented builders continue to use the historic design as a template for creating their own interpretations of the model. Marco Cortes happens to be one such craftsman, intent on improving the tone and playability of the traditional formula. While he has already found success with his TFL series of basses inspired by Leo’s J, Cortes has now applied his experience to create a more affordable line of instruments, designated the N1 series. The series created quite a buzz at this year’s NAMM show by exuding clean aesthetics and a modern spin on J-style sounds.
The black test bass we received might look conventional, but closer inspection revealed thoughtful enhancements. Cortes’ unique matte finish reveals the grain of the N1’s ash body, conveying style and an organic feel. The dark color contrasts wonderfully with the maple neck and fretboard, which contains hand-hammered frets that are glued into their grooves. Hipshot hardware provides stability and a reduction in overall weight.
Marco’s most noticeable stamp is found on the electronics. The N1 is a passive bass, yet the instrument’s single-coil pickups were designed to sound very similar to active J-style pickups. The luthier even states that players will be looking for a battery compartment after listening to them.
The Broadway Challenge
I explored the qualities of the N1 while playing three consecutive shows in Nashville’s Lower Broadway bars and honky-tonks. These performances typically last 3 1/2 to 4 fours each, with no breaks, and musical styles vary from classic country to hip-hop. (I’m not kidding.) The N1 was plugged into a variety of different rigs: a GK 1000RB with a matching 4x10, a Fender Rumble 500 combo, and a Bergantino B|Amp with an HD112.
The N1 impressed from the moment I pulled it out of its case. Not only was the bass light in the weight department, it balanced effortlessly on a strap, even when positioned at more acute angles. Some J-style basses can be ergonomically challenged, but Cortes’ design provided my shoulder and lower back some relief during the marathon performances.
There were a few minor construction callouts on our test bass, including inconsistent fret installation with a few rough edges, untidy side-dot placement, some small coarse sections of the neck, and what appeared to be a chip repair in the headstock. However, these concerns did not drastically impact the N1’s playability at all. The neck shape was comfortable, and it allowed my left hand to maintain a proper shifting technique. All portions of the neck were easily accessible as well.
From a sound perspective, the N1 evoked tones of late-’60s/early-’70s Jazz basses infused with modern-esque lows and highs. Its high-mids were present, which came in handy while trying to cut through loud guitars and drums. Pickup experimentation was a bit of a challenge, as some bad electrical outlets magnified the 60-cycle hum from the soloed pickups, but the tonal depth of the N1 was revealed. The neck pickup soloed sounded deep and thumpy—ideal for country ballads, thumb-muted walking lines, or old-school funk. When I engaged the bridge pickup on its own, it delivered ample amounts of midrange bark with punchy low mids. This was a great setting when Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” was requested, as well as the hip-hop classic “Rapper’s Delight.”
Both pickups together delivered aggressive mids that combined growl with a bit of grit—a tone that sat in the mix nicely with each and every genre and ensemble. They also sounded great for strong slaps and accented pops. It was impressive hearing a bass deliver a gospel-friendly tone without having to worry about the battery. While I was indeed pleased with the N1’s tonal palette overall, I found the tone control dialed out a lot of highs and midrange, which at times resulted in a sound that was too dark and muffled for my taste.
It’s a rarity to find a quality, handcrafted, U.S.-built J-style for $1,200 these days, but Marco Cortes appears to have concocted the right recipe to do just that. The N1 takes the versatility and playability of J-bass design and kicks it up a notch with modern appointments. It’s a bass that could satisfy a wide range of players, from the weekend dabbler to the grinding professional. Whether you like the idea of a handbuilt J-style bass in your arsenal or are in need of a new go-to workhorse—or both—the Marco N1 has you covered for a short walk above a grand.
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