A vintage-vibed rocker with solid craftsmanship, retro tones, and an approachable price tag to boot.
Musicvox is the brainchild of Matt Eichen, an oral surgeon with a passion for guitar collecting and a deep respect for the guitars of days gone by. He didn’t exactly set out to be a manufacturing mogul. Eichen simply wanted to design a guitar to add to his extensive collection. But almost two decades later, Musicvox is producing a wide range of guitars and basses that combine modern functionality with funky aesthetics.
Musicvox may not be a household name, but you’ve seen their instruments if you caught the Austin Powers flick Goldmember where Austin’s band plays Musicvox Spacerangers. The placement of the ’60s-chic guitars not only gave Musicvox a boost of pop notoriety, it attracted such players as Allen Woody and Tom Petersson, whose tastes for the out-of-the-box design led them to seek out Eichen for his creations.
With a growing list of instrument designs, Musicvox has further broadened its offerings by introducing the MI-5 model Custom Special bass that we took a look at here. (Musicvox “Custom” instruments are limited to runs of four total units.)
Back to the Future
The MI-5 Custom Special—unlike the British Secret Service with a similar moniker—is brash and flashy, with a metallic-red finish that just screams look at me. Musicvox is an online, direct-order company, so your bass arrives straight from the source.
When I first glimpsed the instrument, I thought someone had assembled a Rickenbacker 4001 backwards, but I soon discovered the MI-5 is truly its own beast. The racing stripes are pretty sweet, and the triangular pickguard is a nice geometric complement (albeit not entirely protective). And I love the bound body, neck, and headstock—they really make this bass standout.
The mahogany body brings the bass in at just under nine pounds. Carved from maple, the set neck is finished in the same metallic-red flake as the body, and the beautiful block pearloid inlays on the MI-5’s rosewood fretboard add a nice touch of class. The headstock is pretty big by “normal” bass standards, but I don’t think Eichen sets out to design anything normal. The bass did feel a bit neck-heavy when strapped up.
Bucking the Trend
From the word go, the MI-5 Custom Special really looks like a rock ’n’ roll monster. The Musicvox-designed 8-pole humbuckers appear ready to melt faces, and the controls are straightforward with a 3-way toggle switch and knobs for volume and tone.
The action was set low and super fast, and the nitro-finished neck was very quick. The bass feltgreat unplugged, but it had a pretty wicked buzz in the bridge that was a bit of a distraction for my silent test. Upon further investigation, I found that the saddles were buzzing against each other. Once I made a few quick adjustments, we were ready to rock.
I plugged the MI-5 into an Eden CXC210 combo amp with its EQ set flat. Starting in the neck-pickup position and with the tone control wide open, the MI-5 came alive with incredibly vintage timbres. As crazy as this might sound, it seemed as if the bass was plugged into a tube DI of some kind. The tone was warm and relaxed—along the lines of a 4001 without the bite.
As I played into the upper registers, the octave tones emulated a vintage hollowbody. The pickups have a slow attack to them as well, which also helps the vibe. Fingerstyle players will love this tone, and this was just the neck pickup in action.
With both humbuckers on, again the slow pickup attack really helped the MI-5 achieve another type of vintage tone. This setting was even warmer and had just a little bit of bite. It quickly became apparent this isn’t the mid-scooped funk machine that other ’bucker-equipped basses have taught us to expect. The MI-5 sounds more mature than other basses in its category, especially with the tone knob all the way up. It makes for a great rock bass by just diming all the dials.
The bridge position offers another usable tone, albeit more throaty than the other two positions. With some basses, a bridge pickup can be a “throw away” position because the tone is often nasally and thin. But the MI-5’s bridge pickup still delivers a usable bass tone when soloed.
There are plenty of great things to say about the MI-5 Custom Special. It’s flashy, funky, and functional—a rare combination. I like the atypical body style, that there were great tones in all three pickup positions, and that the bass just simply felt great. Still, the MI-5 Custom Special isn’t for everyone. While it’s well made and delivers some unique vintage tones, the design may be too radical for some and the sounds too subdued for others. If the style does grab you, however, you can be confident that you’ll be getting solid craftsmanship, a bit of flair, and retro tones at a pretty reasonable price.
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