Nothing evokes the sound of rock’n’roll bouncing off an arched brick ceiling quite like a violin bass – but this well-designed tribute can do more than just twist and shout. Review by Gareth Morgan.
Last month we reviewed Hofner’s thud-tastic President bass; this month the spotlight falls on a hollow-bodied Vintage-brand Violin Bass. Of course, Paul McCartney played a Hofner Violin Bass on all recordings by the Beatles from 1961-’65, but Hofner didn’t come out with the first violin-shaped electric bass guitar: that was Gibson with the Electric Bass of 1953, although that was a solidbody design with an endpin for playing in the upright position (not a bad idea, as it weighed over 11lbs). Hofner’s hollowbody 500/1 Violin Bass was launched in 1956, and soon its Beatles-fuelled popularity spawned much imitation. As well as the Hofner 500/1 Vintage ’62 Violin Bass we saw in August 2004 (Vol 15/4), we also had a close look at Duesenberg’s VB way back in our March 2003 issue (Vol 13/11). This time, though, we’re looking at the Vintage VVB4 Violin Bass.
Made in Indonesia, the VVB4 is comprised of a spruce top and two-piece flamed maple back with flame maple sides. This means the face of the VVB has less grain detail, allowing you to focus on the rather splendid antique sunburst finish and the three-ply pearloid scratchplate, but flip it over and you’re in tiger-striped heaven. Unlike the President Bass we saw last month, the VVB has no f-hole and also has an internal centre block in line with the neck. This isn’t a device intended to promote sustain or kill feedback, as in the Gibson 335 design – it’s simply for securing the pickups in place, and it doesn’t extend as far as the bridge (which is mounted directly onto the top for tonal reasons). Other than that, the top, bottom and sides are bordered by period-correct white binding with thin black/white pinstripe purfling. By the way, if you’ve never held one of these basses and expect the body to be a straight-up-and-down, squared-off affair, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the slightly convex profile of both top and back, helping the chamfer-free VVB to sit just that fraction more snugly against your stomach. The maple neck is secured to the body using the set-in method, and the heel is framed by a large chunk of white binding and capped with pearloid. Contour-wise this bass is very slim and comfy, making it a real pleasure to play.
The headstock is an accurate re-working of the traditional squeezed oblong with a fin-like protrusion on the top edge and a Vintage logo. It also bears a set of Wilkinson Open Gear Tuners with small pearloid buttons, much like the originals but with upgraded materials and modern manufacturing methods, and a black plastic trussrod access cover. Aside from the black plastic nut (now replaced on current production, Vintage tells us, by more a period-correct multi-ply black and white nut), the rosewood fingerboard carries a zero fret plus 22 regular frets. There are white pearloid dots on the face and smaller white ones along the top edge.
The bridge is a two-sectioned affair comprising a rosewood block with tiny fretwire saddles that sits on another rosewood block. Needless to say, adjustments to action and intonation can take longer than with modern bridge units. The VVB is kitted out with a pair of Wilkinson WDB pickups – one butted right up to the neck and the second 40mm further back. You get a pair of cream plastic volume controls with gold caps, and three switches: Bass On and Treble On are pickup selectors and Rhythm/Solo provide a preset attenuation of the set volume.
While guitarists will instantly love the shorter scale length and tight string spacing, it takes a little time for us 34″-scale merchants to adjust. The lack of weight is a big plus, especially if you’ve got back or shoulder issues, but it also makes it feel slightly toy-like.
You won’t pick up any Violin Bass expecting it to come over with the clang of a solidbody Rickenbacker, and although you do get a certain amount of snap and bite on the pickup closest to the bridge, it’s not exactly cutting. With both pickups on you’ll find a very traditional tone indeed, and while the low strings do have some shape and definition they’re fundamentally soft and woolly with a slightly weak-sounding midrange that errs towards the higher mids. There’s enough top-end to make it worthwhile to kick back with some rock’n’roll, old Beatles parts, soul and even jazzier walking basslines, and there’s plenty of thuddy dynamics to be found at the bottom end, especially if you hit strings a little harder. It’s worth noting the very even response across the neck, regardless of pickup setting, making playing in various octaves a rewarding experience – you don’t get the thin string brittleness that blights even some of the more expensive active basses.
The neck pickup is the most acoustic-sounding setting and the closest to an upright in qualities. The lack of an f-hole means the VVB shifts less air so there’s less impact to the bottom end, but you do get a rapid decay of the body of the note, an almost compressed feel and a distinct woodiness too. It’s actually great for modern dance music: just EQ up the bass end for a little weight and you’ve got the sort of warm, fat, rumbling woodiness which is perfect for that style. If you really have to get something close to contemporary out of the VVB, select the bridge pickup, move your right hand back, and dig in. You’ll get some edge, but the midrange is weak and a little boxy so it doesn’t quite cut it. Best to stick to rootsy grooves – this is where the VVB really excels.
All in all, Trevor Wilkinson and Vintage have managed to put together an authentic reproduction of the bass that McCartney played from 1961 with the Beatles at a price which competes very keenly with both the original and its myriad of high-quality imitators. There’s not much in the way of tonal variation here, but everything you can squeeze out of the VVB is high quality and practical, at least in the context of the expected violin bass sound. It comes with flatwounds, so fitting roundwounds might open it up just a little more. If you’re in the market for a budget violin bass, then do make checking this one out a priority: it’s excellent.