Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Guitar review: Fender Pawn Shop Series Bass VI

guitarz.blogspot.com:
Fender's Pawn Shop series are - in their own words - "guitars that never were but should have been". The concept seems to be that these designs are influenced by weird old modified guitars that you might find in a pawn shop. Hence we see different pickup combinations and trem systems and variations on design that you wouldn't expect to see on stock Fender guitars. In some cases, the Fender Pawn Shop guitars go beyond such minor modifications and we see alterations to actual body designs, e.g. the Mustang Special has a re-designed chunkier body shape, the '72 is essentially a Thinline Strat, and the Offset Special is reminiscent of a Thinline Strat with an offset waist and equipped with a Jaguar/Jazzmaster tremolo.

The model that I was really interested in, however, was the Fender Pawn Shop Bass VI. I've been hankering after a Bass VI for years. I used to have a Hohner Hollywood (so-called) Bass VI but its 25.5" scale length meant that you couldn't really tune it down a full octave below a regular guitar, and so I had to make do with it being tuned down to G. That's still a whole lot lower than most baritone guitars which are often tuned to B or C - or A if you're lucky, but it still wasn't "bass" enough and that always really bugged me.

The Pawn Shop Bass VI, like the original, has a 30" scale and so has no such problems with being tuned to E. It differs from the original Fender Bass VI in a number of minor details: most notably it has a JZHB pickup in the bridge position - this does look a lot like a large P90 pickup but my understanding is that it is a double coil version of the Jazzmaster pickup. In the neck and middle positions are a pair of Jaguar pickups. These are all controlled by a Strat-like 5-way switch. It's a disappointment that Fender didn't use the individual pickup on/off switches plus "strangle" switch on a chrome plate as on the classic Bass VI. This doesn't seem so much like a quirky modification, rather a brazen cost-cutting exercise, which is a pity because I think Fender missed a trick here.

There's another chrome plate missing beneath the volume and tone controls and output jack. Here on the Pawn Shop Bass VI the pickguard has been extended to include this area. Other than that, it's a pretty faithful reproduction of the original. The neck is unbound, but then not all the "originals" had bound necks anyway. Interestingly the headstock bears the legend "Fender VI" (as used on the very first Bass VIs rather than the later "Fender Bass VI") with "Electric Bass Guitar" in smaller lettering beneath.

Part of the reason that I wanted a Bass VI was so as to encourage me to play more melodic parts and lead lines, as so often in a band situation I find myself ending up playing rhythm guitar which - although I am happy to do - I want my share of the limelight too. I also have an album to record and I was looking for new "voices" to use in my music, and decided that a Bass VI could be the very thing.

So, how does it play and sound? Well, the first thing that struck me was that it packs a punch as a bass. Some uninformed people insist on calling the Fender Bass VI a "baritone guitar". Believe me, it is nothing of the sort; indeed I'd go so far as to say that to call it a baritone guitar is an insult. It's as much of a bass as a Fender Precision or a Jazz Bass. Other people say that it's a "bass for guitarists", but I don't think this is so much of an insult - there's a lot of truth in the statement. It has six strings, it is tuned like a guitar only an octave lower, and the string spacing is like that of a guitar. It even has a tremolo (but I'll talk about that some more later). A bassist friend of mine tried out the Fender Bass VI and commented, "I'm not sure how I'm supposed to play it. Do I play it as a bass or as a guitar?"

For the most part I do play it like a guitar, although I expect I'll end up using it for bass lines too. The one thing that took a little getting used to was the extra stretch on a 30" scale. It didn't feel too bad, but when I changed back to playing a regular scale guitar again, that felt really awkward. However, having been changing back and forth between guitar and Bass VI for a month now I have gotten used to the differences in scale length.

It is possible to play guitar chords, but open chords can sound muddy; you wouldn't really want to strum on a Bass VI, but careful arpeggiation of chords can be quite effective. Barre chords are possible too - they sound better the higher up the neck you travel. I've even played the Bass VI using a capo on certain songs so as to put me into baritone guitar range - that has proven to be quite effective.

Initially I was underwhelmed by the JZHB pickup in the bridge position. My initial reaction was that Fender had put it there just for the sake of making it different so as to justify the "Pawn Shop" label. However, I was initially using my guitar amp but after a band performance during which the poor amp struggled, I got myself a most excellent bass amp from Roland's Cube series which complements the Bass VI beautifully. Prior to that I only ever used the bridge JZHB pickup in conjunction with the middle Jaguar pickup through the guitar amp because I thought that on its own it sounded thin and weedy, I have since found that through a proper bass amp it gives me a really usable treble sound that cuts through nicely when playing in a band situation that includes another bass player.

When playing with another bass player, I've been very conscious that I need to dial in a different bass sound so that we don't clash or else end up in one big bassy muddle. Using the JZHB pickup helps cut through, but also choice of effects helps too - and thankfully my Roland Bass Cube has a whole load on-board.

The Bass VI is an instrument crying out to be played with a chorus effect. It really does bring the sound to life. I've also found it best to scoop the middle out on the EQ on the amp, but obviously one can experiment and find out what works best for them.

I love also the sound of the Jaguar pickups, although I think perhaps I would use them more when recording rather than when in a live situation when I want my sound to be distinct from that of the (4-string) bass player in the band.

Now the tremolo... it's the same kind of Fender trem as featured on their Jaguar and Jazzmaster guitars. That, for me, should be a good thing as I've never got on with Strat-style tremolos. However, with this particular instrument I cannot get the trem arm to snap into place. I really don't want to force it into position and possibly break something. I've tried asking Fender in the UK what I might be doing wrong and so far have not received any response. I did wonder if the shop may have given me the wrong arm, but seeing as it was a shop specialising in bass guitars that is rather unlikely (the only other Bass VI they had was the Eastwood Sidejack and I remember that had its trem arm installed - also that's another Fender Jaguar/Jazzmaster type system). [EDIT - 16 April 2013: Today I received a parcel from Fender containing a threaded tremolo arm for Bass VI. It fits and operates percectly. Yes, it does seem that the shop gave me the wrong arm in the first place. A big "thank you" to Michael at Fender Customer Relations for sorting this out for me.]

I've seen the opinion expressed elsewhere thay the tremolo on the Bass VI is no great shakes anyway and is more of a gimmick than a usable trem, but I would like the opportunity to find out for myself. (Earlier I mentioned the Hohner Bass VI I used to own. That had a Wilkinson trem that was very effective in use).

Having seen comments on forums such as offsetguitars.com it seems that some people are buying these Pawn Shop Bass VIs and modifying them to look and function like the originals, which is an irony seeing as the whole point of the Pawn Shop series was to present ready "modified" guitars. I think Fender should have done a straight reissue of the Bass VI rather than a Pawn Shop version. A little bit of chrome shouldn't hike the price up very much.

I know it sounds like I have a few niggles with the Fender Pawn Shop Bass VI, but despite the unnecessary Pawn Shop accoutrements, despite the mix-up with the trem on my example, I do love my Bass VI dearly. I feel as if it might be the perfect instrument for me and can honestly say I haven't been as excited about a guitar purchase as much since I bought my first ever Fender Stratocaster circa 1987.

The Bass VI is a Made in Mexico Fender, which is something a few years back might have caused some to view it with concern, but Fender Mexico have really got their act together now and this is a quality-made and beautifully-finished instrument. Retails in the UK at prices between £601 and £755 so shop around. Colours are black with tortoiseshell pickguard (i.e. mine), sunburst with tortoiseshell pickguard, and candy apple red with matching headstock and white pickguard.

Just DON'T call it a baritone guitar, OK?

G L Wilson

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21 comments:

  1. This one looks incredibly familiar, I know I've seen it somewhere..?

    "I've tried asking Fender in the UK what I might be doing wrong and so far have not received any response."

    It's possible they're just now learning of the issue themselves, seeking a solution. I barely use mine on a std. guitar, don't let it become a deal breaker?

    I'm reluctant to endorse "rather a brazen cost-cutting exercise" as, outside of unique guitar enthusiasts, and for as much as we all here like them! ( can't recall banks of switches being all that popular w/ the mainstream? ) Anyone back then finding them embraceable, usually wound up being an amp tech?

    The most common complaint, players couldn't remember which switch did WHAT? Although, it's possible the updating served (2) purposes. Congrats, you'll enjoy this, now for that Ampeg 8-10" speaker cabinet..!

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    1. I think I could manage 3 pickup on/off switches and a "strangle" switch. But yeah, all in all it is an excellent instrument. I might sound overly harsh in the review, I just think it could have been even better.

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    2. On the contrary, when it comes to guitars there's no such thing as too much information! Your write up was descriptive to the point when I finally manage to pick one up, I'll have enough a grounding "to be ABLE to ask a question?" It prefaces this [Fender} demo perfectly in form and function:

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqnCNwcvYSs

      Co$t is always the prime consideration for mfr's. I'd think in this instance, paying "the gals" to do the actual -wiring-, not the switches themselves. The demo's appeal for me is in the past, any time a bass player attempted anything, remotely melodic, the limitations of the instrument become immediately apparent. The Bass VI shatters all that. IMHO

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  2. You seem to be so in love with this instrument! It sounds fresh for spring though I know spring is not coming yet in Wales. Enjoy and record a good album!I understood that you used a roland cube. So do I and they are great under rated amps. It would be a good idea to introduce some amp reviews in this blog in the future...as we all rely on them to play our little babies!

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    1. Yes, sometimes I think we should feature amps more frequently on Guitarz, but I think I'm getting a little out of my area of expertize when it comes to amps. I'm more of a guitar nerd than an amp nerd. If anyone would like to be Guitarz' regular amp nerd and join the writing team, I'd be happy to welcome them on-board.

      I'd like to do more reviews in general. I've been able to review this Bass VI because I recently bought it, but I can't go on buying guitars just so I can review them. I've been trying to get guitar companies and distributors to send us guitars for review for years now. The only company that ever responded was Musicvox, and I reviewed the Musicvox Space-inator back in December 2012. Sadly that model has now been discontinued after another company claimed that it infringed on an aspect of their own designs - something that was not warranted in my opinion, but what are you going to do when you're a one-man business and you get a threat of legal action from a major corporation with plenty of money to spend on legal fees? It's a case of the corporate world stamping all over the little guy just because they can, and it stinks. Needless to say, I won't ever feature any products from that particular corporation again on the blog, I'm that disgusted with them.

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    2. "It's a case of the corporate world stamping all over the little guy just because they can, and it stinks."

      Ah... "The Return of the Gilded Age"! Where the wealthy and connected trounce on the [former] rights of independent operators until we buckle and conform! You know, similar "lawfare" has taken place in America's conservative movement blog-o-sphere. The way we confronted that was to form just loose enough a confederation that if you were suing (1) of us; you were suing ALL of us!

      Since judges don't understand blogs, blogging ( or the 1st Amendment for that matter? ) getting one to shut a blog DOWN is a lay up! Only through banding together have we been able to send them ( and their LAWYERS ) packing and looking for other low hanging fruit.

      While not perfect parallels, the same approach ( in principle ) should be able to apply for independent luthiers, with rather ambitious designs. IMHO

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  3. Gavin, Good job. You got me very interested - tho' I am a finger player. I'd have a hard time with the spacing, and never yet developed any good chops with a plec.

    I shall now always think of you as Wales' Jet Harris. :-)

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    1. The spacing doesn't take that long to get used to. It's not like it's a long-scale bass length - now that would be awkward. I'd say if you get the chance to try a Bass VI, give it a go.

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  4. If you indeed do want a Bass VI-type instrument there are several other alternatives you should at least explore. The first are two Bass VIs from Schecter, the Hellcat VI (2012 version) and the Robert Smith UltraCure VI. Both use excellent Duncan SJAG-1 pups. Another is the Eastwood Sidejack Bass VI. The Hellcat VI and the Eastwood can be had for the same price as the new Fender PSVI. The UltraCure VI is a bit more expensive. IMO, all of these totally outshine the new Fender PSVI in terms of build, components and sound. Another positive of the Schecters is that LaBella makes fantastic and quite inexpensive strings for them - in 3 varieties - in the more appropriate .095>.025 gauge. YMMV, but you do owe yourself a look at these as well.

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    1. Hi Kenstee, I actually considered the Eastwood Sidejack VI - there was one in the same shop that I got the Fender from - but the body design didn't work for me - the reverse offset thing just didn't look like it was going to balance very well.

      Getting hold of the Schecters in the UK would probably be a much taller order than tracking down a shop that sold the Fender.

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    2. Forgot another option/alternative...the Burns Barracuda.....30" scale, tuned in Bass VI style E>e one octave below standard. Accepts the traditional gauge .095>.025 strings with no issues.

      IMO, for what you get it's definitely worth trying to locate one of the Schecter VIs so you can judge for yourself. Currently Schecters are under-priced for what they offer vs Gibsons and Fenders. You're paying for guitar quality NOT a high premium for a brand name on the tuner decal.

      To Contact Schecter...

      800.660.6621 in the USA
      info@schecterguitars.co

      For international sales: ryan@schecterguitars.com

      In the UK:
      Westside Distribution
      Unit C. 139
      Lancefield Street
      Glasgow G3 8HZ
      44 (0) 141 248 4812

      The Facebook Schecter VI Players has some good info and members from all over the globe to connect with.

      VIs do sound much better imo through a bass amp OR bi-amped using a bass and guitar amp. As you mentioned, effects really sound great with it - especially modulation and delay. For a Cure-type sound use a Chorus (10:00am Rate/2:00pm Depth) and a Delay (600ms or 800ms, all other settings at Noon) For a Joy Division vibe punch off the delay and keep the Chorus settings the same as above. Surf rock/Detective movie-type/50s and 60's sounds can be had with a Tremolo pedal or built-in Tremolo set to your taste AND a high Treble setting. In addition, you'd be better off with the stock .085>.025 lighter gauge strings. Early rock/Surf/Detective movie type music is the only place for the on-board whammy bar imo. Otherwise, you're better off without it or keeping it locked down. The thicker strings really don't work that well with a whammy. Another pedal to consider is the Tech 21 VT Bass which really helps sculpt the sound and can provide some nice dirt and OD if desired. The bit pricy - but quite amazing - pedals from Darkglass are the B3K OD which gives a nice "alternative" vibe while their new Microtubes Vintage pedal adds a more "traditional" feel. Naturally, the options are only limited by your creativity...YMMV....

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  5. The first thing buyers of this should do is change the strings to the more appropriate .095>.025 gauge. The same gauge the "real" Bass VI has. You'll be shocked at how much better it will sound. Fender erred big time by using the thinner strings. LaBella makes Fender Bass VI strings in both rounds and flats. But, they are bloody expensive. Here's a "hybrid" string setup on the PSVI that you might be interested in. Leave the D-E strings from the D'Addario set that came with the bass, but get a set of EXL220M (that's a super light gauge bass set, medium scale), and put the low E and A from that set on the bass. So now the gauges are: .095 .075 .056 .044 .034 .024 That's very close to the traditional Fender VI set, only .001 off for most of the strings, and exactly the same gauge for the E and A.
    The EXL220M set costs about $15 on Amazon, and the XL156 (PSVI) set is about $12, so for about $27, you have a pretty accurate (gauge-wise, at least) version of the VI set. The least you can find the Labella's for is about $44, so this is a way to get the "proper" gauges for way less money.

    I know that some are concerned about the larger ball ends on the bass strings; if you orient the balls so that the cylinder is in the same plane as the body it doesn't interfere with the tremolo. Also, the length of the windings is PERFECT, stopping right behind the nut when the string is tuned up. Intonates well, too.

    Also, here is a quick fix for anyone disliking the JZHB on the PS VI: That weird Humbucker is actually made of two stacked single coils. So you can sort of disable the bottom coil by unscrewing its pole screws on the bottom. That converts it to a dummy coil which isn't doing much anymore except still canceling some hum. The coil on top will work just fine by it self and if do not like the results can put the screws back in... Just grab a screwdriver. Soundwise it is very close to a single coil, because now it is sort of.

    And there is an excellent Bass VI Players group on Facebook. Great for hints and connecting with other VI'ers.

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    1. Yes, I agree, when buying a Fender you are often paying a premium for the name on the headstock. When I bought my Fender Bass VI the shop gave me a very good deal. It was less than the lowest price on the internet AND they threw in a hard case too.

      I still think I prefer the Fender Bass VI aesthetically speaking, and hey it does what I want it to do. I just need to clear up what the deal is with the trem and I'll be 10% happy.

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    2. I've had a Burns Barracuda which I reluctantly sold last month. Had trouble playing it after some Rt shoulder surgeries, currently have a 2012 Schecter Hellcat VI and have tried the new PSVI. Out of them I most prefer the HCVI, then the Burns. IMO they had a much better tone and construction/components than the PSVI. I particularly like the Duncan SJAG-1s pups of the HCVI. That's me though...Be curious to get feedback for any of those who actually tried a few of these options...

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    3. That should read "100% happy" above, not 10% which would put an entirely different perspective on it.

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  6. You probably know Rob Chappers and his numerous blogs and videos. I wondered if a connection between you two could be good for each of you guys. Though you seem very different, I can feel something similar in your way of thinking and conducting your life. Maybe I'm wrong but it could be worth a try anyway...

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  7. Budget tight? Here's a VI for roughly HALF the cost of a Fender PSVI or Schecter HCVI!! http://www.rondomusic.com/argustoaskbk.html or http://www.rondomusic.com/argustoastsg.html They do ship to Western Europe as well...

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    1. I like the Jazzmaster/Jaguar styling and the sea foam green finish is particularly nice. Also, roller saddles on the bridge is a nice touch; more behind the bridge trem guitars should have these. Anyone have any experience of Agile guitars? All I know about them is the 8-string that we featured on the blog once: http://guitarz.blogspot.com/2009/07/agile-intrepid-8-string.html

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  8. Hey, nice review!
    The vintage VI (and RI and the USACG clone) has a 30.3" scale, and the PSVI has a 30". If you compare, you can see the bridge, tremolo and pickguard have been adjusted for different placement.

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  9. Hey everyone! I've been searching for people's knowledge about Fender VI electric bass guitar for a long time. I inherited such guitar from my father. He played in a band back in the days when pictures were in black and white. I know nothing about guitars but would love trying to play. Where could I find any materials or explanations regarding the use of this guitar? Theres all kinds of buttons and I believe the strings are originals but one is missing. Can I replace them with any regular 6 strings or do any of you recommand a specific brand? Thanks for your help, really appreciate any comments. my email is gigizit@hotmail.com
    tx

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    1. That's a nice instrument to have inherited. I'd love to see some photos if you have any. Please, don't be tempted to sell it, because I'll bet people will offer you money for it, but very likely not enough to reflect its value (depending of course on condition).

      The four switches on the chrome plate should be on/off switches for each of the three pickups underneath the strings on the body - allowing you to select the tonal qualities you require - and the fourth switch is the so-called "strangle" switch which is in essence a bass cut - it just provides another tonal option. On the other chrome plate with the out jack socket there are two knobs - one for volume and the other for tone.

      The usual tuning should be as a regular 6-string guitar - EADGBE (low to high) - only a complete octave DOWN, so it's in the bass range. Don't put regular 6-string guitar strings on it - they will be of the wrong gauge for the bass range and very likely will not be long enough anyway for an instrument with a 30" scale length. There are getting to be more and more string options for this type of instrument now since its recent resurgence in popularity. Strings shouldn't be too difficult to find, just make sure you look for "BASS VI" strings.

      If you want more advice (playing techniques, strings, which amplifiers to use, etc) I suggest you join the "Bass VI Players" group on Facebook:

      https://www.facebook.com/groups/34542190945/

      Gavin

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