On January 24, 2013, the National Association of Music Merchants kicked off its annual convention, the NAMM Show, in Anaheim, California. It’s a four- day trade show designed to give music equipment manufacturers the opportunity to show off their new gear to dealers, retailers and the industry in general. First held in 1901, NAMM’s winter convention now ranks as one of the industry’s foremost events, attracting nearly 100,000 people to the halls of the gargantuan Anaheim Convention Center. The goal of every manufacturer at the conference is to head home with a sheaf of new purchase orders for the year ahead.
Closed to the general public, the NAMM show attracts over 5,000 brands from countries all across the globe, including major players like Fender, Gibson and Marshall, as well as tiny little companies from cities we can’t pronounce who specialise in making parts for instruments we have never heard of. The convention center’s main hall stretches several football pitches long, and there are four floors.
Where the equipment goes, the players follow, and beyond the vendors, NAMM’s registration rolls read like a who’s who of the music industry. High-profile artists from every genre imaginable amble through the spacious halls, checking out gear and holding scheduled meet and greet sessions at the booths of their endorsers. Strictly speaking, punters off the street are not allowed, but thousands of attendees are simply fans lucky enough to know somebody with access to a badge, and these people spend the weekend rubbing shoulders with some of the tallest legends in modern music.
We begin NAMM early on Thursday morning with a visit to Ampeg’s spacious room on the second floor, where a stage sits surrounded by walls of refrigerator-sized amplifiers. This year’s big news is the introduction of the new Ampeg Heritage B-15N all-tube bass amp, the successor to their hand-wired B-15 model, featuring PCB architecture instead of hand-wiring and 1964 and 1966 channels, each with Ampeg’s Baxandall EQ for tone control. One of Ampeg’s designers straps on a bass and showcases the unit’s roof- raising power and luscious tone. If it’s a bare bones practice amp you seek, keep moving; but high-end tone junkies will find much to savour with this model.
Over at the Samson/Hartke/Zoom booth, bassist Marco Mendoza (Thin Lizzy, Black Star Riders) entertains a small crowd with an intimate solo set while we check out the new Zoom MS-60B bass pedal. Earth’s musicians spend upwards of $17 billion annually on their gear, and at this year’s NAMM Show, it feels like half of that is spent on pedals. Vendors continue to load up their pedals with as many features as the circuit boards can hold, and the MS-60B stands toe-to-toe with the lot of them. Beginning with 52 stomp effects and six amp models, the tiny unit has a USB adapter that allows you to drag and drop files onto your laptop, as well as a built-in drum machine and tuner. We like the simple and intuitive interface and at an affordable price, it presents a great option for the player looking to tighten up his or her sound.
With a 20-foot wall of bright orange amplifiers beckoning passers-by, the Orange booth suffers zero competition for the made-up ‘Most Conspicuous Vendor’ award. While Orange are not introducing any new bass amps at the show, we nonetheless ogle their majestic Orange AD200B Tube Bass Amp, played by the likes of Geddy Lee. As it has only five knobs, you don’t need an astrophysics degree to dial in a sweet tone, although truth be told, we suspect something like this could power a space shuttle.
Lunchtime is nearly upon us and maddeningly, we have yet to hold a single bass. Looking around, we spy the Ibanez compound, where we quickly track down their new 2013 Limited Edition BTB seven-string, which feels like we’re holding the seat of a bench. It offers a seven-piece maple/bubinga/walnut thru-neck and a maple wing body. Unfortunately, without an amp, we can’t put it through the full battery of tests: the action is fairly quick, however, for such a hand-stretching neck. Ibanez plan to roll it out at just over £1,000 this summer.
Michael Griffin of Essential Sound Products has combined a brain-melting mastery of electronics with his passion for music
by designing high-end power cords for amplifiers. Admittedly, we don’t understand what all the fuss is about; aren’t all power cords pretty much the same thing? Not remotely, according to Michael, who explains that most large cords deliver current in a wanton, uncontrolled fashion, which introduces a palpable amount of phase distortion into the sound. His cables, he advises, deliver a terrifying level of power in a speedy and controlled fashion that promotes both potency and clarity of sound. Certainly an interesting lesson. Costing upwards of £100 each, these cables would be more suited for professional studios than £50 practice amps.
The Dean booth attracts a glossy stream of high profile rock musicians, and we sneak into a corner to play the new Dean USA Jeff Berlin Basic, a nifty four-string with a sleek neck and a fantastic tone, but it is their sturdy new Dean John Entwistle Hybrid five-string that holds the lion’s share of our attention, with its alder top/body, dual purpose die-cast bridge and EMG HZ Humbucker pickups. Worthy of its namesake, the bass feels nicely-balanced with smooth edges and swift action: a worthy mid-range option for the bass player’s arsenal.
Crossing to the front of the hall, we spy a queue stretching back about half of a footie pitch. At the head of the line we find the legendary Geezer Butler sitting at the K3 Neon Strings booth, signing autographs and mugging for cell phone pics with gleeful punters. NAMM is nothing if not surreal.
Fender offers bassists two stunning new high-end options in 2013. The first is the Fender Pure American Vintage Basses, an intentionally-distressed line that have been retro-engineered with staggering detail. 2013 sees the addition of a 58 and 63 P-bass and 64 and 74 Jazz basses. We hunker down with the 58-P, and with its fluid tone, buttery action and stunning gold pickguard, this bass plays as if it has had 20 previous owners, all of whom played in the dark corners of smokey blues clubs in Memphis. The other notable addition to the Fender roster is the Fender Select Active Jazz Bass, with what they call a ‘channel-bound’ neck. The compound radius is inlaid into the C-shaped maple neck, so if you close your eyes, you can’t tell where the neck ends and the fingerboard begins. Fender have voiced the pickups specifically for this model, which also features active and passive electronics, including an active three band EQ. This will list in the neighborhood of £1,500 and represents Fender’s highest quality instrument from its standard production line.
Easily the most interesting bass we’ve seen so far is the Dingwall Super P-bass, which we find in the hands of one of the Neville brothers, putting it through the paces in front of a tiny pack of admirers. The most captivating aspect of the bass is the fanned fretting, which angles the frets out like a hand fan. While there are modest ergonomic benefits to playing into these angled frets, they are designed to promote a more even tone through keeping the string tension even across the board. Normally, the tone might begin to falter as you pass the sixth fret, but you can play this bass way up past the twelfth fret with a relaxed fretting hand and even attack. Does it look goofy? Absolutely. Does it play well? Surprisingly, yes.
We pop by the EBS booth on our way out and inspect their new Billy Sheehan Signature Drive Pedal, which commemorates the company’s 25th anniversary. As we pick up the weighty new stomp box, none other than Sheehan himself strolls over and walks us through the features. The new pedal includes two different outputs, one clean and one distorted, a tone control, built-in compressor and a tasty looping function consisting of a clean loop and a drive loop. Satisfied with its performance in his home studio, he plans on taking it out on the road this year.
Friday morning sees even longer queues leading into the exhibition halls, and with scalding hot coffee in hand, we hit the Dunlop booth, where we strap on a Fender P-bass and go straight for the brand new Dunlop Bass Chorus Deluxe pedal, designed specifically for bass. Gorgeous choral textures pour through our headphones with practically zero effect on the low end. We toggle a crossover button that fattens up the low end nicely, yet the chorus continues to ring brightly in the higher resisters. This is one of the best bass chorus pedals we have heard and it features controls for bass, treble, EQ, rate, intensity and width. Just for kicks, it comes with a flanger.
The Warwick LWA 1000 is an absolute monster of a bass amp, jamming 1000 watts into less than three kilos: a modest size that belies the model’s frightening power. With two channels, which can be used simultaneously, and a four-band EQ, the amp additionally includes a compressor, an effects loop and a tuner. In addition to the power, the clarity remains pure through the higher registers and the tone flows smoothly.
Of course, when most people think Warwick, they think basses, and the German company is offering a range of new instruments that will empty many a savings account in 2013. We first sit down with the new Warwick Streamer CV Bass, boasting a one-piece maple neck, swamp ash body, rosewood fingerboard and two single coil pickups. At nearly £4,000, the Steamer CV is not for the faint of heart, but it rivals any high-end bass we’ve seen so far.
Our favourite new Warwick product, however, is their new 2013 Thumb Bolt-On LTD bass, another upscale axe at also just under £4,000. With a wenge neck and tigerstripe ebony fretboard, including a dark side and a light side, with yin and yang inlays, it summons the elegance of a piece of art, although this is no wall-hanger. The Bolt-On LTD plays as smoothly as one would expect from such an upscale model. With Warwick’s invisible fret technology, they offer four- or five-string models, although musicians interested in upgrading to this superb model should act sooner than later, as Warwick are making a total of 100 of the basses in 2013.
Cruz Tools feature the GrooveTech Bass Player Tech Kit, a specialised tool kit for setting up your bass. The kit includes a
ruler for string and pickup height, a thickness gauge for measuring the neck (few standard rulers accommodate measurements of 15/1000”), hex keys in both inch and metric measurements, truss rod sizers and a string cutter that slices through bass strings like wet pasta. Tools like the truss rod drivers and jack and pot wrench are enhanced especially for basses and guitars, with subtle modifications that translate into quick and painless adjustments.
I confide to company president Dan Parks that I have never set up our own basses for fear of inflicting irreparable harm, and
he produces a set-up guide from the back of the tool kit that outlines the steps of a basic setup with merciful clarity. Costing approximately the same as having a shop perform a setup, the toolkit will pay for itself after the second use and allow for easy ongoing maintenance of your instrument.
At the Aria booth, a long queue stretches before Ray Burton, father of Cliff Burton, the deceased former bassist for Metallica. Ray is signing autographs and taking pictures with fans to commemorate Aria’s new Cliff Burton signature bass, the Aria Pro II, a replica of Cliff’s Black’n’Gold bass. With a seven-ply maple/ walnut neck with a 34” scale, 24 frets and an alder body in the original SB shape, it offers plenty of attack for a metaller, yet it feels subtle enough for a serious jazz player.
In Peavey’s compound on the third floor, Black Stone Cherry play an acoustic set as we check out the new Michael Anthony signature amp, the VB-MA, a 300 watt, all tube head that succeeds Peavey’s VB-3 model. They’ve added a blend between the clean and overdrive channels, plus a master volume for overdrive and a single knob tone control. While Peavey suggest that this amp would be versatile enough for any style of music, the focus on overdrive and the unit’s sheer power suggest this model belongs to the rockers of the world.
The Shure booth feels like a Berlin nightclub, with an alarming number of people in suits and a pulsating electronica soundtrack pumping through their sound system. Shure, like Apple, have crafted a reputation for high quality products with simple, intuitive interfaces. Continuing in that trend, they are releasing the new Shure GLX-D Wireless System, which features the simplest wireless system we have ever seen. Push a button on the main unit, which is the size of a cribbage board, and it scans for a clean frequency. When it lands on one, you open the transmitter pack and adjust to the matching frequency and Robert is your father’s brother. Easier than programming a microwave to heat a bowl of soup. A double channel model is also available and at affordable prices – your bar band or jazz trio can now enjoy reliable wireless freedom and still have a few bob for a post-show pint.
While NAMM closes at 6pm each evening, vendor-sponsored parties run long into the night. Friday sees most of the rock-minded conventioneers flock to the Anaheim Grove, where Shinedown, Kyng and others will perform for the private Dean Guitars party, while across the street, Elton John performs at another NAMM gathering.
On Saturday morning, we kick off the show’s busiest day with a visit with Ashdown Engineering, the venerable UK amp and pedal manufacturer. While the company is offering a number of new amps, their biggest news is the 2013 release of the Dr Green range of effects pedals. Designed by engineer Dave Green (the titular doctor), there is a vintage fuzz pedal (The Bearded Lady), an envelope filter worthy of Geezer Butler (The Doctor’s Note), an octaver (The Octa Dose), a three-band compressor (The Aspirin) and what we feel is the signature piece, the Bass Verb, which is Ashdown’s bass-specific reverb pedal. While some might suggest that all reverb pedals are alike, the Bass Verb targets a more fluid, ambient tone, à la Pink Floyd. All handmade in England, these pedals will range from approximately £109 to £159.
We stop in at Ernie Ball’s booth to check out the new Ernie Ball Cobalt Bass Strings, which are already enjoying a substantial buzz in the online forums of the bass world. Cobalt, one of the most magnetically-active materials, invests these strings with higher resonance than normal nickel strings, allowing for deeper subtleties in the playing, without sacrificing the attack. Although we are keen to check out their much-ballyhooed M-Steel strings as well, that line is currently available for guitar only, with the bass versions scheduled for later in the year or early next year.
Downstairs, J. Rockett Audio Designs have hit the NAMM lottery. The tiny US pedal and amplifier company have just inked a deal with one of the largest music equipment retailers in North America, due largely in part to their new Rockett Mark Sampson MAX Killer Boost pedal. Designed for both bass and guitar, the box functions essentially as a pre-amp, producing a chimey sound, although when you engage the small switch on the front, it adds a little hair on the top. Weighty and durable, the pedal yields a full, three-dimensional sound with plenty of flexibility to tweak to taste.
A large crowd have gathered in front of the Musicians Institute booth, where we hear someone achieving bold and miraculous things with a bass. Stunned by the creativity of this mystery player, we sneak through the crowd until we get to the front, where we find Stu Hamm delivering a bass guitar masterclass. Once-in-a-lifetime stuff, to be sure.
Eventually, we pick our chin up off of the floor and find the John Hornby Skewes booth, where we sit down with what turns out to be the JHS Vintage Icon VJ74MR, an intentionally-distressed beauty, inspired by Jaco Pastorius’s old model. Although fret lines and dot markers stand out brightly, in fact the neck is fretless. With an eastern poplar body and a maple bolt-on neck, it retails in the neighborhood of £350, but it plays better than some of the thousand-pound custom numbers we’ve tested this weekend.
For bass players, 2013 offers an eye-watering range of new basses, amps, pedals and exotic gear, for all styles, abilities and budgets. If you’ve set your sights on some new high-end gear, start saving now, and remember that you can’t spend any money while you practise.