It’s 10am and unseasonably cold in the epicentre of American music, Nashville, Tennessee. We’re standing on the street corner staring up at a 16-acre, two-million-square-foot, guitar-shaped enormodome, home this summer to the three-day National Association of Music Merchants trade show, featuring the latest, greatest, cutting-edge instruments and gear – or as our media badges say, ‘Welcome to Summer NAMM, Nashville 2.0.’
For our money, there’s nothing like bone-rattling classic rock to get the blood going on an early morning, so we head straight for the neck-straining majesty of the Orange Amplifiers compound, strap on an axe, plug into their tiny Terror Bass 1000 amp and take it back to the Black Country with a few Glenn Hughes riffs. It’s that classic Orange sound – fat and nasty, gloriously gut-wrenching British steel. Though the Terror Bass is no bigger than a lunchbox, it feels like we could peel the paint off the ballroom walls if so inclined. It felt nice to have versatility without having to navigate a laboratory tech’s set of buttons, sliders and knobs and the Orange rig delivers on all fronts. It looks cool and sounds awesome – everything you’d expect from classic Orange.
A signature model always makes us want to play a signature lick. Spotting the pre-distressed limited edition Tommy Stinson TS-4 bass at the ESP booth, I shoulder it, jack straight in to a nearby amp and launch into the Replacements’ post-punk anthem, ‘The Ledge’. We’re no Stinson, but the TS-4 possesses perfect bite for punk and rock stylings and a super-thin neck for speedy fingering. With Gotoh tuners, EMG J/P pickups in the bridge and neck positions and a nice weight, it feels like a ‘rock star’ bass. Just for kicks, we roll up the treble and put it through its paces on ‘Chinese Democracy’ and the Stinson axe sounds great as well.
The ESP RB-1005 Rocco bass is also new for 2014. Tower of Power bassist Rocco Prestia opted against his own signature edition and instead chose to work closely with ESP on design. With its burl maple finish, it’s one beautiful guitar, and plays like a dream as well. Aguilar J and P pickups give tons of tonal options and the action is silky smooth. We’re testing the five-string, but the Rocco comes in four- and six-string versions as well.
One of the most interesting new products is found at the UK’s own Porter & Davies booth, where we give their P&D Bass Plate a spin. The idea is fairly simple as the bass frequency is fed through a platform and into the bassist’s body via bone conduction. It’s a strange experience to be sure, feeling the bottom end from your heels to the top of your head, but it’s incredibly satisfying as well, and after a bit of noodling around with a drummer at the next booth it’s easy to see that more feedback and feel could help players lay back and stay in the pocket.
As a player who’s always pleading for “more bass in the mix” (much to our bandmates’ frustration) the P&D Bass Plate might be a relationship saver as well. But the best praise we can give is it’s loads of fun just to crank the master, stand tall on the P&D Plate and improv on the bass-line from ‘Another One Bites The Dust’. But after a good five minutes of weary smiles from the banjo dealer next door, we should probably be moving on, eh?
Lunchtime, and already we’ve got a Yamaha sack full of swag from the 438 vendors scattered across the showroom floor. Picks and stickers and sticks and strings… Just as we’re leaving for a bite, we pass the Hammond booth where they’re demoing the new Leslie ‘G’ pedal. Though it’s not exclusively for bass guitar, there’s an urban legend that says that John Paul Jones got that crazy bass sound on ‘Heartbreaker’ by routing a Fender Jazz through a Leslie. Nashville’s renowned BBQ is calling, but we simply cannot resist. There’s no Jazz Bass handy, but the good people at the Monoprice booth are kind enough to loan us their Bourbon Street Jam Electric, which indeed has the classic look of a ‘70s Jazz – so we set off to test the legend.
The Leslie ‘G’ is a cool-looking silver-on-black box with a smaller footprint than its predecessor: this one should fit easily in a pedalboard. There’s a ‘Wet’ pot and another for ‘Dry’. One dial for ‘Rise/Fall’ and another marked ‘Red Line’ which apparently controls the speed of the virtual rotors, plus two stomp switches for speed and effect and a selector for three different classic cabinet sounds. Are we Leslie experts? By no means. Does it sound sort of cool? Yeah, as a matter of fact, it does. Returning the bass to the Monoprice booth we have to pay them a compliment: It not only looks good, it feels quite nice too. The jaw-dropper? The Bourbon Street Jam retails for under £100 and comes professionally set up. That’s great quality at a wallet-friendly price.
After a quick lunch of world-famous Tennessee Brisket and Slaw at Jack’s Barbeque, we slide into one of the coolest booths at this year’s NAMM: Earth Quaker Devices. Decked out in blood red carpet with psychedelic posters, the effects pedal maker from Akron, Ohio showcases four new stompers in a setting that feels like some far-out basement party from 1976. Earth Quaker VP Julie Robbins drags us stage front and tells the guy on bass to show off their latest fuzzbox, the aptly named Cloven Hoof. It’s got killer wicked grit, so killer wicked in fact that we bang our fists against the stage and demand that he play some Sabbath. Stroking his goatee, the bassist casts an evil grin, clomps down the toggle and lays hard into ‘Children Of The Grave’ with all the nasty, dirty character of classic Geezer Butler. “Cloven Hoof, man,” he says, with the last note throbbing. “It’s got that splatter, y’know?”
“Massive splatter!” we reply.
After the Sabbath fest at Earth Quaker, a little balance and calm is needed. We ease over to the Breedlove/Two Old Hippies booth to visit with Tom Bedell. Tom is a laid-back, Mother Earth-loving kind of fellow and believes in taking his instruments from ‘seed-to-song’, supervising the process completely through from forest to finished guitar. We try out his bestselling Solo Bass, a sweet acoustic with amazingly easy action and a handy sound hole on the side, easily plugged with a rubber cap. The tone is warm and clear with full sustain and none of the noise or muddiness that plagues many acoustic basses. This might sound spooky but sometimes, if you know how to listen, the guitar will tell you what song she wants to play. Before we know it, our fingers are moving and the sound coming out of the Breedlove Solo Bass is Seals & Croft’s ‘Summer Breeze’. And sure enough, it makes us feel fine.
Nashville is a town full of session players and we’ve heard good things about Swan Song basses so we stop by for a look at their 4Directions model [reviewed in last month’s BGM – Ed]. Rich Neville, former bassist for country-rock pioneers Poco, is on tap as well as Swan Song creator Nelson Joyce. Neville saddles us up with the 4Directions’ 34” scale, five-string model. The bass sits rock-solid in our hands, yet easy on the shoulder and features a maple board with a swamp ash body, Alien preamp and Hipshot hardware. We’re a little intimidated at first by the six-knob panel, but it seems that no matter how the controls are configured, we are unable to get a bad sound out of this bass. With a few quick twists on the fly we’re able to shape the sound from the growl of a classic P-Bass to the smooth hollow body thump of a Gibson E-335. There’s a switch that changes the tone from Vintage to Boutique with a 10k boost, and the master has a pull overdrive that offers a bit of hair on the dog without drowning in fuzz.
“Jack Bruce through a Marshall stack at Wembley Stadium,” Joyce says with a laugh. “That’s what I wanted it to sound like.” Jack Bruce at Wembley, you say? Sure enough, we’re able to take a ride from ‘Sunshine Of Your Love’ straight into ‘Rapper’s Delight’ and even a hit a few licks from Bitches Brew, all with a few simple rolls of the dial.
The afternoon is flying by with so much great gear and so little time. We demo the JHS Colour Box pedal, an homage to the Neve soundboard from Abbey Road studios. At a retail cost upwards of 200 pounds, it’s not for the frugal player but it definitely gives our bass that classic Abbey ‘smashed’ sound. Get on back, Jojo.
After a pleasant jaunt down Penny Lane, we stop by the Hartke booth to hear the blend of paper warmth and aluminum attack on their 2014 HD50 Bass Combo with HyDrive Hybrid Cones. It’s punchy to the point that we impulsively prop our foot on the amp and gallop right into ‘Run To The Hills’. A Hartke rep in sensible tan slacks and a navy blue suit jacket tightens his necktie and shoots us anxious looks. We fear he might be about to fetch security, but somewhere near the chorus he breaks into a smile and gives us two enthusiastic thumbs-up.
Just like that, it’s 6pm and Summer NAMM is coming to a close. We slip out the showroom side door and head down Nashville’s infamous neon-lit Lower Broad, where the music never stops. Passing Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, we spot a skinny cowboy in a straw hat standing on the side of an ancient Gibson upright, slapping that bass like it owes his mother money. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Nashville, Tennessee.