REVIEW: Maton JB-4 Jumbuck fretless bass

The Maton JB-4 (or Jumbuck) was perhaps one of the coolest Australian musical instruments ever created – and we’re talking about the country that also gave the world the Cole Clark Mistress and the Belman Albatross. This four-string beast originated in the mid 70s found its genesis in the earlier Wildcat Bass. It offered a unique-to-Maton body outline, a cool headstock shape, great upper fret access, and the option of fretted or fretless fingerboards. Early models had a huge humbucker mounted in the middle along with a bridge-butting single coil. (The Jumbuck was also available in a guitar version which for a while found its way into the hands of one Carlos Santana) The Jumbuck bass was a big hit, remaining highly sought after. It’s no surprise that Maton have now decided to bring the venerable old bass back.

The classic JB-4 spec is mostly present and accounted for: passive Dimarzio pickups (a split P type and a J type), a gloriously chunky Badass Bass II chrome bridge, Schaller tuners, Australian Sassafras body, Queensland rock maple neck, ebony fretboard, 34 inch (864mm) scale length, and 20 jumbo nickel silver fret neck (obviously the fretless version has no frets but it has the same scale as the fretted version). Missing from (most of) the original production spec is the brass nut, but these aren’t all the rage now like they were in the 70s. Electronics consist of a small 3-way pickup selector toggle switch, a volume control for each pickup, and a master tone control. The neck is joined to the body via what’s sometimes called ‘set thru’ construction. That is, it’s glued in, but is carved to feel like a neck-thru instrument which has the neck and the main part of the body carved from a single plank.

The Jumbuck’s neck feels full without being too big, and the set-thru construction and hardy Maton truss rod make it feel rock-solid. You can really blaze on the fretboard, and upper-register access is utterly unstoppable. The tone is punchy and tight at the low end, becoming engagingly loose and vocal as you move further up toward the body. Notes take on the classic fretless bloom around the middle of the neck, and unlike most basses I’ve played and/or owned over the years, the Jumbuck really encourages chord playing as well as jumping from the thin strings to the thick ones in the same register. You’ll think nothing of hitting the 12th fret position of the G string with your index finger then cascading down to the 15th fret on the E string with your pinkie – the Jumbuck is just that comfortable.

The J-style pickup sounds particularly trebly due to its placement right there next to the bridge, while the P-style actually sounds a little bassier than its placement might indicate, no doubt due to the chunky Sassafras used in the body. You can get a bright Geddy Lee-type tone from mixing about 75% of the rear pickup with 25% of the front one and leaving the tone wide open. Turn the tone down about a third and you’ve suddenly got a stunning horn-like tone for sustained notes and jazzy solos, or bring the tone pot all the way down for more subtle background growl. I really appreciated how musical the tone control was – it almost reconfigures the Jumbuck into a different instrument with each quarter turn. The pickup selector switch may seem a little small, and indeed in earlier Jumbucks this switch often carried out a series/parallel function instead of pickup selection, but unlike a guitar you’re not terribly likely to need to change bass pickup settings a dozen times during the course of a song.

The JB-4 is a welcome return from an old favourite, one which was an integral part of Australia’s late 70s-early 80s pub rock scene. It looks unique and stylish, it’s made from top quality components, it features Australian woods, it sounds like a choir of angels (albeit very deep-voiced angels) and the construction is utterly and irrefutably flawless. On top of that, it’s a sheer pleasure to play. This has got to be one of the best instruments I’ve played all year, and it’s great that it so happens to be made right here in Australia.

This is an alternate edit of a review originally published in Mixdown magazine.