I recently fulfilled a long, long-held dream of mine by finally acquiring a Bass VI – in this case, the Squier Vintage Modified version (which I bought from my friends at World of Music). Remember the instrument that Nigel Tufnel wouldn’t let Marty DeBergi even look at in This Is Spinal Tap? Bass VI. If you’ve never heard of the Bass VI, let me give you a brief run-down: it looks a bit like a Fender Jaguar but it has a 30” scale length and is tuned E-to-E like a guitar, except a full octave lower so that the lowest four strings are the same pitches as those of a regular four-string bass. The string spacing is closer than a regular bass, and I can’t think of too many basses with whammy bars, especially Jaguar-style units. So what is this? Is it a bass? Is it a guitar? The answer to both questions is ‘yes and no.’ Or more accurately, it’s simply a Bass VI. It’s lower than the lowest baritone guitars, and it goes higher than conventional four-string basses by a full two strings.
This Vintage Modified version of the Bass VI is more authentic to original vintage Fender models than the Fender Pawn Shop Bass VI released a while ago: whereas the pawn Shop model has a bridge humbucker (which looks like a Jazzmaster single coo) and streamlined controls consisting of master volume and tone controls and a five-way pickup selector switch, the Squier version has three Jaguar single coils and the vintage-correct control layout of master volume and tone controls, individual on/off switches for each pickup and a ‘strangle’ switch which cuts the bass frequencies for a more twangy, edgy tone. The Pawn Shop version does feature an Alder body where the Squier’s is Basswood, and it has the locking system to hold the vibrato in place if you won’t want to use that. The Squier has block inlays which look a little nicer than the dots of the Pawn Shop. Overall the Squier just looks the part more than the Fender does.
Among the ‘modified’ aspects of the Vintage Modified Bass VI are its “modern C” neck profile and its 9.5” fretboard radius compared to the original’s 7.25” radius. And the middle pickup is reverse wound/reverse polarity for hum-cancelling operation when used with the other pickups. The traditional 30” scale length helps the high strings to feel satisfyingly punchy, although some players report preferring heavier-gauge low strings compared to the .025 to .095 set that it ships with – the low E in particular feels a little rubbery.
So what the hell do you use it for, if the string spacing makes it difficult to play with your fingers like a bass, and the range and string thickness make it an altogether different experience to playing a conventional guitar? Well, that’s where the unique qualities of this instrument really come to the fore. If you play it through a bass amplifier it’s going to sound rather like an actual bass of some description, with the added range of the two higher strings. But if you play it through a guitar amp you’ll get a sound that’s like the biggest baddest lowest meanest Jaguar ever. Play it through a clean setting and you’ll get a smooth-yet-clanging tone which is great for single-note melodies way up high on the neck, like in The Cure’s “Lullaby.” Play around the middle of the neck with some overdrive or distortion and you’ll get a ratty, angry garage rock sound like Placebo’s “You Don’t Care About Us.”
The Strangle switch really helps to get the most out of the Bass VI, taking it from ‘dude, that really sounds like a bass’ rumble to ‘that’s totes a baritone guitar’ twang. And it allows you to get closer to that lipstick pickup sound that you hear on tracks like Van Halen’s “Spanked,” where Eddie used an old Danelectro six-string bass. And the electronics are beautifully interactive: a gritty Geddy Lee-like overdrive gives way to a moody alternative-rock clean tone with just a carefully executed twist of the volume knob. The tone control is well-voiced too.
Criticisms? Well the nut could stand to be a little more carefully shaped and the bridge makes a slight ‘clunk’ sound if you whammy too aggressively, but that’s about it. The workmanship is quite nice especially for the price range, and the tones are great. The high E string looks like it’s a little too close to the edge of the fretboard – and if this was a regularly-tuned guitar I would say that it definitely was too close – but since it’s a much heavier-gauged string that’s not prone to the lateral movement of a .009 fretted with too much enthusiasm in the heat of battle, it’ll stay in tune fine and won’t find you slipping over the edge of the fretboard.
I feel like the Bass VI is the great undiscovered instrument. For the few that have really cottoned on to its charms it’s an indispensable part of their tone, and personally I’m finding that it’s unlocking all sorts of musical ideas for me that I just wasn’t finding on traditional or extended range guitars or basses. Hopefully this very affordable Squier incarnation will draw more players to the Bass VI’s particular charms.