By Happy Jack Nicole and Silvia Bluejay
We visited Bass Exchange after it was recommended to us while we were at NAMM. The shop is filled with basses, guitars, amplification and lots and lots of accessories and components; that in itself is spectacular enough.
There is also a small stage at the front. That night, Rudy Sarzo was meant to perform – it was a shame we needed to be out of town by early afternoon and had to miss him.
Bass Exchange also has a workshop area where repairs, setups and all other kinds of magic are performed on guitars and amplification; stringed instruments are in the capable hands of luthier Tina Wood, here on the left with me.
Once in the shop, we were unexpectedly introduced to not one but two high-end guitar makers – Hiro Miura, luthier and owner of Miura Guitars, and the team from Universum Guitars, Alexandr Doroshenko and Pavel Masterov.
This is Happy Jack’s review of some instruments from Universum, with my photos. My notes on Miura, with photos, follow it.
So we’ve done two hard days at NAMM in Anaheim followed by two days’ recovery in Pasadena and the Hollywood Hills. Time to head for San Francisco by the scenic route.
But a bunch of British bass players at NAMM have been telling us about this great shop called Amp Shop / Bass Exchange on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood, which is pretty much on our drive to Santa Barbara, so we decide to call in for 15 minutes, maybe half an hour.
Two hours later we stagger back out into the outrageous late January sunshine with the temperatures soaring past 80F. That was pretty intense. The shop is in a typically LA wasteland of auto repair shops, which begs the question of what it’s doing there. Turns out that there are four serious recording studios within walking distance, plus a bunch of rehearsal rooms. People like Marcus Miller and Joe Walsh are regular visitors.
The main man is Gary Roudenko, a Ukrainian guy who has just done the full four days at NAMM. He has injured his wrist and can’t play worth a damn just now, but he’s a lively and engaging chap and he’s very keen to ensure that we enjoy our visit to his shop.
“While you were at NAMM, did you see Universum Guitars?” he asks us. Silvia had but I had not. And? “Well these guys here, they ARE Universum!” he says, pointing at two chaps who have just walked into the shop.
Gary hands me a heavy, hollowbody 4-string P/J bass – the Epsilon – with some very distinctive design features. There’s a bizarre shell-shaped inlay covering a void in the upper bout, intended to represent the Fibonacci Series (ask your Mum). There’s a very canny twin-truss rod system with one being adjusted from an exposed wheel between frets 23 & 24 and the other hiding under a brass badge just beyond the nut.
There’s a knurled dome near the rear strap button which unscrews from the bass to reveal a Special Tool (a familiar concept to those of you who have rebuilt Japanese motorbikes) which will adjust the truss rods, the saddles at the bridge, and the individual string heights at the nut. I thought only Warwick did engineering this thoughtful and this practical?
All this leads inevitably to a bunch of questions, and the answers lead off in some unexpected directions. This bass was designed not by a bass player or a luthier, but by a mathematician – Aleksandr Doroshenko. The precise shape and internal bracing were all determined by his calculations which involved, amongst other things, using both the Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci Series resulting in the weird shell-like design. The void beneath that design is apparently intended to focus and tune out the bad sounds and leave only the good sounds.
We were in California.
The bass plays and sounded exactly as you would expect a high-end (>£3000) bass to be. The controls are Volume / Blend / Tone and both V and T are slightly on/off, whereas the Blend works very effectively. The bass is fine to play and sounds good, but doesn’t particularly blow me away, so Gary hands me a rather heavier 5-string version.
I always carry a set of fishing scales when visiting guitar shops and shows, because so few people in the music biz seem to recognise that weight matters, especially as you get older. Gary is fascinated to watch me weighing his stock, and keen to know the results. The 4-string is 10.5lbs and the 5-string is 11lbs. Gary repeats a line that I have heard many times before, to the effect that a heavier bass sounds better, but he adds to that the claim that the extra mass produces a tauter low B on the 5-string (dunno about that, but I’m willing to listen) and also that heavy basses sound better as they age (dunno about that, and Mama didn’t raise no stupid children).
The 5-string is every bit as good as the 4-string but still doesn’t set my world on fire, so Gary hurries out of the playing booth and returns with another 4-string P/J. Where the first one was a very blonde maple bass, this one is a much darker wood and finish, but otherwise they are identical.
Chalk and cheese, guys, chalk and cheese. The next time someone tells you that the strings and pickups are all that matter, tell him he’s wrong. The ‘dark’ bass simply could not have sounded any more different … warm and inviting, responsive in ways that the ‘blonde’ bass couldn’t match, this was the “sound in your head” when you think of bass. Well, for me anyway.
By now Gary is openly laughing. He tells me that he feels exactly the same about the ‘dark’ bass and was keen to see my reaction. He’s delighted at the look on my face and my obvious reluctance to let go of the bass. I weigh this bass since it feels much lighter; 10.5lbs, so it’s exactly the same as its blonde sister. The better a bass plays, the less it seems to weigh … who knew?
For a company who have only been going for two years, Universum have come a long way and design their instruments with confidence and a fair degree of panache. Despite my protestations that I can’t play guitar to save my life, they start showing me all the guitars they had on their stand at NAMM.
The range and idiosyncratic nature of their designs is extraordinary, my favourite being the Les Paul shaped Beauty where the top is sculpted to reveal the lines of resonance through the solid body.
The weirdest bit though was their solid-body acoustic guitar. No, that’s not a typo.
The Alpha guitar is a broadly Les Paul shaped electric, but it also features a very odd brass piece near the neck where a steampunk brass key (rather like a key on a trumpet, ish) reveals a hole leading into a void in the solid body, and in that hole is a microphone. The Alpha can be played as an electric, or an amplified acoustic, or a blend of both. Note that this is NOT a Piezo system.
How does it sound? Ridiculously good. We’ve all strummed away at an unplugged electric guitar and marvelled at how weak and weedy the sound is. The Alpha sounded just great, but it was still amplified of course. Who knew what it really sounded like?
So they showed me the prototype, essentially the proof of concept guitar, which was an Alpha but with no electrics … no pickups and no microphone, nothing to plug in.
Then Gary played that, acoustically of course. It sounded like … erm … well, an acoustic guitar. What’s the Ukrainian for “gobsmacked”, guys?
The other works of art we were shown and invited to try were two high-end basses by luthier Hiro Miura. After the flamboyant look and unexpected sound of most Universum instruments, Miura Guitars provided an oasis of reassuringly familiar shapes, and equally familiar, but at the same time distinctive, sound.
And these are the MB2’s luxurious specs:
Fingerboard: light roasted flame maple
Pick ups: Aguilar Super single
Pre amp: Aguilar OBP-3
Tuners: Hip shot ultra light
Bridge: Hip shot type B
Ogling and drooling allowed.
The second bass Hiro showed us is just as GAS-inducing as the first. It’s an MB1 in natural satin finish.
Some equally luxurious specs:
Body: Honduran Mahogany
Top: Honduran Rosewood
Finger board: B.E. Maple
Pickups: Nordstrand DB6
Preamp: East U-retro 5-knob DX
Tuner: Hip Shot ultra light
Check out Miura Guitars’ website – they also make high-end guitars and pedals loved by the like of Janek Gwizdala.