The obscure and hugely cool Ampeg AEB-1 was designed in the ’60s for upright players who wanted to move to electric. This Italia has the look, but does it have the sound? Review by Gareth Morgan
Description: Semi-hollowbody bass. Made in Korea
Contact: JHS Ltd – 01132 865 381 – www.jhs.co.uk
In 2013 Italia is celebrating an anniversary – 15 years of producing strangely familiar yet oh-so-quirky guitars and basses. Love them or not, Italia offers something truly different for the discerning stringed instrumentalist, and the basses in particular have always offered something for the image-conscious groovester. The Imola bass demands not just a first look, but a second, third and fourth. The historically informed amongst you will have identified the inspiration: Ampeg’s short-lived AEB-1. The resurrection of this rare bass – only about 1100 were made in a short two-year period from 1966 at Ampeg’s Linden, New Jersey factory – is all down to Trev Wilkinson, the creative force behind the Italia range, as well as Fret-King and others.
For sure, the Imola is a compelling-looking instrument. The first thing you’ll notice is the single f-hole. This echoes the original AEB template, but on the Italia there’s only one, and it’s cut into the front only: the Ampeg version had two, and rather than creating chambers as in, say, a Fender Thinline Telecaster, they ran right through the body – yes, right through – to the back, piercing the body completely. Whether they contributed anything positive to the AEB’s sound is debatable, and we’ll wait to find out whether the Imola’s more regular ‘chambered’ take on this way-out design will make it sound different to a normal solidbody bass.
On the Ampeg AEB-1 the space between the f-holes and most of the lower bout was covered by an enormous scratchplate roughly the shape of a medieval axe. It was one serious chunk of plastic, and the Italia has a similarly over-the-top black/white/black three-ply variation that fills the space where the Ampeg’s lower f-hole would be and is cut away around the bridge. Not exactly like the Ampeg, then, but it’s got the same impressive effect – and it leaves just a teasing bit of the two-tone sunburst finish peeking through.
The AEB-1 had a three-piece maple body; the Italia uses korina, a hardwood originating from tropical western Africa and closely associated with the Gibson’s 1958 Futura series, similar to mahogany except lighter in weight and brighter in tone. The 42mm-thick body is sweetly bevelled but chamfer-free.
The neck is a two-piece maple affair, spliced at the first fret and secured to the body via five bolts, counter-sunk through individual chrome mini plates, with a shallow ‘C’ profile that lies comfortably under the hand. For the headstock Italia has eschewed Ampeg’s upright-type scroll design, replacing it with the slightly distorted oblong you find on every other Italia model. Alongside a retro logo and trussrod access cover are four chrome Wilkinson WJ350 tuners. Strings pass over a Wilkaloid nut (a synthetic material similar to graphite) and onto a rosewood fingerboard with no front markers, just dot markers on the edge, and 22 medium-gauge nickel frets (the lack of cutaway renders the highest two pretty hard to reach).
The bridge is a Wilkinson WBBC, a regular chrome affair with brass saddles, slotted for predictable string placing.
Italia has chosen not to try to recreate Ampeg’s fabled ‘mystery pickup’ – a unit buried in the body underneath the bridge and mounted on a thin steel diaphragm plate that sat on two big magnetic coils cast into a large epoxy block, all designed to facilitate the use of gut strings, although hardly anyone did. On the Imola we get a pair of Wilkinson WBJ pickups, single-coil in configuration and Fender Jazz Bass in tone, hooked up to a pair of volume controls and one master tone and promising something a little funkier-sounding than the old Ampeg.
Given the inspiration behind the Imola, you’d be forgiven for expecting a thuddy, bottom-end dominated sound. The Imola is not built to do this, so what you get, in many ways, is confusing in relation to what you see. It may not look as sleek and sexy as a Fender Jazz but the basic sound is very much in this direction. It’s got a detailed twin pickup sound – a bit thin, perhaps, but with a touch of growl on lower strings, a clean, bright midrange and fairly open highs. There isn’t a huge amount of weight to the sound, and this can’t be resolved by simply backing off the tone control, as this knob has a minimal effect until the last quarter; after this, you do get a useful softening of note edges. Between this point and full cut the Imola adopts the guise of old-fashioned thud machine, albeit in moderate form.
With the neck pickup, the sound is earthier and far less bright; the bridge Wilkinson is solely responsible for the aggressive, crunching edge, and removing it from the equation produces a darker response without the same punch. It’s an altogether earthier sound that’ll work for soul, blues or retro pop, and the tone control gives you the option to soften and deepen.
On the bridge pickup the sound is tighter and has just the right amount of high-mids to produce a bubbling, burpy kind of quality. It’s the tightest, funkiest tone on offer and also fairly gnarly at full treble level. Backing off the tone produces gradually less-wiry sounds… tight but polite, and nice additions for contemporary pop.
Sure, the Imola is an eye-catching bass, and it’s not just a triumph of style over substance – although there are issues. Build quality is generally good but there are minor blemishes, and £569 is very close to the acceptable limit of what you’d pay for a Korean bass with this pickup layout, given the cost of good quality alternatives by Squier and the like.
Despite a lack of real action in the low frequency department there are some good variations on offer, but while the f-hole contributes to the Imola’s quirky good looks, it has little effect on the tone. All the same, do add the Imola to your shopping list – especially if you’re looking for a bass with that special, oddball something.
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