Michael Tobias’s MTD basses are high-end, but the import Kingston line offers the same elements for a lot less lolly. Review by Gareth Morgan
Description: Solidbody bass. Made in China
Contact: Bass Direct – 01926 886433 – www.bassdirect.com
TD basses are the brainchild of American luthier Michael Tobias, based in Kingston in upstate New York. Tobias he established MTD’s well-known predecessor, Tobias Guitars, in 1977, but sold the concern to Gibson in 1990. Michael Tobias re-located to the Catskills and, after making 50 instruments branded Eclipse, settled on MTD as his new company name in early 1994.
As MTD only hand-builds 10 instruments per month, the prices are fairly high; one of these will cost a minimum of just under £2500. The Kingston line, however, is out-sourced to ‘carefully vetted outside facilities’ in China. This gives the semi-professional bassist access to the Tobias ethos for as little as £549 for a four-string Saratoga bass, one of seven different models in the Kingston series. For this month’s review, we’ve got our hands on a rather splendid five-string Kingston Z bass.
The KZ5 re-imagines a melange of classic forms but still creates a distinct identity. The body has a core of mahogany and a top of burled maple finished in high gloss tobacco sunburst, and it’s elegantly offset in the lower bouts and stylishly sweeping in the horns, with easy access to the top frets and smoothly bevelled edges all round.
The neck, secured to the body by an old-school four-bolt system, is made from a single piece of maple and is described as being ‘asymmetrical’ in contour. At first glance the KZ5’s neck looks pretty standard, but on closer inspection you’ll see that it’s a little thinner on the treble side; the general idea is that this promotes better support for your hand.
As this is a subtle detail and the neck is thin, it would probably take more time than we have here to give a definitive judgement on its pros and cons, but it’s very comfortable and it definitely makes you want to play it. This bass also comes supplied with the Buzz Feiten tuning system; google it for a ton of info.
The distinctive back-angled headstock is finished-matched to the body and carries five sealed tuners in four up/one down configuration, like a five-string Music Man Stingray. The maple fingerboard carries a zero fret, a feature intended to equalise the tonal qualities of open strings and fretted notes, plus 24 expertly-seated medium jumbo nickel frets with a small set of black dot markers lined up along the top edge but no front markers at all.
The bridge is an MTD Quick Release bridge finished in brooding smoked chrome, as is the rest of the hardware. It’s pretty much a super-solid version of the stock Fender unit. The KZ5 is loaded with active electronics, with the 9v battery housed in a separate compartment at the rear requiring the removal of two Phillips screws for access. The two MTD passive soapbar pickups have mahogany covers for a little boutique class. Alongside Volume and Balance, the knurled smoked chrome controls also include a three-band EQ.
When you first pick the KZ5 up you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how light it is – just over 3.5kg/8lbs, which feels genuinely featherweight compared to many others. Like the majority of basses, it’s a little headstock-biased on the lap but ultra-stable with restraining forearm or hung round your neck.
Tonally the MTD has pretty much everything you need on hand, and all its sounds are easy to find. Starting off in twin pickup mode this bass sounds clean and even across the fretboard. There’s a healthy snarl on the low strings with just a hint of high-mid zing. This zinginess provides a modern edge without excessive nasality and the highs speak out clearly, with a nice snap to the attack on the thinner strings but with enough body for practicality.
Of course the B string’s the thing, and the good news is that it’s well-focused and fully integrated; B strings can sometimes dominate in the output level stakes, but on the Z5 it’s well-attenuated.
The neck pickup on its own is less snappy at the top – it’s not quite as compressed as a P-Bass, but the midrange is smoother with a darker edge and a hint of punchiness. The bottom end is bigger with plenty of raspy acoustic-isms. With the bridge pickup solo’ed, the level is again well-matched and, while a little bass-light, it’s tight and burpy with a wiry snap up top.
Dialling in added bass turns this into a really good contemporary pop/soul tone, the KZ retaining its clucking attack but with force, stature and width – you’ll cut through effectively and still fill the necessary space.
Adding active treble into the mix provides extra zing and a brighter sheen without fret noise, although the D and G strings become a bit too brittle and nasal. With the neck pickup, same course refocuses proceedings more nicely, and this is especially useful on the B string where the naturally woollier sound affects the clarity. It’s a nice old-fashioned tone with a touch more bite than you’d expect.
Adding treble when both pickups are in play brings on extra harmonics and a biting attack. This is a good pop/rock setting, though some finger rasp shows up with position changes and this eventually becomes zingy fret noise when you approach full boost.
Finally, let’s try boosting the mids. With the bridge pickup, the throaty grunt induced by extra midrange is a lot of fun but even with extra bass boost it’s just a little too clipped and synthetic on the D and G strings. The twin pickup setting is better, retaining its overall darker hue, and the D and G become fractionally tighter and brighter but remain useable. If you want a good basic sound then try selecting the neck pickup and boosting the mids, plus just a touch of bass and treble. It’s reminiscent of the fat, snarly Billy Sheehan sound on Dave Lee Roth’s Eat ’Em And Smile album, especially Yankee Rose… and that’s no bad thing.
The MTD KZ5 is a joy to play, both in terms of how it feels and how little it weighs. The sound is rather splendid; we’d like a little more quality at the high end, but the B string is really excellent, and no matter what you do EQ-wise it retains enough definition and focus. Overall the KZ5 is a well-made and visually appealing bass, and if you have to save for a couple of months longer to bring it within your reach, it’ll probably be worth the wait.
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