Sandberg is delivering the goods with a five-string version of one of its tastiest signature models plus a genuinely fine medium-priced four-string. Review by Gareth Morgan
Description: Solidbody bass. Handbuilt in Germany
Contact: Synergy Distribution – 0121 270 6485 – www.synergydistribution.co.uk
Experience has taught us to anticipate the arrival of new basses from those Sandberg chaps with a beaming smile and high expectation of a large dollop of fun. We first reviewed their wares just over 10 years ago, an active Bullet and more traditional Basic Ken Taylor five-string, so in an anniversary-type manner it’s serendipitous to have another pair to review.
Both these Sandbergs have been put together by a small clique of artisans in Braunschweig (‘Brunswick’) in northern central Germany. Established in 1986, Sandberg’s first basses were contemporary through-neck models, pieced together, mosaic-like, from exotic wood multi-laminates, with natural finishes and souped-up electrics coupled to high-powered pickups. In the early ’90s they decided to take a more mainstream, traditionally-slanted path, initially via the Ken Taylor model, developed at the instigation of the London-born, Germany-based session ace. Today they still offer up-to-the-minute styles but the most popular models are the California Series, introduced in 2005.
Inspired by Leo Fender’s classic template, California Series basses come in a variety of pickup configurations, with a host of personally customisable features at extra cost, four or five strings, and a multitude of traditional finishes. It’s this branch of the Sandberg family which provides our review fodder this month, namely an Electra TT, part of Sandberg’s new ‘outsourced’ line priced in the higher reaches of budget territory and, first up, a new five-string version of the signature MarloweDK.
If your tuition videos have received over 25 million clicks on YouTube, as is the case with Danish bassist/tutor Thomas Risell, better known as MarloweDK, surely the minimum you deserve is a signature instrument. Risell approached Sandberg looking for an updated version of his 30-year old Jazz Bass.
The DK5 adheres to the same principle as the four-string model which debuted in 2012, but this time it comes with an extra-long 35″ scale form to ensure that this passive-powered bass gets the most out of its B string.
Undoubtedly, the biggest discussion point and the most eye-catching feature is the finish. Sandberg describes this as ‘hardcore ageing’, and you can see why – it’s what Fender would call a ‘heavy relic’. Three of the Sandberg team are involved in the process, sanding bodies and necks, filing and gouging the finish with car keys and sandblasting the hardware, all of which sounds like a lot of fun. Of course, whether it’s your cup of tea is down to personal taste, but if you’re looking for an example of ageing done to a good standard, then look no further.
Being part of Sandberg’s California Series, the DK5 takes its cue from the Fender Jazz Bass, complete with off-set body and generous forearm chamfer and tummy carve, all hewn from European alder. Retained by six bolts, the Canadian hard rock maple neck is comfortable and playable and topped off by Sandberg’s take on the familiar headstock.
Tuners are chrome Sandberg Vintage Open Gear units, all dulled by the ageing process. One variance, however, from regulation California models is the neck, which is about 2mm narrower at the nut, putting the strings roughly 0.5mm closer together. There are 22 medium-gauge nickel frets seated in a dark rosewood fingerboard with pearloid block inlays.
The other Marlowe-ism relates to pickup positioning. The DK5 has two Sandberg alnico single-coils but on this model the rear unit is sited 11mm closer to the bridge, which is about 3mm closer than on a Jazz Bass. Presumably this is intended to tighten up the sound, but it may also increase nasal honk.
Control-wise we get Volume, Balance and Master Tone, which is slightly different to the best-known twin-pickup passive configuration. Other noteworthy features include a classy tortoiseshell pickguard, a convincingly aged Sandberg Vintage High Mass bridge and some curious embossing – presumably a kind of signature adornment – on the lower bout.
Balance-wise, the DK5 has a tendency to neck-dive when played in the sitting position, but it’s easily calmed by resting the forearm on the top edge. On a strap, it’s stability personified.
In twin pickup mode the DK5 sounds clean and extremely even; very ‘classic single-coil’, but with plenty of practical bottom end. The altered pickup positioning has helped produce a noticeably warmer, more retro-sounding bass, and the B string sounds sweetly focused. The mids are smoother and mildly scooped, less aggressively attacky but without any of the excessive nasality suggested by the closer proximity of bridge pickup to bridge.
The highs are fairly conservative, although you still get a gratifyingly slicing snap out of the G string if you lay into it. With the DK5, you get out what you put in; a heavier playing velocity inducing a gratifying snarl on low strings and a fine punch in the midrange, moving the sound seamlessly from pop and soul to rockier material. Back the Tone control off to halfway and the tone begins to lose its edge, which amounts to a standard adjustment you might need to make if you have a cabinet with over-active horn syndrome, and just before full cut puts you in old school blues and Motown soul territory.
The bridge pickup alone is plenty loud enough and less high-middly – it’s well-defined, but the barking edge has less of a throaty rasp. Overall there’s a tiny bit more bottom end, and backing off the tone control claws back even more, blunting the cutting edge in the process. With the neck pickup soloed the tone is earthier with a threatening bottom end, duller, darker mids and clean highs with a compressed feel to their snappy attack – it’s just what you’d expect, with a high quality sheen. Chop back the tone knob and this bass moves inexorably towards reggae, blues or trad roots music, while just before full cut is warm and woolly, making you want to give the DK5 a big hug.
The Electra range is Sandberg’s attempt to offer a high-quality, no-fuss budget model, and they’ve chosen to outsource various components to other companies in Japan, Korea, USA and Germany. These are delivered to Braunschweig for assembly, where Sandberg employs the cunning computer-controlled Plek station for guaranteed tip-top set-ups, a process often reserved for more expensive models.
There’s no faux-ageing here,but the high gloss crème-coated basswood body is cut from the same cloth as the Marlowe, offset, sleek and sexy, with all the same comfort contours and a regal tortoiseshell scratchplate. Six bolts are used to secured a neck that’s a
lso hewn from Canadian hard rock maple, and it’s just as comfortable and fun to play as any Sandberg bass. The barbed arrowhead headstock carries a shiny chrome string tree and four Sandberg Open Gear tuners. The nut is a synthetic self-lubricating type, and a dot-free rosewood fingerboard rents its ground to 22 medium nickel frets, with white dot markers lining the top edge. The strings’ pilgrimage concludes at a chunky Sandberg High Mass bridge.
Electras are kitted out with two Sandberg Designed single coil slabs with alnico V magnets, hooked up to a Sandberg Designed two-band active preamp, although tugging on the knurled chrome Volume knob brings in an optional passive mode. The remaining controls are Balance and a stack-knob EQ dial; bass is controlled by the outer ring, treble by the inner. You change the 9v battery necessary to power all of this via a quick-release compartment around the back.
The Electra is similar to the DK5 in balance, although less headstock-heavy when seated and unsupported. It, too, is assuaged by an appropriate forearm and well-balanced on a strap.
While the look and feel of the Electra lift it above its asking price, the initial twin pickup sound heads it back the other way: the midrange is bright and highs sparkle, but the bottom end is lacking. We reached for the bass dial, and the transformation was cause for some celebration. All of a sudden the Electra has some real stature, plus a full and even midrange and plenty of controlled top. With added treble EQ full boost veers towards hi-fi snap, but just short of this is more naturally aggressive-sounding and most bodaciously excellent for slapping.
An injection of bass EQ is required with separate pickups, producing a fatter and richer version of the P-Bass tone from the neck and a bridge sound that’s still a little bass-light. Moderate Treble boosts are excellent for overall clarity, but while big hikes add a good, nasty growl to the bridge, the neck pickup takes on a metallic sheen that’s a little clicky and clanky.
Within the context of familiar styling Sandberg very much follow their own path, making classy instruments that are both practical and reliable. This is very much the case with both the DK5 and the Electra. The DK provides that old-school bass sound with the addition of a worthy B-string; it’s a top-notch traditional-sounding passive bass, especially if you’re a fan of aged finishes.
The Electra TT starts off lacking bottom end, but a little judicial EQ work unearths a tonal quality which massively belies its asking price. Its lively top end is gratifyingly fresh and open with that clarity coming from quality high-mids, while the bottom end is thudding and full of impact. The Electra is an excellent introduction to Sandberg, and it’s possibly the best medium-budget active bass we’ve come across in the last couple of years.