Dragonlords and hobbits alike will thrill to the dangerous yet woody looks of this
mid-priced ESP but do make sure to bend at the knees. Review by Gareth Morgan.
ESP (Electric Sound Products) was established in Tokyo in 1975 by Hisatake Shibuya, initially providing custom replacement guitar parts. This expanded into custom instruments in 1983. Ten years later the company relocated to Los Angeles (via New York) and were offering standard production models and introduced the more affordable Ltd brand by 1996. Since its inception, the Ltd series has expanded to cater for a wide variety of styles and budgets. Following on from our sneaky peek at the Ltd F-155DX (December 2008, Vol 19/12), we’re delighted to be able to cast an in-depth gaze over ESP‘s flagship Ltd rock machine, the F-4E.
Aside from eye-catching looks and superb build quality, the first thing that’ll hit you when you lay your hands on an
F-4E is how heavy it is. At 4.5kg the F-4E is vying with BC Rich‘s Zombie SE (September 2007, Vol 18/8) for the dubious title of heaviest four-string bass we’ve ever reviewed. As it’s no thicker than a Fender Jazz, the ‘oof!’ factor is caused by the timbers: mahogany-cored body wings capped by approximately 7mm of luscious ebony and a chunky core/through neck section of maple with mahogany stringers. Put that lot together, and you’ve got a combination that’ll have bassists the world over stampeding to purchase a well-padded comfort strap.
Having said that, the look is classy and rather appealing, if mainly to those of a rocking persuasion, with oval rear bouts, save for a couple of spikes that delineate the scooped section below the bridge and scalloped edges on both top and back that address the comfort issue. Four knobbly protrusions further individualise the design: one on the top edge directly above the neck pickup with two more lining the top edge of the upper, elongated shark’s fin horn and another decorating its lower horn. These break up the otherwise streamlined design and add a bit of brooding aggression to the look. Many people will question their aesthetic purpose and may say the F-4E would look better with knobbles eradicated, but that would only render it as predictable as all those other pseudo-sleek active basses.
As we’ve mentioned, the F-4E is of through-neck construction and the three chunks of maple separated by mahogany stripes culminate in an ultra-slim neck with a fast and comfortable feel that really encourages you to play. A reinforcing bulge beneath the nut marks the point where neck meets the distorted hourglass headstock, which is nicely sloped to create an excellent break-angle, while the 889mm/35" scale further assists tonal focus and quality. A thinner slab of ebony garlands the headstock face and four ESP tuners launch the strings across a black carbon composite nut. They’re greeted by even more ebony in the form of a fingerboard housing 24 nickel frets that ESP describe as extra jumbo (XJ), but we’d downgrade that to medium jumbo.
Whatever their true size, fitting is neat and tidy and the fingerboard is further decorated with offset abalone dots and the regulation oblong bearing the model’s name at the 12th fret, with smaller dots along its top edge. The bridge is a chunky ESP BB-604 finished in black nickel to match the rest of the hardware, with the strings fitted via slots, rather than thread-through holes, making string changing a little speedier.
ESP has loaded the F-4E with a pair of SB-4 pickups plus its ABQ-3 three-band active EQ which, alongside Volume and Balance controls, allows adjustment of Bass, Middle and Treble and will, hopefully, provide a veritable cornucopia of sonic variations.
Many active basses are set up to chuck out a big, powerful sound, but this isn’t the case with the F-4E. It isn’t underpowered but the flat-out level errs on the side of moderate, which is perhaps no bad thing. Our review bass came straight from the factory with an ultra-low action, so if you fancy one and you give your bass a bit of a clout, you will need to tweak the action upwards.
With both pickups on, the F-4E gives a clean tone at the bottom end with an audible, if a little conservative, growling zing. Smooth note edges represent a trade-off for this mellow aggression but also promote a pleasing evenness across the fretboard, though there’s a hint of nasal burp from the D and G strings. There’s plenty of width to moderate the high-mid influence, so the F-4E grooves with silky clarity.
The neck pickup is an earthier affair with a more pugnacity in the growl and plenty of organic fatness. The higher registers display a fine combination of thickness and brightness; it’s musical and natural, with a hint of the raspy quality abundant in the lower registers.
In what represents a major break with tradition, the bridge pickup is the loudest setting. The low end is wider-sounding than many other basses’ bridge pickups but the picture changes a little when you move to the D and G strings where the nasal element dominates, resulting in a thinner, more brittle sound that had us stampeding for the EQ to see if anything could be done about it.
Submerging the bridge pickup sound in Bass changes everything: the honkiness is nicely sanitised and replaced by a warm, burpy sound that gets snappier with a shot of Mid and pleasingly nasty when seasoned with extra Treble. Boosting Bass and Middle on the neck pickup gives contemporary P-Bass heaven with masses of width, plenty of acoustic zing and a vicious snarling edge. Adding Treble brings out the raspy details nicely and results in a very upfront sound that put us in mind of Billy Sheehan‘s tone with Dave Lee Roth, which is no bad thing. Rolling the Bass flat out, while boosting Treble and Middle halfway with both pickups on provides a fat, clean and versatile tone, and slap fans will really appreciate the natural, open-sounding highs when the Treble knob is on maximum.
The F-4E is a little heavy and the unusual outline will probably appeal and repel in equal measure but, fundamentally, ESP have produced another really good bass with plenty of classy tonal variety powered by the excellent EQ. It's also reasonably priced for a through-neck active, so go on - suspend your design prejudices, get a decent padded strap and give this bass a serious look.