The radical Parker Fly bass is available in imported form, without all the high-tech construction but still with a very individual look indeed. Review by Gareth Morgan.
Parker Guitars was originally set up by American luthier Ken Parker in the early ’90s. Jazz legend Steve Swallow played the first prototype Parker Fly bass throughout the decade, and this endorsement – together with those for Parker’s Fly guitars – meant Parker‘s small business in Rochester, New York grew rapidly.
In 2003 the company was bought by US Music Corporation, and more affordable Asian-made models were introduced.
This imported PB51 is a prime and rather striking example. It’s made in Indonesia but retains all the familiar opinion-dividing characteristics of the US-built Fly basses.
The American models employ classical guitar-grade sitka spruce in the bodies: here the wings are two pieces of mahogany glued to a central core, with the whole front covered by a sumptuous flame maple top.
The polyurethane transparent red finish is the only colour available on this model.
The body design is extremely unusual, even pincer-like, but it’s all part of a quest to create a bass that really fits right into the body of the player. The extrovert result will, we suspect, repel many players with the same kind of strength that it will attract others.
The body shape doesn’t lend itself well to the use of an extra-long rock-issue strap. We’re also not hugely impressed by the way the PB51 sits on the lap, but with a short-to-medium strap and hanging around midriff height, it’s as comfortable as any other bass.
Flipping the PB51 over, you’ll notice both the sectional nature of the construction and a slight thinning of the body’s mass from lower half to upper. You’ll also see the heelless through-neck section; the deep cutaways afford unfettered access to the highest fret.
Any bass this modern-looking is likely to be active-powered, and the back is where you’ll find the convenient quick-release compartment for the 9v PP3 battery.
Neck construction on the US-made models involves graphite woven with wood for strength and stability, but on the PB51 the neck is a seven-piece all-wood affair with strips of mahogany separated by thin ebony stringers. The profile is a fairly flat ‘C’ – slim, fast and comfortable under the hand. Behind the curved oblong headstock there’s a strengthening bulge beneath the nut.
The same flame maple veneer that fronts the body adorns the headstock’s face, while the four Parker Open Gear L-4 tuners, like all the hardware, are coated in black.
The strings have plenty of break-angle over the graphite nut, and the ebony fingerboard carries 24 medium nickel silver frets with offset pearloid dots on its face and more on the top edge. The bridge – actually four individual Mono Rails – can be used string-through (courtesy of chunky ferrules beneath the bridge) or top-loaded.
Adjustment is by Allen key only. The pickups, in fairly standard neck and bridge positions, are a pair of black oblong EMG 35CS units which are coupled to a roster of controls numbering two Volumes and centre-indented Bass and Treble, all of the knurled Tele-style variety.
Thanks to the EMGs there’s no hiss whatsoever, just a clean, fat sound with a growling edge and excellent definition. Higher strings exhibit a high-mid zing that veers towards the nasal, but this isn’t a dominating characteristic and it helps bring out the harmonics in the notes.
It’s a contemporary tone from a contemporary bass, and none the worse for that. The PB51 gets a lot rockier when you edge up the bass EQ, gaining a weighty, growly thud that’s well-defined enough for groove parts and sufficiently wide-sounding for more melodic work.
Winding up the Treble knob produces plenty of slicing cut without making the thinner strings too brittle, and while the sound is a perhaps a touch clanky, there isn’t too much in the way of high mids.
The neck pickup has a satisfyingly gunning edge. It’s dark but emits a confusing zingy rasp, as if you’re playing it with a pick. You could kindly call it ‘lively’, but there’s also an out-of-control sensation that not even maxing the Bass knob can extinguish.
Still, it’s a thuddy, old-school soul and blues sound, and the metallic edge will probably help it cut through a larger band. Adding treble EQ brightens this up but more than a smidgin is a little too sharp, and encourages too much in the way of fret noise.
Soloing the bridge EMG delivers the tight, burpy tone you’d hope for and the minimal volume differential with the other two settings probably explains the slight high-mid bias elsewhere. More bass EQ gives a splendidly funky, punchy impact, and although the snarling edge on flat settings is lessened, there’s still plenty of burpy definition. This versatile modern pop tone benefits from a tiny increase in Treble, but don’t go too far as the edgy clank on full boost is less good.
The overall look of the PB51 is always going to preclude it from appealing to certain musical styles, but this doesn't mean it isn't a versatile instrument underneath. There's nothing massively stand-out about any of the tonal options it offers, but there's plenty of really good stuff to get your teeth into. Those of you that just hate the way it looks will consider it expensive when compared to similarly spec'd basses, but for those who love its distinctive image, it's a snip. Great fun, and well worth a look.