Last month we reviewed the Squier Simon Neil Strat, and it was good. Very, very good. Can the Biffy Clyro bassists budget signature model keep up? Review by Gareth Morgan
James Johnston is the bassist for Ayrshire’s finest, Biffy Clyro. You’re probably familiar with their highly successful 2007 release Puzzle, while Only Revolutions – which appeared earlier this year – brought the band’s album total to five.
They cite influences as diverse as Metallica and Rush, and reviewers have likened their sound to Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, which is a hell of a lot to live up to. As if to compound this even further, James Johnston now has a signature bass, courtesy of Squier.
As with the Classic Vibe Jazz Bass we saw back in our February 09 issue, the James Johnson Jazz Bass (let’s call it the JJJB for short) is made in China and follows the much-loved Jazz template to the letter with just a couple of minor details altered to bring it closer to Johnston’s USA-built Fender Jazz.
A thickly-applied Lake Placid blue finish is topped off with gloss polyester; it really does look good, and the matching headstock face adds a hefty helping of ’60s-style nostalgia. The JJJB’s body follows the Jazz Bass template to the millimetre, and the front is protected by a mint green scratchplate (with no useless finger-rest, thankfully).
Don’t expect to find alder or ash beneath the body’s metallic paint: this lowly price equates with the cheaper but equally reliable basswood. This was also the case with the Classic Vibe Jazz, but where that one was a bit of a lump at 4.5kg, this one comes in at 4.1kg, and you really notice the difference when you pick it up.
The one-piece bolt-on maple neck has a silky gloss polyester finish and is carved to a shallow C-shaped profile that’s as fast and as comfortable to play as any neck you’re likely to lay your hands on.
The rosewood fingerboard carries the usual dot markers on both face and top edge, and the 20 thin vintage-gauge frets are excellently fitted.
As well as a painted face, the headstock bears four chrome open-geared tuners, a chrome string tree and a Biffy Clyro logo. Those not enamoured with the band, fear not – the logo is so small no one’s ever going to notice it on a gig, and this is also true of the signature around the back. If you love the bass and hate the association, there’s always sandpaper and a rattle-can of lacquer, or your friendly local guitar tech.
The bridge is the same Hi-Mass unit you’ll find on the CVJ, and it’s more robust and chunkier than Fender bridges of old. It consists of a chrome baseplate with brass barrel saddles – an unusual combination which cuts rather a dash.
The controls are the standard Jazz Bass allocation of two volumes and one master tone. If you expected Seymour Duncans or some other souped-up units in the pickup department, you’re going to be disappointed: these are the same Custom Jazz Bass single coils with Alnico 5 magnets as on the regular Classic Vibe Jazz. Given how good they sounded before, perhaps that’s no bad thing.
Tonally, the JJJB is going to give you what any Jazz Bass will. Having played the CVJ, we’re amazed that they sound as good as they do: Fender is virtually competing against itself, although the aim of course is to get you interested in the full-price product.
Let’s just hope Fender keeps turning a blind eye to this conundrum and that we can carry on revelling in good quality Jazz Basses on the cheap.
With both pickups on the JJJB has plenty of harmonic life and an almost joyful crunch on the open strings. It’s an aggressive tone for all seasons, and you’ll hear Johnston using it (with pick in hand) on Biffy Clyro songs like The Captain.
Being able to get that JJ Burnel clang with an almost buzzsaw quality is one advantage pick players have, and there’s another version of this with nasty barking edge available from the neck pickup.
Johnston probably uses this setting for a fatter sound on songs like Mountains or for full-range riffing, and this is where the wider D and G string tone really comes in to its own. It’s an earthy, full-range sound that won’t let you down.
The bridge version is well-balanced but thinner and tighter with that slightly nasal, snarly quality on the lower strings. Higher registers are bright and detailed without excessive brittleness, and while a little more fullness wouldn’t go amiss it’s still fat enough to be a practical option.
Chopping the tone knob right off isn’t a good idea, but inching it forward slightly creates a silky sound, warming and cleaning the twin-pickup setting and turning the neck pickup sound into a soulful thud.
Wind the tone to halfway and you’ll find a good compromise between lively and dull, giving a burpy bridge pickup sound with the tiniest trace of steely edge, a versatile mix position and a soft, rubbery neck pickup with just a hint of raspiness. You wouldn’t really associate any of these variations with Mr Johnston but you certainly would associate them with a genuine Fender Jazz Bass.
Overall, Squier's James Johnston bass ticks all the boxes: authentic sounds, fine looks and a pretty decent price. In terms of your wallet, we must point out that the Classic Vibe Jazz is very similar (although the one we tried was heavier) and it offers exactly the same pickups - unlike the Simon Neil Strat - and hence the same sounds at an RRP of over 100 less. On the other hand, if you're a fan of the band or fancy a slightly more vintage look, you may be more than happy to shell out a bit more... and you can't deny that the JJJB is a very handsome beast.