With a distressed sunburst finish, a lined fretless neck and fine pickups, theres no cheaper way to deliver the weather report than this. Review by Gareth Morgan.
JHS introduced the Vintage brand in the mid-’90s as a more upmarket version of their popular Encore series. Then, around five years ago, Trevor Wilkinson re-designed and re-spec’d the entire range. Wilkinson is highly respected in guitar design, having worked with Charvel and Fender, to name but two; at one point he became firm friends with Leo Fender who actually offered to sell G&L to him, so we should expect great things.
One such candidate for budget greatness is the VJ96, part of the Wilkinson-induced Icon series, and this one is already a little bit special, being based on the modified bass favoured by Jaco Pastorius. Obviously, this is not some battered secondhand gem. The VJ is carefully reliced by factory operatives to a specific template conceived by Wilkinson… to us, that sounds like a seriously good fun gig. The model we have was put together in Korea, but JHS are regularly relocating production in an effort to keep the RRP somewhere near the current £279 mark.
Once you get through examining the cool results of the distressing process to the three-tone sunset sunburst finish, you’ll quickly realise that this is fundamentally a Jazz Bass with the same sexy, streamlined look that the bass-playing fraternity fell in love with over 40 years ago. The body is made of Eastern poplar, and if you’re wondering why there’s a myriad of screw holes dotted around, they’re there to replicate the holes left on Jaco’s own bass after his scratchplate was removed. Around the back, there’s a substantial stomach/ribcage chamfer and various other tasteful wear marks. In general, the ready-played look enhances the appeal of the sunburst finish, probably because some mysterious part of our brain continues to interpret new as old – even when we know differently.
A four-bolt-with-plate system secures the hard maple neck, which has a slim profile combining comfort with reassuring mass. The headstock is an intelligent variation on the classic ‘arrowhead with a scroll’ and carries four Wilkinson WJBL200 tuners, chrome-plated to match the rest of the hardware. It’s recessed enough for sufficient string break-angle over a cyclovac (simulated bone) nut. The fingerboard is rosewood, and like Jaco’s, it’s ‘lined’. Obviously the lines represent exactly where the frets would be and so offer some visual guide to playing the VJ in tune. The fingerboard has the same pitch range as a 20-fretted version and bears pearloid dot markers on its face with faded white dots along the top edge. The bridge is a Wilkinson Adjustable model – it follows the Fender template but increases the overall mass, and the saddles appear to be brass for added focus and sustain.
The pickups, double-poled like the originals, are Wilkinson units: a WJB00 in the neck position and WJB800 at the bridge. The electronics are passive, and the controls number two Volumes and a Tone dial of the treble roll-off variety.
Firstly, a couple of tips on playing the fretless bass. The lines are a useful visual guide for playing in tune, but be aware that the exact point relative to the line at which you’re accurate changes as you ascend the neck. Lines help, but they can’t replace your ears. It’s also worth trying to fret with the tips of your fingers, as the quality of the contact with the fretboard is far more crucial to the quality of your tone on a fretless bass.
As always with Jazz-inspired basses there are three main control settings, and ‘both pickups on’ mode is the most versatile. Here the VJ sings cleanly and evenly from the low to the high registers. There’s a pleasing growl at the bass end, and plenty of organic detail.
With the neck pickup alone the response is darker with plenty of thudding width. The change from the barky open-string sound to the raspiness of a fingered note is especially rewarding.
Does the VJ96 approach Jaco’s highly individual sound in soloed bridge mode? The answer is yes, but really only in the way it delivers in the burpy, nasal department. This high-mid element has a nice funky clarity and the VJ’s clean gurgling tone puts you in the ballpark, but it needs a serious injection of added bass EQ from your amp for real authenticity. Rolling back Tone doesn’t do it, but it does soften the edges for a snappy sound, while full roll-off produces a silky sound that suits walking basslines.
Chopping back the tone control with the earthy-sounding neck pickup on its own shifts the focus in the direction of a darker, rubbery thud; there’s a similar sanitisation of the growling edge in twin-pickup mode and higher notes tend to spike a little less, while rolling back the tone on the bridge pickup gives a satisfyingly fruity sound.
If you have even the slightest interest in playing fretless bass, you should investigate the VJ96: it sounds good and we think it looks pretty good, too. It's really easy to overdo intentional ageing but they've got it pretty spot on here, and there's an excellent range of authentic, easy-to-find fretless sounds. The asking price is another huge attraction with the VJ - for a bass that sounds this good, it's low enough to make it worth diving into the world of fretless bass if only to see what all the melodic fuss is about.