Citron AE5-S Fretless 5-String

February 1999
Scott Malandrone
AE5 Swallow CustomDownload File

Even though there’s plenty to be said for tried-and-true bass-design formulas, you’ve got to hand it to builders who continue to push the state of the art. One such luthier is Harvey Citron, who has been at the forefront of bass and guitar design since the 1970s, when he co-founded Veillette-Citron Guitars. Harvey’s latest creation is the AE5-S 5-string, a remarkable instrument that explores several bass-design frontiers.

My first impressions of the Citron bass were mixed. Although the sunburst-finish quilted-maple top was stunning and the woodwork undeniably impressive, the instrument seemed a bit ungainly. At ten pounds it’s heavier than most hollowbody basses (and many solidbodies), and the 2–3/4”-deep body makes the bass feel like a big archtop guitar on your lap. Most of us weren’t crazy about the somewhat gummy gloss finish on the back of the neck. (Citron says this nitrocellulose neck finish was done on only a few instruments and that he’s going back to a polymerized tung-oil neck finish.) But in terms of design and structure that’s about where our initial misgivings ended.

The Citron’s hollow design with its thin maple top enhances body resonance (although the Citron is not nearly loud enough to be played acoustically in performance). The pau ferro tailpiece and acoustic-guitar-style bridge are mounted far back toward the instrument’s butt end, which shifts the strings — and the center of gravity — toward the tailpiece, significantly improving balance. On your lap the bass sits in near-perfect equilibrium, a rarity among 5- and 6-strings. The neck is set deep into the body and held in place by two conventional bolts through the heel and two larger bolts that enter the neck lengthwise from inside the body, an arrangement that makes the joint rock-solid (and improves neck-body coupling). The magnetic pickup sits on a block of solid mahogany that rises almost to the level of the instrument’s top.

The Citron’s electronics are unusual as well. The magnetic pickup has a dedicated 3-band EQ with sweepable mids, and the bridge-installed piezo has its own bass and treble controls. But the coolest feature has to be the mono/stereo switch: In stereo mode the magnetic and piezo signals remain separate through the stereo output jack, so you can send them to separate amps or record them on separate tracks; the blend knob determines their relative volumes. In mono mode the blend knob mixes the signals.

Plugged in, the Citron really won us over. Thanks to the highly resonant mahogany body and pau ferro fingerboard and bridge, this is one of the warmest-sounding basses we’ve ever heard. The tone has an inviting intimacy you rarely get from a conventional solidbody axe. The highs are delicate but clear and detailed, and the lows are deep and rich. The tone-shaping circuit is quiet and subtle; even the mid-sweep control just slightly alters the sound’s character rather than changing the tone completely. (Two DIP switches inside the bass fine-tune the circuit.) One tester preferred the blend control turned all the way to the magnetic-pickup side, saying the Citron’s throaty mwah reminded him of Dave Pomeroy on electric upright — but I liked a little piezo blended in for added clarity and dimension. And that B string? Clear sounding, solid-feeling, and perfectly balanced with the other strings.

The bass world would be pretty bland without builders like Harvey Citron and Rick Turner, who continue to push the boundaries of lutherie. Each new design seems to raise the bar, and we can’t wait to see — and hear — what’s next.

Reprinted with permission from Bass Player Magazine—originally published in Bass Player February 1999