Citron AE5 Swallow

July 2006
Jonathan Herrera
AE5 Swallow CustomDownload File

It’s easy to be cynical about signature basses. A manufacturer slaps a publicity-hungry artist’s name on a production model, tweaks it superficially, and calls it “custom.” While this may happen occasionally, it doesn’t describe the origination of the Citron AE5-Swallow bass. As I mentioned in my May ‘06 feature on Steve Swallow, the partnership between the jazz great and New York–builder Harvey Citron is among the industry’s most collaborative, and the resulting instrument speaks to its success.

Citron originally approached Swallow with his production AE5 bass (Soundroom, February ’99), believing its resonant semi-acoustic design would align well with Swallow’s unique pickstyle sound. Swallow immediately took to the instrument, beginning an affiliation that’s resulted in a series of one-off instruments, each a step closer to realizing Swallow’s ultimate goal: a bass guitar with genuine acoustic qualities. Each element of his instruments was tweaked. Since Swallow was happiest with the soloed piezo-pickup sound, Citron eliminated the AE5’s magnetic pickup; Swallow wanted a narrow neck width, but its tendency to shift with the weather found Citron turning to graphite reinforcement; Swallow wanted more warmth and depth, so the body grew deeper, the electronics were placed in the upper bout, and the top was X-braced. The list of revisions goes on.

Our test instrument was identical to Swallow’s current axe save its wider neck and string spacing. The intonation-adjustable bone-saddle bridge, carved from beautiful rosewood, is the first of its kind (to my knowledge). Like Swallow’s bass, it’s strung EADGC and incorporates six under-saddle piezos: pairs for the C string, G–A strings, and E string. Each pair is independently buffered and gain adjustable. The design offers excellent string-to-string balancing and compensates for sweet-spot movement when the saddles shift during intonation calibration. On-the-fly controls are limited to volume (beautifully realized on the upper bout), but the copper-shielded control cavity has trim pots for the EMG preamp’s bass and treble controls. Swallow sets these with the bass full up and the treble completely rolled off, in part to soften the crisp edge that results from his copper-picked technique. I’m mostly a fingerstyle player, so I adjusted the trim pots to their flat settings.

What a lovely instrument. The Citron’s warm colors, luxuriant woods, and taut lines are both opulent and austere. Even its odor evokes pleasant nostalgia; think burnished armchairs and broken-in baseball gloves. The test instrument’s construction was superb. The bolt-on neck was tight, with a gapless joint. Well-seated frets, filled kerfs, and pristine finishing marked the rosewood fingerboard, and the minimal hardware and pickguard were each perfectly installed. The bass’s playability was equally impeccable. The long neck had a just-right profile and radius, and high-fret access was no sweat, thanks in part to a thoughtful body carve at the joint. While I’m generally a little uncomfortable on 35”-scale instruments, I barely perceived the Citron’s 36” scale — mysterious, to be sure, but an experience corroborated by several BP staffers. Steve Swallow plays with a pick exclusively, so this bass has no thumbrests. If you’re a fingerstylist, this might bug you, but I felt comfortable using the strings and fingerboard end as a thumb anchor or just letting my thumb float freely.

Vitamin C

Since it only has a volume knob, one might expect the AE5-Swallow to be a one-dimensional bass. Far from it. While its acoustic tone is too quiet for most ensembles, it was loud enough to make unplugged practicing and playing a legitimately musical, sonically rewarding experience. In this way, it’s perhaps the ultimate kick-around-the-house bass.

The Citron revealed a new personality when amplified. It rewarded thoughtful right-hand technique, shifting sound as I altered my attack and finger position to coax out wide-ranging timbres. It’s a rich and nuanced instrument with excellent string-to-string balance, a rich and plush low end, and a delicately muted top. The decision to play with a pick or fingerstyle has a predictably profound impact on the instrument’s tone. When I played with fingers near the neck, the Citron surprised me with its remarkable upright-like sound. It delivered the low-end growl, throaty mids, and high-register decay of an acoustic, but with authoritative electric propulsion. Its heritage was obvious when I grabbed a hard pick. Suddenly Steve Swallow was in the room, minus the impeccable phrasing and gorgeous melodic sense. The buoyant low-register sound and vivid midrange I cherish in his tone were suddenly available. The C string was particularly flute-like and lyrical, not disconnected and thin as is sometimes the case on 6-strings or similarly configured 5’s. Close-voiced chords rang true. I felt encouraged to play and stay in the high range, if only because the Citron sounded like a legitimate instrument up there, not a low-leaning axe in unfriendly territory.

The AE5-Swallow is more than just another signature bass. Like its namesake, it’s idiosyncratic, musical, and enduringly charming. Playing it was bass bliss.

Second Opinion

The Citron Steve Swallow is unlike any other bass. It’s a top-shelf bass guitar, with a strong acoustic voice that could serve as your main instrument—not just a secondary axe for coffeehouse-type gigs. I never felt challenged by its 36” scale; instead, the resulting extra string tension made the Citron seem extra responsive. —GREG OLWELL