GUITAR WORLD, MARCH 1998
SoundCheck (Citron AE4 Fretless)
Although the fretted electric bass guitar has been around for almost 50 years, many bass players are still seduced by the sounds of the acoustic upright bass. Traditional jazz and be bop bassists will hardly touch anything other than an upright, and rockabilly purists love the percussive slap and deep boom that the instrument provides. But the upright isn’t just for nostalgia-minded musicians — it’s a key element of Soul Coughing’s hip-hop–influenced slacker jazz and Reprazent’s funky drum “n’ bass, and the instrument is often found in the hands of players like Primus’ Les Claypool, Sublime’s Eric Wilson and Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament.
But while bassists may be in love with the upright’s distinctive sound, they aren’t thrilled about its massive size and the difficulties involved with amplifying the instrument. One of the largest instruments around, the upright isn’t exactly portable, as anyone who’s tried to take one on an airplane or fit one into a compact car can attest. And because it has such a deep, resonant body, it is highly susceptible to feedback when amplified. Add in the bulk of the amplifying system necessary for reproducing all of the upright’s subtleties, and you’ll see why many upright bass players take out their aggressions by slapping the instrument around like a drug pusher in a Foxy Brown movie.
There are also the physical considerations of playing an upright bass. Musicians accustomed to the fretted electric solidbody bass find that playing an upright is like learning a new language. The standard electric bass is really a guitar, while the acoustic upright bass is a direct descendent of the violin, so a different set of rules applies. The instrument’s vertical orientation and unmarked, fretless neck are only part of the challenge. There’s also the issue of the body’s size, which can be a significant hindrance for diminutive musicians, and the issue of limited mobility, which can greatly impede freedom of movement on stage, although players like the Stray Cats’ Lee Rocker and Reverend Horton Heat’s Jimbo seem to have overcome this limitation by climbing and humping their instruments.
Because of their vast differences, the acoustic upright and electric solidbody have existed in almost separate worlds. But recently some enterprising instrument builders have made impressive progress in developing a bass that combines the most attractive features of both instruments. The basses we acquired from Rob Allen, Citron and Ovation show that you no longer need to haul around an axe the size of New York bachelor apartment if you want that authentic upright bass sound, and more.
The Citron AE4 fretless bass ($3,750 w/ hardshell case) takes the electric bass guitar to its ultimate apex. This extremely versatile instrument is a hybrid acoustic/electric instrument that excels at both applications as well as providing some distinctive sounds of its own. “I wanted the sound to embody the best tonal qualities of an acoustic and the punch, presence and clarity of an electric,” says the instrument’s designer, Harvey Citron.
With its hollowed-out mahogany body featuring a 3/16”, unbraced curly maple top and combination of a Bartolini humbucker and Fishman piezo saddle pickup, the AE4 can generate a wide variety of sounds, including unamplified acoustic, standard electric and amplified acoustic tones. The humbucking pickup floats in the center of the soundhole and is mounted to a block attached to the instrument’s back to allow the top to vibrate freely and reduce the possibility of feedback. The controls, which include master volume, pickup blend, treble, mid and bass (all EQ controls are active cut/boost), are mounted for easy access on the upper bass bout in a separate chamber to also enhance top vibration.
While the AE4 sounds good unplugged, it truly shines when amplified. The Fishman piezo pickup in conjunction with the Bartolini active circuitry enable the Citron to create tones ranging from bright, punchy acoustic bass guitar to the warm, full, round sounds of an upright. The humbucker provides excellent electric bass sounds, and the EQ circuit can dial in tones reminiscent of a Fender Precision’s, a Rickenbacker’s and beyond. If you are a bass specialist who needs a variety of different sounds and timbres for gigs or sessions, the AE4 can provide everything you need without having to haul around a small cache of instruments.
Larger than a normal solidbody bass guitar, the Citron may not exactly qualify as compact, but it still is a comfortable instrument to play. The three-piece neck (a sandwich of maple between mahogany) has a 34” scale, and the smooth, flawless ebony fingerboard features laminated “fret” markers to assist accurate intonation. The body is three inches thick — deep enough to provide good acoustic resonance without being unwieldy — and is coated with a glossy polyester finish, while the neck is finished with polymerized tung oil to provide the perfect balance of smoothness and resistance.
Our test example came strung with round-wound nickel strings, which proved to be the most appropriate match for ideal acoustic and electric tones. However, players who desire a more authentic upright tone will want to string the bass with flatwound or steel-core nylon tapewound strings. These strings are also more comfortable to play on a fretless neck.
Several different versions of this bass are available, including a 5-string model, fretted versions and a headless variation, featuring body-mounted tuners.
The Bottom Line
The Citron AE4 is a jack of all trades that’s a master of all of its applications. It may be expensive, but if you’re serious about playing the bass you’ll definitely want to consider it as few instruments offer such a complete combination of playability, craftsmanship and tonal versatility. It may sound like a cliché, but the AE4 may truly be the only bass a player will ever need.
Reprinted with permission from Guitar World Magazine