Finally! an affordable Fender Bass VI!
Let me start off by saying that a Fender Bass VI has always been my "great white whale" guitar. I was always fascinated by them, being as they were incredibly rare, incredibly odd (especially for the time they were being made) and of course, incredibly expensive. Friends of mine were also similarly intrigued by these strange beasts, and one of my pals even had the Fender custom shop make him one (a lefty no less) for a huge sum of cash. So naturally, when the word got out that Fender was going to make an affordable version of the rare instrument, I snapped to and managed to get the first one from Sweetwater, days before they were even technically available. The bass seen in their pics of the three toned sunburst, are of my actual guitar.
The bass VI is a very unique instrument. Although it looks (especially in pictures) to be something akin to a common baritone guitar, it's not. While a baritone guitar is typically tuned A-A, or B-B, and feature a smaller 27" scale (to the VI's 30"), the Bass VI is traditionally tuned E-E, just like a guitar, only one octave lower. In other words, it's more a bass than a guitar… but the spacing is more guitar than bass. The VI is also not to be confused with a typical "6 string bass", which features a low B and a high C. Finger playing is quite possible, if requiring a slightly different approach, but pick playing is where this thing truly shines. It's fantastic for that "Tick-tack" bass style (for example, Carol Kaye used one on many Beach Boys recordings).
The pawn shop VI differs from the original in some fairly significant ways… in some ways that will make vintage loyalists pull their hair out and punch their spouses. The new model employs a 5 way strat type blade switch, as opposed to the vintage models Jaguar styled on/off switches for each pickup, which as is, the PS VI will not allow you to use all three pick ups at once, or even a combo of the neck and bridge (which I have been told is the best setting on a vintage). Also worth noting is the lack of the vintage's fabled "strangle switch", which acts as a high pass filter. In addition, the bridge pickup on the PS VI has been changed from the vintage's third Jag pup, to a Jazzmaster shaped humbucker. Other differences include a slightly smaller bridge design (however, this has been lacking on all of the few re-issues including Japanese and custom shop models). Minor changes include a 9.5 radius neck, as opposed to the vintage's 7.25 (as is a common change on most new Fender necks).
Significantly, the PS VI comes stock with D'addario XL-156 strings, which are one of the few (and the easiest to find/affordable) specially made Bass VI string sets on the market. While it is great to have an affordable set of strings out there, they are lacking in that the low E string and to a lesser extent, the low A, are woefully too light in gauge to be adequate on the VI. This causes the low E string to feel a bit "flabby" and lack clear definition, and seems impossible to intonate as is.
Now, it is playable, but I could easily see an unsuspecting player with no frame of reference being scarred away from the seemingly unwieldiness of the lower string. While this is something any new fender will often feature (cheap, ill suited strings as stock), the issue is compounded by the expense of custom strings (Labella's for example are upwards of $40-$70 dollars a set). Given that the trem, and tuner pegs require the strings need to be custom made to feature guitar size ball ends and must be narrow enough to accommodate the guitar style tuning pegs, it is not easily possible to use standard bass strings. It should also be noted that other Bass VI like instrument's string sets (like the Schecter HellCat series) will be too short, again, due to the VI's tremolo system… also, one will have to file the nut to allow for the increased gauge when you get the heavier strings. Of course, this is not a deal breaker, but well worth noting to potential buyers. I would also recommend shimming the neck a tad, which is something many "offset" guitar players (Jazzmaster, Jaguar) will want to do to increase the break angle over the bridge. Perhaps not necessary, but I noticed better action, and increased sustain on all of offsets (the VI included).
But what does it do right? I have to say I am very pleased with the new Jag pups, as well as pleasantly surprised by the humbucker in the bridge. To me, these all sound fantastic, and even the new switch configuration, works wonderfully… I can honestly say I really like the sound in all positions, and there is a wide variety to be had tone wise, with no real clunkers. Fit and finish are also superb. The neck feels great, and the frets are all even… it's certainly a well made guitar, and I would place it on par in build quality with the MIJ stuff (these are made in Mexico).
While it certainly is possible to use the VI as a straight bass guitar, it's narrowing the instruments possibilities. For me, this thing shines on it's own as a solo instrument, given it's increased and guitar like range. Particularly fascinating is the sustain and deep sound it offers in it's higher positions, making chords and lead lines have a power and quality unlike that of either bass or guitar. While it's not necessarily a replacement for either, it's a unique and distinct sound… limited only by the creativity of it's player's ability to integrate this weird beast into a traditional guitar/bass format.
For me, it feels like a new sound to explore, and I am in love with what it is capable of, which in turn pushes my own thoughts further into new creative areas… I am not sure what more one could possibly ask of a musical instrument.
I wouldn't necessarily recommend this to someone looking for a bass guitar per se, though it is capable in this respect, but rather to someone looking to experiment with something unique, yet incredibly useful.
None of my gripes above (though the string situation is significant) have soured me at all on this unique guitar, and I couldn't be happier that I can actually have one of these amazing instruments sitting in my music room, without breaking my 401k or demanding my kid shoot no higher than community college when he grows up.