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Fret-King Black Label Esprit I Bass

Issue #21

Trev Wilkinson has built a fantastic reputation down the years with his innovation and flare for guitar hardware design. More recently, he has teamed-up with the UK firm John Hornby Skewes to launch the Fret-King series of guitars, of which GI has reviewed several, all very favourably. Fret-Kings come in several distinct series but one of the most interesting is the mainstream (pricewise) Black Label models, which are all premium instruments designed to appeal to experienced players, including professionals. One of the most recent additions to the range, the Esprit I bass was launched earlier this year and is a partner to the kinda sorta Firebirdy Esprit series guitars, one of which Rick Graham reviewed in GI 19.

A large headstock with four elephant ear style Wilkinson tuning keys set this instrument off with the Fret-King logo clear to see. It's a straight headstock so we have the usual tree fixed between the D & G strings providing that necessary nut break angle. The nut is a graphite type, neatly cut, to the correct height. We have a 22 fret rosewood fingerboard with a 10” radius fixed to a maple bolt-on neck which has a smooth satin finish along its length. I really like the carve on this bass - it's a nice shaped C neck that feels comfortable whilst playing.

Flying in the face of 'convention' is this rather cool offset body. It has a certain Firebird/Thunderbirdy look to it without being in any way a copy. Inventive yet somehow familiar? The red finish covers an agathis body, the bridge is a Wilkinson model as is the Platinum Series WJM pickup.

Unplugged, the Esprit is clear if a little toppy, almost begging to be 'dug in' to for a bit of fret rasp for some Squire or Entwistle action! Plugging in though is a warming experience. The single pickup with all controls maxed sounds full, bright and zingy with a good amount of bottom end. Oh, and it's a high output model. We had to back the gain down a little on our studio amp for this one. The bass has a wide range of tones available from some simple controls. We have a master volume and the usual passive tone control as you might expect but in addition there is some clever configuration available thanks to the the inclusion of Fret-King's 'vari-coil' circuitry. This uses some clever onboard passive wiring which allows control of the pickup's coils, giving a constant sweep using the third knob. It's hard to describe its actual operation so be sure to watch the video. However, as it sweeps, presumably from both coils to just one (I can be corrected on that), the tone starts at a fat dual coil rumble with lots of mids, barking away almost aggressively but then moves through a scooping of the middle frequencies leaving you with a more single coil type tone. It's rather good I think. No batteries to worry about either!

The bass has an air of coolness about it - I can definitely see it being slung low, cranked up plugged in to the front end of a big valve amp. Nice!  I do have one minor niggle. It's not even that big to be honest. There's always going to be a downside to coming up with a new design shape I am sure and for this bass, it's the balance when sat on your knee - or rather the lack of. It is a headstock heavy bass that does tend to plummet if you take your hands off it. I seemed to get around the problem in the video by resting my arm on the top of that rear upward pointing body horn. This forced me into a strange playing position that really affected my picking hand. I played it safe with some very simple and at times random noodling to demonstrate the tones of the instrument. I think the balance will be better stood up with a strap, so perhaps it's not a big issue if you spend more time in that position.

Rounding up, this a good bass with a strong loud voice with tons of visual character. Our sample was perfectly set-up and overall represented a very welcome change from the endless variations on the Precision that we see so many of. Personally, I'm not sure about that balance issue, but it' a characteristic of most basses of this sort of look (try a Thunderbird! - Ed) but you'll just have to decide that for yourself. Overall it's a great bass at an attractive price.

Ig21 Cover Small

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