By John McVarish | May 29, 2014
A bass that can do it all...or at least come close enough for jazz.
I'm making a list
So what does a demanding bassist require and how much are we (my significant other and I) willing to spend? First off, I'm old school and have never played in a pop band with a 5-string, but I'm ready to take the plunge. I've tried many 5-strings in stores and I want one that articulates well in the lows with a bottom B string that is more than a finger rest. For that, a 35” scale is near the top of my wish list.
Because I play jazz and have trouble fighting feedback with my acoustic bass, I'd like an electric that also has a piezo bridge that can be fudged into sounding as much as possible like an upright. I could go fretless, but I'll have to compromise for the club band. Next, I want something that's compact and light for those cover-band gigs where 4 sets are required. Last, and perhaps most important, I want a bass that looks cool.
Recap of bass requirements
- Five strings
- 35” scale for a solid low-B sound
- Magnetic and piezo pickups
- Fretted (with the option of acquiring a fretless neck)
- Compact and lightweight for travel and long gigs
- Awesome looks
Ned Steinberger is respected among players for the innovative guitars and basses produced under his name in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. Their headless design, body materials and electronics captured the hearts and minds of progressive players willing to break from tradition. For those who were tired of the weight and bulk of regular basses, the Steinberger bass represented instant relief, with a modern flair that fit right into ‘80s fashion. They were expensive and a little elite, but various licensed copies surfaced for those on a budget from brands like Ibanez and Hohner.
In 1987, while demand was still high, Ned Steinberger sold the patents and rights to his name to Gibson guitars. He continued to innovate under the banner NS Design, developing a line of well-engineered electric violins, cellos and upright basses.
At NAMM 2013, NS Design introduced a production model CR5 Radius bass guitar in both fretless and fretted versions. These are high-priced instruments, as were the original Steinbergers of the ‘80s, but they pack some major advances in ergonomics and electronics that make them even more of a value than they were in the past.
You only get to make one first impression. What does your bass say about you?
What you need to know
- One of the new elements of the Radius bass is its NS Diradial body design. As soon as you strap on the bass you feel the concave back radius snuggling against your body and torso. The top is more tightly radiused, as are the pickups, and leans slightly towards the player for a better view and playing position of the neck. The whole instrument is extremely well balanced, weighing in at around 8.63 lbs.
Concave vex back fits snugly against the player's body
Top radius allows for better view of the fretboard. Notice the contoured pickups.
- The bolt-on Fusion neck is made of 1-piece maple with a continuous carbon fiber core and adjustable truss rod. The wood gives a natural feel, while the carbon core improves sustain and definition. The ebony fretboard has a 15” radius and 35” scale, which felt ideal to me. Truss rod adjustments are easy with the access right at the end of the headstock. Playing acoustically, or plugged in, I found no dead spots anywhere along the fretboard and consistent volume across all strings. The low B rings true and long with excellent definition.
4-bolt neck with easy access up the fretboard
- String changes are simple with the NS tuning system. Special strings, or those with balls on each end, are not required. I was able to remove the stock strings and swap in some more acoustic-sounding strings in less than ten minutes. The old strings are easy to store because the ends haven't been twisted around any pegheads. The tailpiece acts as both clamp and tuner, as you tighten and tune the string to pitch. The tuning is super precise and the extra string length is cut as needed.
Simplified truss rod adjustments and string changes
No special strings required. Excess string length is easy to clip.
- The electronics feature an integral piezo and magnetic pickup system, a collaboration between NS and EMG. The onboard 18V preamp is powered by 2 x 9V batteries (accessible from a rear compartment). The system includes a 3-position toggle switch for the 2 magnetic pickups, a 3-position toggle switch to cuts highs for the piezo bridge, a master volume, blend, master bass and master treble control knobs. The piezo sounds unlike any I've tried before and offers a convincing enough acoustic sound dependent on the type of strings used.
Well laid out electronics with center-position indents
Access to battery compartment and active electronics
- The custom bridge and saddle may look fixed, but there is a plenty of adjustment at each end using the supplied set of allen keys. Individual string adjustments are not necessary. Instead, the bridge is adjusted on either side for height and intonation. Pure elegance.
The tailpiece doubles as a clamp and a tuner
A sound is worth a 1000 words
I tried the Radius in a couple of settings. The first was in a jazz big band where I normally play a clunky acoustic-electric bass guitar that has a tendency to feedback. The Radius comes stock with D'Addario Round Wound strings, which I swapped for some D'Addario NS Design strings that are made for electric upright basses and cellos. These strings are flatwound and have a more acoustic sound. I did have to loosen the truss rod a bit to get the action right with these, but that was easy.
Next I tried the CR5 with the cover band at a club gig. I put the original strings back on for this and re-adjusted the neck. These strings give the bass a brighter, more high-def sound with big, fat notes and tons of sustain. I remember plucking a low G that kept on going so long the keyboard player thought something was feeding back.
In studio, I recorded some samples with both sets of strings. Each sound file starts with the 3-position piezo switch set to maximum cut, then progressing through the other 2 positions until the circuit is bypassed and we hear the straight signal of the piezo. I didn't touch the active EQ for this, which would be a way to further tweak your tone. For live performance with the jazz band, I was able to get a thumping upright sound with the 3-position set to maximum treble cut and the treble EQ turned down to taste.
Everyone in the various bands and at work thought the bass looked and sounded fantastic. A few traditionalists questioned the esthetic of the bass, saying the lack of a headstock was a bit too much for them. I replied that if they were wearing the bass onstage they would surely appreciate not having to worry so much about hitting a mic stand or guitarist with the end of it.
Since it plays and sounds so good, and if one hasn't any reservations about its appearance, then the only limitations with the CR5 Radius bass are purely budgetary. Whether or not you're willing to spend this much, it might also seem like too nice a bass for certain venues. I would definitely put it in its gig bag during breaks no matter where I was playing.
- Passive mode in case batteries fail
- A stereo output to split the piezo and magnetic signals
- At this price a hardshell case would be nice
- Built-in strap locks would also be a nice touch
As Nathan East says, a great bass becomes your voice, your fingerprint, your sound. Most bass players don't seek to have all the effects that guitarists do. We just need a bass that sounds great and we can happily play all night in comfort and style. The CR5 responds perfectly to this bassist's list of requirements.
John McVarish is multi-instrumentalist. He was encouraged by the other members of his 7th-grade garageband to make the switch from guitar to bass. He played bass in cover bands and stage band throughout junior high, high school and college and spent 25 years as a semi-pro playing dancehalls across Scotland and Western France. He returned to the US to work as a copywriter for Musician's Friend. He can be seen playing bass with the Ventura Jazz Orchestra and in two cover bands around Southern California.