Most in-the-know bassists consider the early Jazz to be the design’s platonic ideal: a delectable blend of carefully chosen ingredients, well seasoned (by now) with the irreplaceable depth of age.
Yet the past couple decades have seen an enormous uptick in ’60s-Fender prices, due largely to their increasing popularity as investment vehicles. Plus, it’s hard to justify spending $5K-plus for a bass whose essential design is available for a small fraction of the cost new.
Given the tendency for collectible prices to have no relationship to an instrument’s actual musical value, I was long suspect of the sacred reputation the early J-Basses engendered.
That is, until I got one. Through some lucky stroke, I wheeled and dealed my way into a ’66 Jazz about a year ago. That bass is magic. Even stacked against some of today’s most boutique replicas, the original shines; its gorgeous low-end tone, punchy bite, and complex richness easily live up to the hype.
I’m now among the converted, touting the value, in spite of the price, of a ’60s Fender to all who’ll listen. It’s why I was especially excited to get my hands on Fender’s latest, the Flea Signature Jazz Bass.
A scratch-for-scratch recreation of the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s exceedingly rare J, the Flea Signature is not just an homage to one of bassdom’s true celebrities, but a relatively affordable way to get a small (if new) taste of ’60s J-style sauce.
NO NEED TO SHELL IT OUT
Fender modeled the Flea Signature after his Shell Pink ’61 Jazz Bass. If you’re not a true Fender nerd, that may not seem exciting, but it is. You see, Flea’s Jazz is perhaps one of the rarest in existence.
In fact, it may be the last of its kind—Shell Pink is a custom color that Fender almost never used, and I have yet to see a similar example of that vintage. Bass Player had the good fortune to spend some time with the original bass on its way to Flea, and all who were there attest to its incredible tone and fabulously retro finish.
Fender’s new take on that instrument is admirably true to the original. Sporting the company’s “Road Worn” synthetically aged finish, the bass does look as old as Flea’s.
Other period-appropriate touches abound. The finish is nitrocellulose lacquer, just like back in the day. While not especially durable (and in a Road Worn bass, who cares), nitro finishes are lauded for their breathability and positive impact on tone.
There’s also a vintage- style bridge with threaded saddles, a period-correct C-shaped neck profile, and a pair of Fender Pure Vintage ’64 Jazz Bass single-coil pickups, rather than one of Fender’s many more modern-voiced options.
But of all the old-fashioned touches, it’s the dual concentric volume/tone knobs that most immediately identify the Flea bass as a replica of an early Fender. Fender used this arrangement (as opposed to the vastly more common volume/volume/tone) for barely two years of Jazz Bass production.
Our tester’s construction was top-notch, except for all the wear on the finish. I kid. But really, modern production techniques like CNC machining make imported instruments (the Flea Jazz hails from Mexico) almost identical to U.S.-made counterparts.
The control cavity and electronics installation was not boutique-level perfect, but then again, neither were original ’60s Jazz Basses. The instrument’s ergonomics are the stuff of legend; there’s a reason the Jazz is perhaps tied with the Precision as the most popular bass of all time. Its “offset countoured” body, slim neck, and excellent balance are definitive examples of what ought to characterize a comfy bass.
JAZZ & MORE
While I wish I had a ’61 Jazz to compare the Flea to, my ’66 had to make do. I tested the Flea Signature through a variety of rigs, including a vintage Echolette M40, a tube-y Ampeg PF-50T, and modern rigs from Aguilar, Epifani, and EBS.
I also did some tracking in my studio through a Tube Tech MEC-1A and a Neve RNDI. In every situation, the Flea Signature acquitted itself like a proper Jazz should. It had Jacoesque bridge-pickup punch, a full-bodied and slightly compressed blended-pickup sound, and neck-pickup bark and bite.
Rolling off the tone had the desired darkening effect, and when I coupled the dark sound with a change in my technique, I was able to achieve massive and pillowy lows.
The bass slapped well, too, although don’t expect the high-frequency air and sizzle of some active-preamp-equipped basses. With a bass like the Flea Signature, success is measured by how well it achieves its mimicry.
Stacked against my ’66, it held its own. Yes, I think my bass sounded better—it was more dynamically sensitive, and notes seemed to brim with more texture and exciting harmonics—but the Flea Signature was not as far off as its vastly lower price and easier accessibility would suggest.
Flea fanatics might leap to the new Signature model because they want to sound like their hero, but bass players of all stripes looking for an exceptionally groovy-looking and -sounding do-it-all J Bass should give the affordable new Fender a serious look.