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Yamaha Silent Bass

A few years ago the research and development team at Japan’s Yamaha headquarters were posed with a problem: Japanese musicians living in their tiny, cramped apartments were having trouble practicing because the sound from their instruments bothered the neighbors. The engineers at Yamaha came up with an innovative solution: They designed a series of practice instruments that looked and felt and played like conventional instruments in every respect except one-they were silent. What Yamaha did was to remove the instrument’s ability to resonate. Thus, the Silent bass looks in many respects like a bass, but it lacks the box from which the sound would form. In fact, what it most looks like is the skeleton of a bass.

The Silent instrument series was an apparent success in Japan, so it was brought to the United States, where the first thing that musicians asked was, “So, where do you plug it in?” But the Japanese design team had never even considered making these practice instruments electronic, which may be the design’s greatest advantage.

The Yamaha Silent bass is the best upright electric bass I have ever played, but that does not mean that I’m entirely satisfied with it. As with any hybrid instrument there are pluses and minuses. There is no question that the great advantage to this instrument is its physical structure. The space-age exoskeleton is an innovation, but the active electronic pickups fail to give this bass a sound as good as its feel.

Yamaha’s design makes it easy for any upright bassist to pick up the Silent bass and begin playing. It feels just like an acoustic bass. There is almost a complete transference of skills and approach from an upright to the Silent bass. I found that the string tension, string height and overall shape and feel of this bass were essentially the same as with my upright. There were, however, a few problems. The main structural problem I found was that the exoskeleton is weak at the stem of the bass. I managed to break it during the first day I had it. Replacing the broken piece was easy, but I still found it hard to disassemble the bass without putting stress on this spot.

The Silent bass I tested came with a prototype of a new bridge designed specifically for jazz playing. This bridge is adjustable and it gave me a good string tension and overall feeling with the strings and the neck. I found that it worked well for either pizzicato or arco playing. You can get a good bow sound from this bass. After using the prototype bridge for about two weeks I tried the standard bridge Yamaha currently provides. There is no comparison. The standard bridge makes the instrument feel too much like a fretless bass guitar. There is little string tension, and even when I raised the strings off the neck I could not get them high enough to be able to dig in when I was walking. The bow sound was much flabbier with the standard bridge. Yamaha has since decided that the prototype jazz bridge will soon be available as a standard option. That’s good because the jazz bridge makes a big difference in the overall feel and playing ability of this instrument.

As soon as you try to get an amplified sound you discover the weakness of the Silent bass. I found that the sound tended to be distorted unless I kept the instrument’s volume level well below the halfway mark. The instrument’s overall sound was nasal, and I thought there was too much high and mid-range frequency in it. My solution was to play with quite a bit of equalization on the amp, but I was never entirely satisfied. The bottom line is that if you like the feel of this bass enough to buy it, you may want to replace the active electronics with a custom system that will create a more basslike sound.

The soft shell gig bag has a space to store the stand for the instrument but it doesn’t have a compartment to safely stow a bow case. Also, if you’ve been thinking that this instrument will solve your problems touring with a giant upright, you should know that the Silent bass is too big to fit into an overhead compartment on a plane. You’ll have to get a hard-shell case and stow it in the cargo hold. Yamaha is, however, designing a flight case for the Silent bass and with any luck there will be a place for the bow.

While there are problems with this instrument, the Yamaha Silent bass is a big step in the right direction. For bass players who are not die-hard traditionalists and are willing to do a little customizing this will probably be the ideal instrument.

David Chevan is a bassist and jazz educator living in the New Haven, Conn., area. His most recent CD is This Is the Afro-Semitic Experience (Reckless DC).

Originally Published