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Django Reinhardt : Keep Cool

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Stu Hamm has been a staple of the chops-heavy Bass Player scene since the ’80s. He’s best known for his prodigious two-handed tapping and slap technique, particularly in solo or “bass-up-front” settings and alongside shred and fusion guitar virtuosos like Joe Satriani and Frank Gambale. Thus I wondered if Fender’s upgraded Stu Hamm Urge II with Drop-D tuner would be an instrument with super-low action, like an Ibanez SoundGear with its super-thin neck, and optimized for a mid-range solo tone. I was imagining the bass equivalent of a tricked-out Honda Civic.

Fender’s Stu Hamm Urge II is, in fact, a powerful and versatile instrument. It boasts solid, classic (but not standard) Fender construction, full tonal range, and a high output gain. If this instrument satisfies Stu Hamm’s needs as a performer, I imagine the Urge II would be great for a player looking to cover the full range of musical roles: bass, chordal, solo-or merely bass, if you so choose.

Fender reworked its classic Jazz Bass-shortening the body, deepening the cut-away, giving it a slightly thinner (but not SoundGear thin) asymmetrical neck, and souping up the electronics. The medium-gauge Fender Super Bass strings can be strung through the body or more conventionally bridge-loaded. The output jack is on the side of the bass closest to the floor, which makes one prone to losing his or her cable in mid-tune-yikes. The model I played was an opaque turquoise (what Fender calls “Ocean Turquoise”) with a white pickguard. It also comes in red or black with accenting pickguards. From aesthetics and value standpoints, I think the ax may benefit from a more sophisticated, high-grade finish, something like quilt-top or a classic, handsome sunburst.

Flexibility is this instrument’s strong suit. The Urge II has two J-Bass pickups (bridge and neck configuration) flanking a set of P-Bass pickups. A three-position toggle switch allows you to select one set or the other, or a mix of the two. A “Dynamic Control” knob sweeps between the J-pickups. The two controls in combination allow a player to select just about every variation ever available on a Fender bass. The hum from the Urge II’s Noiseless J-pickups was louder than I’ve heard on a high-end instrument, which may be due to either its unshielded electronics or its formidable output. The ranges and frequencies of the active treble, mid-range and bass EQ knobs were well suited to the instrument. When dialed properly, I found the frequency response of the lowest fifth of the instrument to be beautifully full and rich, as though the signal were run through a BBE processor. The active bass EQ allows the most subtle hand movement to become a seismic force. The power behind the low C on the E string was much greater than the same pitch on the A string, which one could use to his or her advantage if choosing between delicate or beefy.

The action across the fingerboard’s 24 frets is smooth with very little or no buzz. Though not the fastest I’ve played, the high gain allows one to employ a light touch without meek results, a feature necessary for tapping. The average bassist attempting Hamm’s arrangement of “Linus and Lucy” may not be able to nail the rhythm of the bass line using his or her ring and pinky fingers, but the tone is entirely convincing. In playing with a firm fingerstyle, the attack is punchy and round. Upper-position diads and triads are crystal clear and full. If I turn up the volume and use a light touch, I could make an excellent tone appropriate for today’s pop and dance music: a very flat envelope with full undertones. The harmonics on a new set of strings sing on the Urge II. As an additional feature, the Drop-D tuner (an upgrade to the model added in October 2007) might be useful for a clean jaunt down a step and back, though I’ve never gotten much mileage out of them.

I was surprised to find that the Urge II is excellent for funk, though considering it’s essentially a modified Fender Jazz bass, I shouldn’t have been. The classic Fender string spacing gives you plenty of room to slap and pop. Using the classic Fender jazz pickup configuration, one can rip off Marcus Miller or Meshell Ndegeocello licks with conviction.

Given its power, dynamic frequency range and versatility, Fender’s Stu Hamm Urge II bass is worth the $2,285 list price, and its uses extend well beyond those for which Mr. Hamm is best known. Given that many high-end custom basses list for much more, the Urge II has the tools and power to suit the clock-punchin’ bassist as well as a player seeking pyrotechnics.

Originally Published