Epiphone Viola Bass
Hollow-body electric basses have a vibe all their own – they sound like a fusion of a conventional solid-body bass and an upright jazz bass, without the inconvenience of dragging a six-foot fiddle around. They also look cool.
Actually, the appearance of a viola bass is something of an issue in some quarters. The most identifiable proponent of this instrument was Paul McCartney, so much so that it’s not infrequently referred to as a “Beatle bass.”
Not a great fan of the fab four, I’ve let it be known that referring to mine as such will be grounds for dismissal, or in egregious cases, a solid hour of listening to Sir Paul through headphones.
The original viola basses were built by the German violin maker Karl Hofner GmbH, and Hofner viola basses remain excellent instruments. Unfortunately, they have truly frightening price tags, and you have to be seriously into playing bass or just disgustingly rich to own one.
Some while back, Hofner appears to have arranged to have a far-east copy of its bass built, called the Hofner B Icon, for those of us with more modest credit card limits. The Hofner Icon can be quite a nice bass, if you happen upon a good one. I’ve happened upon several that might have slipped past quality control.
A more recent introduction into the genre, the Epiphone Viola Bass looks more or less like a Hofner, albeit absent much of the objectionable retro hardware and general Beatle-ness of the original. More to the point, while it too hails from the far east, it was built by a division of the Gibson guitar company. Epiphone, Gibson’s budget-conscious imprint, builds truly excellent instruments as rule, and this is easily one of them.
The Epiphone Viola Bass plays like a conventional electric bass, although it doesn’t feel quite like one. Being hollow, it’s extremely light and nicely balanced. Seasoned bass players may find this takes a few minutes to get used to – there’s the sense that something important is missing the first time you pick one of these things up.
The Epiphone Viola Bass lacks the sustain of conventional solid-body basses – which is how it’s supposed to be. Its notes tend more toward punchy thuds of sound. Complex bass lines played on one sound crisp and intricate, with each note defined and distinct from the last.
This, too, takes some getting used to.
In fairness, while a viola bass allows for more complex music, it isn’t amenable to some of the noisier tricks that bass players are wont to play in the instrument – bass slaps, for example, don’t come off particularly well on it. It’s a nice axe for jazz and progressive rock, and perhaps less so for the music kids download and get sued for.
The Epiphone Viola Bass is remarkably well made, especially considering what it costs. The finish on mine was flawless, and the hardware wouldn’t have been out of place on an instrument with one more digit in its price. It even came with a nice set of strings.
Disturbingly, it also came with a sticker that said “set up by number 9,” perhaps another Beatle reference. This would have been a different Beatle, of course.
The Epiphone Viola Bass comes with two mini-humbucker pickups that sound agreeably dark and laid back. It has a 30.5 inch scale, with a zero’th fret. At the other end of its strings, it features a floating bridge that could be described as “elegantly simple” or “dreadfully primitive,” depending upon your mood. I’d choose the former. When number 9 set up my bass, he did a superb job – it was eminently playable right out of the box.
Pretty much the same size as a real Hofner viola bass, the Epiphone fits nicely in the low-cost aftermarket cases available for this instrument.
In fairness, the Epiphone Viola Bass is a somewhat more limited instrument than a contemporary solid-body bass. This having been said, if you’re after the sound of a vintage hollow-body bass, this is where it comes from. The Epiphone Viola Bass has a street price of a little over three hundred dollars, which beats the hell out of trolling hock shops for a half-century-old Hofner.
My bass and the case thereof came from Musician’s Friend.