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Piccolo Bass ReviewModern Musician Monthly, 1996

The Elrick Piccolo Bass:
A Welcome Arrival
By Dan Cooper

The idea of a “piccolo bass” is not a new one. Ron Carter, Stanley Clarke, and others have long since ventured there. The particular instrument we are examining today is an Elrick, handmade by Rob Elrick in Chicago. It’s tuned BEADGC, or BEADF#B, if you prefer. One might describe the instrument as an octave above the Anthony Jackson six-string contrabass, or a perfect fourth below a guitar.

Whatever the perception, this is a most natural evolution in the instrument family. Vocal choirs and other instrument families, such as saxophones or bowed-string instruments, for example, fill out the range of hearing with an assortment of Sopranos, Altos, Tenors, and Basses, whose range overlap a great deal. The construction of the instruments (their different scale lengths, resonators, materials, etc.) give rise to varied palette of colors and sonorities to choose from in the creation of a music composition. As Igor Stravinsky knew the value of bass instruments on high (his modern music masterwork “The Rite of Spring” opens with a bassoon way up on middle C) so does the piccolo bass enrich our sonic palette in a range normally reserved for a guitar.

The Elrick piccolo bass is first-rate craftsmanship, a natural finished, neck-through construction, solid as a good bassist’s time sense. The body is a mahogany core with flame maple faces, and the neck is mahogany, striped with decorative paduk and laurel. The fingerboard is phenolic, a paper and epoxy laminate, and the 21 frets are impeccably cut. As for electronics, we have Bartolini stacked humbucking pickups paired to TC5 preamp: all good circuitry, standard three knobs and no switches. The Wilkinson bridge is an excellent choice, as are the Sperzel locking tuners. I do kind of wish the tuning buttons were a little larger, or the string posts a little less stiff. I also find the strings, gauged 14-25-35-45-55-65, a little stubborn, but these quibbles have nothing to do with the instrument itself. Where great luthiers venture forth, great hardware designers and string makers are sure to follow.

The real questions are about sound and feel. In a sense, luthiers of new instruments must, on the basis of acoustics and ergonomics,invent new standards for things like scale length, string spacing, and neck shape, as well as ever-elusive parameters like headstock angle, string post placement, and fingerboard radius. (Specifically,this bass, bridge-to-nut is about 28” and the string spacing is about 5/8” at the bridge and 5/16” at the nut.) Misjudgment in any area could throw off the whole design. So Elrick’s creation is a real success: the neck feels very comfortable, the right hand can nimbly dance across the strings, but still get-in-there for slap and pop techniques. (Fans of Larry Graham and Bartok String Quartets rejoice!) The seemingly perfect neck heel, body contouring, elegant double cutaway, and zero fret (a personal favorite) all contribute to the joy of playing this baby bass! And by corollary of all these factors, the sound is versatile and clear, lively through a wide dynamic range, with crisp harmonics when you need them. I tested the bass in a variety of styles, and the Elrick holds its own. (whether you want to fantasize chromatically, or get lost in a masquerade, or be sedated, or just be yourself again!) I also believe the piccolo bass would be an ideal candidate for MIDI-minded bassists since the higher range would greatly improve pitch tracking.

Less importantly, the bass does look great: smart laminates, logo, headstock, no top position markers, wooden circuit cover, and black hardware adorn and please the eye. The solid-as-a-brick mahogany-and-flame design clearly draws upon the classic Les Paul, and touch of Wal or Fodera or Carl Thomson aesthetic detail seem to be in evidence. Elrick is no less an innovator, and my other basses are starting to look jealous.

As we enter the dawn of a new era, there are those who say the bass guitar will always be the four-stringed thing that preferably says “Fender” on it. For those with a more evolutionary approach? Check it out!

Reprinted from the Modern Musician Monthly
copyright © Dan Cooper 1996.