Hands-On Review:Epiphone Jack Casady, Jackson CMG and Fender American Deluxe Zone bass guitars.
by Emile Menasché
Looking for a stylish little number to hold down the low end? Our latest bass roundup offers a little something for everyone. Among this month’s featured instruments are the vintage-flavored Epiphone Jack Casady signature model, the decidedly modern Jackson MG series CMG, and the Fender American Deluxe Zone, which combines a traditional feel with updated electronics. Despite their obvious differences, all three basses have a role to fill—and all three fill it well.
Named after the bassist for psychedelic legends Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, the Jack Casady model is loaded with vibe right out of the box. As a mainstream instrument, the semihollow bass may have gone out with the Nixon administration, but, as this Epi ably demonstrates, the design can deliver extremely rich tone, ripe with both attack and body.
The bass’ mahogany neck has a silky feel that’s become par for the course on imported Epiphones. And, unlike the other two basses reviewed this month, it’s a traditional set-neck, not a bolt-on. The joint is unobtrusive, and the slightly offset double cutaway provides excellent access to the upper reaches—which makes the Casady a good choice for soloing and extended forays into the high registers. Action was low and the details, such as fretwork and setup, were all fine. The gold finish looks great. The chrome hardware performed flawlessly, and tuning proved extremely stable. The bass feels very balanced in both standing and sitting positions.
ToneDespite having only one low-impedance humbucking pickup, the Casady can thump out a nice array of tones, thanks to a three-position switch. Unlike a traditional VariTone, this switch changes the impedance of the pickup (between 50, 250 and 500 ohms). My personal favorite was the 50-ohm setting, which produced a “thonky,” almost acoustic sound. The higher impedance settings added a slight boost to the signal, so you can use the switch for a quick kick when you want to step out for a solo. Other controls include passive volume and tone, both of which worked well.
The Casady offers excellent sustain. The semihollow laminated maple body, with a mahogany center block, contributes to the tone and also seemed resistant to resonant feedback, even at high volume— the one thing I’d been worried about with this design.
Jackson guitars are known for rocking hard, and the CMG bass aims to carry out that tradition. The bass looks aggressive: the rosewood fingerboard sports Jackson’s trademark shark fin inlays, a motif that’s amplified by the sharp cut of the headstock. The smoky flame maple veneer adds a touch of elegance to the alder body. This doesn’t take away from the ax’s metal appeal, however—think of it as a bass for metalheads with taste.
Like a lot of Asian imports, the Japanese-built CMG has a flat-radius fingerboard and a fast vintage- profile neck. Many players will appreciate the string spacing, which is wider than that of this month’s other basses. Despite the fast action, the CMG didn’t buzz, even under heavy assault. The hardware all performed well. The bass exhibited good sustain and clarity from all four strings.
ToneIn keeping with its modern looks, the CMG has a flexible and powerful sound engine built around two EMG HGZ35 pickups mated to an active preamp. Controls include master volume, blend and individual treble, mid and bass controls. You get a wide palette of tonal colors to choose from, and every sound seems to cut through, even with the treble rolled off.
Fender American Deluxe Zone
Fender Precision and Jazz basses are so deeply embedded into the history of music that it’s sometimes hard to imagine the company can produce anything else. The American Deluxe Zone Bass, which features the company’s signature offset cutaway shape, manages to provide a traditional Fender feel while developing its own personality.
With an attractive five-layer body of walnut, maple and alder (the wood “binding” is truly graceful without being ostentatious), a sleek, graphite-reinforced maple neck and first-rate fit and finish, the Zone comes across as a no-compromise professional instrument. Like a lot of Fenders, the neck is thin and easy to grip, with a buttery satin finish. The relatively rounded rosewood board (9.5-inch radius) looks handsome against the amber body. Upper fret access is aided by the neck joint’s sculpted heel.
ToneThe Zone’s pickups are an obvious departure from Fender tradition. The bass’ two humbuckers are mounted directly to the body. Controls include master volume, a “pan” knob that sets the blend between the two pickups, and a three-band active EQ.
As you’d hope with so many controls, the Zone is capable of a wide range of sounds, from sharp, cutting modern riffage to timbres with a rounder vintage quality. Each band of EQ has its own slope and range, with the midrange having the widest Q. As a result, the EQ is more musical than some others I’ve heard. Unlike some active basses, the Zone doesn’t sound overprocessed. The gold hardware includes a string-through bridge and Deluxe Lightweight tuners. Both contributed to the Zone’s stability.
The Bottom Line
The Epiphone Jack Casady may look like a blast from the past, but it’s an extremely playable instrument for alternative pop, blues and traditional styles. It’s more expensive than some Epiphones, but it’s very well made and offers a unique sound.
The Jackson CMG is also well made and has powerful electronics, and comes at a very wallet-friendly price. So if you’re into hard rock and want to cut through the mix onstage and in the studio, the CMG is worth a serious audition.
Finally, the Fender American Deluxe Zone Bass comes across as somewhat “centrist” in its demeanor—a little bit vintage, a little bit modern. It can cover much of the same territory as the other two, has the looks to fit into any lineup and plays like silk. If you dig the Fender mystique but want more versatile sound, then get into the Zone.