One hot bass in the Dingwall Combustion
(Dave Molter | Posted 2010-06-29)
I first spotted Sheldon Dingwall's fanned-fret basses about eight years ago. I'd never played a five-string bass, but I knew I wanted one, being a "lover of the low" ever since I first discovered the Moog Taurus 1 bass pedal synthesizer in the mid-1970s. I'd read enough to know that increasing scale length seemed to be the best solution to create a tight, great-sounding B string, but there was no way I could afford to pay $4,000 or more for one of Dingwall's high-end basses.
That's why I was pleased when heard in 2009 that Dingwall was planning to introduce a relatively low-priced ($1,199 USD street), Chinese-made version of its active basses -- the Dingwall Combustion. And finally, in 2010, I discovered I could free up enough cash to grab a Combustion, even though dealers are few and far between and I'd have to drive about six hours to try one in a store. But -- thanks to the Internet, Youtube and some valuable opinions from my online bass brothers and sisters at Talkbass.com -- I was able to hear the new Combustion and find out what others had thought of it as well as Dingwall basses in general. With overwhelmingly positive reports from owners, I decided to pull the trigger.
My Olympic White Combustion with a maple fingerboard and an optional Baltic Amber pickguard arrived from Basscentral in Florida three days after I ordered it. The fact that it looks great and sounds nothing like my workhorse Lakland 55-94 is icing on the cake.
Dingwall advertises the Combustion as "100% Dingwall tone at a fraction of the price," and it's an extreme example of truth in advertising. This is one great-sounding bass: clear and modern -- not so "old school" as my 55-94 which, depending on whether it's strung with flats or nickel rounds, can capture either the Precision Bass or Sting Ray sounds pretty easily. The Combustion has a voice all its own. It's strung with stainless Dingwall strings, and they provide a very nice cutting edge without being too clanky or zingy.
Novax fanned fret system
All Dingwall basses use the Novax fanned-fret system. As mentioned previously, bass builders discovered some time ago that increasing the length of the B string made for a tighter, punchier B. Many builders accomplish this by lengthening the scale of the neck from 34 to 35 inches. While this does indeed make for a great-sounding B, many players complain about the extra tension on the remaining four strings. Dingwall takes a different approach. Simply put, the Novax fanned fret system solves this problem by giving each string its own scale -- 34" for the G, 37" for the B, which is a concept applied in pianos -– longer strings for lower notes. But the multiple scale lengths require fanned frets to allow each note to be played in tune.
At first look, fanned frets may be offputting to many players, but my feeling is, "how often do you look at your frets?" Nor did scale length bother me -- I've been playing 35"-scale basses for eight years now. I figured adapting to fanned frets and a longer neck would not be a big deal, and I was right. It took me roughly an hour to adapt, although throughout the first gig with the Combustion, I still found myself coming in on the short side of a C on the B string, but not often enough to worry about. A bigger adaptation was in my right hand because of the low action and tension of the stock Dingwall strings. But in my book, being able to play with lighter touch is a good thing. FYI, Sheldon Dingwall and staff have put a lot of thought and test hours into selecting the correct strings for their basses, and they suggest you use Dingwall's proprietary stainless round wound strings, which have tapered cores on lower strings and are optimized for the “Dingwall" sound. Dingwall players report that some other brands will work, but I’d recommend purchasing one extra set of Dingwall strings just in case –- especially if you’re used to playing heavily and might break a string. You won’t be able to run out to your local store and find a replacement easily.
Assembled in China but finished and set up in Dingwall's Canadian shop, the Combustion shows great attention to detail. It's a beauty. The finish is flawless and the Baltic Amber (brown pearl) pickguard on mine looks great in combination with the black Dingwall-made pickups, chrome tuners and bridge and black knobs. My Alder-bodied bass weighs in at 9.2 pounds but seems lighter and is perfectly balanced. The five-piece maple neck with maple board and 24 frets is slim and fast. Fit and finish is almost perfect -- there was only one rough spot on the side of the neck near the 7th-fret side dot marker, but I was able to smooth it quickly with extra fine sandpaper. Frets are perfect –- level with no “fret sprout.” Action is very low and takes some getting used to if you have heavier gauge strings. Once you adapt your playing hand to the action and string tension, however, it's a relief not to have to really dig in to make the bass sound good. The active controls are Vol, Vol, Bass and Treble. The slant-mounted pickups are made by Dingwall, and I like the fact that the treble side of the PUPs is closer to the neck than is the bass side, a little trick that I think helps even out tonal response on the D and G strings, which sometime lack oomph on some basses.
The Dingwall sound
The Combustion is a modern, hi-fi bass. Set flat, it has outstanding clarity and evenness of tone on each string. The Dingwall stainless strings are lighter than I'm used to, but they don't lack tone or bass response. For my purposes, I found the best tone by beginning with both the Combustion and my Genz-Benz Shuttle 6.0 set flat and the midrange control on the amp set to 150Hz. GB tone controls are +/- 15dB, and I found the sweet spot in my two 112 cabs by bumping both the bass control (80hZ shelving) and the mids up two notches. Treble remained flat, and I didn’t engage any of the Shuttle’s three tone-shaping pushbuttons (Bass Boost, Mid Scoop and HF Attack). I also bumped the Combustion bass control slightly up from flat and ran both pickups wide open. Dialing back neck PUP and playing closer to the bridge produced a very pleasing, Jazz Bass-like tone that still retained the Dingwall sound. Volume on the amp (600 watts) was at noon in a moderately loud band with three guitars, keys and acoustic drums. Bear in mind that with larger cabs, bumping up the bass might not have been necessary. I take my sound to the house pre-EQ, and the FOH man reported a very smooth sound at all frequencies. I'm not a slapper, but I have no doubt that dedicated funksters would love the tone thumbing the Combustion produces. Tuning is stable: I tuned up at the start of a set and the bass was still in tune at the end of the hour. Almost Steinbergerlike!
I took my Combustion to a recording session three days after it arrived, not really knowing what to expect, but both I and the engineer were pleasantly surprised by the outcome. We ran the Combustion split into a 1970s-era Bassman 10 combo (70 watts with 4 10-inch speakers in a sealed cabinet) and direct to the board. On previous sessions, the engineer had used Amplitube to get a full bass sound, but the Combustion was so full and dynamic that he opted to use no plug-ins. I also took my Lakland 55-94, strung with flats, but was somewhat shocked to find that it didn't sound as good for the songs as did the Combustion. We recorded two original songs that day -- one a Michael Jackson kind of groove with a pumping "Billie Jean"-like bass line and another that brought images of Pink Floyd's flying pig to mind. The Combustion nailed both tracks, and I have to admit that the sound inspired me to play more creatively that I might have on the Lakland.
The bottom line
The Dingwall Combustion is a wonderful example of attention to detail, loving care and quality control in a Chinese-made instrument that holds its own against many US-made basses that cost more. Fit and finish is near flawless, and the attractive, somewhat unusual body shape and fanned frets draw comments from bassists and "civilians" alike. The Combustion speaks with authority and has the ability to lay down a line in everything from country to funk and prog rock and beyond. Canadian Sheldon Dingwall and company have produced "a Dingwall for the rest of us," cutting roughly $1,000 off the price of its passive Afterburner series and about $3,000 off its least-expensive Canadian-made active basses.
Street price on the Dingwall Combustion bass averages $1,199. A padded gigbag or hardshell case is sold separately although some dealers include the gigbag with the bass, but at an increased price. Pickguards are a $40 (street) option. Basses are available in Natural, Black, Olympic White, Candy Apple Red, Root Beer and 2-tone Sunburst and with either rosewood or maple fingerboard. Pickguards are Black/White/Black, White/Black/White, White Pearloid, Black Pearloid, Baltic Amber, Mirror and Tortoise. For more information on the Combustion, the Novax Fanned Fret System and a list of dealers, visit www.dingwallguitars.com.
Dave Molter (“Laklander”) is Managing Editor and Bass Guitars Editor of Music Gear Review. Based in Pittsburgh, PA, he has played bass professionally for 45 years. His bass influences include Paul McCartney, James Jamerson, Chris Squire and Tony Levin. His primary basses are a Lakland 55-94 and a Dingwall Combustion. Dave uses Genz-Benz amplifiers and Thomastik-Infeld Jazz Flats or Lakland Nickel Rounds and Dingwall strings. Send questions or comments to Dave