(Dave Molter | Posted 2010-08-03)
You may not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but one very famous old cat – Felix – has reached into his Bag of Tricks to produce a fine new instrument: the Nez Acoustic-Electric Bass from Oriolo Guitars.
Debuted at Summer NAMM 2010 in Nashville, the line of Felix the Cat guitars, basses and ukuleles by Oriolo was a highlight of the show for many. Oriolo Guitars was founded by Don Oriolo, the son of cartoonist Joe Oriolo, whose creations include Casper the Friendly Ghost. The elder Oriolo also drew Felix as well as Popeye during a career in Hollywood. When the copyright for Felix the Cat became available from Felix's creator, Otto Meissner, the elder Oriolo bought the rights. Don oversaw the business end and later produced several Felix features, including 2004's "Felix Saves Christmas."
OK, but why guitars? Well, Don has a background not only in drawing and cartoon production but also in music. A longtime guitarist, Don also made a name for himself by in songwriting (including the first song charted by Jon Bon Jovi - "R2D2, We Wish You A Merry Christmas," from Christmas in Space: The Star wars Christmas Album), record production (Gloria Gaynor) and music publishing. He’s also a studio musician and avid guitar collector. So expanding Felix productions to the world of guitars was as big a turn-on for Don as is catnip for Felix.
The Felix instruments line features crazy body shapes (Felix face–shaped guitar and bass bodies, for example), DayGlo-bright colors and wild graphic treatments on some guitars, but it also includes some very attractive, more conventional guitars and basses. The Nez bass is one such instrument – a full-size acoustic/electric four-string with a 34” scale and a beautiful amber finish that extends from top to back, sides and headstock, set off by cream binding on the body and neck. I had a chance to put the Nez through its paces in July. Oh … the name? It’s Zen, spelled backwards – a nod to Oriolo’s sense of humor.
Being a player, Oriolo was wise enough to recruit top luthier/designer Tony DiDomenico to make everything right. Oriolo guitars had to be attractive, but playability and quality sound were the ultimate goals. The Nez bass does not disappoint in any area. However, the first thing I noticed about the Nez was its stunning looks – a beautiful amber quilted top (5-ply Ash laminated) and equally stunning ash back, sides and headstock. Cream binding on the singlecut body and the neck and an attractive soundhole rosette compliment the color very well. The Nato neck is topped by a 22-fret Rosewood fingerboard with abalone dot position markers – except for the very hip Felix-face position marker at fret five. For my money, a Felix face is way cooler than Sting’s sig at fret 12 on the Fender Sting P bass.
The Nez neck profile is a round C shape and compares favorably to the necks on Gibson and Epiphone basses. Neck binding eliminates the possibility of sharp fret ends, and fret leveling showed attention to detail – a very fast and comfortable neck with no string buzz. String spacing at the nut is 1.65” – same as most newer Fender Precisions – and 2.24” at the bridge, making it a very comfortable fit for fingerstyle or pick players. Overall fit and finish for the body and neck was superb. And, the Rosewood bridge is shaped like a smile – “We’re happy people!” explains Oriolo bass guru Mike Van Tine.
Great looks is one thing, but the real tests for performing bassists are playability and sound. Again, the Nez delivers. For electronics, the Nez uses a Fishman OEM-PSY-101 preamp with a built-in tuner, three-band rotary EQ knobs, Volume, and a Phase pushbutton that provides sweet upper-mids or, in the opposite position, a smooth bass boost. A few words about the tuner: it works well, and it works even when the bass isn’t plugged into an amp. Although the Nez isn’t loud enough to compete with a drumset, it is probably loud enough to allow a bassist to play along with unamplified acoustic guitars for songwriting sessions.
I used the Nez over three gigs with a fairly loud six-piece rock band with two electric guitars, drums and keys, all with PA support. Running through a Genz-Benz Shutttle 6.0 pushing 600 watts through two 112 cabs, the Nez rose to the occasion, delivering solid lows, punchy mids, smooth yet distinct highs and a very woody sound overall. It comes equipped with D'Addario Phosphor Bronze strings. As mentioned previously, the Fishman’s Phase button tailors the sound in two distinct ways, both of which are highly musical. To me, one hallmark of a well-made bass is that it sounds good with onboard EQ set flat, and for the most part I left the Fishman’s EQ knobs at their center detents. On certain notes in the middle of the neck, the Nez tried hard to feed back, but I blame part of this on my proximity to my amp. Judicious use of finger damping and tweaking of my amp EQ solved the problem, but on a larger stage the feedback may not be an issue. The Nez connects to an amp through a rear endpin/jack. One minor complaint: like many acoustic guitars, the Nez bass does not have a front strap button. I’d much rather pay an additional $25 for the bass to have a front strap button installed correctly at the factory than to drill into the neck heel myself to install one aftermarket.
The bottom line
With a street price of $489.95 USD including a gigbag ($499.95 for fretless), the Oriolo Nez bass is positioned to compete with several mid-priced acoustic-electric basses from Dean, Yamaha, Ibanez and other manufacturers, and it should hold its own once word about fit and finish, sound and playability makes its way over the Internet. The Felix-face inlay at fret five makes the bass unique and may even make it a collector’s item. Company owner Don Oriolo has gone out of his way to create a well-crafted, great-sounding line of unique stringed instruments that will appeal to serious players, novices and collectors alike.
To see the Nez bass and more of Don Oriolo’s unique Felix-the Cat themed instruments, visit www.oriologuitars.com.
Dave Molter is Managing Editor and Bass Guitars Editor of MusicGearReview.com. He has played bass professionally for 45 years. Contact Dave at dave @ musicgearreview.com.