Epiphone has a winner in the Zenith acoustic-electric bass

(Dave Molter | Posted 2010-05-22)

Epiphone has a winner in the Zenith acoustic-electric bass

I've been a fan of Epiphone guitars since the Beatles used them, even though McCartney never played an Epiphone bass. Jack Casady of the Jefferson Airplane helped to cement Epiphone’s bass image when he began using their hollowbody, and the company has long offered affordable versions of instruments in Epiphone's sister company Gibson's line.

So it was with great excitement that I heard in late 2009 that Epiphone was about to release a new acoustic-electric bass, at that time called the Triumph II. Copyright problems led Epiphone to change the name of the bass to Zenith just before its release in early 2010, but it's a moot point. With the Zenith, Epiphone has triumphed.

A real beauty
The Zenith is offered in two models -- fretted and fretless -- and two flavors, trans-black or natural. I chose a fretted version in natural finish, and it's beautiful. Grain on the spruce top comes alive and the chambered mahogany body back and sides have a gloss that lets the mahogany shine through. Two F holes give the bass a vintage look and a deep cutaway allows access to all 21 frets on the 34-inch scale neck. The bass weighs 9.2 pounds -- not a featherweight, but not overly heavy. It's well-balanced and hangs just where it should easily without neck dive. Tortoise binding on the body and F holes really adds a touch of class. The five-piece maple neck with two walnut stringers is D shaped -- not too chunky -- and very smooth and fast. It's attached to the body using five deep-set bolts. A rosewood fingerboard with pearloid position dots tops the neck. The black 14:1 tuners are tight and don't slip. A retro triangular Epi tailpiece anchors the strings (nickel rounds on fretted, LaBella black tape on fretless), which cross a fixed saddle. Despite the absence of individual saddles, harmonics are spot on. Black rubberized knobs for controls complete the package.

Epiphone tackled the feedback problem inherent in using acoustic basses a high volume by designing an acoustically chambered body, computer routed to allow punch and high volume without losing its warm acoustic properties. Sound is carried to the amplifier through a unique pickup system created by Shadow Germany. Under the saddle, a NanoFlex pickup senses the vibrations of the strings and the body. It uses a low-impedance, 7-layer element with active electronics and shielding to block hum and produce accurate sound. The NanoMag is visible at the end of the fingerboard and is also low-impedance with active electronics, but it features a tiny air-coil, 3 samarium-cobalt magnets and silver-platinum shielding. Both pickups are controlled by an active electronic system featuring a Master Volume, pickup Balance and concentric Bass and Treble controls for each pickup. Outputs are stereo (two 1/4" jacks), or pickups can be summed together through the mono jack or run stereo to two amps or two amp channels using standard 1/4" cables.

Woody, punchy and clean
I tested the Zenith with a five-piece moderately loud rock band. I ran mono into a Genz-Benz Shuttle 6.0 pushing 600 watts into two, 112 cabs with tweeters. I also ran a mono signal to the PA using a Radial BassBone DI/switcher. Shuttle controls were set flat across the board with a slight bump to mids at 150HZ. Tone controls on the Zenith were also flat and the Balance was in the middle. My first impression was that the Zenith delivers its promise of deep, woody tones with clarity. In fact, I found myself dialing back the treble on the NanoWeb (bridge) pickup just a bit. The onboard tone controls are very responsive and a slight turn makes a lot of difference. For rockin' tunes, I found that bumping the Shuttle bass control up three clicks (+/- 15db) gave me improved bottom. The Shuttle has preset Bass boost, Mid scoop and Hi frequency shelving pushbuttons, and after some experimentation I discovered that engaging the Bass boost (37-64Hz range) adds needed oomph to low notes on the E string. On more intense tunes, the Zenith delivers great punch. My sound man also asked me to give him slightly more bass for the house, which I accomplished by changing the BassBone's three-position tone switch on channel 1 to add about 5 db boost at 110 Hz.

In a mellow mood
For our acoustic set, I favored the Zenith's back pickup a bit with the balance control, rolled back the onboard treble for the NanoWeb and boosted the bass for the NanoMag. This produced a pleasing, almost upright-bass tone that was very sweet in upper register notes on the G string. Yet the tone still was punchy when needed. I play fingerstyle, but I don't anchor my thumb. If you do, you have only one spot to use -- the end of the fingerboard.

A study in studio
I also used the Zenith in the studio for several country-style tunes that begged for a less "electric" tone, and the bass delivered. Initially we ran the Zenith mono into a 1970's-vintage Fender Bassman 10, which we miked with a Shure SM57. We also took a direct line to the board. However, we soon discovered that the Zenith sounded better when run stereo, direct. The resulting sound was nothing less than awesome -- deep, woody richness, but with clarity and zing in the upper registers.

The bottom line
The Epiphone Zenith is a well-thought-out, finely crafted bass that combines retro looks with modern electronics and a computer-routed chambered body to deliver a wider variety of tones than I've heard from one instrument. Rumbling bass, punchy mids and sizzling top end are possible in the extreme, but the Zenith's virtue is in combining them in one instrument. Judging from the sound of the steel-string fretted model, the fretless version, equipped with Labella nylon tape flats, should sound even more like an upright bass. Rather than producing a one trick pony, Epiphone has turned out a reasonably priced ($799-849 street) beautiful, great-sounding bass that will be at home in rock or acoustic and anywhere in between.

Dave Molter (“Laklander”) has played bass professionally for 45 years. He is a freelance writer and Managing Editor and Bass Guitars Editor of Music Gear Review. Dave’s bass influences include Paul McCartney, James Jamerson, Chris Squire and Tony Levin. His primary bass is a Lakland 55-94 five-string. Dave uses Genz-Benz amplifiers and Thomastik-Infeld Jazz Flats or Lakland Nickel Rounds strings.

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