As I’ve said in past reviews of Fender-style instruments, there is something about the simplicity and familiarity of the form that can reveal more about an instrument designer than even the most fancy boutique bass can. As in music itself, wherein limitations of form, harmony, and aesthetic can provide the essential boundaries against which tension and release are created, the limitations of an established design — like the Fender Precision and Jazz Basses — can provide an inspiring framework for a luthier to flex their design chops. It’s for this reason that I still get a bit excited when I encounter yet another iteration of a P or J bass.
Despite having played hundreds of these instruments over the years, I’m always curious what new little twist or refinement a talented luthier has dreamed up. When that luthier is Chicago legend Rob Elrick, my curiosity is piqued even more than usual. For over two decades, Elrick has quietly amassed a sterling reputation among the bass cognoscenti for impeccably constructed basses that sound every bit as good as they look. While he’s offered vaguely J-style instruments in the past, the Modern Vintage marque represents his most explicitly Fender-esque designs yet. To make them cost-effective and accessible, the Modern Vintage basses are constructed in South Korea and receive a final checkup in the U.S. at the Elrick shop.
Each of the Modern Vintage instruments is loosely patterned after particularly hallowed moments in Fender history: the P-style MVP4-62 after a ’62 Precision, and the MVJ4-66 after a ’66 Jazz. Reviewing the specifications of each — and holding them in the hand — reveals that a great deal of care and attention has gone into selecting vintage-flavored, top-shelf components for the line. Each bass offers an alder body, torrefied maple neck (more on that later), Indian rosewood slab fingerboard, matching painted headstock (except for sunburst models), Hipshot Ultralite tuners, dual-action truss rods, custom-wound pickups, vintage-style steel-saddle bridges, and four-ply (tortoise) or three-ply (Parchment Ivory) pickguards. In aggregate, this list of components would represent a great value for the instruments’ middling street price. When you then consider the construction quality, the basses assert themselves as among the best values in the high-end vintage Fender-style segment. They are flawlessly assembled and reveal the attentive touch of experienced craftsmanship in the areas that matter, like neck profile, fingerboard edge, and body contour.
One of the most immediately noticeable things about the Modern Vintage basses are their torrefied maple necks, often colloquially dubbed “roasted” in the industry. Their dark brown color is not paint or stain, but rather the by-product of torrefaction, a process wherein wood is subjected to high temperatures in an oxygen-free kiln. The absence of oxygen prevents the wood from catching on fire. The wood changes color due to chemical reactions between the wood’s proteins and natural sugars. The purpose of torrefaction is, in essence, to accelerate wood’s natural aging process. To many, vintage instruments sound special in part because their wood parts have had decades to dry out and off-gas various volatile compounds that are said to inhibit resonance. Torrefaction seeks to shortcut that process, bringing vintage-sounding wood to new builds. The dryer wood is also thought to be less susceptible to the expansion and contraction that plagues all wood-based instruments, resulting in a more stable neck. Finally, torrefied wood can be lighter than its non-torrefied equivalent due to the decreased moisture content. Personally, I haven’t had the opportunity to empirically verify these claims (it would require a double-blind test between otherwise identical instruments), but I’ve never met a roasted neck I didn’t like and, most important, it doesn’t seem like it can hurt anything. So, why not? Plus, it looks cool.
Each bass felt just right on a strap or in my lap. The 9.5″ fingerboard radius is a bit flatter than the OG Fender radius but represents an arguable improvement for some. I particularly appreciated the lithe neck profile, superb balance, and cozy ergonomics. Their light weight was also a blessing in comparison to some vintage Fenders I’ve encountered, including my own ’66 Jazz Bass. There’s no denying the basses’ gorgeous looks, too. The bound neck on the MVJ4 looked especially lovely, and in true ’66 style, the bass offers Hipshot’s take on the Fender “lollipop” tuners that instantly connote a ’66 Jazz. I also appreciated that the Modern Vintage MVJ4 ships with a neck-pickup “ashtray” cover. I tend to remove these when I encounter a bass with one, but regardless, it’s a classic touch that further reinforces the instrument’s vintage heritage.
I tested each bass in my studio with my super-clean Millennia STT-1 preamp going into my equally clean Orion 32 interface. I also tracked it with a syrupy Kern IP-777 and a touch of Calrec DL1656 compression. In my live room, I tested the basses with an Ampeg PF-50 head feeding a homebrew 1×15 cab (for B-15 vibes) and a powered Wayne Jones 2×10 paired with an API TranZformer LX preamp. I occasionally A/B’d each instrument with comparable basses from my own collection, including my 1966 Jazz and a Fender Custom Shop Pino Palladino Precision.
I’ll cut to the conclusion first: The basses are amazing, regardless of price. When you factor in that they’re more affordable than nearly anything comparably equipped — including from Fender’s own lineup — you start to really appreciate what a deal they represent. Neither instrument has any surprises in store. The MVP4-62 behaves exactly how you would expect a P-style bass to perform. It offers lush and supportive lows with the tone rolled off, and authoritative, growly mids as the tone control is turned up. As with the MVJ, the MVP is notably resonant and alive-feeling in the hand. Even played acoustically, you can appreciate that the instrument’s constituent parts are resonating in harmony, producing a remarkably loud and well-textured sound. Perhaps it was the torrefied neck, but I was also impressed at the absence of a dead spot on each bass. Most Fender-style instruments sort of fall apart around D on the G string, but not the Modern Vintage instruments. They were notably even throughout their register.
The MVJ does exactly what you’d want a vintage-style J bass to do. With the neck pickup soloed, it doles out the sort of woody bark one associates with Paul Jackson. Soloing the bridge and rolling off a bit of the tone reveals the classic Jaco-esque back-pickup bite. With each pickup full up, a sophisticated sheen emerges, perfect for slap or general-purpose support. As with the MVP, the MVJ shines for its clarity, string-to-string balance, and pleasingly full-bodied timbre.
Years of designing and building bespoke fancy-pants instruments has not made Rob Elrick ignorant to the unique powers and pleasures of a good ol’ Fender-style bass. Far from it. In fact, with the Modern Vintage basses, players will benefit from observing Elrick’s uniquely refined sensibility flourish within a familiar form. Those in the market for a vintage-style bass, but unwilling to pay the price or unable to confront the challenge of finding a good example, would be well served to check out the Modern Vintage basses.
Pros Excellent construction, high-end components, nails all the classic tones
Bottom Line For the price, the Modern Vintage basses represent an incredible value for those interested in vintage Fender-style sound and feel.
Jonathan Herrera, Bass Magazine August 3/2021