Recently I bought a brand new Thomas Martin Concerto bass direct from the Luthiers in Oxford, UK. These guys (Thomas, his son George and their team) have been making fine bases for a long while now and alongside making new basses have dealt with some of the biggest-hitters in the old-bass world.
John Pattituci plays one of their basses and so does Thomas Martin himself, a fine classical player and master of the music of Bottesini, among others.
Their flagship model is all hand built in their workshop in oxfordshire, and runs at about £12k (inc. VAT), though I have seen mention of someone buying one for $15k, which is a bargain if that is still the case!
The Martins' slightly more student offerings are the Concert and smaller Concerto models. These bases are very similar to the higher priced counterparts but have the front and back carved in Hungary and then the rest of the work completed back in their workshop. The prices are £6k for each (though that is inclusive of VAT).
I have been looking at a new bass for about a year, my quirky old German plywood thing has earned its worth literally 100 times over in the years I have been gigging it week in, week out. Its a bit of a monstrosity that wouldn't compete even with a basic stentor or zeller model but I grew to love it and get it to make the sounds I wanted!
Initially I had planned on getting a small upgrade to one of the 1 to 2k carved basses by the above mentioned companies. The Paul Bryant bass piqued my interest and at £3500 I decided that I could just about stretch to that and was about to go and have a look at it when I saw the Thomas Martin range.
I had looked at various old basses, but came upon the difficulty that there are not that many worth a second look at that price range in the UK. You start to get a few nice Rubners and the like at 7 or 8k but other than that most of the instruments at, for example, the contrabasse shoppe for around 5k were similar to the Martins, nicely made new basses with the added premium of a contrabasse shoppe setup and fee.
The Martins attracted me as I could deal directly with the maker and the bass would be setup to my spec by the same person that made the bass etc.
So, I travelled to Oxford on a whim, not a short journey (by UK standards anyway!) and was not expecting to be particularly wowed, I was sure it was a nice bass but didn't expect quite how it would grab me from the first couple of notes.
I found George Martin to be incredibly open, friendly and enthusiastic about everything bass related. We discussed my needs amongst other things and I was soon invited into the bass showroom where I found myself surrounded by one of the most amazing selection of basses I have seen. Plenty of oddities, rareties and no doubt many of them cost the sort of money I am unlikely to ever have at my disposal!
The bass I was to look at is their concerto model, a small 3/4 with a string length of 40" and the slimmed shoulders in the Quenoil style. It was initially set up with quite a high action but even so I found it an absolute joy to play, and it sounded fantastic. I am an audio engineer for half my income, along with gigs and sessions, so I'm pretty discerning when it comes to the sonics of an instrument. I have become used to, in all stages of the recording process, accepting the bad characteristics of a lot of instruments and amplifiers etc. and finding a way of dealing with them in the mix. I rarely hear anything that is 100% on the mark for me sound wise but I have to say the little Martin was a good 95%. Thats pretty exceptional for me!
The bridge was not completely finished when I saw it, but was set up with Jazz in mind. Thats what these basses were designed for essentially, though they are of a quality that they would do a fine job under the bow as well as a great student option. The bass was set to have quite a modern, springy sound, plenty of growl and Spiro's as standard. The first ten minutes I played it I was sure it was a contendor for my money, then we talked some more before George let me alone for a half hour.
I don't remember the thought process that occured in my head at that time but I remember when he came back in the room I said straight away 'I don't think theres any reason to search any longer' and shook hands a second later. Something about the bass made me smile on every note!
So I bought it, discussed setup and he even threw in a case and a Realist pickup for free, as well as cutting a nice deal. I picked it up a week later with all the work done and got to work learning the instrument!
Those of you with much experience of nice Bass' can take my views with a pinch of salt, as I have played many nice ones but not for more than a few tunes at a jam, or for 10 mins round a friends or similar. That said I have to admit that nothing I had played in my price range came close to this in any way, there was always some kind of compromise to be accepted with buying.
Not so with the Martin, its is a JOY to play. Incredibly even across the fingerboard, the tone in each area of the fingerboard blossoms in all the ways you would want with no uninspiring spots or weak areas. Its not got the biggest lows in the world, that being the setup I opted for and also the size of the bass. However they will sound fine recorded, and amplified is never an issue in that respect I have found. The detail in the low is all their for arco, its very rich and complex, just not very loud.
Other than that the bass sings, its remarkably loud for a little un and has a huge amount of punch for general walking duties. Once the band parts for a solo you can hear all the detail and nuance in the tone and it just sings, I find myself just hanging on one pedal note for half a chorus just enjoying the sound. Its so direct and clear that you can get away with the sort of stuff normally only reserved for horn players
I played the first gig with it with a great piano player, and after one song apologised that my dexterity on the instrument was not quite there yet (I ended up opting for a higher action than before) and he said 'It sounds F-ing amazing though!'. I took that as a very good sign, as the normal bass player in one of his trio's has a bass that came to £80k.
As for playability, its great. I am still working on getting the same dexterity I had on my old bass of many years but somehow it still seems much easier to play. I don't go for the super fast stuff that I did just yet, but nevertheless everything I try seems to come off and feel SO much better than before. It's like bouncing around on a silk bouncy castle, in a slow walk I find myself perceivabley looking forward to each note just for the feeling on my fingers. As well as that the design and setup is so inuitave that I find myself able to make huge jumps with confidence ALREADY. I was almost laughing tonight playing mr PC in a particularly raucous fasion, jumping from low to the high G string F and beyond over and over at breakneck tempo, and watching it all unfold with ease. It made me able to listen to NHOP and think 'yeah thats possible' haha!
All this and its within the first 50 hours of the bass' life, after which George tells me it will start to settle and get better, more even etc. I'm excited to experience this.
So to summarise, this was a big investment for me, earning only from music and in a dire time (especially in the uk) for the job. But it was a leap of faith that never felt unsafe in the buying process and has since proved that it was the right choice. After seeing many basses I wasn't expecting to be wowed but when I first played it there was a little thought in the back of my mind that said straight away 'this is my bass', and I can't argue with that , even if it was quite a lot over budget! It compares to the experience I've had playing friends basses worth MANY times over, and while the improvement in sound from those basses is noticeable I feel I've gotten a bass that comes very close for a fraction of the price. When you are talking of tens of thousands of pounds I think thats a pretty bold statement.
I wanted to write this review because in searching for info here and elsewhere on the web I couldn't find a whole lot about Martin basses. The small bits of info I could find were positive but there wasn't a lot of detail and to read something like this would have made the decision a lot easier. George, Thomas and the team are very honest buisinessmen making fine instruments with no compromise. I fully endorse their statement that you will find no better new bass for the money than the one I bought. I also got to see the workshop where it was 'born' and the whole team in their were enthusiastic, friendly and helpful. If you are looking for a fine new bass I recommend checking out a Martin.
And this is all for their lower end model, I can imagine their flagship model would sing like nothing else in its range, maybe its time I started saving for one of those
Sorry for the obscenely long post, I wanted it to be complete to address the balance of the Martin bass' presence on the web
Feel free to ask any questions!