The HG in the serial number is one of the least noticeable parts of Neil Jason’s sleek new Manhattan Prestige Session One bass, but it tells a key story. Reveals Neil, “Those initials are a tribute to my late dad, who got me my first bass and amp, and was totally supportive of my career. I felt if I had a little bit of him touching each instrument it would kind of be like giving the opportunity he gave to me to bassists everywhere.” That sense of completing the circle is a driving force behind the impressive 4-string model sure to shake up the bass world with its high quality build and low price tag.
For those who know Jason, whose legendary Gotham session career boasts countless #1 hits and gold records with such artists as Cyndi Lauper, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Dire Straits, Mick Jagger, the Brecker Brothers, Yoko Ono, David Sanborn, Roxy Music, and Bryan Ferry, creating his own line of basses is not unexpected. As someone who always kept his antennae up when throwing down on sessions, Jason learned the ins and outs of studio gear and procedure; sang, played multiple instruments, composed, arranged, and produced for his own jingle companies (and more recently for his wife, French jazz vocalist-composer Brigitte Zarie); and in 2020 launched his effects pedal company, SeamoonFX, with the Seamoon Funk Machine, a modern take on the Funk Machine used band-wide in the Brecker Brothers’ heyday. We managed to pin down Neil long enough to get the inside story on his new instrument and his move into the bass manufacturer realm.
What led you to want to design and build your own basses?
I’ve always been a tinkerer, taking apart and putting together basses throughout my career, getting to know the components. But it started to occur to me in a major way about ten years ago. There had to be a way to make a pro level instrument that doesn’t have a boutique bass price tag. I felt like there was a void in the system. I just wasn’t seeing production basses coming off the line with well-thought-out designs, quality parts, and good setups. I’d been approached by various manufacturers, but no one wanted to mass produce the exact instrument I was thinking about, so I realized I had to do it myself. Five years ago I had this same conversation with my good friend Jack Thompson from Alpha Distribution, who is a bass player, and we decided to partner up and try to do it ourselves. Legendary luthier Trev Wilkinson joined us along the way and I’m extremely honored to work with both gentlemen.
What was your concept for the bass?
The main concept was to create an instrument that sounds and performs like a $5000 bass for $999. I wanted an affordable bass that comes out of the box set up and ready to go, giving you a professional tool you can use on tour, in the studio, or on a pub gig. To be able to build it and then repeat it to the same standards in order to keep the price down was my primary mission. The other part of the equation is that this is a bass made by a bass player. Someone whose hands know how it’s supposed to feel, whose ears know how it’s supposed to sound, and through experience knows what it’s supposed to do.
Manhattan Prestige Bass with front pickup favored:
Bryan Ferry Live at Royal Albert Hall 2020: “The Bogus Man”:
What was the process like and what were some key challenges?
I went through dozens of prototypes over the course of five years, testing them in the studio and on the road. Getting them in the hands of some top players for input. I traveled around the world a few times, touring and trying different factories. The most difficult part of the process was getting the neck right, but everything is connected on a bass, so there were no shortcuts in any area. The best part was that I didn’t have to rush. The whole purpose of doing this was if at the conclusion of the journey I came out with an amazing bass and there was no way to mass produce it for less than $5000, then that would have been the end of it. I wasn’t trying to make a Neil Jason signature bass. I was trying to make a regular-priced bass that was full of the information I’ve learned over the past 50 years. I thought, if I get this formula right, it would be a great instrument to share with people.
What do you feel are the advantages of having an instrument designed and built by someone with your extensive playing experience and perspective?
Well, first, I have tremendous respect for all of the companies and boutique builders making basses, especially in the current climate. I just think the advantages I have were gained through getting to play with the very best musicians, artists, producers, and engineers in the greatest studios for six decades. You pick up a lot of information. Being in the boiler room, putting blood on the tracks, you get better with that kind of steady pressure. Jack says he likes my opinions because they’re formed like diamonds, from pressure and skill [laughs].
Manhattan Prestige Bass with back pickup favored:
Bryan Ferry Live at Royal Albert Hall 2020: “Same Old Scene”:
How much of an influence was your trademark 1965 L-Series Fender Jazz Bass?
I would say that bass and a handful of other ones are what have informed my hands, my ears, and my heart for the last 50 years, and by extension they influenced the Manhattan Prestige Bass. As much as I kept one of my L-Series completely stock, others I took apart and reconfigured ten ways to Sunday. Everyone loved the feel of those basses but they had the advantage of being “broken in” and played for decades. I wanted to create a bass that plays as easily as a bass with 50 years of wear on it, but still have room for a bass player to make it his or her own. A truly great pro-level instrument works for a lot of people in a lot of different settings.
Let’s address the instrument’s components beginning with the body.
The body on the Session One is slightly smaller than a Fender Jazz Bass, almost like a 7/8 body, but it’s a bit thicker front to back. There are some new curves and contours that help make it super balanced and comfortable. It’s all about comfort and weight; the basses come in between 7 and 7.5 lbs. The body wood for the majority of Session One basses is alder because I believe it makes the best-sounding bass. Alder has probably been on more recordings than any other wood on the planet. There will be a natural ash model available because it sounds great, as well, and some bassists prefer it, but it comes in a bit heavier, between 8 and 9 lbs. Overall, the bass carries a sense of modernized tradition. It’s the 2021 version of a classic bass; a more streamlined, sports car version. I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, I just wanted to help make it more round.
What can you reveal about the pickups?
That’s definitely where some secret magic exists. I worked with Trev to get custom-wound, single-coil pickups that don’t sound like anything else. It was great to have him come to shows and sessions, and listen and try different versions. The pickups have a very full range and a rich tone. You can go from a snappy, bright slap sound, to a tight, punchy, muffled R&B fingerstyle sound, to a serious piano wire sound when using a pick. My goal was to be able to get a fuller sound spectrum out of a passive bass. The pickups almost sound active. They’re positioned traditonally in the scope of the body, and the pots are a customized design. An active model with a custom preamp is coming down the road shortly.
The bridge looks traditional.
I told Trev I wanted a traditional bridge, with barrel-style saddles, and with enough resonance to pass through to the body correctly. Mainly I was looking for the simplest design to keep the weight down. Keeping it simple was a credo throughout the design and building of the bass.
The magnetic back cover plate is cool.
My idea was to make it easy to get in and out of the back of the bass, without having to spend ten minutes dealing with six screws—especially with our active models coming soon. In discussing it with Jack and Trev, I heard the suggestion of a magnetic backplate. It had to not interfere with the electronics, and be secure and flush with the contours of the body. Our third attempt was a success. You pop it out with your thumb for quick access.
Let’s discuss the neck.
Which is pretty much your first impression of a bass. When someone hands you a bass you grab it by the neck, so the first thing you notice is the feel of the neck and the weight of the instrument. If something is off there, you’ve got a problem. The neck profile is a combination of the finest basses I’ve played, and it falls into the hand comfortably. It’s made of one-piece maple and the fingerboards are rosewood—I’m a rosewood fanatic. There will be a maple fingerboard option, as well. The finish is a light satin poly, very smooth feeling. And the neck joint is rounded and contoured, with four countersunk screws, for comfort and easy access up high.
How about the frets and the nut?
We elected to use smaller frets for a few reasons. After trying out several different sizes on prototypes, we liked the feel and responsiveness of the smaller frets, and the intonation was easier to set up. It made a considerable difference in the tone as well; there was a better point on the notes and the low notes held together very well. We went with a Tusq nut, which also substantially upgraded the tone.
Players will appreciate the luminescent side position markers.
Those are Luminlay position markers. Every bassist has dealt with songs starting in the dark onstage. For years on tour I would go into hobby shops and buy luminescent dots and glue them on the side postions, so that when the lights went down there was a nice soft glow facing up at me; which was reassuring. I had experimented with LEDs, but they’re not pragmatic. The Luminlay side dots are something you might not even notice until you’re in a dark setting, but then you’ll be glad you have them.
Tell me about the headstock, with its distinctive red back.
That took me awhile, drawing it and cutting different shapes. It had to look good but be slimmed down to reduce the weight and help the balance of the bass. The tuners are custom designed by Trev; they’re smaller and lighter, and very precise. The red back was my idea from early in my career. Around the world, red is considered good luck. It’s also a nod to my first real bass, a red ’65 L-Series Fender Jazz Bass that had a painted headstock. People have said it reminds them of the red sole designer shoes, but honestly that’s just a coincidence.
What can you say about the setup?
After a lot of experimentation, I came up with a spec I like. It provides a fast action but with enough room for a player to dig in when they want to, without worrying about squeaks or fret noise. It’s a lifetime bass so obviously you can take the action up or down as needed, as you grow into it. Every instrument is inspected and setup at our Orlando, Florida warehouse.
How did you come up with the Manhattan Prestige name?
Over the course of a lot of late night calls with Jack. Manhattan is where I cut 90% of the records I played on. It holds the dearest place in my heart and it made me the musician I am. Jack felt we should use Manhattan for that reason, as well as “prestige,” which means the best of the best. The Session One model also refers to my playing career, as well as it being our first bass and the one, basic instrument to forge a career on. It will accept your personality. You play the bass, it doesn’t play you.
How will you sell the basses?
As Jack likes to say, they will be available far and wide. We have our website [HERE], and we’re signing up dealers and stores as we speak, including zZounds and American Music Supply.
What will your full line look like?
I certainly want to have more than one bass to apply our hard-earned concepts to. The Session One is the first step in a five-year plan. Next will be Session One options, including maple fingerboards, ash bodies, and a fretless model—which sounds spectacular. Then there will be a P-Bass, then active versions of the P & J, and then a 5-string line.
What’s your ultimate goal for Manhattan Prestige Basses?
I’d like it to become a go-to bass for players everywhere. I want to continue to enjoy the journey and interact with the people who play them. Players will be able to send me messages via our website, which will help us make the basses even better. The goal is to become a great bass manufacturer who offers something to the bassist that embodies the experience I’ve had, and hopefully it helps them towards successful careers of their own. It’s all about giving back.
Follow Neil: Here