Ask the average citizen to picture a bass guitar, and assuming they know what you’re talking about, they’ll likely imagine something like the Fender Precision or Jazz Bass. The incredible staying power and ubiquity of Leo Fender’s original designs are extraordinary when one considers how long ago the first Fenders were loaded onto a Ford panel truck from a Fullerton loading dock, Chuck Berry gleefully shouting from the mono tube radio. Sure, there have been occasional stabs at wholesale innovation — Steinberger’s très ’80s L-series new-wave rectangles come to mind — but most manufacturers generally follow in Fender’s footsteps.
There’s no arguing that the Fender formula works; it is the definitive bass for a reason. But it undeniably has some inherent shortcomings, even if we’ve all learned to live with them. First, most bass guitars don’t balance well at all. The combination of the headstock, densely packed with large tuning machines and the terminal wraps of each string, and an inadequately long upper horn often place basses’ center of gravity too far up the neck, leaving us with necks that dive floorward. Energy better used for good fretting-hand technique is instead wasted holding the neck up. Basses are also hard to travel with, given their length. You might be stunned at the machinations I’ve employed to ensure my bass makes it into a plane’s cabin with me, and not underneath with the roller bags and insufficiently credentialed emotional-support dogs. Many is the time I’ve watched my bands’ guitar player breeze onto a jetway unmolested, while I dutifully ignored the piercing gaze of a ticket agent reaching beneath her desk for a gate-check tag, the way a liquor store owner furtively reaches for the baseball bat gathering dust under a carton of Camels at the first whiff of trouble.
Further scrutiny of the Fender formula reveals limitations of more arguable importance. Some players prefer the timbre and feel of a longer-than-standard scale, like 35" or 36", especially if they’re playing a B-string-equipped 5-string. Yet, when it comes to the sound and feel of the higher strings, those same players often prefer the flexibility and timbre of a shorter scale. Another arguable limitation is the curved profile of the bass neck. If some of my students are any indication, the shape makes it really hard to keep the thumb on the back of the neck where it mostly belongs.
All of which brings us to the bass reviewed here, the Strandberg Boden Prog 5-string. I belabored the points above in order to contextualize this undeniably weird-looking instrument as something more than an angular art piece. Its outré look is a consequence of Swedish luthier Ola Strandberg’s belief that ergonomics and playability are among the chief necessities on a bass. The Boden Prog is headless to eliminate neck dive. Touring with it is a cinch, too, since it fits in a guitar-size gig bag. Its fanned-fret design makes the B string long and taut and the G gooey and bright, while the trapezoidal neck profile ensures that your thumb stays in a fingerboard-opposed position. So, if the Strandberg seems to address all the conventional concerns, why aren’t we all playing one?
Despite its high price and lux look, the Boden Prog is built in Indonesia. A few years ago this would have been cause for real concern, but the country is now among the world’s most prolific producers of instruments, due mostly to Korea-based Cort Guitars, which operates a factory there that’s responsible for many low- and mid-range instruments from some of the industry’s most iconic brands. Indonesia’s now well-trained and skilled workers, coupled with the precision of CNC manufacturing, diminishes significantly the chance that a contemporary Indonesian bass lives up to the negative stereotypes many still hold about Asian-built instruments. Nevertheless, I’m sympathetic to those who feel that on principle, a $3K+ instrument shouldn’t be built by robots in a factory with low-wage laborers, even if the end result is indistinguishable from a bass with a more prestigious pedigree.
After pulling the Boden Prog out of its delightfully diminutive gig bag for the first time, one is perhaps struck with the sort of reflexive skepticism that greets an office drone eyeing the new ergonomic kneeling chair she impulsively ordered from SkyMall. Yeah, the blurb said it’d be better for her body than her beloved Aeron, but how in the hell does she get in the thing? I, too, was not sold until I sat down and picked up the Strandberg. It may look like it’s all points, bumps, and weird angles, but it melded itself into my body in a way few basses ever have. On my lap or on a strap, its headless design and perfectly proportioned lower bout made for exquisite balance. The knobs are thoughtfully positioned and close at hand, although I do not like the placement of the volume and blend controls. (Blend is the first in the lower row, while the volume pot is farther up and all the way back.)
Once the Boden Prog is in hand, it continues to surprise. The deep trapezoidal neck profile (think of it like a triangle with the top lopped off) is strange indeed. Strandberg says the design, which is patented as the EndurNeck, has a few benefits. First, the flat surfaces provide a “more restful place for the thumb.” Strandberg goes on, “Your hand is much stronger when gripping something thick than when gripping something thin, and the EndurNeck uses this fact in its design.” In my experience with the Boden Prog, the EndurNeck is sort of the fanned frets of neck profiles — weird looking, intimidating at first, but after a few minutes, surprisingly comfortable. Which leads me to the next obvious idiosyncrasy: those fanned frets. As I alluded to above, fanned frets lengthen the scale of the lower strings and shorten the higher strings’ scale, ostensibly affording a player the best of all worlds. I’ve encountered many fanned-fret basses, and while I’m not personally seduced enough by the idea to add one to my arsenal, I do believe that the varying scale length has an audible impact (especially on a 5-string), and I’ve found that I adapt quickly when I’m playing in the lower registers of a fanned-fret bass. It’s only when playing up high that the arrangement’s ergonomics start to bother me. It’s particularly difficult to play accurate chords (like the typical one-fret minor 7 voicing) above the 14th fret. Then again, perhaps this is a gig-protection feature, not a bug, the bass having my best interests at heart.
The superbly constructed Strandberg does much to belie the aforementioned negative stereotypes around Asian import basses. There’s abundant attention to detail throughout its construction, from the precision of its assembly to the refined sculpting of its many sinuous curves. Headless designs typically offer cool hardware as a matter of necessity, and the Strandberg doesn’t disappoint. Each string is tuned at the body end and lies in its own saddle structure, isolated from the other strings. Tuning is precise and easy, and kudos to Strandberg for a design that doesn’t require rare double-ball-end strings. That said, the tuners’ chintzy plastic knobs are a let-down at this price point. However, the electronics package is as good as it gets. Strandberg worked extensively with Carey Nordstrand of Nordstrand Audio to ensure the pickups captured his sonic vision. They landed on the humbucking Nordstrand Big Rig pickups, an innovative staggered-polepiece design intended to reduce the comb-filtering that can adversely affect the frequency response of conventional parallel-polepiece layouts. These superb pickups are mated to a Darkglass Electronics ToneCapsule preamp. Like everything else on this bass, the preamp is a bit left-of-center in that it doesn’t offer a traditional treble control, but rather a pair of peaking midrange filters, the higher of which is centered at 2.8kHz — which is low compared to the highest filter on a typical 3-band preamp.
While I’m supposed to be an expert in these matters, there’s no denying that the hardest part of reviewing basses is attributing my subjective observations to some objective qualities of the bass, particularly when it comes to tone. It’s much easier to report on an instrument’s construction and technology than it is to connect its sound to a particular wrinkle of its design, composition, or other fact. The Strandberg made this especially difficult, perhaps because of its unusual design.
The Boden Prog is a distinctive-sounding bass. I’m not sure what part of its complex cocktail made it so, but it offers a notably full-spectrum tone that embodies the oft-abused descriptor “hi-fi.” The B string is clear and focused, with excellent pitch definition and well-textured sparkle and snap. The midrange is balanced, with a slightly woody bark. Highs are present and clear, although the Stranderg isn’t at all a bright bass, likely due to the voicing of the preamp’s top-most EQ filter. String-to-string clarity and separation is admirable, with chords and densely packed arpeggios speaking with lucid definition. The bass responded well to slap, although fans of super-zingy highs may find its more high-mid-focused personality lacking.
In summary, the Strandberg Boden Prog is fascinating. Bass is an instrument that has long strained to evolve functionally, despite the noble (and occasionally successful) attempts by visionary luthiers. Its construction quirks are well reasoned, even if they combine in an instrument that I’m not sure is for me. That said, the Boden Prog is an excellent bass for anyone who embraces farsighted design concepts, especially if they’re also in the market for a bass that’s as easy to travel with as the average guitar.
Strandberg Boden Prog 5-string
Pros Lightweight, portable, clear and balanced tone, ergonomics and balance are nearly perfect
Cons A few cost-cutting indications; expensive for an Indonesian-made bass
Bottom Line While it may not be for everyone, the Strandberg Boden Prog is one of the most portable and playable basses out there, blessed with a sweet and musical tone.
Body Chambered swamp-ash body
Top Book-matched flame maple
Finish Brown-stain semi-gloss polyurethane
Neck Roasted maple w/12-ply carbon-fiber reinforcement
Neck joint Bolt-on
Pickups Nordstrand Audio Big Rig humbucking soapbars
Electronics Darkglass ToneCapsule 3-band EQ
Hardware Strandberg EGS Rev 2, black
Weight 6.6 lbs
Made in Indonesia