We take a look Fender's American Ultra Jazz model and break down what makes it unique and how it sounds
I have long been in love with the Fender Jazz Bass. As a young player, I found myself drawn to the Jazz Bass — how it looked, felt, and sounded. A Jazz Bass just felt like home when I had it in my hands. I liked the slender neck, the way the two-pickup configuration allowed for a variety of tones, and how favoring the bridge pickup allowed the bass to punch through the mix. For a long time I wanted an Amercan-made Jazz, but I couldn’t afford it. Toward the end of my college years, however, a friend who worked at a local music store sold me one he got in on trade — at a price that I’m told later got him in trouble with management. (Thanks, Jeff!) That ’93 American Jazz Standard is still one of my main instruments, but I’ve added a number of other Jazz Basses alongside it, including a ’76 that is killer.
Over the past three decades, I’ve played a host of Jazz Basses, from vintage ’60s models to the reissues and modern updates Fender has produced in that same time span. Within the context of that experience, I suggest that the newest iteration of the American Jazz Bass, the American Ultra Jazz, is one of the smartest redesigns of this iconic instrument I’ve seen in years.
The main updates to the Standard Jazz on the Ultra fall into a few key areas: neck shape, fingerboard radius, body contour, bridge, and electronics. So, yeah, about everything has been tweaked. The Ultra Jazz neck has a modern “D” shape (making it thinner than the modern “C” shape), and the neck heel tapers where it connects to the body. Additionally, the fingerboard radius starts at 10″ at the nut and gradually gets flatter as you move up the neck, to end at 14″. As a result, the bass gets easier to play (on several levels) as you move up the neck. When I compared the body of the Ultra to my ’76, the main differences I saw concerned the heel shape and the “offset waist contour,” which extends a bit longer into the upper horn on the Ultra. The heavy-mass bridge is a welcomed feature for those of us who have long enjoyed Badass-style bridges, as are Fender’s Ultra Noiseless pickups, which provide vintage tones without the traditional hum associated with them. For the electronics on the Ultra Jazz, Fender redesigned their active/passive electronics to pair perfectly with these specific pickups. (For more specific details on the features, check out the bass on Fender’s website.)
Our review bass came in lovely cobalt blue and featured a black-bound maple fingerboard with subtly figured black inlays. As luck would have it, its arrival coincided with a sub request from Nashville bassist and singer Matt Coen, who asked me to fill in for him for two months while he recovered from shoulder surgery. Matt’s band, Radio Pirate, is popular in the local Nashville music scene and plays two-to-three-hour sets of Top 40 tunes — a great laboratory in which to try out the Ultra Jazz and the versatility it promises.
My first gig with Radio Pirate was at the Acme Seed & Feed, a celebrated Nashville venue. I had only one rehearsal with the band, so I knew I would mostly be dialing in my sound live, switching back and forth from fingerstyle to pick throughout the set, running the signal through MXR overdrive and fuzz pedals that I employed when a song required it. The set opened with “We’re an American Band” and two hours later closed with “Ballroom Blitz.” In between we played hits from Eve 6, Prince, Santana, and a host of rock tunes from the ’80s. By the end of the gig, I was very into this bass — the feel of the modern “D” neck, the ease with which I could dial in various tones, and the playability of the compound radius fretboard. I kept the bass in active mode for the whole set, except for when we played Bill Withers’ “Use Me.” For a lot of the songs where I played with a pick, I tended to privilege the neck pickup a bit more, while picking near the bridge. For the ’80s rock songs, I ran both full on and added in a bit more bass. For funk tunes, I bumped up the bass and rolled off a bit of the neck pickup. One of the things I love about the Fender Jazz Bass is that I can make sonic adjustments quickly, and that was the case here.
The band dug the bass, too. Matt is the frontman, so he was still on lead vocals (arm sling and all), and he had nothing but good things to say about the instrument. After the gig, several people commented on the bass tone. Additionally, when I noticed Starship bassist Jeff Adams sitting in the audience, I invited him onstage to take the bass for a spin on a few tunes (the dude is a killer player). He loved it and commented on how good the bass felt and sounded. For the next two months, I played this bass exclusively with Radio Pirate and got even more familiar with its nuances and the practical benefits of these updates.
We often say, “Leo got it right,” and he surely did. But right up to his death in 1991, Leo was tweaking his invention via his work with G&L, looking for ways to improve upon the sound and playability of the instrument he made famous. The updates Fender offers in the Ultra Jazz do that here, and the practical nature of these changes demonstrate that whoever had a hand in designing this bass is either a working bassist or is listening very closely to those who are. As such, the improvements warrant the consideration of longtime Jazz Bass players to add an Ultra to their arsenal. Those looking to purchase their first Jazz Bass will benefit from the updates, while still enjoying the traditional elements that have made this iconic instrument popular with so many players in so many genres.
Pros Improved playability, updated electronics, beautiful
Bottom Line It’s always a challenge to significantly improve upon an instrument that has already stood the test of time, but Fender pulls it off.
Color Cobalt blue
Neck Maple, modern “D” shape, black binding
Fingerboard radius Bound 10″–14″ compound-radius fingerboard
Frets 21, medium-jumbo
Nut width 1.5″ (38.1 mm)
Pickups Ultra Noiseless J
Controls Master volume, blend (pickup selector), treble boost/cut, midrange
boost/cut, bass boost/cut, passive tone, active/passive mini toggle
Bridge 4-saddle Hi-Mass
Tuners Fender “F” lightweight vintage-paddle keys with tapered shafts
Case Elite molded case
For more visit: Fender