The Company Line
Journey Instruments specializes in travel-ready acoustic stringed instruments, including ukuleles, fixed-neck guitars and collapsible-neck guitars and basses. We were wowed by the collapsible-neck OB660 “Overhead” carbon fiber bass guitar back at the 2017 NAMM Show. In fact, this bass won a Bass Gear Magazine Best of Show Award that year. We were initially impressed that such a small, compact acoustic bass guitar could be not only very playable, but very loud! And when they showed us how the neck comes off and stows away for transport so quickly, our heads were spinning!
Needless to say, I was thrilled when our friends at Journey Instruments agreed to send us an Overhead bass to check out in detail. I have to admit, I do not fly to gigs very often – or ever, as the case may be – so the major trick performed by the OB660 (the ability to very quickly detach the neck and stow it in a bag designed to fit into an overhead compartment) is not vital to my lifestyle or anticipated use of the instrument. However, I do go camping fairly often, and I do like to participate in fireside jams with my acoustic guitar playing buds. So being “travel-friendly” is nice, but the fact that this little bass puts out a ton of acoustic volume is even better, for me, personally.
That’s what really won the award for this bass at the 2017 Show. The volume, tone, and playability. Sure, the collapsible-neck feature is super impressive, and very well-implemented. But if you didn’t end up with a fun, playable instrument at the end of the day, it wouldn’t matter much. Fortunately, this little bass definitely delivers.
The particular instrument which Journey sent us for review is the purple-top OB660P1 model. As previously stated, the body, neck and fingerboard are made of carbon fiber composite, with a bone nut and saddle, and ebony bridge pins (with mother of pearl inlays). The logo on the headstock also features mother of pearl; nice! Amplified volume is provided courtesy of a proprietary under-saddle passive transducer pickup system, and a dual-action truss rod allows for tweaking the relief. The flat portion of the top of the bass is “electric purple,” as is the top of the (very small!) headstock. Instead of a “cutout,” the Overhead Bass features a Scoopaway™ at the neck/body joint, allowing greater access to the higher frets.
The body features a Manzer Wedge©™ design that is supposed to increase both acoustic volume and comfort, and from what I can tell, it seems to be working. The sound hole is positioned in the upper shoulder on the bass side of the body, which presumably allows for a larger continuous resonating surface for the top, and also places the sound hole closer to your ears. Whatever it’s doing, this diminutive acoustic bass is far louder than it has any right to be, and whereas some acoustic bass guitars sound like muffled versions of an acoustic guitar, without much true depth of tone or clarity, the OB660 is both deep and clear, acoustically.
Despite the short scale (27”) and reduced number of frets (17), the Overhead Bass is surprisingly easy to play. I say this coming from the perspective of playing a full-size acoustic bass guitar, more so than from the perspective of playing a traditional electric bass. It definitely feels like playing an ABG, but the small size doesn’t seem weird, somehow.
Heading for a Breakdown
The big “gimmick,” of course, for the Journey Instruments Overhead bass (and their Overhead guitar) is the ability to “collapse” the neck – basically take it off, while leaving the strings attached – and to do so very quickly. This is accomplished by loosening a large “wing nut” at the back of the neck, and then pressing down on a button located immediately behind the neck and very close to the neck-side strap button. Once you loosen the nut and press the button, the neck pivots up and away from the neck pocket.
You can then place the bass into its nicely-padded “travel backpack,” which lets you tuck the neck into the “lid,” while the body of the bass sits in the larger portion of the case. A soft padded flap makes sure that the strings don’t scratch the body of the bass. As previously mentioned, the case is designed to fit into the overhead bin compartment, and it has a side-mounted carry handle. If you prefer, there are also backpack straps (which can be nicely hidden away, if you choose not to use them). The case also has some extra pockets that are pretty useful. One is even big enough for a small-to-medium-sized laptop.
Straight From the Source
Not being familiar with Journey Instruments as a company, I asked company founder, Rob Bailey, to tell me a bit about how things got started.
“Convergent Sourcing is the supply chain management company I own that funded Journey Instruments. The whole project started back around 2009 when I was consulting corporate clients with Convergent and was getting back into fingerstyle guitar. I was outsourcing services from our team of mechanical and carbon fiber engineers at that time. While I was looking for a good travel guitar for business trips, I really wasn’t happy with anything on the market – so I put our team to work and leveraged our in-house R&D abilities with our supply chain management expertise. When we went to design the Overhead, I spent 300 hours surveying the acoustic guitar gear forums to put together the feature set – which is how we ended up with features like the Manzer Wedge design (which maximizes the volume with a wedge design), the removable neck, passive pickups, and premium tuners.
Basically, the goal of Journey instruments is to provide premium-quality instruments for musicians who are on the go. When we design a product series, we’re thinking through the entire user experience. When artists play our instruments, they’re usually blown away by the ergonomics of the instrument and how easy they are to play. At NAMM, we always get guitarists (and especially bass players) that look really skeptical at our design – until they pick one up and play it. ?The cases are designed not merely to protect a great instrument, but as part of the core feature set – so the cases enable quick assembly, great protection, but also conveniently organized storage for the accessories and gear artists need to bring along. So it’s usually after someone travels with our instrument that they fully appreciate our instruments.”
I was intrigued by the use of carbon fiber, and asked Rob if the decision was made early on to build using carbon fiber, of if certain experiments/discoveries pushed them in this direction.
“The idea for carbon fiber came from the market data we received when doing a survey of the gear pages. It seemed carbon was the best choice in terms of durability and artists who traveled in extreme weather variances. However, we heard equal response for wood from traveling musicians who were more traditional, or just stayed in nicer climate-controlled environments. So when we designed the neck latching mechanism, we designed something that could be efficiently produced in both carbon and wood. In the guitar design process, we actually started designing the carbon model first, then we went to work on the wood one. But the carbon took a year longer to implement production – so we came to market with the wood Overhead OF410 and OF420 first.”
So, Journey had its guitars nailed down first. I wondered when they first came up with the concept of adding a travel bass to the lineup…
“From the first launch at NAMM in 2012, we had numerous bass players say, ‘Man that would be awesome if you had a bass that could do that!’ We kept hearing more and more requests from bassists – both online and at trade shows, so we just put this in the product launch schedule and here we are.”
Lots of great ideas for guitar don’t translate well to bass. I feel like the Overhead design most definitely does work great as a bass, but I asked Rob if the collapsible-neck bass instrument presented any special challenges, unique from the collapsible guitars.
“The main challenge for bass was when we did the fretless model. It takes more work to plane a radiused carbon fretless fretboard than it does for a wood one, that’s for sure. A surprising benefit from our bass design was that because it is a 27” scale, the bass string tension is actually lower than the string tension of our guitars, so we can go thinner on the top and it’s super resonant.”
Very interesting! Something else that interested me when reading about the Overhead design were the specific benefits of the Manzer Wedge design in this smaller instrument.
“We’ve actually taken the Manzer Wedge to a new level. When the wedged design began, it was actually made as a retrofit on a guitar, and was mainly designed to alleviate shoulder strain and make playing more comfortable. So you actually got less volume, but more comfort, from the original implementation. Also, it makes barre chords much easier, because the weight of your fretting hand arm is pulling naturally against the fretboard. What we did differently is we boosted the thickness of the bottom of the bout by like 20%. So at the bottom of our guitars, they look super thick. But at the top, we kept the thickness of a normal parlor guitar. The result was that it still had the comfort and playability benefits of the original wedged design, but the increased thickness really served to boost the volume. And on the carbon, when you add the rib and arm bevels, this instrument is just super comfortable.”
Considering that we are not working with wood, you would presume that there is less hand crafting involved, right? Well, perhaps not; Rob explains:
“It’s a common misconception that carbon instruments don’t have the same degree of craftsmanship as do wood guitars. In actuality, in comparison to factory made wood guitars, there is just as much – if not more – hand craftsmanship in carbon fiber instruments as there is in wood. While we use tooling for each component, each instrument has multiple layers of carbon that are laid up by hand; while most wood instruments are made from pre-fabricated CNC bodies and necks. Fretting and fingerboard work on carbon is more intensive than any wood instrument, and both require neck and setup adjustments. Finally, the finishing, paint, and buffing process is equally as demanding as any wood instrument.”
How Does It Sound?
As I mentioned before, this smaller acoustic bass is surprisingly loud. In fact, it is just as loud as my full-sized Epiphone El Capitan ABG – which, itself, is one of the louder acoustic bass guitars I have found. At some of the recent NAMM Shows, I have had the opportunity to play some very large acoustic bass guitars made from carbon fiber, but for whatever reason, they were not as loud as this little guy. There may be some magic in its size, weight and proportions. The Manzer Wedge might be a major reason; I don’t know. I do know that whether played with fingers or a pick, the acoustic volume and tone of the Overhead bass are very impressive.
The input jack for the piezo transducer is built into the bridge-side strap button. There are no controls (and no preamp). The amplified nature of the OB660 is a little different than its acoustic properties. The tone gets much “bigger,” with deep, somewhat “pillowy” lows and decent clarity, though not a lot of middle to upper midrange content. It does have that (desirable) “amplified acoustic” tone and qualities – but without the harshness associated with some piezo pickups. By comparison, the El Capitan is a bit more clear, crisp and defined, though admittedly slightly harsh. The Overhead bass sounds somewhat like a mix between an acoustic guitar and an electric upright bass (EUB), whereas the El Capitan sounds like a deeper, more throaty acoustic guitar.
Considering my anticipated personal use of the Overhead bass (solo practice around the house or campfire jams) the overall playability and acoustic tone/volume are of paramount importance. However, if I were doing a lot of amplified gigs, then it might be nice to have an on-board preamp/EQ. In fact, I asked Rob about the possibility of different pickups or an onboard preamp, and received a very tantalizing response: “Actually this is something we plan to launch in the near future … both upgraded pickups and potentially an all-solid traditional electric collapsible bass. Stay tuned!” ?
The removable neck feature is truly an impressive achievement, both in terms of design and execution. But I have to say, when I am playing this bass, I totally forget about that particular feature. It’s just very easy and fun to play, and the acoustic tone and volume never cease to amaze me.
The Bottom Line
While this little bass certainly may look cute, it is no toy. The Overhead bass plays great, has impressive acoustic volume and tone, and easily folds up into a ridiculously small package. Throw an external preamp into the included backpack, and you are ready to travel! Admittedly, the targeted demographic of jet-setting, acoustic bass guitar-playing musicians might be extremely limited, but if you have any desire/need for a smallish, loud, nice-playing acoustic bass, you definitely need to consider looking Overhead.