The Company Line
One of the best things that can happen to a gear reviewer is to come across something with which you have zero experience, and absolutely no expectations, and then to have your world totally rocked. This is exactly what happened when I unboxed the first bass sent to us for review by Andrew Drake. I had seen some photos of his basses online, and they looked very compelling. So, I asked him about the possibility of sending us one for review. We decided on a solid-body 4-string bass, and not long thereafter, Andrew offered to send us a 5-string semi-hollow-body – to show a bit of the variety he has to offer. Fine by me!
Andrew is based in Nevada, Iowa, and he has been building since 2005. He started Drake Custom Bass in 2010, and each instrument is one-of-a-kind, entirely built by hand. With these types of builds, the quality of the woods/components and – more importantly – the skill of the luthier are of paramount importance. I am happy to say that Drake Custom Bass delivers mightily in both regards.
A Solid Start
Back in 2015, when Andrew and I first started talking about building a review bass, he asked me to look through his gallery of builds and pick a body style which I thought would be good for a review. This is, of course, like sending the kid with a sweet tooth into the candy store, and telling him to pick just one piece of candy. I was amazed by the variety of styles represented by his builds to date, but I kept coming back to his “Model 7” basses. The “rounded hook” of the upper horn diverges sharply from the deep-cut, thinner spur of the lower horn, but with the more symmetrical round curves of the upper and lower bouts, it all just works very well together. The headstock has some great lines of its own. This particular model struck me as “unique, but accessible” (in a stylistic sense), so I thought it would be a good one to feature in a review.
Most of Andrew’s Model 7 builds up to this point had been bolt-on necks, and he decided to make this one a deep set-neck instrument. After some discussion of tone woods, we decided on a mahogany body, with a maple neck and an ebony board. In my experience, this is a great recipe for a full-bodied, evenly balanced instrument, with both punch and clarity. Andrew found a fantastic piece of mahogany (this is a one-piece body), with great figuring and an attractive weight. He then topped it with a gorgeous quilted western maple top. A thin, darker band of wood (Italian poplar that has been dyed black) separates the two, and adds a nice touch of elegance.
The neck is a pretty special piece of wood, itself. It is quarter-sawn flamed maple, and it has been roasted (or “tempered”). It is definitely gorgeous, but Andrew claims that the tempered woods not only sound better, they also tend to be more stable. Just to be sure, though, he also throws in two carbon fiber bars (and a dual-action truss rod). The fingerboard is nice slab of Macassar ebony, fitted with smallish, stainless steel frets. Andrew has become a big fan of 33” scale necks, and as such, we both thought that would be a great choice for this build.
The headstock really shows off the class and abilities this luthier has to offer. The top of the headstock is capped in more of the Macassar ebony (with an ebony truss rod cover), and the back of the headstock matches the body, with a thin layer of the dyed Italian poplar and then capped with matching mahogany. Both the body and the neck are finished with non-tinted urethane, and the look and feel is just amazing. Andrew makes his own nut blanks, and both basses in for review feature nuts made of Black TUSQ, from Graphtech (though he sometimes also uses, bone, antler, or brass).
Andrew offers a wide variety of options for pickups and electronics, and I generally prefer to trust the luthier’s instincts. His solution for this bass was a pair of Aguilar® DCB® (“dual ceramic bar”) soapbar pickups, mated to an EMG BQC, which is a three-band, active-only system, with a sweepable midrange frequency. The controls are set up: volume, (active) blend, bass/treble stack, and midrange stack (sweep and boost/cut). The remainder of the hardware involves a Hipshot® A-style bridge, Hipshot Ultralite™ tuners – with a Bass Xtender (de-tuner) on the E string – and Dunlop Dual Design Straploks®. I really love the Dual Designs, as they will accommodate a regular strap, if you don’t have your strap with the Straploks on hand.
The Initial Experience
On paper, this bass was sounding pretty good, and the various “in progress” shots that Andrew was sending me definitely had my hopes up fairly high. I have been fortunate enough to have played a variety of fine instruments from a variety of smaller (as well as very well-established) builders, so I felt like I had set reasonably accurate expectations for what I would pull out of the box when this bass finally arrived. First up, I was happy to see that it shipped with a very nice Mono Vertigo™ gig bag (one of my favorites, for sure!). But once I pulled the bass, itself, out of the gig bag, I have to admit to being “dumb struck” for a little bit. The esthetic appeal of this bass just leaps out at you, and I was almost afraid to play it – fearing that its feel and playability would fall short of its killer looks. As it turns out, it played every bit as good as it looked, and I instantly connected with the “thin, but sturdy” shape of the neck and its satiny feel.
The unamplified tone of an instrument is an important litmus test, in my experience. Basses which don’t have much acoustic volume, or which sound either very bright or very dull (unamplified) usually need to lean on their on-board electronics or the tone stack on your bass rig to bring them to life. Conversely, I have found that instruments which have decent acoustic volume, and noticeable resonance on both the lower and higher notes (while unplugged) tend to not need much adjustment in order to “speak” properly. This bass has more acoustic volume than I have heard in most solid-body basses, and the acoustic tone is nicely balanced. A good sign, for sure!
That deep, quilted maple top is certainly gorgeous, but the beauty doesn’t end when you flip it over. The one-piece mahogany body has great figuring, and the curves surrounding the neck joint are flat-out sexy. One of Andrew’s trademark features is the magnetic control cavity cover. Pressing down on the corner closest to the tail of the bass pops up the further edge of the cover, making it easy to remove. The magnets hold it firmly in place, otherwise. The control cavity, itself, is a thing of foil-lined beauty, with neat wiring and no “slop” to be seen.
The words “world class” kept running through my head as I checked out this bass, and I got to wondering where this guy picked up his mad skills. So I asked him:
“I really have no formal training on bass building. I was always a tinkerer and I always liked bass instruments. I did not start really playing until I was 20 years old. My first bass was an old Squire, and I was never really happy with how it played. As a tinkerer, I took it apart and worked on the set up quite a bit. I really did not know what I was doing at the time. Then, at one of my jobs, I had access to the internet. This was late ‘90s. I searched out hand-made bass guitars and found Carl Thompson’s page. Just looking at the pictures of his basses got me thinking about how I could make a bass from scratch, with next to nothing for power tools. Carl has a kind of ‘craft-like’ quality to his building. His instruments look more like art, and less like something bought at a store. I liked that vibe. Then, it was just buying some wood and screwing up enough times to learn what and what not to do; still learning.”
Wow! Dude sounds like a natural, to me!
On the Gig
I couldn’t wait to hear this bass amplified, and as my band had a gig the night it arrived, I didn’t have to wait long. That whole “full-bodied, evenly balanced, punch and clarity thing” I mentioned above was certainly there in spades. The initial tone profile with all controls set “flat” definitely has some characteristics of what I will call the “EMG tone” – which is a rather unique blend of “low-to-middle midrange punchiness” with good cut and clarity. I had long associated that tone with EMG pickups, but more recently, I have come to think it has more to do with their preamps than their pickups. Either way, it’s a tone profile that works very well in a mix, and the various tone woods on this instrument certainly contribute to its full, cutting, “punchy yet clear” tone. Those Aguilar DCB pickups are known for their dynamics and sustain, and that certainly proved to be the case with this Drake M7. This thing has sustain for days!
Deviating from the “noon” settings yields a huge variety of tonal options. Favoring the neck or bridge pickup on the blend knob has predictable and meaningful results. Blend towards the neck, and it gets a bit more woody/growly. Solo the bridge pickup (and dial in a little bit of bass boost), and you have a very tight, punchy, “quick” tone. Blend back to the middle, and you get the slightly scooped humbucking tone. I am very happy to say that there is no noticeable hum or noise in any of these settings. The treble control is the most subtle control on the bass. It did not add any significant hiss, even when cranked, and I like the enhanced life and texture it added. I did note that I couldn’t roll off a significant amount of high end (for songs that call for it) and it might be nice to add a passive tone control. The BQC system does allow for four different treble response options (controlled by two dip-switches located on the small board in the control cavity). However, I found that none of them allowed for the kind of roll-off you get with a passive tone control. After trying the four different options, I actually ended up preferring the way Andrew had it set up, out of the box.
The bass boost/cut (+/- 12dB centered at 50Hz, with a 6dB per octave slope) is more powerful than the treble control. It is certainly effective and behaves predictably. The parametric midrange is where the real tone-tweaking power lies. The ability to sweep the frequency (from 100Hz to 1kHz) and then boost or cut at that frequency (by 12dB) allows for quite a range of tonal adjustment. This kind of control is very helpful on the gig, especially if a particular stage/room often has some frequencies which tend to resonate more than others. In these settings, I like to boost the mids, then sweep the frequency until that unwanted room resonance gets worse, and then turn that boost into a cut. This technique is fast and effective, and one of the reasons I love on-board semi-parametric mid controls. Of course, this same concept also works as a “global tone control” for the instrument, as well. That being said, Andrew currently uses mostly Nordstrand preamps in his current builds (which are some of my favorites; I love their inherently open and neutral tone).
On the gig, I felt immediately at home with this bass. The neck width is akin to a narrow J-bass, though it is a little bit thinner, front-to-back, but not by a lot. The result is a comfy, “fast” feeling neck that still has that overall “familiarity factor.” Somewhat to my surprise, I didn’t really even notice that this a 33” scale instrument. I play 34” scale basses most of the time, but I can generally pick out a 34.5” scale instrument pretty easily (having played a Thunderbird for years). Of course, 35” and 32” scale basses have a noticeably different feel, as well. But for someone who is used to 34” scale basses, 33” is remarkably similar. It does have that “easy to play” feel to it, though, and I am sure that the scale length is part of that equation. Regarding the stainless steel frets, I have found that on certain, more inherently bright-sounding, basses, they can be a little bit much for my liking. But on basses with somewhat warmer body woods (like alder and mahogany), I like them just fine. Certainly, they work very well on this bass.
I have since played this bass on multiple gigs, throughout a variety of seasons, and that neck has proven to be amazingly stable. I have not had to adjust the truss rod or bridge height, at all. What’s more, this bass seems to hold tuning better than most other (comparably high-end) basses. There just might be something to that concept of tempered woods being more stable…
No Hollow Threat
When Andrew offered to send us a second bass to highlight a bit more of his diversity, how could I say no? This second review bass is a 5-string, single-cut, semi-hollow-body, with a bolt-on neck. Like the 4-string, this bass has a one-piece body, this time made of tempered ash, topped with tempered, flamed western maple. The polyurethane finish is polished to a satin sheen, and looks fantastic. The neck on this bass is also similar to its sibling, in that it is made from quarter-sawn, tempered (but not flamed) maple – again, with two carbon fiber bars and a dual-action truss rod. Other similarities include the 33” scale, Macassar ebony fingerboard, and narrow-gauge stainless steel frets. Both basses are equipped with the very cool Luminlay side dots, which glow in the dark. The headstock is capped with tempered, flamed maple on the top, and tempered ash on the back. The graceful f holes and black binding add a definite level of class.
This bass was set up as a fully passive instrument for our review (though I understand that Andrew later added a Nordstrand preamp and piezo pickup for the customer who bought this beauty). The Nordstrand NJ5S pickups are housed inside custom wood covers (which Andrew made from leftover body woods). The foil shielding inside the control cavity is only partially applied, so that you don’t see a shiny reflection coming through the f hole. In its passive configuration, though, that is not a big deal, and this bass proved to be free from noise or interference. Once again, Andrew has opted for Hipshot (A-style) bridge and (Ultralite) tuners, and Dunlop Dual Straploks.
Like the 4-string, the fit-and-finish and overall construction on this bass are amazing. That neck feel is just to die for! Speaking of the neck, this instrument features Andrew’s wider neck profile (an intentional choice, to illustrate the range of neck shapes available). Truth be told, it is a bit wider than I prefer, but even so, it is still very comfortable, and those who prefer wider necks will love this profile. The simple, but elegant, ebony knobs are a nice touch.
Tonally, this bass has a very organic tone, with great sustain and clarity. It has that somewhat warm and enveloping tone you expect from a good semi-hollow-body, but with more of a solid-body ‘70s Jazz-style clarity layered on top. It is very solid and focused, without getting muddy or boomy. The sweet, clear high end, and the crisp – but not brittle – attack is up there with the best basses I have heard. Once again, it feels like a perfect marriage of tone woods and pickups. I really had a hard time sending this bass back to Andrew…
Building each instrument as a custom-tailored project is not only time-consuming, but it can be difficult to plan for (in terms of what woods/pickups/electronics to have on hand) and a luthier may find themselves continuously tweaking their workbench setup, or even rearranging the shop for different stages of a custom build. Needless to say, this is not the most compelling business model. In order to add some production stability, Andrew has recently introduced a somewhat more standardized bass model, the Cricket. These are still custom, hand-built basses, for sure, but Andrew can build several Crickets at a time, using standard parts. These are semi-hollow basses, with multiple scale length options available (I’ve seen 32”, 33” or 34” models, so far). The Crickets – and a few small runs of prior models – will be built as “sales stock,” so there will be a variety of stock offerings. Andrew will also accept custom orders, and he anticipates that going forward, about 30% of his time will be spent on customer-specified builds.
These Crickets look pretty awesome, and it appears that they are (at least in part) inspired by the BG5 review bass, with some notable differences. The single-cut Crickets sport one f hole, and Andrew has been using the TV Jones Thunder Blade pickups in these basses. While the stock setup is passive, he has added various electronics, including an LR Baggs piezo option.
The Bottom Line
It is always exciting to discover “new” luthiers, and we are fortunate as bass players to have a number of custom builders to choose from. After spending some time with Andrew Drake’s basses, I feel confident putting his work up against the very best in the business. I know I am gushing, but this guy deserves it! My advice is to hurry up and buy a couple of Drake basses before he figures out how much he could – and should! – be charging for his work.