The Company Line
Back in April of 2018, I did a full review of the Fender American Elite Jazz Bass V, which included a good bit of Fender history, which I will not repeat here (but which you can read at https://www.bassgearmag.com/the-fender-elite-jazz-bass-v-an-elite-performer/). What I will do, though, is update the company line with regard to the new Ultra series. Here’s the question: “How do you create a next-generation product, while still preserving the critically required pedigree and core experience for such an iconic model?” It’s a challenge. You have to walk that fine line of improvement more along the lines of refinement, rather than change. So, it ends up being a more linear/vertical movement in innovation, and not so much horizontal. Then you have to find a way to differentiate that product in meaningful ways to give it a strong enough identity to separate it from its predecessor(s) and show progress in value. I’ve seen it argued online that Fender didn’t need to change the name of the product, but I disagree. Fender has made enough valuable change to this model they had to change its name somehow. At the very least, they’d have to call it an “Elite II” or borrowing from a popular mobile device company go with “generations”, such as “Elite Gen2.” But I don’t like that approach. I think it’s cleaner just to give it a new product series name.
As such, the Fender American Ultra series is the next and latest step in the lineage of their premier active USA guitar line, replacing the Elite line, which replaced the Deluxe line before it. Here, I feel Fender has done a good job of narrowing their focus to preserve the critical Jazz Bass core, yet innovate in meaningful ways to protect a successful timeline. As we all know, if you’re not moving forward, you’re falling behind.
Let’s do this by comparison to the Elite. That’s what everybody wants to know anyway. After all, it’s still the top-of-the-line production USA active Jazz bass series.
What’s the same:
- Alder body.
- 3-ply pickguards for solid colors, 4-ply for tortoiseshell.
- 34” scale maple neck with a bound maple or rosewood fingerboard, with contrasting block inlays, and Posiflex™ graphite rods that run its length. This one is maple with black binding and black pearl block inlays.
- Fender “F” light-weight vintage paddle keys with tapered shafts.
- The body is finished in natural gloss, where the neck is satin (except for the headstock face, which is gloss).
- 5-bolt neck plate, 21 medium jumbo frets, bone nut, and multiple string retainers to assure even downforce past the nut.
- Preamp configuration. An 18-volt preamp with volume, blend, stacked treble on bass, stacked mids on passive tone control, and an active/passive switch.
- Output jack on the side of the body.
- All the metal hardware is nickel/chrome.
- The strings are Fender USA NPS (nickel plated steel), with gauges .045 to .105. The five string models use a .125 for low B.
- Schaller strap lock system.
The stuff that’s changed:
- Color choices (see Specifications, below).
- The body contour on the back at the neck heel. They’ve sculpted this to be a bit slenderer and ease upper register playing.
- Neck profile. The neck profile used to be a compound “modern C to D” transition, where this one is just the “modern D.” The primary difference is the D has a flatter back, and sometimes a little more material closer to the edges. This is generally used to allow for a neck with more wood to feel thinner when played. The idea is more wood in the neck can equal better tone and fewer dead/dull spots.
- Fingerboard compound radius. The fingerboard radius also flattened out slightly from before, where it now goes from 10” to 14”. The Elite went from 9.5” to 14”.
- New Ultra Noiseless™ Vintage Jazz Bass® pickups.
- Preamp voicing.
- A tool-free dual battery box replaces the cavity with a plastic screwed-on cover.
- Bridge. the new HiMass™ bridge is much bigger than the previous model and is now top-load only. There is no longer a through-body stringing option. It’s a clear call-back to the Leo Quan Badass™ bridges that have been used so heavily on Fender basses over the years.
- Truss rod adjuster. They went back to the Allen key adjustment at the neck heel, so no more spoke wheel. T-handle adjustment tool provided (again).
Fit and finish
This is actually the second Ultra sent to us for review. The first one we received somehow ended up with the wrong bridge on it, which was too wide, putting the G string so close to the edge it was difficult not to pull it off the edge of the fingerboard from pretty much the 8-10th fret and beyond (depending on playing style). Unfortunately, several of these basses escaped Fender’s hands before this error was detected, so Fender is also covering the bridge change as needed for customers. That said, I still feel like this bridge is a bit too big for the bass in terms of action adjustment. I had to bottom out the saddle for the G string to get it within my preference range. Someone who really likes the action low will be out of luck. This only affects some players, however, so keep that in mind.
The change back to the Allen key truss rod adjuster is also a little bit of a negative for me. It’s definitely a cleaner look, but I liked the idea of being able to adjust the truss rod from time to time without having to worry about keeping a special tool with me – or having to remove the neck to do so.
The battery box change is good. The old battery cover had round head screws which stuck out from the back of the bass, plus, required tools to change batteries. These battery boxes are a little bit difficult to open/close sometimes, but at least you don’t need tools.
A couple things that didn’t change, though I wish they would have, are the strap lock system and the active/passive options. While I prefer the Dunlop Duals, they still use the Schaller system. That’s highly subjective, however, so keep that in mind. But what I think is a bit less subjective is they still don’t allow you to use the passive tone control in active mode. This was a fairly significant disappointment to me, especially in light of previous feedback from the Elite review. Maybe they’ll change it in the next series. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for that.
Other than that, like the Elite before it, I looked the Ultra over pretty thoroughly, and (again) while I’m not the technical reviewer, I can’t find any problems, at all. The finish, neck joint, and fretwork are all top notch. The neck profile, despite the change, still feels great to me, and completely natural. I don’t even notice that the profile and radius changes … it just feels good. The controls still work intuitively with a detent at the “zero” boost/cut point, except for the passive tone control, which is continuous from open to full attenuation.
On the gig
This bass weighs in at just under 10 pounds, which is a little heavy for my taste, but that’s also highly subjective, and the familiar J-bass slung position does help. The preamp controls remain familiar and very usable, doing the same things as with the Elite (and its review). I found myself doing the usual bass boost when favoring or soloing the bridge pickup, maybe also boosting the mids for that extra edgy cut like on some of the older Journey tunes. Otherwise, the bridge is the classic growly J-bass bridge pickup. The neck pickup is fat and woody sounding. I may have boosted the mids on that just for kicks, but honestly it sounded fat and cutting without any EQ. Of course, blended is that classic funky tone on a J-bass that’s so great for slapping, and while I’m not a great slapper, it was easy to get a great slap tone from this bass. I really can’t find anything not to love about the way it plays and sounds in a mix. As far as the changes in the preamp and pickups, they seem subtle to me. Sonically, and from a noise immunity perspective, it just feels familiar. That’s actually a very good thing from the sonic perspective. As far as noise immunity goes, it’s a very minor issue, not a concern at all, just as with the Elite before it.
The Bottom Line
I have to say this bass could have been another straight unqualified win for Fender like the Elite, but a few missteps kept it from being the next shining star I was hoping for. That said, I definitely don’t want to represent it as a general disappointment. Far from it. it’s still a great J-bass on many levels, and remains a worthy product line entry.
I was (and still am) a big fan of the Elite series, so I had very high hopes for what the Ultra series had to offer. Much of what I loved about the Elite V carries over to this Ultra Jazz Bass V, with some nice improvements. Admittedly, I didn’t love some of the changes (like the truss rod adjustment), and I would still love to see the passive tone control function in active mode, but there is no denying that this is a well-rounded, top-tier J-bass from the company who invented the market. If you are shopping for an active bass that can cover anything from vintage to modern tones, the Fender Ultra series should be on your short list.
|Overall Length:||46 ½”|
|Body Dimension:||20 ¾” long x 14” wide at lower bout|
|Pickups:||Ultra Noiseless Vintage Jazz Bass|
|Pickup location(s), from 12th fret:||10 19/16” and 14 7/16”|
|Electronics:||Proprietary Fender (new voicing)|
|Controls:||Volume, blend, bass/treble (stacked), mids/passive tone (stacked), active/passive switch|
|Preamp circuit voltage:||18v|
|Neck Woods||Maple (with graphite bars)|
|Fingerboard:||Maple with black pearloid blocks and black binding|
|Body Finish:||Arctic Pearl gloss|
|Neck Finish:||Clear satin (gloss headstock face)|
|Strings:||Fender USA NPS (nickel plated steel)|
|Gauge:||.045, .065, .085, .105, .125|
|Bridge/color:||Fender HiMass, chrome|
|Control cavity cover:||n/a|
|Company:||Fender Musical Instrument|
17600 N. Perimeter Drive, Suite 100
Scottsdale, AZ 85255
Email: [email protected]
|County of origin:||USA|
|Warranty:||Limited lifetime, non-transferrable|
|Price:||$2,099.99 ($2,199.99 for ash-body models)|
|Accessories:||Hard molded case with TSA locks|
|Acquired from:||Fender USA|
|Test gear:||Gallien-Krueger Legacy 800, Aviom, GK Neo II 1x12.|
1-5 (unacceptable to impeccable)
|Ease of Use:||5|
In-hand Score 4.43average
Low: Big, fat, and round
Mids: Edgy and aggressive, but not nasal
Highs: Clear and sweet
This bass still faithfully represents both classic and modern J-bass style. It covers a broad spectrum of music, and does so with solid familiarity. If you’re looking for another great J-bass from the company who invented it, try one of these out.