This Article was published in Issue 19 in SUMMER 2016.
The Company Line
It all started back in the early ‘70s, when Christopher Willcox (yes, two l’s) worked for a luthier’s shop in New Jersey. He started off as an apprentice and moved up to full-time custom builder. In 1976, he moved to Santa Barbara, California and then opened his first guitar shop in 1980. Like so many luthiers, he was always looking for a way to offset or eliminate characteristics that would impact tone negatively, such as dead spots, harmonic impurity, etc. He spent years focusing on the usual things, like wood combinations, construction methods, etc., and ended up focusing on a better way to translate string motion into sound. He felt the traditional magnetic pickup system, while tried-and-true, carries enough baggage that an alternative could help him achieve all his goals. The very thing that makes the magnetic pickup system work also results in affecting the sound it’s used to translate. Magnetic pull can affect tone, sustain, intonation, harmonic purity, etc … all the things he was trying to improve on. Piezoelectric was available, translating pressure into sound, but he never really liked the sound of them (though ironically, he incorporates a custom piezoelectric element on these basses; more on that, later).
What about optical? Growth in military and aerospace applications with infrared technology in the 1980’s drove prices down to the viable level for consumer products, and by 1988, Chris had his first prototype of the optical pickup system. It was originally done on a bass, although today, the Willcox LightWave line includes guitar models. He describes the system as totally transparent and non-intrusive – a blank canvas for unlimited tonal variations, having broader bandwidth and wider dynamic range, noise free, and can read any string material (just as a piezoelectric system could, for example, since it also doesn’t rely on the string passing through a magnetic field to function). Everything else about his instruments is typical traditional design. It’s his pickup system that makes his instruments unique. In 1998, he reincorporated under the LightWave Systems brand, but today, the company is once again known as Willcox Guitars.
Since we’re on the topic, let’s talk pickup system. As I said before, it’s an infrared solution where an emitter shines light on one side of the string, and a collector captures the “shadow” on the other side. This shadow is then processed through his proprietary system and converted into an amplifiable signal. The system also has a limited range of visibility, so if you change the setup of the bass, the optical system may need to be adjusted up or down for optimal operation. This is done through a series of steps involving pulling the rather large cover off the back of the bass, selecting the string to be adjusted on a rotary wheel, and then adjusting the element on the bridge while watching an LED inside the cavity. Red is one boundary, and green is the other, in the middle (where you want to be), it’s out. Just as if you change the setup on a traditional bass, you have to adjust the pickups, the same is true here, it’s just a little more involved (but not bad; you get pretty good at it quickly). The manual is really well-written on this, and makes it easy to understand. There are also dip switches for the iceTone™ gain and range, as well as trim pots for the output levels of each string.
While we’re talking iceTone, remember we said Chris didn’t like piezoelectric systems? Well, that’s not completely true. Turns out the iceTone circuit is a custom piezoelectric system, but it’s only used to supply the high-end frequencies. He chose this over using a more traditional treble control in the preamp. As such, it’s an integral component to the overall sound reproduction system, not an independently implemented system you can “solo,” as typically done on other instruments using that technology. Then there’s the “warm/cool” switch (not on the HexFx models). This is also kind of a “high-end” control, because what it does is reduce bass and increase upper-mids. However, in the manual, he mentions thinking of its effect as a way of emulating switching between the neck and bridge pickups on a dual-pickup instrument (with “warm” being the neck pickup). While I found that control very musically useful, I’m not sure I would view it that way. It does what it says it does, but it still sounds very different to me than switching on a dual-pickup system. There’s a master volume, a bass control providing +/- 12dB (with the knee at 300Hz), and a rather interesting mid control. It’s a sweepable midrange control (with +/- 12dB from 200Hz to 1kHz), but with a twist. The “Q” (essentially the range of frequencies affected above and below the center frequency selected) varies with the frequency sweep. The Q is narrower down low, but wider as you go up in frequencies. Think of it as being a more focused control down low and a more broadly applicable control up high. This makes a lot of sense to me, and in fact, works well.
The optional HexFx system employs a 13-pin DIN connector and is compatible with all of the devices which follow the Roland GK protocol, including the Roland VB-88, VB-99, GR-33, GR-55, AXON, McMillen StringPort, etc. I can also be used in conjunction with a USB or MIDI interface to play hardware synths, software synths, or mate with virtually any compatible software. This is a unique tool for bassists who perhaps feel marginalized by the trend towards tablets and other less expressive controllers in composing. You can even use just a fan-out box, and route each string to a destination and/or process, or assign each string differently, for some REALLY wild expression!
With the HexFx system, you get two new switches (remember, the warm/cool switch is not available on these). The first switch is a 3-position “blend” switch, which tells the GR system to use only its sounds, only the bass’s sounds, or both (you don’t use the ¼” jack when using a GR system; there’s no need). The other (“S1/S2”) switch is also 3-position, but always bounces back to center. This performs the “up/down” function on the GR. Most typically, it would be to change patches. The GR system can supply power to other hex pickups, but the Saber is not parasitic in this way. Its internal battery runs the show. I did not have the opportunity to test this feature, as I was unable to obtain a GR system to play with, but I can at least say I’ve seen demos and this feature appears to work as advertised.
As you can imagine, all this technology requires a pretty sophisticated system. That’s reflected both in the size of the cover on the back, as well as the fact it needs a pretty beefy battery to keep it fed. Willcox solves this by putting a large, rechargeable NiMH battery in the bass. It charges completely in about an hour with the supplied charger (small enough to easily fit in any gig bag/case), and goes about 15 hrs. on a charge. Even if it dies at a gig, you can play the bass plugged-in, with no sonic penalty (even if you play while charging, it still charges fully in about an hour). The small charging wire is extra-long on the charger to support this very scenario. There’s a status LED which glows red when you plug the bass in (instrument cable). It dims as the battery discharges, and when totally out, you still have about 1-2 hours left, which can be thought of as a fuel tank’s “reserve.”
The bodies and necks for these basses are built in Korea, which for years now has been a source of truly well-made products in many markets. Assembly, fretwork, fit and finish and final setup are performed in Carpinteria, CA. All of the electronics are manufactured in California, as well. The body is ash with an AAA flamed maple top on the VL, and alder on the SL. The fretless fingerboard is a composite material made from basswood fibers and a carbon-graphite resin. This results in a very stable and hard material, perfect for fretless instruments, plus the basswood fibers give it a great texture and look. The fingerboard is rosewood on the fretted SL. The nut and custom monolithic bridge system are made by GraphTech, in BC, Canada. The strap buttons are traditional, and the output jack on the side of the bass is not recessed (a good thing, in my opinion). The HexFx output (if present) will be right by the output jack, and the charging jack is also there. The necks are maple, with a rather slender profile, which is very easy on the hands. The headstocks are kicked back, but there is no volute, so it feels very smooth in the first position. The 5-bolt neck heel joint is also nicely rounded and shaped to be comfortable up high. The machines are smooth and reliable, and the bridge adjusts easily.
Fit and finish
I looked over these basses with a fairly scrutinizing eye, and despite their economical price, their construction, fit, and finish are on par with instruments costing much more. The fretless fingerboard true, and the fretwork on the fretted, were all top notch. I couldn’t find any high or low spots; no ganking-out or fretless squelching. The edges of the fingerboard were smooth and comfortable. The neck joint was spot on, the controls all felt solid and worked smoothly. The strap locks are non-locking, but shaped such that they would hold a strap very securely. The finish was smooth and free of irregularities, runs, or inconsistency of shading. Adjusting anything/everything worked as advertised (intonation, action, LightWave, etc).
On the gig
The VL fretless weighs in at a svelte 6.8lbs, so it feels like it’s filled with helium. Even the solid-body SL is only 7.9lbs, and a darned easy carry all night. The ergonomics are great, as the bass hangs just where you want it, and the neck profile is super comfortable. The tone on these basses is unique. Even if you have the warm/cool switch, it’s still more or less sounds like (for lack of a better way to quantify in writing) a modern P-bass. All the modern tone controls give you a broad range of adjustment, but that’s where I feel its tonal base lies. The EQ is very musical and completely usable. While I never really needed to use a ton of EQ, you could dime the controls and still have a very nice, usable sound. The iceTone control is interesting, as it’s the only “treble” control I’ve ever used where I actually found boosting useful. In particular, bumping the iceTone provided for a really cool slap tone – nice and sizzly, but not overly brittle or noisy/clacky, at all. On the benefits of the pickup system, it seemed to perform as advertised. The harmonic content seemed to have more fundamental to it, which really came out when popping harmonics. They’re very alive on these basses. Also, sustain was great, which was especially nice for the fretless. It complimented the “mwah” we all love so much in a great fretless. Further, you could get some really interesting sounds with combinations of the warm/cool switch and the iceTone control. It is still a fairly modern sound, but with some really sweet, warm tones – which is what I crave on a fretless. I’m not much into crispy bright fretless sounds. The bass is also very controlled, which works great for both the fretless sound, as well as keeping the B string balanced with the other strings on the SL. Probably the coolest thing, however, is being asked, “Where the hell is the pickup on that damn bass?” on the job. ☺
The Bottom Line
These basses have a lot in common, which validates Chris’ claims that the pickups are central to tone, even with varying construction options (woods, chambering, etc). Even without the HexFx option, there’s a dizzying spectrum of available sounds you can dial in with these instruments, and they play perfectly. If you’re looking for a traditional J or P-bass sound, these will probably not meet your needs. But if you’re looking for something new and different, which breaks tradition in some really musical ways, these could be your new bass.