The Mk I Fretless.
Few basses have enjoyed the legendary reputation the Wal has. There is something about this bass that sets it apart from the others. More than a bass it is a statement to creativity, excellence and a blend of radical innovation and snobbish classicism.
This is the review of my '89 Mk I fretless. In a way it's also a reflection over the early days of the fretless phenomenon.
Among all Wal models - Mk I-II-III, fretted, fretless, in 4,5 and 6 strings configuration - the Mk I fret-less is, in my opinion, the most iconic of all.
I own a Mk III as well and I believe is a more refined instrument and the perfect evolution of the species. Should I buy another Wal today I would likely buy a Mk III.
So, why exactly do I think so highly of the Mk I fretless? It's not just because of its excellent quality and sophisticated electronics. Every Wal, fretted or fretless, shares that. It's rather because of it's significance in the fretless world. To me, at the very least.
In its infancy the fretless phenomenon basically meant the sound of Jaco Pastorious' Fender Jazz. Only God, and a handful of us, knows how hard it was to be a fretless bassist at that time and not wanting to sound like Mr. Pastorius - with all due respect.
Literally overnight every bass player wanted a fretless J, a Chorus and wanted to - worse, he was expected to! - make it sound that way. Makers were struggling to follow suit and in a matter of months it had become a circus. It went on and on. Holy cow, I hated it!
The Mk I fretless was the perfect alternative, so naturally inclined to sound different thanks to its unorthodox electronics. But like the fretless bass needed Pastorius, so the Wal needed his champion.
Enter Brand X and Percy Jones. Over a few recordings the genius of Mr. Jones showed us bass players not just what else a fretless could sound like, but also what a Wal was capable of. Others followed suit - notably Mick Karn of Japan Fame.
But more to the point non-Wal players started drifting away from the Fender Jazz shadow. Pino Palladino was one of the first bassists to build his sound around the Wal/Jones's lesson - and he played a Music Man Sting Ray.
Suddenly those who wanted to sound different had something to start with. Even if they couldn't afford a Wal. I'll be always grateful to the Mk I and Percy Jones for breaking the spell.
This bass is a 21 years old. But today's Mark I are made exactly the same way. The body is Brazilian Mahogany. The neck is a six piece Maple/Mahogany laminate with Ebony fretless fingerboard.
Top and back facings of this particular one are American Walnut. Between the facing and the core is a thin layer of Maple which contrasts beautifully with the two dark woods - especially where the body has been contoured.
This is a fairly classic combination of timbers. Any extravagance at Wal is usually reserved for exotic wood tops.
Two huge, black humbucking P-ups and a massive bridge create a distinctive look, especially when in contrast with natural finish.
The body finish is natural and you can feel the wood under you fingers, while the neck is lacquered. A beautiful effect and a great feel under your fingers.
The 21 frets Ebony fingerboard is tastefully lined with a light brown wood, probably Olive, which is clearly visible at short range while blending nicely with the beautiful black fingerboard - another elegant touch.
Side MOP dots mark the fingerboard and a simple, elegant headstock houses the Schaller tuners. This bass is a gem of inspired simplicity where everything has a role and every detail is taken care of.
Take the fifth screw placed in the center of the metal neck plate. It doesn't contribute to holding the neck. In fact it's shorter than the others and doesn't even go through the body into the neck.
All it does it holding the metal plate so it won't fall when the fourth screw is taken out. That's a Bulgari touch.
The neck is a marvel of reliability. This bass has traveled with me since 1989 from North America to many countries across Europe and Asia, through hot, cold, dry and very humid climates.
Even so, I never had to adjust the truss rod - which is a lot more than I can say of the majority of great basses I have owned or still own. Except for the Steinberger. Go figure!
When you consider that the truss rod is a 21 years old thing, not a contemporary state of the art, then you've got to conclude that the wood is dam good and the construction makes it very stiff.
My MkIII 5er shares the same quality - and it mounts only one truss rod, unlike many 5ers. It's a Wal thing.
Once you wear it, the headstock immediately looks for its balance point in the air. It does feel slightly heavier on the headstock compared to the more compact Mk III, but its natural playing position is comfortable and ergonomic. It doesn't feel heavy and doesn't make you tired.
The bridge P-U falls in a position slightly more central that that of other basses and that is very comfortable for the right arm. It also makes the end of the fingerboard comfortable for fast articulation.
The only thing this fretless doesn't have is a 24 frets long fingerboard. Today I would like that. Than again, today I would like a five or six strings 24 frets fretless, not a four. The Mk III ;)
Now, when many other basses would have been happy to thrive on such a superior crafting, the Wal hits you with electronics like no other. If you remove the Eq cover and look inside you'll see a neat and somehow spartan looking circuitry.
That is the heart of the Wal sound. Each pick-up contains individual adjustable (!) pick-ups for each string, which eliminates imbalances. It's a very quiet circuit and it uses only a 9-volt battery. Then there is a standard 1/4" jack and a Balanced DI so you can kiss goodbye to external DI boxes.
Pulling the volume Knob activates a pick-attack. As the Wal website sums it up "...a narrow band of high frequencies is added to the overall tone-setting to provide dynamic, percussive attack".
Both output level and pick-attack level can be adjusted from inside the bass. This is how Wal describes the electronics:
"Pick-up Mixing Knob:- This silently mixes the levels of the pre-EQ’d pick-ups to any desire ratio whilst keeping the combined output level constant.
Tone-Knobs:- These operate electronic, low pass filters whose roll-off frequencies vary with the position of the control. Fully clockwise at 10, the spectrum is full and flat. As the controls are backed off, the spectrums of the appropriate pick-ups are foreshortened. (Roll-off 12dB/Octave).
The dominant tone character varies, therefore, throughout the entire range of control. Pulling-up the knob produces a quasi-parametric boost of about 10dB to the harmonics which lie at or near the roll-off frequency set by the rotary position.
This provides the characteristic ‘active’ sounds so popular today, without the clinical quality common to many circuits.
By using the pan mixer like a master tone control, in conjunction with the pick-up controls, an endless range of subtle tones and dynamic effects can be created, with or without the pick attack.
On left-hand models all rotary functions are reversed to right-hand".
All this might sound intimidating but it's actually a lot more intuitive than the traditional three knobs Eq.
Basically all you have to do is to rotate the tone knob of one pick up and listen, until you like what you hear.
Then you do the same with the other pick up.
When both P-ups sound good to you, you use the balance to move around the sound spectrum you have created. I like this way of looking at it.
It sets me free from the mental grid of B/M/T and encurages me to think of sound as a whole, not as the product of three frequencies. It's a much more creative process which over time has changed the way I set the sound on bass I play.
I have played my two Wal with large band line up, in small clubs, with horns and with less then perfect sound system. There has never been a time I couldn't cut through the mud.
The Wal's voice.
...and here is where I hit the wall - pun intended. Sorry, I couldn't resist it :) I really don't know how to describe the sound. It cannot be likened to any other, not even just for reference purpose.
I can say that the massive Mahogany body adds a dark tone to the overall voice; that the sound is round, with a huge, earthquake-like bottom and that it has so much sustain you'll have to shoot it to make it stop.
I can point out how each note sounds clear and powerful; how high the P-ups output is - higher that most basses I know; how it sounds always clear, rich and with seemengly infinite nuances.
But then, what does that really tell you about the its Voice?
The best i can do here is to suggest listening to some of the old Percy Jones recordings with Brand X recordings - Masque and Do They Hurt above all - and the sound of Mick Karn on Japan's recordings - take 'Oil on Canvas'.
That's a good start but it is only half the story. To feel the magic of this bass you'll have to try one. Well, I live in Asia. If that's not a problem for you I suppose it can be arranged.
Wrapping it up.
Now you might say I am biased, and I would accept that. How can I not be? It is not even a matter of saying 'I cannot find fault with this bass' because the Wal is in a category of one. Conventional rules simply do not apply.
I might not drive a Rolls or a Ferrari, but they are what they are regardless. And I have personally played a lot of Porches but I have found only a handful of Rolls and Ferrari.
How many great brands out there have made the questionable marketing decision to offer a line of instruments made in so n so, to produce the same uncompromising blablabla at an affordable price. Right.
It is just my point of view, but these makers are simply damaging their brand and I leave it to you all do wonder why.
Price and quality are part of the same equation and you can't have an affordable Rolls because that wouldn't be a Rolls anymore, now wouldn't it? Likewise, Wal doesn't offer a more affordable-but-just-as-good marketing miracle. Think about it.
Now that Wal has resumed production after changes at the helm of the company, the chances to actually own one are real.
Regretfully the long waiting list is real too - rumored to be at least a year. That is, unless one is prepared to bit for it on the second hand market. And with price starting from 3200 British Pounds, getting a new one is not exactly easy.
And so it happens that, while some choose to make great basses everyone can afford, near Cobham in Surrey, UK, things just work together in prefect harmony to make a legend.
In a nutshell:
+ Top craftsmanship.
- Very hard to get one.
- 21 frets.