Loving the Alien

My first impressions of the Alien were overwhelmingly positive. It looked beautiful. It felt great in my hands and balanced nicely on my lap – the neck dives a little on its own like most ABGs but in normal playing position with your arm over the body it’s perfectly supported. The tone was great. Really nice and woody, with the singing quality around the 12th fret that I had so admired in the Breedlove, combined with good bass extension down to the low E. Naturally it didn’t have the volume and weight of an upright, but the bass felt true. There was a satisfying hint of the famous Warwick ‘growl’, no doubt due to the wenge fingerboard and ovangkol back and sides. It was also supremely playable, with a slimmish neck and only slightly higher action than it’s electric counterparts. Playing in the kitchen, with its warm tones blooming in the natural reverb, was a revelation and within minutes I was completely hooked.

However it wasn’t all roses. I soon found a slight dead spot around the D on the tenth fret. I hadn’t anticipated the amount of mechanical noise generated playing the ABG. Every time I fretted there was a clank as the string hit the frets. Every position shift brought a squeak from the bright phosphor strings. A mysterious intermittent rattling noise nearly drove me to distraction until I worked out that on certain notes the energy from plucking was vibrating the string on both sides of the fretted note. ABGs, I realized, are far more alive than their electric counterparts and the tiny handling sounds you normally never notice are amplified for all the world to hear.

The plugged in sound was a disappointment too. The Alien uses the highly regarded Fishman Prefix Plus preamp with a piezo pickup system. Unfortunately it just doesn’t work for me. The sound seems squashed and ‘pingy’, a far remove from the openness of its natural unamplified sound. In fairness I suspect this is down to the nature of piezos rather than being a fault of the Fishman. Again I realized that if I was to record the instrument as it really sounds, I’d have to treat it more like a percussion instrument and mike it up.

So quirks, imperfections, limitations… but aren’t these always the greatest drivers for creativity? Although the low D was a little weak, the same notes on other strings were way more vibrant than on my electrics so I found myself playing in positions that would normally have been unuseable. The excessive handling noises meant I had to cultivate far cleaner fingering and muting technique, and shed some lazy habits I’d slid into over the years. The anomalies and imperfections spurred me to really explore and unlock the range of tones on the instrument. In short I was learning and actively engaged with the instrument in a way that I hadn’t been for years. And most important of all, I was really enjoying the process, the sound coming from my fingers and the music that was beginning to take shape.

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About wishpoosh

Producer, musician, video Editor
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8 Responses to Loving the Alien

  1. Gordon Kyd says:

    Hi Wishpoosh,
    Thanks again for going deeper into neuances of the Warwick Alien from the good to the bad. Your discovery regarding the “additional” ringings of the other strings that require more precise muting is similar to what I had to do when I first purchased a 5 string bass back in 1995. I noticed that extra care was required to prevent the unwanted reverberation of other strings and as a result, I developed a better muting technique which vastly improved my playing. At first is was awkward and not as enjoyable as I would have thought but after patience and time, it became natural. The same went for treatment of the 5th string: that independent and fickle low B. It was so easy to destroy notes on that string with fret buzz and over enthusiasm which took the tightness out of notes played on it, however a more subtle approached and again, patience and time, the low B became a very welcome part of the bass.

    It is interesting in what everyone expects from an ABG and it is refreshing to hear from you that you embraced some of the negatives and turned them into a positive, one that develops your technical proficiencies in playing the bass. It’s a shame about the pickup and the ‘plugged in’ aspects of the Alien. My Acoustic Bass, the El Capitan Fretless 5 String sounded like a dog through an amp, with an unbalanced nature which meant the deeper strings were lnearly twice as loud as the higher strings and nothing could be done to change this with the on board EQ. The natural, warm and pleasant bass acoustics were totally absent through an amp and it was very disappointing. Plugged in, it sounds like a harsh, cheap, thin and toppy entry level electric bass. It wasn’t until last week that I decided to get the extremely high and unplayable action looked at that a bass tech (who was fixing the set up) rang me to say that the pick ups in the thing were “atrocious” and that fixing the action meant losing the pick ups. As I wanted the acoustic attributes of the bass with little intention to play through an amp in the near future, I told him to sacrifice the pick ups for playability. He also stated that with a particular Fishman pickup, (can’t remember which ones) I could get a really nice plugged in sound if I decided to fix the pick up situation down the track. I am amazed that Epiphone released this instrument with such poor electric circuitry and to be honest, I think it is such a disservice to themselves AND musicians who fork out more than $900 AUD for such an instrument. It seems to be a common flaw with nearly all ABGs: crappy pickups that don’t emulate the natural acoustic timbre of the bass. I must admit, on the flip side of that, when I tried a Warwick Alien in store, I was quite impressed with it’s sound through an amp even though it wasn’t as natural as it’s acoustic tone. It was easily the best ABG I have ever played and sounded better than plugged in than any other as well.

    Anyway, after the adjustments on the El Capitan, the bass now plays better than it ever has and I really enjoy fooling around with it. I’m enjoying playing bass again for the first time in over 2 years. It’s not so pitchy after the 12th fret like it used to be and I can actually play chords than sound in key. Funny how a little tinker can do the trick.

    After 2 weeks of shipping dramas, I can sleep easy that my Tacoma Thunderchief is on it’s way from the US to my Australian shores. I will most definitely write my thoughts and review this over sized ABG when it finds me, hopefully in a week….

  2. Gordon Kyd says:

    Tell me wishpoosh, do you mainly use fingers or pick on your right hand (or strumming hand)? The reason why I ask is that one of the designs the Warwick Alien has that other ABGs don’t have is that fantastic thumb rest. Do you use it and is it in the right position for you?

    I found it nearly perfectly place, maybe little closer to the E string would have been better for me, but I think with time I would get used to it.

    I found that with all the ABGs I’ve used, you get that bit more volume using a pick. I’m a finger bass player but when playing with friends using other acoustic guitars, to push volume and to be heard, I had to switch to using a pick, which was a little unnatural for me but affective with increasing volume. I’m hoping that the Tacoma Thunderchief allows me to use my fingers more as I have read that with it’s superior acoustic volume (comparative to other ABGs) can keep up volume wise with at least two acoustic gits.

    How do you rate that thumb rest?

  3. Pingback: Tacoma Thunderchief: Acoustic Resonance That Rings True « Gordmiester’s Weblog

  4. Pingback: Tacoma Thunderchief: Acoustic Resonance That Rings True « Gordmiester’s Weblog

  5. wishpoosh says:

    Hi Gordon

    the thumb rest is a mixed blessing for me, I’ve written a little blog about it mulling over the pros and cons.

    I’m the same as you with using a pick – it’s not a technique I’ve ever had to use for my music and it feels a little unnatural when I try it. I’m going to explore a little and report my findings. In terms of volume, when I play with fingers it balances well with one guitarist in an enclosed space but I think any more instruments and it would become a struggle.

    Great to see you’ve started your own ABG blog, I’ll link to it here and spread the news!

  6. Pingback: Acoustic Bass Guitar « In Search of Acoustic Bass Utopia

  7. Tom says:

    Hey guys, great to see an acoustic bass blog out there. It is so hard to get accurate info on acoustic basses from real musicians. I am looking at the warwick alien, and read that they used to be handmade in germany but are now outsourced to a company in vietnam. Also I heard they switched from solid to lamanite wood. Does anybody have any info on this? I haven’t actually played an alien but have heard generally positive reviews. Thanks!

    • wishpoosh says:

      Hi Tom. You’re right about the production being outsourced. Originally they were handmade in Germany using solid tops. Now they are produced in Korea to Warwick’s specifications using a laminated top. Original Aliens are incredibly rare – I’ve had a search on eBay for 2 years now with nothing showing up. I’ve never had an opportunity to compare a laminate and a solid top directly but obviously you’d expect better tone and sound projection from the solid. On the flip side laminates are tougher, so if you’re transporting it around a lot or going through different temperatures they’re actually a safer bet for the task. My own Alien is a laminate, and as I’ve written in this blog I really like the tone from it and the volume is better than any other ABG I’ve tried.

      It’s getting harder and harder these days to actually get your hands on a quality bass and try before you buy, so the best bet is to check out videos from guys like bassebruno on YouTube, who has a nice collection of ABGs and good skills to show them off. My advice – if you see one second hand just snap it up. If you don’t like it you’ll definitely be able to sell it on without losing on the deal, but chances are it’ll be the beginning of a long and beautiful relationship 🙂

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