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.