It isn’t quite as perfect as you’d hope for the price but this bass is gorgeous to look at and a pleasure to play
- Amazing tone
- Active preamp
- Prestige design
- Very expensive
- Awkward controls
- Neck shape may divide opinion
Introduced at the end of 2019, Fender’s American Ultra family of guitars replaces the old American Elite models at the very top of the manufacturer’s range. The new series takes in not only various classic six-strings – including the iconic Stratocaster – but also the Jazz Bass, its five-string Jazz Bass V variant and the Precision Bass.
These aspirational instruments include some features that you won’t find on the regular models but they’re also a lot more expensive. So if you’re in the market for a new bass, it’s worth looking carefully at what the Ultra has to offer.
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Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass review: What you need to know
The American Ultra Jazz Bass is one of the most extravagant “standard” basses Fender makes, outside of the company’s various custom and artist-endorsed signature models. From the pickups to the tuners, bridge, neck and even the body contouring, the manufacturer has clearly sought to build in as many extras and upgrades as it can, while staying true to the distinctive character of the Jazz Bass. Some of these upgrades are purely cosmetic, but – as we’ll discuss below – a few make a noticeable difference to the playing experience.
Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass review: Price and competition
The American Ultra Jazz Bass has a list price of £2,099, which in reality translates to a street price of £1,899. That’s still a hell of a lot to pay for a Jazz Bass: the standard Mexican-made Player model can be bought online for £669, while the retro-inspired Vintera 60s variant goes for £799 and the Vintera 70s model starts at £945.
If you’re on a tight budget, Fender’s entry-level Squier range gives you some great options at even lower prices. The Affinity Jazz Bass can be found online for as little as £199; we’d be inclined to step up to the better made Classic Vibe 70s model, but even that can be had for only £339.
To be fair, this isn’t exactly comparing like with like, because the Ultra includes a switchable active preamp that gives you a wider tonal palette than you’ll get from a regular J-bass. The right point of comparison might be the Deluxe Active Jazz Bass, which features the same circuitry. That model costs a comparatively reasonable £955, though. Whichever way you slice it, you’re paying a hefty premium for the American Ultra.
Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass review: Design
The Ultra Jazz Bass is offered in a choice of five colour schemes. The classic Aged Natural and Arctic Pearl bodies come with rosewood fingerboards and tortoiseshell scratchplates, while the sunburst version I tried out – here dubbed “Ultraburst” – has a scratchplate in that faintly off-white colour that Fender calls Mint Green.
Then there are two versions with maple fingerboards, namely Cobra Blue (again partnered with a cream scratchplate) and the glitzy Texas Tea, which combines a black body with a gold scratchplate for a look that wouldn’t be out of place in the Stringfellows house band. For some reason these last two styles are only available on the standard four-string model; if you go for the five-string variant you get the option of Plasma Red Burst or Mocha Burst instead.
While the American Ultra looks an awful lot like the regular Jazz Bass, those in the know may spot two distinctive design points. One is the neck, which has bindings around the edge of the fingerboard and inlay blocks instead of your basic dots – features otherwise seen only on the 70s Vintera and a handful of custom models. It’s a classy look, but perhaps slightly fussy.
The control plate also differs from that of a standard Jazz Bass. As on the Deluxe Active model it has four knobs instead of three or, strictly speaking, six since the bottom two are split into upper and lower dials. These extra controls are for the active preamp, which you can activate by flicking a small switch that’s hidden between the lower knob stacks.
It’s a clever way of adding extra controls without tinkering too much with the classic design. The most drastic consequence is that the jack socket gets moved off the front of the guitar and onto the lower edge, which is hardly a jarring adjustment.
Unfortunately, the controls themselves are quite confusingly arranged. In particular, the split bottom knob weirdly combines active mid-range and passive master tone controls. You’ll get the hang of it in time, but it’s a long way from the intuitive simplicity of the original three-knob layout. The tiny mode switch isn’t located in a very natural place either and is unexpectedly stiff to boot – although this does at least make it very hard to flip accidentally.
The Ultra has a few, less visible upgrades, too. The bridge may look pretty ordinary, but it’s a HiMass model that Fender claims delivers exceptional sustain and tuning stability; I certainly had no complaints in either department. And at the rear of the instrument, Fender’s new tapered heel gives you easier access to the instrument’s upper register. This only really makes a difference once you get up to around fret 16, however – territory I imagine few bassists frequently visit.
Lastly, there’s Fender’s new “Modern D” neck shape, here partnered with a 10-14in compound radius fingerboard that progressively flattens out as you move up the frets. In truth I found the neck felt uncomfortably broad, but someone with a different technique and bigger hands might love it. My advice would be, as with any guitar, try out the American Ultra Jazz Bass in person before buying.
Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass review: Tone
My past experience of Jazz Basses has involved a certain amount of distracting hum and buzz between songs but the American Ultra comes with Fender Noiseless pickups and I’m pleased to say these live up to their name. Whether practising at home, rehearsing in the studio or performing live in a local bar, I never heard the faintest unwanted crackle from my amp. That may not seem like a major issue in the grand musical sweep of things but it makes the American Ultra perfect for recording and feeds into the sense that you’re wielding a high-quality, well-engineered instrument.
And once you start playing, the sound that emerges from the silence is almost breathtaking. The magic of the Jazz Bass is partly about warmth and partly about articulation, and I simply cannot fault this guitar in either regard. Even in passive mode the American Ultra springs effortlessly between driving basslines and playful licks and fills. It may not have the sheer muscle of a Precision Bass – I’d call its tone rich rather than powerful – but in terms of expression the American Ultra Jazz Bass is an absolute stunner.
Then, of course, there’s the active preamp option. This adds a certain fizz to the sound and lets you sculpt it in ways that passive controls simply don’t allow. This can be helpful for situating your sound in a particular mix, scooping out the midrange or pushing up the treble for a funk workout.
If I’m honest though the effect isn’t as transformative as I’d hoped. Unless you go quite extreme with the EQ, it still sounds fundamentally like a Jazz Bass. That’s not exactly a criticism, of course – just don’t imagine you’ll be getting a whole orchestra of different bass sounds. If that’s a disappointment, perhaps consider a P/J bass instead, which combines Precision and Jazz pickups to give a broader range of tonal options.
Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass review: Verdict
I am in love with the sound of the Fender American Ultra Jazz Bass. The day my review model went back to Fender is marked in my diary with a sad face.
That doesn’t mean I’m going to be ordering one for myself. As my bank manager will confirm, I’m willing to pay for the thrill of owning an exclusive, high-end instrument but, for me, the Ultra Jazz Bass doesn’t quite add up. The high-fret cutaway makes sense on a Stratocaster, but here it feels like unnecessary tinkering. The inlay blocks are nice, but the binding feels a bit too showy. The controls are just slightly awkward. And frankly, of all the basses I’ve tried, I found the neck on the American Ultra one of the least comfortable to play.
Those are all subjective judgments, and if you think the American Ultra Jazz Bass might work for you, I certainly wouldn’t discourage you from giving it a try. There’s one other issue to bear in mind, though: the Deluxe Active Jazz Bass will give you a very similar experience for less than half the price of the Ultra. Even if you price in a set of noiseless pickups, you’re still saving more than £800 by choosing the slightly humbler model.
Unless money is genuinely no object, therefore, it’s very hard to recommend that anyone actually buy the American Ultra Jazz Bass. It’s an amazing instrument, no doubt – but one that is, for most of us, best admired from afar.