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Fender '51 Reissue Precision Bass

(ABOVE:  Stock Fender '51 RI Precision Bass)

(Dave's customized Fender '51 RI Precision Bass)

At first glance Fender Japan came mighty close with the '51 Reissue P-Bass.  But when I opened the control cavity on mine I found mini-pots and a green chicklet poly cap which instantly devalued the use of the word ďReissue.Ē  The Fender Sting Artist Series Bass shares identical electronics with the '51 Reissue.  Many modern Asian instruments use these mini-pots and they are perfectly functional but just not the same as the original full size USA pots. 

Mine is a 2 Color Sunburst 2005/2006 model.  Although not as common, Fender does make this in sunburst and they look much like the sunburst finish on the Sting.  I had to special order the Sunburst.  It came in about 10 days.  The more commonly seen finish on a '51 RI P-Bass is Butterscotch Blonde.  The Sunburst version comes with a white pickguard and the Butterscotch one gets a black pickguard.  Both Fender's 51 RI Precision and STING Artist Series basses are made at the Fuji-Gen Matsumoto plant in Nagano which is the current Fender Japan contractor and have many common interchangeable parts.  Fuji-Gen has also made some other really nice guitars like the higher end Epiphone Les Pauls plus historically have produced revered solid body guitars and basses for Gretsch, Ibanez and Yamaha.  They no doubt produce some really nice world class guitars.  Fender ships them to your dealer without so much as a gig bag.  Basically you get the bass and that's it.  So be ready to plunk down more for a case or at the least a gig bag.  The Fender deluxe gig bags are pretty nice actually, but it is better to have a hard case of course.   

This one sounded ok out of the box and the setup was pretty close.  The original 2 barrel bridge makes the instrument almost impossible to get perfectly (100%) intonated but it was surprisingly close.    

The stock single coil pickup sounded bright and frisky but was subject to all kinds of RF interference.  My old TV set and even older computer monitor made it buzz like crazy.  The tone is somewhere between a modern P-Bass and a Jazz.  With the tone barely cracked from full bass you hear plenty of thump there, but crank the tone full to the treble side and you'll hear a more airy upper midrange than you hear on a modern P-Bass so the '51 RI can sound more aggressive and more up front in the mix than a modern P-Bass. 

Some people complain about how inconvenient it is to use the first generation P-Bass pickup as a thumbrest.  WARNING!  You should NEVER USE THIS PICKUP AS A THUMBREST because there is no plastic cover like on the other Fender bass pickups you may be accustomed to using as a thumbrest.  This is partly why these originally came with a big chrome pickup cover.  If you apply too much pressure with your thumb, you can break off the fiberboard top of the bobbin and the poles will then fall out on the floor.  Iíve heard this can also happen if a string gets popped too hard and catches under the fiberboard bobbin top.  Once the bobbin top pulls off the pickup it wonít work until you replace the pickup.  It doesn't get softer or lose tone, it is DEAD SILENT.  Iíve seen several of these for sale on eBay with broken pickups.  Donít loan one of these out as it may come home with a broken pickup after someone uses the pickup for a thumbrest one time too many.  I started out on a 68 Telecaster Bass which is a very similar instrument, so I learned then to anchor my thumb on the ďEĒ string unless Iím playing the ďEĒ string.  Ever since I do that on all basses. 

The wood, fit and finish are as good if not better than Fender's USA mass production basses.  The hardware is excellent with heavy chrome plating.  The tuners work backward from modern tuners which is no big deal and they are rock solid at holding tuning.  The jack is very difficult to work on without the proper tools so keep the nut tight and there will be no jack issues for a very long time. 

The "vintage" frets are really guitar frets, not modern bass frets.  The advantage to that is that with proper setup and flatwound strings you can get nearly fretless sounding slide effects but the disadvantage is that the frets will wear very quickly with anything other than flatwound strings or nylon coated strings, so Iíll only put flats on mine.  Nylons sound awesome on these and I did use them for a while on my Telecaster Bass.  Any roundwounds are going to wear the frets much faster.  With flats or nylon wrapped strings these little frets will last about forever. 

Here is what Iíve done to mine.  I replaced the pickup with a split coil wound Lindy Fralin pickup which cured the RF and hum issue.  The Fralin split coil wound pickup also changed the character of the sound making the bass louder and giving it more of a second generation P-Bass tone.  I was planning to copper shield and star ground it but the pickup is so quiet I've decided there is no need for a shielding job at all.  I initially replaced the poly green chicklet cap with a Sprague Orange Drop.  Later I replaced the Orange Drop with a Sprague Vitamin-Q paper in oil cap which is closer to the performance characteristics of the original 1951 paper and wax capacitor.  (The real 51 also had a resistor in the circuit to CUT bass but it was eliminated once Fender had beefed up their amps to handle the full low end.) 

To address the intonation issue I first tried a Fender Deluxe USA bridge but it did not allow enough saddle travel to properly intonate the G and D strings, so I next put on a Leo Quan BadAxx III bridge, which is now no longer in production.  With the BAIII it intonates on the money up and down the neck.  I added the chrome bridge and pickup covers and set it up with big fat GHS Precision 3050 Regular flats.  It is now gig ready.   

Mine has a barely perceptible tonal deficit on the G string from frets 4 through 6 but I would not call it a "dead spot" but rather a loss of some of the sustain.  All of them seem to have this.  Otherwise, this is an awesome sounding and very solid bass now. 

In spite of the fact I added pickup and bridge covers and a heavier pickup it still has a tad of neck-dive which is remedied with a suede lined strap.  I use the 4 inch Italia brand suede lined straps. 

The neck is fat and wide, the frets tiny and the small neck radius will feel different.  The body is not contoured at all.  It is a slab!  Some players don't like the slab design, but in my opinion more wood means more resonance.  These are things you just will adjust to if you like the sound.  Playing this bass takes some getting used to and the '51 Reissue is not the fastest bass around for real fancy stuff and it isnít a slapper really, but it is a good sounding passive bass for the money if you play classic rock, R&B, jazz or old school country.  The first generation design has always been my favorite Fender bass. 

I spent about $285 on upgrades to make it into a good all around modern gigging bass for my needs that is different from the rest.  All in all, this is as close as you can get to the real thing without going the Custom Shop route for 3 or 4 times the money or buying a real one for 10 to 20 times the money.  I have used it at gigs and enjoyed it a lot.     

Iíve also replaced the pickguard with a custom one from Jeanie Pickguards, but the original was pretty well made and I'll keep it.  I just wish it had been black instead of white.  I got a tortoise one which looks good on the sunburst.

At first glance you'd think the Mexican made Fender Mike Dirnt pickguards would work on it, but they are not interchangeable with these Japanese Fenders.

Why do they cost so much?  It is the weak US Dollar versus the Japanese Yen.  The lower the US Dollar exchange rate goes the more expensive Japanese made Fenders become.  When I bought mine about 3 years ago it was $649 US.  Now they are about 50% more!  Today these basses cost almost as much as a Fender American Standard P-Bass.  Do a few mods like I have done and you will have spent more than an American Standard.

Would I buy it again?  Yes I would. Wonderful wood, great fit, finish and very solid hardware all of which is on par with USA made Fenders, but the stock electronics frankly are not.  What this bass lacks in features, it makes up for by dishing up unique tones and the unmistakable retro look you will not get from any other bass other than the STING version.  The '51 Reissue isnít for everyone, but it is just what I wanted and Iíve got it setup to suit me and the old R&B stuff I love to play.  

The parts I added to this bass to make it just right for me came from:  Lindy Fralin Pickups, AxeGrinderz (capacitor), Bass section of Guitar Parts Resource (bridge), Jeannie Pickguards, Italia Straps, Just Strings and Angela Instruments (chrome covers.)

(Dave's customized Fender '51 RI Precision Bass)


  

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