Gear Review: Kinal SK5-B Bass Guitar
It’s bass guitar review time once again, and this time we’re checking out the SK5-B made by Michael Kinal of Kinal Guitars. Please bear with the theoretical extrapolations in this review. It might seem like a long review here, but the information will come in handy for you when you start to compare basses, giving you some basis to work from and an understanding of why luthiers do what they do when bringing you their best.
The body styling, shape and contouring are comfortable, easy on the eyes and familiar. Nothing over the top, just good solid time tested design at work. There really is a reason guitars look so similar. It’s ergonomics plain and simple. Fender set the groundwork for this body style decades ago, and over time subtle changes by other luthiers have been made, tweaking here and there, to refine what was a good start. This bass follows this line of thinking. This bass not from the exotic wood, Rorschach ink blot school of bass design.
It could be said that the body is Fender/Musicman like, if you close one eye and squint, but when one straps this bass on, the balance is superb and no unwanted neck diving takes place. Same can be said for the bass not sitting out to far off on the bridge end from your body, thus making the elbow awkwardly rise to the play in the bridge position. Put this bass on and it falls right into position. One nice little feature is that Kinal gives you a choice as to where to position the strap via two strap buttons that sit above or below the centerline of the bass on the lower bout. So depending your body type, standing or sitting, or how you like your bass to rest on the vertical plane, you have an on the spot option to adjust the “hang” of your instrument. And, at no real cost to you for something that yields such effective results. Nice touch and again, oh so practical.
The neck has that same comfortable feel: not too thin, yet full enough to give a solid fulcrum for the thumb and a natural shape to the hand while navigating the fingerboard. I think most bassists would find this neck easy to play and familiar.
Both the neck and the body core are Honduran Mahogany. In this case lightweight pieces were chosen for two main reasons. Comfort and tone. The first is obvious; the latter and it’s relevance here can be explained like this….
Both density and stiffness of wood affect the tone of a guitar, and play off of each other when vibration is added to the mix. Vibration energy from the string is either maintained, absorbed or enhanced depending on what combinations of mass and stiffness are factored in to the equation, along with frequency range, resonant frequency of materials, construction and so forth. Lighter weight woods tend to impart sweetness to the instrument by acting as a natural frequency attenuator if you will. Overtones are not as overtly present in the harmonic mix, and the fundamental is bolstered. Theory has it that bolt on necks have similar effects on the overtone series as well by the physical disconnect between the body and the neck. High frequencies are damped, but stronger low frequency notes power on through the neck joint. Guitar Voodoo depending on who you ask, but I see lots of Funk players gravitating to bolt on necks. Amplitude (the power of the energy/vibration) is what drives this. Low notes have more amplitude. Neck through basses tend to have more noticeable overtones in the sonic mix of a single note, thus imparting a “transparency” to the note. Much like dialing up the “presence” knob on your equipment. The strength of the fundamental note helps you cut through the mix in a live situation, or in music styles that need strongly rooted bump and pump, as with funk or R&B. Bolt on necks, as is the case with this Kinal model, will emphasize the fundamental pitch of the note. No need to worry if your rendition of “Portrait of Tracy” will suffer, this effect is subtle and in addition to the fundamental note and besides, when you play a harmonic on a string, that harmonic becomes the fundamental so to speak. Harmonics come ringing through cleanly, crisp and clear on this bass.
The use of Mahogany in a bass neck could problematic if measures aren’t taken to reinforce the neck. Maple, the industry standard, is stiff and moderately heavy and really doesn’t need as much additional reinforcement. Mahogany tends be lighter and some what less stiff. Mind you, stiffness to weight is a ratio in this case. How much strength is needed to do the job is what is important plus whatever sonic quality a softer wood brings is what we’re after. To offset this ratio further in favor of stiffness, Kinal uses a carbon reinforcement bar in the neck, adding stiffness with negligible weight added. The density becomes a weight and or sonic issue rather than a structural one for guitar purposes.
A two way truss rod is used to adjust the bow of the neck, with the access at the body rather than the headstock, leaving more wood in the area that the neck transitions into the head stock, which is a naturally weak point on a guitar neck. The Rosewood fingerboard adds some stiffness to the neck, plus the needed density at the fret, and durability from wear. This combined stiffness from the carbon rod, and Rosewood fingerboard has the effect of keeping the clarity of the note intact and defined, meaning no muddy notes. The reinforced Mahogany gives strength, while letting the warm tone mahogany imparts come through. Think about the thin neck SG model basses that had Mahogany necks with only a truss rod for support. The result was a less defined note and structural issues over the long haul. You will not have to contend with those issues with this bass, and yet gain the sonic benefits of a lightweight, but stiff neck.
All this wood theory has some basis in the tonal elements of the body too. Lightweight woods in guitar bodies add some audible resonance. Kinal again used Mahogany for the core of the body for comfort via weight and tone. The figured Maple top could be argued to add a platform for vibration transmission to the bridge to body connection. We can agree that figured Maple is pretty. Hair splitting at some point, but when all is added up, it could be said that it matters. Unplugged guitars will best demonstrate this weight vs. tone topic. Lightweight guitars are slightly louder unplugged because the body acts as an audible transducer of string vibration. Heavier woods keep the strings’ energy more in the string and thus give up less audible volume from the body. Some of these sound qualities from the wood, warm, full, dark or what have you, are transferred back to the string from the body and the neck as they work together, and brought to our ears when pickups read the string. This is the interplay between strings, body/wood, density, mass and stiffness all working together to give an instrument it’s sum sonic quality. Having said the above, this is not a case of lightweight necessarily being better than heavy over all tonally, but rather better for some music or playing styles than others. I do feel however that it is easier to darken the tone of a warm sounding bass than its to warm up the tone of an inherently dark sounding one. That’s the rub here.
Now that we have moved past Bass Guitar Wood Basics 101, lets get on with what really matters to a musician. The elements that comprise this bass work well together, bringing you a bass that is punchy, full, tonally balanced, smooth, and yet has sparkle, bite and sweetness. You funky bass spankers will thump for joy as you push the air with your opposable thumb, R&B finger players will punch like Sugar Ray and rockers will dig the low mid clarity that can cut through the two guitarist and their stacks. Jazz and fusion players will be in lushness heaven. You’ll have that far away look in your eyes while couch jamming when your better half tries to talk to you, too engrossed and inspired to hear a single word being spoken. Leave it at home on your honeymoon. Yes, this bass really is an all around joy. Factor in the price point and it gets even better.
What ties all this versatility together and brings it to our ears is the 18-volt Bartolini electronics and pickup configuration to bring out the above-mentioned structural elements. A J-bass neck pickup in conjunction with a Musicman style bridge pickup makes for a super versatile and functional pairing. Add to that the tonal shaping possibilities: bass/treble cut and boost on a stacked knob for each pickup, master volume knob, blend knob, mid cut/boost switch, active by pass switch, and your set. There’s not much need to run back and forth to your amp on stage to dial it in on the fly. The large control cavity was thoroughly shielded with copper tape and conductive shielding paint. The wiring and control pots were not crowded so repair/replacement of components will be easy.
I was able to listen to this bass played by others during rehearsals and a gig as well as getting hands on time. I was pleased both times, and others in the room noted the good tones emanating from this bass. I used an SWR SM 400 for amplification and set controls to 12 O’clock and flat to judge the bass on it’s own terms and for comparison to other basses. Start fiddling with the pre-amp and EQ and you’re off to finding just the tone you want with little effort. Much could be done right at the bass. As you know, it is easier to add a little to the mix rather than remove it. I felt no need to go to extremes get things where I liked them to be.
Now for the nit picking bits. I have to say here that the next two minor issues only came to light under…well…bright lights and were not noticed for the days prior the review when I and others played the bass. There was a small area of the finish that could have been smoothed out more around the control knobs, and the control cavity and truss rod cover plates could have been better fitted. That’s it, and if I hadn’t gone looking for flaws, I probably would not have seen these.
Cosmetically the finish was smooth overall. The neck had a satin finish and the body was high gloss. The color and blending of the shading were smooth and on this bass. The seam between the maple top plates and the Mahogany core was hidden giving the look of a solid Maple body from the front. From the back, it was all Mahogany. Another nice little detail was the figured veneer on the back of the headstock and the thin Purple Heart strip in the neck. Mr. Kinal didn’t have to do that you know. It’s a nice touch just for you to see while your playing your bass.