Bass Player Magazine
What’s the ultimate signature bass? If you want to be literal about it, you’d have to name Joe Osborn’s original ’60 Fender Jazz; that axe boasts dozens of autographs Osborn has collected in his long L.A. and Nashville session career. (See May/June ’92.) Trouble is, that venerable instrument-virtually the only one Joe has played on 200 Top 40 hits-is on the verge of falling apart, in addition to being lock-in-the-vault valuable.
Osborn’s solution? Get a bassmaker to replicate the sound and feel of Joe’s J with the quality possible in a modern small-shop maker, in this case Chicago’s Lakland. “The goal was to make a bass Osborn would rather play than his 60’s J-Bass,” reports Lakland’s Dan Lakin. So the Lakland Osborn Signature has built-in vibe, but it doesn’t come cheap. Is all that mojo worth the $2,795 list price?
With its sunburst finish, rosewood fingerboard, birdseye maple position markers, classic J-style pickups, and concentric knobs, the Osborn certainly looks right. Closer inspection of our test bass revealed finicky attention to detail. The finish was mirror deep and virtually flawless. Strings snugly in the bone nut. The hand-done fretwork (a Lakland specialty) boasted elegantly rounded ends and well-polished crowns, with no gaps or file marks. The only hint of unevenness was past the 18th fret on the bass side-but if you need to play in that particular spot, you’re not getting what the bass is about. Further microscopic inspection showed a 0.01″ gap on the neck joint’s treble side. That’s not much – no yanking I was capable of could budge the neck from its appointed spot. The “worn” neck finish has a comfortable and comforting feel. The neck’s slightly sloping shoulders, though, might not be ideal for players who prefer a more U-shaped profile. Although the rounded lateral ridge is noticeable, it’s not extreme.
“Close inspection of our test bass revealed finicky attention to detail.”
Like old Klusons, the Osborn’s Hipshot tuners work in reverse, which takes some getting used to. The Hipshot’s gear ratio is tighter though, and the shafts are tapered. This ensures the strings lie as close as possible to the headstock, increasing pressure over the nut. The two-way Lakland bridge allows through-body and through-bridge stringing; our bass arrived with its roundwounds in through-body mode, which increases string-body coupling and vibration transfer. Since Joe kept the pickup cover on his ’60’s jazz, Lakland ships the Sig with one too. We immediately pulled ours off, but maybe Joe had the right idea. The sharp edges of those trad-look pickups can be rough on the fingertips. Speaking of comfort, at nine-plus pounds, the Joe won’t be the lightest bass in your coffin, but its overall balance feels good on the shoulder even during an evenings worth of playing.
The Joe is available with active Bartolinis, but Lakland asserts the axe is more “correct” with the stock passive pickups. We won’t argue. Connected to our high-end reference system with both pickups on full, the Osborn produced a full-throated, authoritative voice that spoke confidently beneath a guitar-heavy combo. The neck-pickup tone was warm but not fluffy, and if the soloed bridge pickup lacked the kind of J-Bass bite that’s currently fashionable, neither was it strident even when pressed hard-credit the smooth-sounding rosewood fingerboard. (Since the Oz has no master volume, you’ll need a pedal if you are partial to swells and fade-outs.) Switching to a 400-watt Ashdown head made the JoeBo’s cushiony lows that much more pleasing, and plugged into a grindy SVT rig-well, as Fats Waller used to shout when things really got rolling, “Somebody shoot me while I’m happy!”
Though Lakland warns that the single coils will hum when both aren’t turned to the same volume, 60-cycle noise was minimal in just about any setting. The unshielded pickups produce a bit of buzz when you aren’t touching the strings; Lakland notes the omission was intentional because shielding effects tone.
Once my hands were on the strings, I especially liked a sweet spot that’s found with either pickup on full and the other at about 70%. Another tester found J-Bass nirvana with the bridge pickup full and the neck at about 40%. Nonetheless, this isn’t the ultimate dial-a-tone bass-don’t go looking for a push/pull slap knob-though its classic jazz flavors are gourmet quality. Instead, the ultra-responsive Osborn’s sound comes from your hands. A gentle touch summons warm, round tones that sweeten nicely in the upper register. But when subjected to extremely aggressive plucking the Lakland refuses to crap out. Likewise, the Osborn spoke clearly amid the most prickly staccato playing we could muster. And its mellow highs make double-stop and chordal playing a pleasure.
To further indulge that Osborn vibe, the Lakland comes with a big triangular pick and a package of Joe Osborn Signature flatwound strings, developed in collaboration with GHS. Strung with the flats (through the bridge of course!) and played pickstyle, the Lakland pours out a big, ballsy sound sweetened with overtones that aren’t apparent from the roundwounds. For us the flatwounds had the most character when the neck pickup was soloed.
So is the Joe worth the bucks? Comparable J clones reside in its neighborhood, many with active electronics that yield that sizzly updated Jazz sound. But the Osborn nails the kind of Old School tones players seek-and take out second mortgages to obtain-from vintage axes, and the Lakland does it with unassailable workmanship. And you get a pick!