Lakland 44-AJ Bass Review
April 19, 2011
A slogan atop Lakland’s homepage reads “Familiar in aesthetics, revolutionary in performance.” It says a lot about Lakland’s reverence for the classic Fender designs that still define the electric bass. But it also speaks to the company’s ingenuity and conviction that those designs, though near perfect, still leave room for refinement. Few bass makers have explored those potential refinements as effectively as Lakland—and the success in walking the line between vintage and modern has won the loyalty of scores of real-world professional users, from session ace Jerry Scheff to U2’s Adam Clayton to Meters funk master George Porter Jr.
Chicago-based Lakland has been around since 1994, and even though the company changed hands in April 2010, the Jazz Bass-style 44-AJ (AJ stands for Active Jazz) reviewed here felt sturdy, smooth, and otherwise worthy of the Lakland name.
Setting the deep red 44-AJ next to my early-’70s sunburst Jazz, the Lakland looked right at home. With that said, both similarities and departures from the classic were quickly apparent. The most familiar aspect of the Lakland’s design, apart from the J-bass body profile, was the sleek neck with narrow nut, block markers (optional upgrade), and bound fretboard. But the Lakland neck’s sexy, hand-oiled finish felt smoother and faster than the Fender’s thick, glossy varnish. The body shape also has some functional refinements on Leo Fender’s design, including a contour, which in my opinion, more comfortably followed the body’s waist curve.
The fit and finish were spectacular and the flame maple cap on the swamp ash body was captivating through its black cherry finish. I was happy to find that this bass weighed in at 8.8 pounds, a little lighter than many I’ve tried, but still very substantial feeling.
The rosewood neck fit snugly and precisely into its pocket and is adorned with pearloid block inlays, with carefully placed black position dots on the edge of the fretboard. The neck is reinforced by a pair of graphite bars which provide ultra-stability, but I’m also inclined to think they have a lot to do with the bass’s great sustain. Four Hipshot vintage-style long shaft reverse tuners grace the headstock, a top quality choice even if the tuning direction always throws me at first (turn toward you to raise the pitch).
I removed the plastic cover over the 44-AJ’s electronics cavity to find one of the best wiring and shielding jobs I’ve seen. In my book, copper shielding foil is the way to go when low noise is the goal, and that’s exactly how the 44-AJ was built—and very tidily at that. Inside the cover there’s even a label showing how to set the preamp’s DIP switch for different midrange center frequencies.
A separate battery box (for the active electronics) with a pop-up lid is another nice touch. And rather than a battery clip dangling from a wire, the box featured metal slide-in contact points. I’m always afraid that a battery clip wire will pull loose, putting me out of business for the night—not so with the 44-AJ. A push-pull Volume knob bypasses everything but the Volume and Blend pots, meaning you can get by even if your battery fails you. Lakland didn’t skimp on anything. In fact, my 1/4″ cable felt more secure on the 44-AJ than any other bass I’ve played, minimizing possible crackle or signal noise.
Buzz Me In . . . Not!
One beef I have with most Jazz Bass-style instruments is the unavoidable single-coil hum that’s hard to avoid unless both pickups are dialed in equally. Sometimes it’s minimal, but sometimes it’s downright annoying. Because Lakland installs noise-canceling pickups by Hanson Musical Instruments, the 44-AJ had zero hum, regardless of the settings. Even when turning the Blend control to solo, the bridge pickup posed no problem.
Lakland chose a 3-band preamp (also by Hanson), with stacked Treble and Bass knobs and a single Midrange knob. This makes good sense, because midrange provides an instrument’s voice and nuance— it’s great to be able to quickly grab that control to dial in a little honk or scoop out the sound for slapping. Depending on how the DIP switches are set, it’s possible to center the midrange at nine different points between 225 Hz and 1100 Hz. Because the switch is located inside the control cavity, though, this is a set-and-forget feature rather than something to be tweaked on the fly. But it’s an excellent means of fine-tuning the 44-AJ to your style of music.
The stacked Treble and Bass controls added a lot of versatility to the 44-AJ’s basic tone. Pushing the Treble control added edge when bumping the Bass control up instead provided a solid deep bottom for reggae. And regardless of the onboard EQ settings, the tone was always free from hum or hiss.
The general tonal character of the 44-AJ wasn’t exactly the Jazz Bass-style zing I was expecting—I instead found a warmer tone that was never harsh and always focused. If needed, the top end could be persuaded into a hint of brightness via the tone control. Threading the D and G strings through the rear of the trademark oval-plate bridge (the 44-AJ can be strung through body or bridge) added more bite and treble. The E and A strings stayed full, yet always well defined. Even when dialing in some extra bottom, the low strings didn’t veer towards mud and boom. The tones were deep yet distinct, and required little effort summoning variation in attack and tone.
There’s a lot to like in the Lakland’s 44-AJ bass. It’s comfortable, painstakingly built, and downright gorgeous. Every aspect of the bass reflects a concern for quality components and smart design choices. The weight was slightly less than the norm and the fretboard was well prepped. If you’re after a topnotch and great looking bass in the Jazz Bass vein—and you can afford to pay the tab for this quality—the Lakland 44-AJ should be on your A-list of instruments to consider.
you value quality and good looks, and are after a bass with both authority and refinement.
your taste in basses leans toward the raw and aggressive side.