Let's switch things up a bit. Instead of my usual article comparing two acoustic guitars I’m instead going to be talking about electric instruments. I mainly play the acoustic 6 string these days but I actually started my life as a musician on the electric bass and still sort of consider myself a bass player at heart. I've been a fan of Reverend's bass guitars since I first got my hands on them at a NAMM show a few years ago and this week I'd like to compare two of my favorite models: The Dub King and the Mercalli 4
Why compare the Dub King to the Mercalli 4?
I chose the Mercalli 4 for this week's comparison simply because in a spec for spec comparison it is as close to a Dub King as you’re going to get from Reverend. Here is a somewhat truncated list of the two instruments’ similarities:
- Both are standard 4 string basses
- A korina body
- A maple neck
- A Thick Brick bridge pickup and a Split Brick neck pickup with identical on-body controls
- A 5-piece neck with a 42mm nut width and a 12” radius fretboard
- 22 medium jumbo frets
- A string-thru or top-load bridge with a ¾” string spacing
If we disregard cosmetic differences, that list encompasses almost every important spec that one would look at when shopping for a bass guitar with two critical exceptions: The Body Size and the Scale Length. The Mercalli 4 is a long scale solid bodied bass guitar while the Dub King is a short scale semi-hollow. While I normally take a holistic approach when discussing how guitar specs relate to tone, I feel that these two variables have such a big impact on the sound of the instrument that they need to be focused on by themselves.
Solid, Hollow and Semi-Hollow
When most people think of an electric bass they’re probably thinking of a solid-body. In it’s simplest form a solid body guitar is made by taking a block of wood, cutting the shape you want out of it and then routing holes into it to fit the pickups and other electronics. Solid construction is popular because it’s easier, cheaper, and helps ensure the stability of the instrument both against humidity fluctuations as well as against the natural tension of the bass guitar’s strings. A solid body also helps to prevent feedback, especially at the loud volumes of most rock performances. Solid body bass guitars are, without a doubt, the most common style on the market and out of Reverend’s 8 current bass models 7 are solid body, including the Mercalli 4.
Hollow body guitars are something of a hybrid between an solid body electric and a 6 string acoustic. Like a solid body guitar, hollows start out with a solid block of wood for the body. However, rather than a minimal amount of cavities being routed for the electronics, on a hollow body the luthier routes more cavities in the guitar, essentially deleting as much wood as possibly without significantly compromising the structural integrity of the instrument. Once the guitar is “hollowed out” a thin veneer of wood is placed over the top of the guitar to cover the routed cavities and create little air chambers throughout the body of the instrument. Because of this construction, humidity is a much greater concern than with a solid body. The humidity where the guitar is stored should be carefully monitored to prevent cracks in the thin top veneer.
When it comes to bass guitars, full hollow bodies have always been pretty rare and most luthiers instead favor a semi-hollow construction. A semi-hollow bass stands as a middleground between the solid and the full hollow body. Like a full hollow body, semi's one or more cavities are routed into the wood but to a much lesser degree than on a full hollow-body instrument. In the case of the Dub King there is a cavity cut into the body above the E string (when the bass is viewed horizontally) while the body is left solid below the G string. This is done in an attempt to give the guitar some of the tonal properties of a fully hollow guitar while mitigating some of the feedback issues.
The reason behind the hollowing out of a bass is that those air pockets allow the body to resonate differently than a solid body, lending the bass a woodier more “acoustic” tone than a solid body. While this sound is coveted in certain genres, it definitely comes at a cost. Because a hollow body bass is a highly resonant instrument and produces low frequency tones, they can be a feedback nightmare. Unless you’re very careful with a combination of EQ, Volume and speaker placement, a semi-hollow bass guitar will feedback like it’s their job, making what would otherwise be a pleasant musical number sound like an early Sonic Youth album.
I think the easiest way to describe what a hollow body bass sounds like is simply to say that it’s “retro”. While they have fallen out of favor these days, hollow body guitars were at one point a rock staple. Bands as varied as the The Beatles, the Grateful Dead and the Talking Heads have all used hollow body basses at some point in their recording careers. But if you’re looking to get a good idea of the tone and versatility of a hollow body bass, I’d say that the best artist to look at is Jack Cassady. Cassady used his hollow body bass in Jefferson Airplane to help craft their loud and often chaotic psychedelic rock sound only to then use the same instrument in a quieter folk setting Hot Tuna. What's impressive is that with a few EQ changes his bass fits into both settings.
Short vs. Long Scale
When comparing Dub King to the Mercalli 4 in person it's impossible not to notice the difference in scale length between the two. Most bass guitars, the Mercalli included, are long scale and come in right around 34” from bridge to nut. The Dub King is significantly shorter, with the scale coming in at only 30”, making it almost exactly halfway between a long scale Reverend bass and a long scale Reverend 6 string. The 4” difference between a short and long scale bass is drastic and, depending on your playing style and tonal preferences, will make or break the instrument for you.
It would be an understatement to say that I love the feel of short scale bass guitars and particularly ones as short as the Dub King. The 30” scale means that the frets are much closer together than on the Mercali 4, making stretches much, much easier. If you spend most of your time on a long-scale bass then your time on a short scale is going to seem like a vacation. You can move quicker and, at least in my experience, play much longer without fatigue than you ever could on a 34” neck. But this ease of play does come with some caveats. The shortened neck also helps shave weight off of the instrument. When it’s hanging off of your shoulder for 2 hours every ounce counts and a short scale bass ends up being comfortable for longer.
That's not to say that the short scale isn’t without it’s drawbacks. As with any stringed instrument, the shorter your scale length the less taut the strings are going to be. Now with an acoustic or electric 6 string we’re normally only talking about a half an inch difference or, roughly, a 2% decrease in length from short to long scale. But in the case of the Dub King vs the Mercalli 4 we’re talking a 34” scale length compared to a 30”, which comes out to more like a 12% decrease.This large decrease dramatically lessens the tension on the strings and affects how you have to approach the instrument.
A moderate attack that you wouldn’t think twice about using on a long scale bass can, depending on your action, cause a short scale to buzz like crazy. This problem is compounded if you’re trying to play very fast passages. The player is forced to compensate for this buzzing, either by using a softer touch or perhaps by playing closer to the bridge where the string is tighter. The short scale also significantly decreases the sustain, giving the bass a thumper, more staccato sound similar to that of an upright bass which compliments the woody, semi-hollow sound.
So which is for you?
So now that we have a solid understanding of what makes the Dub King and the Mercalli 4 so different, which one is for you? If the idea of a semi-hollow bass sounds good to you, please do yourself a favor and give the Dub King a try. I’ve had the opportunity to play a wide variety of hollow bass guitars in my life and I can honestly say that the it is one of my all time favorites. It captures everything I like about short scale hollow-body guitars while still remaining affordable and having the same adaptable tone options as other Reverend models.
With all of that said though, the Mercalli 4 is still probably the safer bet for most players. Solid bodied basses are popular for a reason. If you’re in a position where you may be playing multiple genres of music and want an instrument that will flat out work with everything, then I’d say that the solid-bodied Mercalli 4 or another Reverend solid body is the right choice. Couple this with their better feedback control and you have a reliable, plug and play instrument that sound at home on any stage.
Let us know what you enjoy playing. Post your comments below.