The Gretsch Company has been in existence since 1883. Set up by Friedrich Gretsch ostensibly to make banjos, tambourines and drums, they didn’t start making guitars until the 1930s, by which time his son Fred was at the helm.
In the ’50s and ’60s the guitars became popular, thanks mainly to the endorsement of legendary guitarist Chet Atkins and the patronage of players like the Beatles’ George Harrison and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones.
After going out of business in 1981, the company was revived in 1989 by a third-generation Fred Gretsch, who handed production, marketing and distribution over to Fender in 2002. On the bass side, this has resulted in a decent roster of instruments, the latest addition being the Junior Jet Bass II, part of the Electromatic series.
So, what have we got here? Well, Gretsch’s JJB II is a short scale (30.3") bass, made in China and priced firmly in budget territory. Ergonomically speaking it’s designed very much along the lines of Gibson’s Les Paul.
Beneath the neatly applied black finish is a basswood body with no comfort-inducing chamfers, just neat bevelling of all edges. At 45mm deep the JJB feels a little chunky, and, given its slightly down-sized proportions, the weight of 4kg/8.8lbs is a bit heavier than you’d expect. There’s a black Gretsch-branded teardrop pickguard, and around the back is an electronics housing plate.
Many older Gretsch guitars had a set neck, but the JJB’s deep-profile maple neck is secured via four bolts through an old school chrome neckplate. It’s a comfortable, playable profile, although if you’re more used to the standard 34", the short scale makes it feel cramped and toy-like (Kala U-Bass, anyone?) and can take a little getting used to.
Obviously, it’s a boon for those of tender years or smaller stature, and guitarists looking to double on bass generally enjoy the relative familiarity. When Fender became involved, one of the modifications they instigated was in the headstock department, making them more vintage-correct. The JJB’s headstock is a sleek, slightly concave oblong with a hint of classic detail at the furthest edge. The tuners comprise a set of chrome deluxe enclosed die-cast units.
The nut is ‘synthetic bone’ and the fingerboard itself is rosewood, fitted with 20 well-seated, medium jumbo nickel frets, plus standard dot inlays and a further smaller set of white dots along the top edge.
The JJB is passive and comes kitted out with a pair of Gretsch mini bass humbucking pickups, chrome soapbars in a black plastic surround, one at the bridge and one towards the neck. Controls are one volume and one tone, described as ‘G’ arrow knobs because they bear a simple logo. The top half of each is knurled chrome while the bottom half is a smooth gunmetal – a rather groovy detail.
A simple three-way toggle takes care of pickup selection, and completing the hardware set is a chrome four-saddle bridge – in essence very much like the Fender model, with Philips intonation screws and Allen key grubscrews for height adjustment.
Strapping on the Gretsch and plugging in is quite a pleasant experience: the 4kg payload is stable around your neck, and the basic sound you get from the two mini humbuckers is pretty decent. Of course, it’s a budget passive bass, so we ain’t talking massive tonal variation with seismic lows and spikey highs… but there’s a fair amount of bottom end, enough for decent impact, and this is abetted by a pleasing growl from the E string.
The midrange is solid as opposed to punchy and the highs speak freely, but they have that slightly compressed feel you find on classic passive Fender Precisions. Though the Gretsch does have a certain amount of edge to it, the emphasis is on practical fundamentals – this could easily become the axe of choice for grungy popsters or even something more along classic rock lines.
In terms of variations, cutting the tone control fully back gives a washy, thuddy sound with little or no practical use, but there are a couple of points prior to reaching this position where you’ll get a general softening with diminished growl and smoothed-out rough edges, but the note still has some discernible shape. You may want to venture here for a blues or blues/rock or even some old school Stax soul.
The neck pickup is earthier with about the same level of bottom end, although there’s a reduction in both growl and body in the midrange: it doesn’t have the same solidity as twin mode. It’s a less detailed sound, especially on the thinner strings, almost as if someone’s taken a sheet of medium-grade sandpaper to their shining edge.
It’s still a decent variation, with an even tone, albeit a slightly less interesting nature, and plenty of intent from the E and A strings. Again, what you get from backing off the tone control is a further mild re-focusing on the bassier elements which, as before, yields a softer edge to the sound.
Checking out the bridge pickup, the output level here – and indeed on each selector switch setting – is nicely even, giving you the live practical option to change your sound mid-song by a flick of the switch. The bridge pickup sound itself is the regulation crisp, burpy tone with decent bottom end and just enough nasal edge for funky clarity.
Because of the high-mid emphasis, chopping tone to minimum is still an option, albeit a limited one. Less radical reductions actually improve the practicality of this setting by re-balancing the sound – you still get a snappy attack but with more body behind it.
It’s never going to set the world alight but the Junior Jet Bass II is a solid instrument with a decent array of practical sounds, and the short scale and reduced proportions will appeal to the younger in years, the smaller in stature, guitarists looking to double up on bass, or for a dependable home recording instrument. Its one downside is the slightly excessive weight, but balance is decent, it’s easy to play and the reasonable price makes for an appealing package if you’re looking to do some serious rocking out.