Patrice Vigier is unquestionably one of the world's great guitar makers - and his basses? Many consider them equally as good and maybe even better. Dan Veall samples Vigier's Arpege IV and Passion V. Did they rock his world?
Top French luthier Patrice Vigier has been making guitars and basses since 1978 from his company head quarters in Grigny, France and has amassed a huge following of fans of his basses. We have two wonderful basses from Vigier's workshop in this issue for review. They are both stunning instruments that not only look the part but sound great too. Both the Arpege 4 and Passion 5 models feature premium tonewoods and electronics that really help each shine with their own musical character. They differ tonally, so I think a closer look is needed to help you choose the right model.
First up, the Arpege IV with it's beautiful amberburst finish is a visually stunning instrument. The front facings of the body and headstock are flame maple. This top quality wood has been allowed to dry and settle for three years. The top and maple back wood sandwiches a large slice of alder, which looks great through the translucent and clear finishes typical of Vigier. The amberburst colour is coated with a glossy and hard wearing finish making the bass look every bit as tasty as it sounds.
I've been lucky enough to play a few Vigier basses and I have always been enticed by the feel of the neck. It's described as a 'D' shape, yet it is quite a small 'D' in comparison to some instruments that would feel clubby in comparison. The neck really is slim, I'd liken it to a Jazz neck width but a bit more substance to it. Taking a look at the documented specifications, 40mm width at the nut and a mere 56mm right up the dusty end seems to beare this out. Whatever, it's a great feeling neck with a tidy and expertly finished fret job on both models. The neck construction is a multi-laminate of maple and graphite bringing rigidity and stabilisation to the neck as well as sustain and resonance.
Up at the headstock end of the bass, Schaller tuners with a very smooth response anchor the strings in place as they pass through the perfectly cut teflon nut. A zero fret maintains optimum string height as well being hardened to reduce string wear. These are all nice touches that really show an attention to detail missed on instruments made to a budget and which will in the long term save you money as parts are less likely to wear out or break. 24 Frets are mounted on a Phenowood fretboard. Phenowood is 'phenolic resin impregnated with cellulose' - a product that Vigier developed for fretboard material themselves.
Down at the body end of business, the bridge pieces are of the individual mono rail 'quick release' type set at a spacing of 19mm. I really like these and they are certainly favoured amongst many luthiers as well as being used on some production instruments. They are said to improve sustain and harmonic response; not that this bass is in any way lacking in that department, but it's still an added bonus to see quality hardware on board.
On the subject of hardware, the electronics that come with the Arpege 4 are interesting and a great idea that you don't see that often. I'll come back to that in a moment, but first, let's start with the pickups. The specification for the Arpege IV on the Vigier website (which I have to say is very detailed!) describes that this model features a pair of Delano 'single, twin coil inline' pickups. These are passive and have a really lovely open sound to them. A single coil tone, but no noise at all under our studio lights and equipment. Panning between the pickups with a flat EQ setting shows up a nice variety of tones without an undue thinness from the bridge or woolliness in the lows from the neck position in comparison. A great place to start before adding some of that super EQ. Yes the preamp is a little special on this model: two three band equaliser systems! There's a Bass, Mid and Treble control per pickup and they work independently of each other. This is a great idea! I mean, how many times have we wanted to boost the bass on the bridge pickup because it doesn't carry the same low end weight as a neck mounted counterpart? Or drive the mids and upper frequencies on the front pickup to make it cut through more? Seems a perfect way to alleviate tonal limitations of pickup positioning without making the other pickup suffer when using a single EQ system. It's a little unusual and something I wasn't sure was totally necessary when I first took a look at the bass but after playing them for a while, I have to say that it's a brilliant idea and makes a great deal of sense.
In playing the instrument sat on my lap, the Arpege is well balanced and doesn't neck-dive - indeed it was effortless and a joy to play in the seated position. At 3.8Kg (average) for the Arpege 4, it is not the lightest instrument on the market, but isn't going to cause any problems at all for most.
So now let's take a look at the Vigier Passion 5 string and see what sets it apart from the 4 string Arpege model we have just been looking at.
The main differences are subtle, but enough to make either instrument stand alone tonally. Once again the bass features the same wonderful multi-laminate maple neck, secured to the body with five inset screws. The body shares the maple facings and alder sandwich, but in this review model bore a clear lacquer finish so that the wood grains are clearly visible and uncoloured.
Obviously, this instrument has the extra string - a Low B that feels solid and well defined. Certainly that's the result of the beautiful construction and quality hardware, as the bass is still only a 34" scale. A lot of manufacturers and luthiers seem to favour a longer scale lengths as it can improve the tone of the lower strings. In the Vigier's case though, it shows that you can still use a 34" scale length and maintain a good sounding B string. Personally, I like the 34" scale length and would naturally include that as a specification on any bass shopping list and I am sure many others would too. It could be helpful for those making the step from four to five strings for the first time.
The Vigier Passion bass neck carve and string spacing would also be comfortable for those wanting to make the switch, too. The 'D' shaped neck carve is used on this model also and once again, certainly in my huge hands, it feels quick and very easy to navigate!
The Passion model features the same soapbar pickups as found in the Arpege 4. This time however, for a different tone completely, Vigier favours a position closer to the bridge for both soapbars. Overall I think this gives the instrument a bit more bite and less 'plummy' lows. Enter the EQ system to add some low end girth in and there are no complaints here whatsoever. The Passion basses don't feature the same dual three band EQ system but I feel that with the pickups being closer together at the bridge, it might not be necessary.
Like the Arpege, the Passion 5 is not heavy though it does feel substantial. The Arpege on paper weighs in at 3.8Kg, the Passion 5 in at 3.9Kg. Not much between the two in fact.
Plus points of both instruments would certainly be that they are well balanced and deliver a good strong bass tone straight out of the box thanks to the use of premium materials and electronics coupled with flawless construction. I really enjoyed getting used to the dual three band EQ system too.
It's great to play basses that aren't just following the rest of the pack with endless 'P' and 'J' clones and to see a luthier extending the art by using interesting construction techniques. These two Vigiers both carry premium price tags, so you would expect a very level of attention to detail and flawless performance. And that's exactly what you get!