MTD

In early 1999, I finally acquired my dream bass, a Michael Tobias Design (MTD) 535. I played a few of these basses as they came through the old Veneman's Music in Rockville MD, and after making the decision to jump into the 5 string world (after 20 years of nothin' but 4), the MTD 535 had to be it. To me, it had the most solid, fat B string, incredible sound, and amazing feel.

1999 MTD 535 Specification
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  • Completed: January 14, 1999
  • Model #: MTD 535
  • Series #: 403
  • Body wood: Domestic tulipwood
  • Top wood: Spalted maple burl
  • Neck/board wood: Wenge
  • Finish: Epoxy basecoat, oil/urethane topcoat
  • Configuration: fretted 5-string bolt-on
  • Scale length: 35"
  • Frets: 22 w/ zero fret
  • Hardware: Black Hipshot tuners and bridge with Bass Extender tuners on both the B and E strings
  • Electronics: Custom-made Bartolini +/- 9 volt active pickups and EQ
  • Controls: Master volume, pickup pan, treble, mid, bass boost and cut; 3 position switch selects mid range boost/cut point (250hz, 500hz, 1000hz)

(Hard to believe the bass is 20 years old as I type this!)

Review

Here's a review I originally wrote when I bought the bass. I never posted it, but as I'm updating my site, I figured I'd resurrect and complete the review. From the vault of 1999.

First a short review, then a long and gushing story behind the bass...

First off, the MTD is flawlessly constructed. When the bass was delivered to Veneman's, I could find almost no defects in the construction of the bass, the fretwork, or in the body/neck joint. I had a minor bit of buzz coming out of one of the upper frets, but it quickly went away. I suspect that it was more due to the difference in humidity down here in D.C., or due to the newness requiring some settling in. In any case, without adjusting the neck, I now find no buzzing and no dead spots. The bass has a nice, even tone all the way up the fretboard. The neck is rock solid.

I go into more detail about the woodworking below, but suffice to say that the workmanship in the wood is amazing. It's hard for the pictures to give it justice. The body is a spalted maple burl, meaning that many of the grains are streaked with black, in addition to the "boiling pot of gold" look of the burl. There is a thin strip of wenge between the tulipwood back and the maple top. The truss rod, electronics, and battery covers are all wenge with threaded metal screw holes. This means that access to the battery for example isn't as convenient as having a hinged door, but there is no danger of stripping out the screw holes. There is another wenge door at the base of the neck which covers the truss rod access.

The neck is bolted on with 4 offset screws and is very tight. There's no slippage and no discernible space between the neck and body. The heal joint fits right in the palm of your hand. The 35" scale neck is very playable, and now that I'm more comfortable with the extra string, I find the neck width quite acceptable. Standard MTDs come in 21 and 24 fret models, with the former being much more common (the 24 fret model requires a different body shape, with a more pronounced cutout). I was used to the extended range of the Warwick Thumb, but I didn't want the 24 fret body style, so Michael offered a compromise: use the 21 fret template, but squeeze in an extra fret at the top. This worked out perfectly. And the zero fret is a nice touch, especially since the MTD has a plastic nut.

As an experiment, we put two Hipshot D-tuners on the bass. I've got them on all my 4-strings and actually use drop-D tuning quite a lot, so I wanted a Hipshot on the E string of the MTD. We added a Hipshot to the B string, "because it was there"! Even though I don't use them as much as on a 4-string, they work very smoothly and don't add too much weight to the headstock to make the bass unbalanced.

The MTD is definitely lighter than even a 4-string Thumb, but it is not a light bass. However the balance is excellent both sitting and when using a strap. One of my big complaints about the Thumbs is the angle of the bridge pickup. For me, this makes bridge fingerpicking near impossible. One of my favorite features of the MTD is how comfortable bridge playing is. I tend to like that spankier tone, and was aiming for a feel similar to my Fender Jazz. The MTD achieves this effortlessly.

The bass came strung with MTD strings (not sure who they're OEM'd from), gauged .045, .065, .085, .105, .135. The B string is taper-cored. I liked the strings enough to buy a few sets and am using them exclusively on the bass. The MTD comes with Dunlop straplocks.

Tone! This bass has it all. It's very versatile, while still being pretty distinct.

The Story

As mentioned above, I had been playing 4 strings for my entire career, although all of my 4's have D-tuners. But I found myself wanting a 5-string for a while, having had the opportunity to play a few at parties and such. So when I started trying out 5s I played every one I could get my hands on, in all price levels. I found myself gravitating over and over again to the MTDs, which aren't inexpensive, but then again, they aren't cheap!

To make a long story short, once I'd decided on an MTD, I contacted Michael Tobias, first through PJ at Veneman's and then directly via email, to narrow down on the options that I was interested in. One of the first decisions to make was whether Mike could fit the bass with two D-tuners. I wanted D-tuners on the E and B for a couple of reasons; I often play with folk/roots players who like a lot of open D tunings. From my 4-string experience, I know that an open D can be very useful, and definitely serves a different purpose than the D at fret-3 on the B string of a 5er. A nice ringing open D can't be beat! I wanted the same flexibility on the 5er, and I figured, since I wanted a D-tuner in the unconventional position, why not get one put on the B string too? It certainly makes the bass unique in this respect, although I will admit that I don't use it very often. Every once in a while having a low Bb comes in handy!

By far, the most agonizing choice was the topwood. It was very hard to narrow down my choice by talking to Mike and viewing all the fine basses pictured on his Web site. There were just too many beautiful woods to choose from. Mike even sent me a CD of his latest crop, but that only served to confuse me more!

Fortunately, my band happened to be playing NYC one Saturday night, and Mike was gracious enough to let me stop by his shop earlier in the day. He lives about 2 hours north of the city, so I was able to arrange a visit before the gig. Mike's a great guy, spending two hours with me on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, sitting around talking bass with me, when I'm sure he had better things to do! Mike showed me around his shop, letting me play some of the finished and prototype basses he had laying around. We talked about my playing styles, I told him what I liked in his various basses, and he talked about his luthier philosophy and history. I even found out he lived in D.C. for a while. I had my Warwick Thumbs with me, and I showed him what I liked and didn't like about them.

Mike's basses usually have 21 frets, although a 24 fret option is available. Because there's a more pronounced cutaway on the treble side of the 24 fret basses, and because of the grain pattern of the top I selected (see below), I decided I wanted to stick with the 21 fret body style. Mike offered to stick an extra fret on the top end, so my bass has 22 frets on a 21-fret body.

So, back to my agony. In Mike's shop he's got a probably 8 foot shelf of various raw figured top wood slabs, cut into bookmatched blanks, and sorted by wood type. We probably spent the majority of the time pulling down blanks, smearing them with turpentine to get a sense of how the finished grain would look, commenting about the tonal implicatiosn of the woods, and discussing the grains as if we were seeing shapes in clouds. There was one top that reminded us both of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, another that looked like a boiling vat of chocolate, yet another with the erotic outline of a woman. Dozens of amazing burls, tigers, and quilts, incredible maples, myrtles, bubingas; there was little way I could go wrong. I knew that no matter what I picked, I'd end up with a masterfully crafted bass.

At one point, Mike pulled down the most amazing piece of maple I'd seen yet. When he splashed it with turpentine, the grain almost exploded with these amazing black streaks, along with the (by now common) burls. I'd never seen anything like this, so Mike explained that this was called spalting, and it happens when the grain actually rots. The rotting is halted during the drying process, leaving dark black streaks throughout the wood. I looked at a few more tops, but I really didn't need to; this was the one for me. It had everything going on it, the boiling burls, the spalting, but all it worked together in a very organic way.

The spalting is most pronounced on the bass side of the body, and in the headstock, although it's very difficult to see in the picture above. The one interesting thing I did was to turn the treble side matching piece over to give the bass a more asymmetrical look. There was a knot in the wood on this other side, just between the point of the wenge truss rod cover and the neck pickup. I really liked the look of this little knot and it happened to fit just perfectly in this space when we laid the top out on the body template. It was kind of tight placing the template on the blanks, but Mike sketched out the pattern so we'd keep the grain features I wanted (including the knot), and showed me how the pickups, bridge, controls, truss rod cover, and routing would affect the final look of the top. We talked about stain colors, and I pointed out the colors I liked from the completed basses on his wall.

The final piece in place, and my NYC load-in rapidly approaching, Mike and I said goodbye. When I got back to town, I stopped by Veneman's, gave PJ my deposit and sat back and waited. I knew it would take about 5 months to complete the bass, so I was patient, but repeatedly kicked myself for not bringing a Polaroid camera!

When the bass finally arrived, I was shocked! It was even more amazing looking than I thought, and Mike had given me a little surprise gift. Apparently, there was enough wood left over from the top blanks to fit on the headstock. Mike had given me a matching headstock. There's no question that this really makes the bass stand out; most MTD just have a solid wenge head. All the grain features came out vividly, and the stain color was perfect, more golden and earthy than is evident in the picture. And of course, the bass plays and sounds amazing... but I already knew that it would!

There are no doubt many fine high-end basses out there, and I'm sure most of those luthiers are as nice as Michael Tobias. The question always comes up as to whether these basses are worth their high price tag. The market clearly says yes; I know Michael is making as many basses as possible while maintaining his extremely high quality, and doing very little advertising. I'd also say yes; this bass is everything I was looking for.