Ibanez Soundgear 500 (SR500): A Beast of a Bass

I started playing the bass about two years ago for the sole purpose of playing in a friend’s band.  I didn’t really know much about guitar and never had played a bass, but I knew that most basses had four strings and that you could play one note at a time.  Naturally, then, as a beginner musician, the thought of playing bass appealed to me, because I knew I could at least start playing with the band with a less amount of talent and expertise on a bass than I would have had to possess if I came in with a guitar.

My first axe was a 1994 Precision Bass, made in Japan.  I picked it up used for about $300.  The thing had pretty high action and custom Rotowounds (.110 E string).  I didn’t change a thing about it.  Yeah, I know, in retrospect, not the best choice for a beginning bass player.  If I wasn’t in a band, I probably would have quit playing.  That bass weighed about six hundred pounds and you literally needed an airline ticket and a passport and a body cavity to get your finger from one fret to the next.  I don’t have small hands, but playing a P-Bass is as much fighting with one.  I kept telling myself that the crunchy, raw sound of the P-Bass came with that sacrifice.  I got used to it.  More or less.

As I became more comfortable playing my clunky bass, I started venturing into the local Guitar Center to play the basses on the wall.  It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with a MusicMan Stingray.  Playing that was a lot like cutting butter on a warm day, especially when compared to the P-Bass.  But I didn’t have the $1100 to fully justify paying for that bass, despite it’s wonderments. 

The band I was in played mostly blues based rock.  We don’t play heavy metal, so in my limited mindset, the only basses in my paradigm were Fenders and the Musicmans.  Then, by accident, a semi-professional bass player told how he put Bartollini pickups into his Fender Telecaster Bass and how much better it sounded.  As I was thinking about putting Bartollini’s in my P-bass, I googled “Bartollini” and “bass,” and came across a youtube video about some Ibanez basses.  My first two thoughts were, 1) “Oh, Ibanez are those cheap-ass basses from Korea?” and 2) “Oh, Ibanez are those heavy metal basses, right?”

Despite these feelings, I went to guitar center to check out the SR 500.  It’s dark natural brown wood body and massive-looking Bartollini pickups caught my attention first.  The weight of the bass, or more precisely, the lack of any weight, surprised me next.  When I took the bass off the rack, I had prepped myself with two hands.  After all, I’m an owner of a P-Bass, so I figured all basses are heavy as a refrigerator.  The SR 500, though, is ridiculously light.  You can do a side lateral raise with it and hold it static for at least a minute before you even start to feel a burn. 

Before plugging it in, I fooled around with some scales for a few minutes.  The first thing that will surprise you, especially if you’re coming from a Fender (even if you’re coming from a Fender Jazz Bass), is how low the action is.  You can literally breathe on it and it plays.  And, better yet, the low action comes with no fret buzz under normal playing conditions.  I couldn’t figure out how the folks at Ibanez did that.

The neck itself is also thin, with medium size frets.  The benefit of this can be seen if you’re playing, for example, an F minor pentatonic scale in the first position on the E string.  I remember with the P-Bass, to go from F to G# on the E string was always a bit of an adventure.  With the SR 500, your pinkie naturally landed on the G# without having to “reach” for it after hitting an F.  In that regard, for example, the struggles I had with the main Mr. Brownstone lick by GnR on my P-Bass were not as apparent with the SR 500.  Also, the sound unplugged on the SR 500 was loud and resonant.  I kept thinking how could Ibanez create such tone without any weight at all to the bass?  I thought weight = tone.  More weight, more tone.  Less weight, less tone. 

When I plugged it in, I realized where the money was in this bass:  the Bartollini Pickups.  With a P-Bass, I had two knobs: volume and tone control.  With the Ibanez, there are 5 knobs:  volume, pickup selector, and an equalizer (bass, mids, and treble).  I was beside myself.  But what got me the most wasn’t necessarily the variety of tones that I could get just with a simple turn of a knob, but the massive bottom end this bass produced.  And for a bass player, that’s what I’m after.  I could care less what the G string sounds like open, because frankly I rarely touch that string, other than a fill note here and there for an octave on a blues run. 

I want to know what that E string sounds like open.  Is it loud and defined rather than muddy?  Is it also nasty, meaning not too defined and not too pretty?  I want my E-string to have the ability — when I want to — to look like a lady with red lipstick, a leather cocktail dress, and knee high leather boots.  That’s what I was looking for and that’s what I got with the SR 500.  The whole room shook when I played it.  Ridiculous. 

The bottom line is that the SR 500 is fun to play because it’s easy to play.  But that “easiness” doesn’t come at the price of crap tone or cheap materials.  I’m sure at some point Ibanez got a bad rap because they were producing some crap stuff, especially in the sub-$1000 market.  Further, Ibanez seemed to corner themselves as the instruments for “heavy metal.”  These two elements didn’t fit well with me.  But they got it right with their new line of stuff, particularly with the SR 500.  The construction is good.  Nothing about it feels cheap.  It’s not an OLM, a Squire, or an ESP type of bass — this one looks good and plays good.  And it’s not limited to heavy metal . . . although put a pick in the hands of a headbanger and drop the E to a D or a C, and your SR 500 will turn into a mideval battle axe capable of slaying dragons and two headed monsters.  I’ve also seen people play everything from straight jazz, to Rocco fingerstyle funk, to Freekbass lines with this thing and it sounds right in each of those genres.  It shows how versatile this bass is.

The active electronics on these Bartollini’s do make a world of difference.  Fortunately, the 9v battery is housed in a pop-up case in the back.  No screws to deal with, particularly if you have to make a quick change during a show or something.

Now, one thing to keep in mind about this bass.  It’s a popular bass because of it’s price (around $550-$700 new) and ease of use.  But Flea doesn’t use it.  Victor Wooten doesn’t use it.  Marcus Miller doesn’t use it.  Pino Pallidino doesn’t use it.  And, frankly, to my understanding, no mainstream bassplayers — apart from some heavy metal guys (I think one guy from Five Finger Death Punch) and a girl from some other band, use or have used the new SR 500.  SO:  you may not get that “wow” factor in the same way that you would get if you pulled out a Musicman Stingray, a Modulus, or a Marcus Miller signature bass.  But if that’s what you’re looking for, get those basses. 

If you’re looking to get a great bass at a great price, I suggest you try the SR 500.  Go to your local guitar center and plug one in.  You’ll then see what I mean, whether you are a beginner to an advanced player.