Hense 12-String Bass Review
by Hans Grimm, the Netherlands
When I started out in music in 1977 at the age of nineteen, I also discovered Cheap Trick and their bass player-par-excellence Tom Petersson. I listened to Tom's sound and asked myself, "How does he DO that?" When I got 'Heaven Tonight', I saw Tom on the inner sleeve (yep, no CD's then) with a weird-looking instrument, a 12-string bass! All I could think was 'I want one of those'. But as a poor law student I could not afford one, even if they were mass-produced at the time, which they were not.
In 1980, the Ibanez Musician 8-string came out and I got that one instead. Ever since then, when someone asked me why the hell I played an 8-string, I would answer, "Because I cannot afford a 12-string!" Well, those days are over, thanks to the Koreans. Under brand names such as Carlo Robelli, Galveston and Hense, they make some fine 12-strings. Needless to say, this Dutchman got himself one of those, the Hense, sold out of Germany.
When I got this bass out of it's case the first thing that struck me that it was smaller than I expected. There are much bigger 12vers out there but this one is quite the little compact. Mind you, it IS a long-scale and the headstock is 1½ times the size of a 'normal' one, but still it looks and feels like this bass should be bigger. Maybe it's the color, which is a handsome transparent black. If you look closely you can still see the grain of the wood underneath.
However, when you look at the neck of this bass, all comparisons with it's 4-string colleagues come to an end: this neck is WIDE. When held alongside a 4-string, the neck near the nut is about 20% wider. It's all very understandable as this neck must accommodate three times as many strings, which must be able to vibrate without hitting each other all the time!
On close inspection, the workmanship is commendable for a bass in this price range. It has a smooth finish, no crookedly placed hardware, no strange gaps anywhere. I've seen Fenders and Gibsons that were less well built than this one.
So at first glance, there is nothing really wrong with this bass. The fact that it's made in Korea should no longer be a drawback for instruments like these. I think the Koreans are going the same road that the Japanese have gone before. Look at what's become of Ibanez!
Here I came to a little bump in the road: string intonation. On delivery, the string saddles were arranged in a nice diagonal line, which was more cosmetic than practical. The strings were seriously out of tune when played higher up so in order to be able to play it with any degree of satisfaction, I had to adjust that first. I really don't mind because I like doing that, so I hooked it up to my electronic tuner and went to work. When adjusting the E octaves I found that I reached correct intonation at the same time I reached the end of the adjustment range: the saddle could go no further forward, but luckily it didn't need to - whew! Although, these are the strings it came with, what if I put on some others? Let's cross that bridge when we come to it, no pun intended. :)
The same story with the A octaves and the G fundamental. As said, it's fine for now but if other strings should need forward adjustment, that could be a problem.
It may be hard to believe at the price but this bass comes with triple-band active electronics (low-mid-high). This enables you to set it from a very modest hoomph-hoomph up to an in-your-face trrrrraaanngg! To switch on the active electronics, you pull out the main volume knob.
The configuration of the controls is simple but elegant: No pickup-switch with two volume knobs, but one balance knob, which in my humble opinion gets you to your favorite sound a lot faster and needs no adjusting when the overall volume has to be reduced. The tri-band tone knobs only work when the active circuit is turned on. There is a big increase in output volume when the active circuit is turned on, so never do this while playing or you'll get a nasty surprise.
A look into the electronics space shows a reasonably neat layout. The battery tends to move about so it's wise to stuff in some toilet paper with it, like I did. You can unscrew the battery compartment separately from the electronics compartment, and here the level of workmanship also shows: The battery compartment screws go into brass nuts to avoid loosening up over time. Maybe not remarkable but it shows an eye for detail. The output jack goes into the side, neatly recessed.
Playing and Sound
When you strap on a 12ver you expect some neck-dive because of the big and crowded headstock. Well, no more because the Hense is nicely balanced, no neck-dive whatsoever! Quite a feat if you look at the compact body. Did you put a slab of lead somewhere in there guys? I think not because the overall weight of the bass in considerably less than my Ibanez Musician 8-string, just a little more than my 4-strings. So you can strut around the stage with this beast for a long time.
As I mentioned earlier, the neck is wide. If you have relatively small hands like I have, this bass takes some getting used to. Where I like to put my hand all around the narrow necks of my other basses, this one requires the classic hand position with the thumb on the back of the neck. This position increases the strain on your fingers when pressing down 3 strings at a time, especially when playing the E-string. All this requires some muscle build-up over time, but consider that 4- and 8-strings will feel like toys compared to this! :) Some people think the string spacing on these basses is a little much but when playing with your fingers, it's just right, and when you do both (pick and fingers) like me, it's not really an issue.
The string action is set quite low (I had to jack it up just a little to eliminate some string buzz on the E and A), so it's real easy to play. To quote Tom Petersson, "Any bassist can play the 12-string bass; it’s not like playing the xylophone or something. It’s still a bass". Well spoken, because nothing changes that dramatically: All the notes are in the same place, you only need a little bit more muscle.
Did I call this instrument a 'beast' earlier? Well, if it isn't one, it certainly sounds like one! You really need the active electronics for that, but then the sound is huge. You have to be careful not to overload your amp at the input, so you have to turn back the master volume in order to get a clean sound. At least, that's what I needed to do when I first plugged it into my Hughes & Kettner rig. After some adjustments the Hense laid down a thick carpet of sound, and the sustain just goes on forever. I really have not discovered any dead spots on the neck yet.
My fellow band members didn't know what to expect from this new addition and thought my 8-string sounded big. Well, I regret to say that it sounds puny compared to the 12-string, so after one night of practice it was suggested to me that I should leave the 8-string at home and that I should increase the number of songs played on the 12ver. We are a four-piece band (drums, guitar/vocals, bass/vocals, and vocals), so the Hense fills out the songs quite nicely. Songs that still sounded somewhat 'empty' at times now sound 'full'!
Well, someone said it before: This bass should not be this good at this price! I paid 699 Euros (about 875 US dollars) for it at Martin's Musikkiste and got a very nice aluminum flight case with it for only 75 Euros (about 94 dollars) more. Price includes VAT and shipping costs.
What do you get for this? You get a well finished, great looking and even greater sounding instrument. Playing it will take some getting used to, but it's worth it! For someone who is just starting in the 12ver business, this is the recommended instrument, especially if you are living in Europe. Importing a Carlo Robelli or Galveston (basically the same instruments) from the USA is not worth the hassle. Believe me, I tried, and all it's earned me in the end are some extra grey hairs. If you're European, buy European, or rather Korean / European! Martin Hense will give you excellent service, plus warranty. And no, he does not pay me for saying this. :)