Back in the 1980s, the Steinberger L-series basses were quite chic, but not cheap, so a few makers got on the bandwagon and produced their own small-bodies headless basses. The 1985 Westone rail bass we are looking at today is one of these, but with a few twists.
If you have not heard of Westone before, here is a quick run-down on the brand. Matsumoku was a Japanese company that specialized in making guitars for many brands, including Aria, Epiphone, Vox and more. They built very good instruments, including copies of popular American instruments that caused some legal difficulties.
After building instruments for other companies for all of those years, in 1981 they decided to start their own brand and Westone was born. Their products were never a big hit and in 1987 Matsumoku sold the brand to a Korean company, and by 1991 the brand was gone. Not many of their guitars ere imported to the US, and it seems like most of their products went to the UK.
In 1984 Westone got on the headless bass bandwagon and over time they introduced a range of instruments, including a full-bodied model (the Super Headless), a small-body model (the Quantum) and The Rail.
The Rail is one of the more bizarre-looking basses you will ever see, but everything about it is purely functional. It was designed around the idea of using a pickup that can be re-positioned so many different kinds of tone can be attained. This is similar in concept to the Dan Armstrong basses of the late 1960s. In this case, pickup movement was achieved by mounting it to two steel rails so it could be moved at will.
Unlike Steinbergers, no exotic materials were used to construct these instruments. The neck and body pieces are made of maple, and rosewood is used for the fretboard. The center piece where the passive humbucker pickup is mounted also contains all of the electronics, which consist of an output jack and a volume control. They figured that no tone control was needed as the pickup can be moved. There is an extra knob on top to lock the pickup into place. There were available in red, white or black, and all of them had black paint on the back of the neck.
The tuners and bridge are separate pieces, which simplifies things a bit from the Steinberger system. The bridge is easily adjustable, and the tuners work surprisingly well for a budget instrument. In true 1980s style, all of the hardware is finished in black.
Looking at The Rail Bass years later, I find that they are holding up pretty well. The necks do not seem to twist up, and I have never seen a broken tuner assembly. The frets on this one are still good, and it can be adjusted for a nice low action. By the way, when was the last time you saw red fret marker dots?
Playing these basses is not super-fun though. I like the shorter scale length (32 ¼-inches) and the pickup can indeed get oodles of different sound depending on where you put it, but ergonomically The Rail is a challenge. I could never get a comfortable right hand position, but maybe it will be just your cup of tea. I would like to try one of their Quantum basses and see if it is a better fit.
Westone’s The Rail Bass was not too expensive when it came out, with a list price of $499, which included a gig bag. They only made these basses for two or three years, but their rarity does not lead to a premium price on the used market. I see them sell for around $300 when they come up on eBay. If you ever see one, give it a try and see what you think!