Let’s face it, most of us can’t afford to throw down $6000 on a vintage bass. If we’re heading down to the local music store, the median price on a new bass purchase will be right around $1500. Believe it or not, there are extremely good vintage basses for under $1500. Take a look at my top five vintage basses for under $1500, in no particular order. Two rules make up my criteria. First, the basses had to be mass produced and must be readily available today; second, the bass has to be over twenty-five years old. The information below will guide you to some excellent, no-excuses basses. Let’s see what I came up with…
Gibson L9S Ripper
The Ripper was introduced in 1974, along with the Grabber and G3. The Grabber and G3 look similar to the Ripper, but are not the same bass and are not included in this segment.
1976 Gibson L9S Ripper, courtesy of Lon Cohen Studio Rentals
Rippers are long scale basses complete with varitone-equipped electronics and dual pickups. There are a wide variety of tonal choices from the varitone, but only a few of them are really useful. The construction of the bass is bullet proof, but beware of broken or doctored truss rods. The bass balances extremely well
and has neutral wrist positions. A Fender player can strap one on without concern.
Some of these basses are extremely heavy. I’ve seen some necks get a little wavy over the years. It’s fairly common to see neck sets become unstable, and be aware of proper relief with a bottomed-out bridge and high action. Some of the early-issue basses have a funny neck angle I’ve mentioned in other articles.
These basses are terrific, very usable and usually with no design or construction quirks. Expect the black and sunburst basses to demand a premium. The natural basses can be in the low-teens, and if you’re patient, you might see grade basses for around a grand.
Silvertone Model 1444 – Dolphin Nose Single Cut 4-String
This is your Christmas catalog bass—sold to little Jimmy when he was thirteen back in the sixties. And I’ll admit this is not the bass for everyone. However, these are tone monsters!
Holy smokes, these basses sound great! Several of these were used in the studio when they were first introduced, and are still used today. The tone of these is very creamy and totally smokes the Dano reissue of today. The very interesting feature is that when this bass is used with a pick, it has quite a different personality from when used fingerstyle, but both work fabulously! This bass played through an Ampeg B15 or direct into a console may be the tone of the gods.
Quite frankly, the basses are made of construction scrap—now remove the ‘s’ from scrap and it’s more appropriate. Masonite, lag bolts, soft wood, and deck paint does not make D’Angelico quality. The bass does not intonate. It has a straight wood saddle for all four strings. The hardware is a joke, as is the fit and finish. I’ve seen necks fold up into bodies because the tension of the strings could not be supported. Let me remind you this was a budget catalog bass.
It’s all about the tone, and these basses ooze tone. Just make sure the bass is not going to implode. The vast majority of these are black, but there have to be green, red and yellow ones out there, too (those would be the bomb). Expect to pay around $900 for a really good one.
G&L L1000, first variant from 1980 – 1982
I worked in a shop back in late eighties that sold these new. Actually, I should say we “tried” to sell these new. These basses have all the sex appeal of a beige four door Plymouth Valiant. They were so dowdy that folks went right past them.
Outside of a great pre-CBS Precision bass, this may be the best passive bass I’ve ever played. It has very usable tone for onstage or in the studio, and it has a typical Leo Fender, no B.S. design and quality. One pickup is placed right in the sweet spot, and playing one of these through an old tube amp is close to nirvana. These basses also sound great through a modern bass rig. The neck profile on the early models is close to a ’63 “wide ‘n’ flat” P-bass. The more familiar rounded C-neck wasn’t introduced until later.
The only real mention here is that over the years, I’ve repaired some badly twisted and humped necks. Also, be certain the neck is original to the bass.
These are absolute great basses. If you want to be the center of attention, go buy a BC Rich; if you want tone and feel, this is it. These basses retail at about $1095.
G&L L2000E, first variant from 1980 – 1982
This bass is the Valiant that someone slipped a big block motor into. Other than the same body shape and neck profile, this is very different from the L1000.
G&L 1981 L2000e, courtesy of Greg Gagliano
In my opinion, this bass will destroy a Musicman Sabre, and hold its own against a B00 Stingray, if not perform better. It comes complete with two pickups, a deadly good preamp in a bulletproof package—and it’s a killer player. This is one snotty tone plank. I prefer the rosewood board over the maple board, simply because I think it works better with the hyperactive preamp.
Ditto the comments on the L1000. Be careful the preamp is still original and functioning to spec. If it sounds shrieky or shrill, there’s a good chance the 28-year-old IC chip is cooked. You’ll be able to find a functional replacement chip, but not an original.
I have seen terrific basses with mahogany bodies in great colors for as high as $2000, but a generic cool alder bass is about $1295. Trust me, in two years today’s prices on these will seem cheap.
Ibanez Musician MC940 “Sting” Bass from the early eighties
What’s there to say? Great woods, great build quality, sexy as heck. Sting loved his, I love mine, and in the grand scheme of things, these are dirt cheap.
Premium woods, great hardware and great electronics were used to create a bass with a great neck and superb ergonomics. This bass has a custom-made feel to it that other basses in the group do not seem to have. Out of all the basses in this category, this by far gets the “most bang for the buck” award.
Like all basses of this vintage, the electronics might wear and parts can sometimes be nearly impossible to replace. The original cases were one step above junk, and I’ve seen damage to the basses because of this. I have also seen wood delamination, which is not a cheap repair in some instances.
This bass kills in all aspects of tone, components, feel, construction and price. These typically sell for anywhere between $875 and $1095. If this is still out of your price range, I’ve seen painted versions of this bass that retailed in the $250 to $400 range. I suggest buying one of these that is fully functional and not in need of any work. The repair bill will offset the value.
The Lowdown Wrap-up
Five basses, five distinct personalities, and all solid values. Vintage does not have to equal expensive. I’m not saying replace your ‘64 P-bass, but like most of us on a budget, you do not have to dream of owning a vintage bass when there is still value to be had. In my opinion, if purchased right you should not take a loss come sale time.
Big thanks to Greg Gagliano for the picture of his May 1981 L2000e and his 1980 L1000 that was made on the first day of production (as confirmed by Dale Hyatt). These are two special basses indeed! Until next time, drop the gig bag and bring the cannolis.
Kevin Borden has been a bass player since 1975, and is currently President of Goodguysguitars.com
Feel free to call him KeBo.
He can be reached at Kebobass@yahoo.com