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Hello and welcome back to The Low End. In prior installments we explored Rickenbacker and Gibson basses. This month we will take a peek at “old reliable” – the Fender bass line. The nice thing about Fender basses is that they are basically bulletproof and flaws are easy to spot, although there are also some Achilles heels in the product line. Luckily, most issues can be discovered with little more than a simple Phillips head screwdriver.
The Common Stuff
By now, most vintage Fender basses have played a million gigs. Expect to see a refret and changed pots. These are items that wear and I would personally rather have a playable bass than an original one that requires work. As long as the neck finish was not altered and the refret was done professionally, there shouldn’t be any issues. Changed pots are another story; it is an individual decision whether to buy a bass with non-original pots and it does result in a minor devaluation. The good news is that dated replacement pots are a pretty easy find online. I see more Fender basses with fret jobs and changed pots than any other brand, likely because they were simply used more often.
Another general malady affecting Fender basses is the infamous E tuner split – a slight split that runs off the E tuner mounting screw, which was also touched upon in our Gibson discussion [October 2007]. On Fenders, the split tends to run straight down and will sometimes wrap under the bottom of the headstock. This is common and easily fixed. A small split on a non-mint bass is nothing to worry about, although a larger split may result in some devaluation.
One thing to count on in vintage Fender territory is that virtually every Telecaster bass from the ‘60s has a changed pickguard. This is simply due to the fact that plastic deteriorates. If you expect this going into the purchase of a vintage Fender, you’ll be happy. If you actually find one with the original, give yourself a great big “Mazel tov!”
The Dark Side
Fender basses have two common areas of trickery that you should always check. First, remove the pickguard. I have purchased perfect-looking, pre-CBS basses where I skipped this step because I was assured it was perfect, only to find a swimming poolsized route underneath. The other area to check is solder joints. A typical scenario: you unscrew the J-Bass control plate and the solder appears to be original. However, the pickups were changed, clipped in the middle of the lead and tucked into the body. Make sure to pull the pickups – don’t take anything for granted.
The Two Big Problems
Neck issues and pickups are the only big component issues you will likely face when buying a Fender bass. Early ‘70s pickups are prone to blowing. Remember, a blown pickup may have output – it will just sound thin and terrible. If you put a multimeter on the lead, you will get an open coil reading, instead of the 6 to 9.5k reading you expect. Rewind guru Jim Rolph explained the issue to me. When they were produced, the holes on the bobbins were the wrong size, and CBS-Fender left the inner surface rough. This resulted in wire chafing where the leads were connected. Jazz basses of that era are especially prone to this.
Another electronic issue to keep an eye out for— early Music Man basses are now developing preamp issues. The issue presents itself like a bad pot or bad pickup and requires careful examination by a professional because parts are nearly impossible to get.
Of course, the big area to check on any instrument is the neck. Fenders with block markers and four bolts are usually either dead-on perfect or dead on their way to repair. Here are some common issues: For some reason, some truss rods do nothing. Luckily, these basses are easy to spot: they have super light strings, high action, and are usually tuned low. More common is the “Fender Flip.” The neck ski slopes from approximately the 14th fret, going into a rise at the rod adjustment point. The neck will choke on the high notes or be a little buzzy. I have seen some dots and bound J-Bass necks with the flip as well. Early Music Man basses have similar issues, with a rise between the 11th and 16th frets. It will take a fret job with some planing, but it can be fixed.
A repaired bass is easy to spot – just look at the binding height. If it’s lower in height anywhere from the 12th fret, wrapping under the bottom of the neck to the 12th fret on the other side of the neck, you may have a prior repair. Once fixed, there should not be any additional problems.
Well, that does it. I hope you found this three-part series informative. Next month we will meet a fellow player who is very active in promoting the vintage bass hobby. Until then, don’t forget 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