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Welcome back, everyone. Last month we discussed some of the basic knowledge needed for buying a vintage bass, as well as some general Rickenbacker product know-how. This month we’ll take a peek at Gibson basses and some of their most common maladies. Think of this as life preserver – as opposed to life raft – knowledge.
Gibson basses were once the redheaded stepchild of the vintage bass world. Now they are starting to bring in some serious money, and a lot of them are hitting the market. These are perhaps the best buy of any vintage bass out there and are quite cool instruments in their own right.
My all-time favorite bass is the Thunderbird. This has to be the most abused bass in the world; I see more T-birds with broken headstocks than models that are intact. The problem is that you have a fairly massive headstock sitting on top of a skinny nut. If the bass falls over, the inertia does a quick snap job. Most breaks running parallel to the nut are from this kind of injury. Breaks running up and down are from the tuner or back of the headstock resting on the inside of the case. The case gets whacked and you have an instant crack. (A simple tip: remove your G tuner and elevate the neck when shipping a T-bird.) I wouldn’t let a broken headstock stand in the way of purchasing a T-bird, but it does impact the price.
Another issue with these basses is intonation – the bottom line is that the bridge is in the wrong spot. 99.9% of T-birds will not be able to reach perfect intonation. It’s not bad, and should not prevent a purchase. Early non-reverse T-birds also tend to suffer from high-action; there’s nothing you can do here except grind out the saddle slot. This resulted from the neck being at the wrong angle, although it was later corrected. Be aware that quite a few Thunderbird IVs are converted Thunderbird IIs. Have a professional check this out for you.
A general issue in the Gibson line is that there’s tendency for a mild split coming off the screw holding down the E tuner. It’s a straight thin split, easily repairable and will have little to no financial impact on a nonmint condition bass.
A general problem with the Gibson EB line is the heel. Heels break from being dropped and heels break from stress. Neck joints come loose from old glue under pressure. Fortunately, a broken heel can be easily repaired. Basses with repaired heels are worth less. How much is up to you. A visual inspection will determine this and a good luthier can hide this if the problem isn’t too bad.
But what if the neck set is going bad? If the action is high and relief is proper, there is good chance. If you see paint flaked around the neck joint, do not automatically think the neck needs to be reset – this is common on EB-2s. A basic rule of thumb is to take a piece of paper and put it in the exposed seam. If it does not go in, odds are it’s paint flake; if it goes in, odds are it’s in need of a reset. If there is a stark color contrast in the area around the heel, the neck has most likely been reset – if done cleanly and properly, there’s no issue.
The one problem area commonly found on EB-2s is the thunder switch. Over time either the spring fails and the switch needs to be replaced or it gets so dirty you think it needs to be replaced. To clean the switch, push down on it and don’t let it up. Spray electronics cleaner down the shaft and push the switch in and out a few times. Repeat as needed and it will remedy itself. Another thing to watch out for on EB-2s is that they are easily converted to two pickup EB-2Ds. The same is true for EB-0s becoming EB-3s. The easiest give away is that a lot of these were done by Jethro in between oil changes and just don’t look right. If you see a toggle on an EB-3 instead of a rotary switch, look very carefully.
Another bass I’m fond of is the Les Paul Triumph/Recording series. The early ones used a “transformer” jack because of the instrument’s impedance. Without this jack the bass is useless. You’ll know when you have one – it weighs as much as your car and it has almost no output. You either need the specific jack or you will have to convert the electronics.
Next up is the RD Artist, which may be the best vintage bass for under $2000 on the market. The problem with this model is the electronics go bad and you’re in for a fun repair if you can’t find a guy or the parts to do it. Lastly – and I’ve seen a few of these – is a Grabber with Ripper guts being passed as a Ripper. A big local store had one swinging on the wall and didn’t even know it. The easiest check on this is that they have different headstocks.
My closing thought is this: not all Gibson basses sound like mud. I personally believe the more you look, the more you will like vintage Gibby’s. Next month we’ll tackle Fender basses – in the meantime, don’t forget the canollis!
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