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Hello everyone and welcome back to The Low End. You have the bread, you have your significant other’s permission, you feel the calling, but you don’t have the piece of mind. This installment – which will be part of a multi-issue series – will address the issues that make you reach for the antacid when struggling with the decision to purchase a vintage bass guitar. Use this knowledge as a guide when dropping those dimes and buying your vintage bass. Unless you are a trained professional, have an expert verify your purchase. It will be money well spent.
The first question you have to ask is, “Am I buying this bass as a collector to tuck away or am I a player looking for a really great bass?” If you are buying this as a collector, only a no-excuses piece should satisfy your craving. If you are buying as a player, there are certain misgivings you could allow for. This column will address some of the most common player-grade vintage instrument issues.
My shop sells a lot of basses. The thing I always convey to my clients, especially someone who is a new client and is new at buying sight unseen is this: the bass you are buying today is the bass you are selling tomorrow. If you are not happy with your purchase, the bass will always have the wrong karma. A few general facts can clear up a lot of misunderstandings very quickly. For any mail order bass purchases, make sure you have an approval period you are comfortable with. See if you can have the bass shipped directly to your vintage luthier or professional vintage instrument retailer for verification. It will cost you a few sheckles to have your bass verified, but isn’t spending a little on the front end worth the long-term piece of mind? In a person-to-person deal, the one thing I have seen time and again is having a friend wreck a deal. Unless your best friend is a professional, have them there only as moral support. I have witnessed best friends literally kill a deal to the point the seller will not sell you the guitar.
Now, let’s take a look at some common potential maladies that we should all recognize. Rickenbackers are possibly the coolest bass designs ever made and probably the most misunderstood. A very common complaint is that the tail pickup has low output at the jack. I’ve seen folks change the pickup and still have low output. Here’s the issue: Rickenbacker put a bleeder cap on at the factory, to lower the output of the pickup. The reasoning behind this was to level the output between the two pickups because the tail pickups seemed to be a little hot. Over time the pickups mellow and the cap basically is not needed. If the guard is pulled you will see three caps. Two of the caps run to the tone pots, the third runs off the toggle. All that needs to be done is have a qualified repairperson replace the toggle cap with a piece of wire and voila! In my opinion, there is no devaluation in doing this unless the bass is in mint condition. If the wire is presently in place and the output is low you may simply have a weak pickup at this point.
The other area to keep an eye on is the truss rod. I have seen more ham-fisted repairs on these rods than on any other bass. The design of the twin rods is quite functional but requires a gentle touch. Keep an eye out for even relief on both sides of the neck. Rick basses will usually have nice and low action with minimal relief. Remove the truss rod cover. Is there a piece of wood removed from behind the truss rod nuts? The factory routing is even and cylindrical – if you see squared off or gouged wood, have it checked. A deterrent maybe, warning sign possibly, a deal breaker probably not. This does not mean there is an issue; it means the prior repairman didn’t have the proper tools or know-how.
Another complaint I frequently hear is that there is a crack on the side of the neck where the fretboard joins the neck structure. 90% of the time, this isn’t a crack at all but rather a lift of the fretboard. A little glue and a clamp is all that is needed for repair. Another simple issue involves the box back Grover tuners. Do not panic if your bass arrives and you find your tuner(s) in pieces. This is quite common and easily remedied. Unscrew the tuner, put the pieces back and you will see four small prongs, one on each corner of the tuner box. Place a drop of superglue and press it together. Reinstall the next day and you’re all good!
In next month’s installment I will discuss Fender, Gibson and their general ailments. Until then, keep the bottom up and 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