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5 Surefire Ways to Vintage Bass Tone

5 Surefire Ways to Vintage Bass Tone

Vintage bass tone comes from a combination of three things—the bass, the amp, and the player’s hands.

Vintage bass tone comes from a combination of three things—the bass, the amp, and the player’s hands. A guy walked into my friend’s guitar shop years ago and asked if they could make him sound like Santana. My bro Frankie B. looked at his hands and said, “Um, no.” While we can’t control what kind of hands we have, we can control the gear we purchase. Let’s explore my favorite amps and my favorite basses to play through them. If you can’t get classic tone from these matchups, you probably have potatoes growing in your ears!

Acoustic 320 Amp and 408 Cab
I blew an entire summer’s salary on one of these rigs when they first came out in the early ’80s. I was walking up the stairs of the Kings Highway Sam Ash in Brooklyn to buy some strings, when I suddenly heard this godlike tone. The bass manager, Nabil Goudy, was playing a J bass through this setup, and I ended up going home with the rig. The head was 300 watts RMS and the matching 4x15 cabinet was moveable, despite the large size. The amp looked cool dressed in black Tolex and blue trim, but its most important attribute was that almost anything you played through it sounded terrific. This amp was warm and articulate with a passive bass, and really lit up and rocked hard with an active.

I used this amp in the early ’80s at clubs and concert dates with my band the Rockaways. Given its versatility, my choice of bass never warranted changing amps. My ’75 Rickenbacker had a terrific bottom end and retained the “ponk,” and the 320 added creaminess to the typically shrill sound of my ’74 Jazz bass. The amp really excelled when I put my B00 StingRay or B.C. Rich Eagle through it. I could play allout with the StingRay and the amp tamed the high end while providing a killer mid-bottom tone. Because the Eagle’s output was too stout for the preamp, I needed to back off the bass volume about 20 percent. But this rig and the Eagle was one of my all-time favorite setups.

Ampeg B-15
More recordings were made and more gigs were played with this amp than any other. Bottom line: In terms of classic tone, this is the best bass amp for your rosewood-boarded Precision. My ’66 P bass sounds better than my ’58 P through this amp and nothing sounds better than my ’58, which has been my workhorse for over 20 years. This amp will make a student-level player sound like James Jamerson or John Paul Jones, sonically at least. Every serious player and collector should own at least one of them. While nearly every passive bass sounds deadly through this amp, I highly recommend you not use an active bass with the B-15, as it will override the preamp and demolish the speaker.

Ampeg SVT
I’ve spent many a late night hauling this 100-pound lead brick and its skyscraper 8x10 cabinet. Why? Because of the “Oh, my!” tone. It can handle a modern, active bass and sounds killer with a vintage StingRay, but where it really shines is with a great, passive, vintage bass. This is possibly the best amp I’ve ever heard paired with a ’60s J bass. The tone is silky and smooth, but when you need it to get aggressive, it will rip your face off. Precisions sound crisp and fat, and Rickenbackers do remarkably well projecting through an SVT. This could be my favorite amp for Rickenbackers in terms of vintage tone and versatility— think early Deep Purple and Thin Lizzy-esque live tone. This amp gets really edgy and ballsy with a T-bird and will scare old ladies and little children with its growl. If done just right, this combination will mix your beverage for you too. The tone is tight and aggressive with just the right amount of breakup at the speakers. I’ve used this head with Cerwin-Vega B36MFs (think B-15 on steroids) and Bergantino 610NVs, which are terrific alternatives to the 8x10.

Hiwatt 200
Meet my friend Mike Burduck. Mike is my copilot and cigar smoking, trade show-driving buddy. A heck of a player and heck of a friend, but Mike is confused. He’s a NYC guy living near Nashville, and if not for our mutual friend JD at Corner Music palling with Mike, I’d be worried. The only thing that makes Mike smile is one of these amps, and this is a guy who may not even like Santa Claus. Mike was the one who turned me onto these amps, and I’m glad he did. The ultimate bass to play through the Hiwatt 200 amp is a Thunderbird—just play the first three notes to “The Real Me,” and you nailed it. The preamp section is looser than the SVT, so you get that sonic breakup you are looking for. An EB-3 gets instant “I’m So Glad” Jack Bruce tone, all while having nice, mildly distorting headroom. I recently used one of these with a Bergantino 610NV cabinet, and the combination of a new, tight, pseudo-modern cabinet with a grizzled old head was sonic nirvana. Most passive basses sound really cool through this head in a late-’60s sort of way. Expensive, but worth it.

Marshall Major
This head routed through a 4x15, 1x18, or 8x10 Marshall cabinet was my tonic of choice for years. Visually, there’s nothing as sexy as a stack of cane-grilled Marshalls behind you. Though many folks think the Marshall and the Hiwatt are similar in nature, the Hiwatt actually exhibits a cleaner, high-end sort of tone, where the Marshall is more midrange ballsy. Think Humble Pie’s Rockin’ the Fillmore if you’re wielding a T-Bird, or 1967 Noel Redding if you’re playing a Jazz bass. For whatever reason, a Precision sounds good (but not great), while a ’70s Rick 4001 sounds unreal through this head. I found some JCM800 cabinets and replaced the grille cloths to make them look old-school, and then paired them up with the Major. The tone? Fuggedaboutit! Wow, this was fun. Look for a sequel on this topic sometime in the near future!

Kevin Borden has been playing bass since 1975. He is the principal and co-owner, with “Dr.” Ben Sopranzetti, of Kebo’s Bass Works (visit them online at You can reach Kevin at Feel free to call him KeBo.