When Lee began collecting basses, he set out to acquire about a dozen examples of those instruments preferred by his idols, with this Hofner 500-1, for example, representing Beatles-era Paul McCartney. Photo by Richard Sibbald
There are some pitfalls to avoid in collecting vintage guitars and basses. Especially now, as people have gotten really good at mimicking the details of old parts and replicating the way vintage finishes age—even studied under blacklight. How did you go about educating yourself as a buyer? Did you get burned along the way?
Yeah. I don’t think you’re an honest collector if you don’t experience a couple of burns in your excitement! In the old days, when you became a collector of anything, you had to travel to the guitar shows and the fairs, or stumble upon guys that were trying to sell their instruments in newspaper ads and such, and you really had to know at least a little bit of what you were talking about because you had to experience them in person. Now we live in a world that’s opened up in its entirety to sellers with the internet, so how do you know an instrument in Malaysia or somewhere is the real deal? A ton of communication has to ensue, a ton of photographic evidence has to be exchanged, but at the end of the day you have to have enough knowledge—or at least access to enough knowledge—to verify that what you’re after is the real thing.
So yeah, I’ve bought a couple of instruments that didn’t pass muster once we opened them up and got them under the blacklight, and I’ve bought some that fooled a lot of experts along the way.
Does an instrument’s story ever outweigh how original it is, when it comes to your enjoyment of it as a collector?
I have a 1963 Strat that required an unbelievable amount of detective work and is an example of something like that. It has a matching headstock, which is very rare, and the factory numbers and etchings under the pickguard are all there, but it turned out not to be so straightforward and the guitar is a whole story unto itself. That is really fun to discern for me, and the seriousness of that all comes down to what the sale price is at the end and if you’re buying something that someone is trying to deceive you into thinking is all original when in reality it’s original-ish. That said, another thing I avoided in the book is talking about the cost or value of these things. I really try to seperate that side from the simple celebration of these instruments.
The allure is learning, and there is so much to learn in this and the other things I get into collecting. This obsession with things that represent the ingenuity of man is endless and endlessly edifying.
I know you’ve also got some pretty remarkable guitars, including a ’59 Les Paul Standard.
I do! When Joe Bonamassa was in town a few weeks ago, he came over for dinner and we had a gathering of the Toronto guitar geeks at my house and had a great time. Joe brought it to his soundcheck the next day and gave it his thumbs up! I like guitars, too, but I don’t play them. I can play guitar and I use it from time to time as a writing tool, but I’m a bass player and sometimes I feel like having these amazing guitars is a bit of a waste in my hands, and they should be with players like Joe. But I do have a mad passion for certain guitars. I always said Alex, my partner in crime for all these years, sounds best with a 335 or a Les Paul in his hands. His white 355 is such a killer, great-sounding instrument!
Is there anything you’re still hunting?
A real pre-CBS surf green Fender Jazz or P bass. I’m still looking for a ’68 Fender Telecaster bass in the blue floral print. It’s remarkable how hard those are to find. The paisleys are out there and I have a couple of those, and I even have the blue floral Tele guitar, but I haven’t found the bass yet. I’m looking for a super early Rickenbacker 4001 from the early ’60s. I have three Ric 4000s from the early ’60s, and I have a ’64 4001, but I’m really looking for one of the first ones.
The interviews in the book are great and include some your heroes, like John Paul Jones. What was it like putting that part of the book together?
It was very difficult to have so few interviews. I could’ve easily talked to 30 guys, but there’s only so many pages and there’s only so much time. I really wanted to talk to players that represented the period I’m specifically talking about in the book, like Bill Wyman and John Paul Jones. These are guys that can talk about actually buying basses during that period.
John Paul is such a fantastic character and wonderful storyteller and generous man. We spoke about his early days and what he loved about the bass, and especially his ’62. And Bill Wyman in many respects invented the electric fretless bass by making it himself, and he’s a character that’s played so many different instruments—so he could speak to the reality of so many different instruments. I wanted to speak with people that connected with the book on a level beyond just being great players. It was really about the combination of being a profound player and having that collector’s mindset, or having the experience of having been a witness to the golden age and being able to describe it.
Among the rare basses in his armada are several Fender Telecaster models. He has a few paisley-finish examples but is still on the hunt for one in a blue floral print. Photo by Richard Sibbald
Jeff Tweedy is a collector that I really appreciate, as he just buys things he loves or finds weird, and he’s got just a marvelous collection. I had a really great time interviewing him for the book and spending some time with him and his gang at the Loft in Chicago. He’s really a fun collector, and I love guys that have a big heart, and he has the same attitude with keyboards and pedals and drums, and the Loft is just a super-cool place to hang out.
Do you have any thoughts on the way bass playing has changed since you started?
You just have to look on Instagram and you’ll see a million young players—female and male—that have astounding dexerty. A lot of them are playing 5- and 6-string instruments. There’s this whole proliferation of players going beyond the 4th string, and there’s a whole new school that’s going to take it to a very interesting place. A lot of them stylistically aren’t exactly my cup of tea, but I really appreciate the way they’re playing and the fact that there’s such a movement of female bass players, especially. I saw Jeff Beck this summer and Rhonda Smith is such a monster player, and I love seeing that shift in the culture to more women being represented.