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PG Readers' Perspectives on Vintage Bass in 2010

How do readers perceive the vintage bass market this year?

At the end of each year, I report on the bass market from a dealer’s perspective. I sell a lot of basses, I see a lot of basses sold, and—most importantly—I see a lot of basses go unsold. That is the real story on accurate pricing. The tag price is not the sold price, and that is where value mistakes happen. The first seven and a half years of the new millennium saw vintage bass prices explode, in some instances increasing 400 percent or more. Vintage basses went out of the financial reach of the working player. Nonplayers and nonmusicians were buying big pieces as an accumulative asset or a work of art. Vintage collectibles, basses included, were outpacing 401(k) or other investment vehicles. Potential buyers were asking, “Where do you see the value in two years?” not “How does this instrument play?” and “Is it all original?”

Musical Instrument or Financial Investment?

Investors and speculators with cashed-out 401(k) plans and second mortgages were helping to fuel the vintage fire. Like all fires, if you burn too hot, you will burn out—and if you stand too close, you’ll get burned. From 2003 until early 2007, I could sell a big bass using telepathy. As a dealer, we did not care if we rolled stock, because it would be worth more tomorrow than today. We all knew the party was coming to an end, we just did not know when, how, or how abruptly it would happen. Now, big basses are slow and extremely devalued compared to three years ago. Maybe “devalued” isn’t the appropriate word. Perhaps “properly valued” is more accurate.

Last year, my median sale was about $1100 to $1300. Today, it’s up a few hundred bucks. Most importantly, players like you and me are buying vintage basses. To understand how bassists—not dealers or investors— viewed this past year, I spoke with a few Premier Guitar subscribers to get their opinions and perspectives. I’d like to thank readers Tim Onorato, David “DK” Wilkins, Paul DeLano, Fred Elig, and Kennan Shaw for offering their open and honest insights. All these guys are pro-level players. Some tour for a living, some are barroom brawlers a few times a month. Their arsenals range from a pistol safe to a NATO stockpile. Most importantly, these guys use their gear.

A View from the Trenches

Something is impacting this panel of PG-reading bassists, and it explains quite a bit to a dealer like myself. When the economy goes south, the first thing people do is stay home: Musicians who had weeknight gigs no longer have them, and the weekend gigs also dried up. The playing time for my panelists seems to have decreased 50 to 65 percent, and rates are down by the same margin. A $750 gig is now paying $250. The folks who rely on gigging as a major portion of their household income are doing okay, but doing okay does not lead to gear purchases.

The fact is, one’s gig income has a direct correlation to one’s gear-purchase fund: no gigs means no gear purchases. As a dealer, I thought people were afraid of spending money on instruments because of potential devaluation or their inability to resell the gear. But now I realize that the slowdown is due in part to musicians having no capital to invest. Personally, I have not bought anything for myself in the past 18 months. Kennan Shaw summed it up perfectly: “You need a catch-and-release program or a good ogling method.”

When I asked these players about what gear they’re avoiding, the response was interesting: new boutique basses. The reason they gave was the hefty devaluation at sale time. As prices increase on new boutique basses and drop on vintage instruments, many players reach the same conclusion: Why spend $5000 on a boutique emulation when you can buy the real thing for the same money? When the vintage market was going nuts, folks bought boutiques because they could afford them. What they’re buying now are the “bread and milk” of the industry— reliable amplification and practical accessories.

I asked if anyone had to hock a bass to pay the bills, and luckily none of these guys did. But I know from my clients there was a lot of this for a while. My bass-playing PG fans also recognized they are lucky to be gigging—a bad gig is better than a good night in front of the TV.

Fiscal responsibility is also a major focus of the group. Buying on credit is out of the picture. In the past, 95 percent of my sales were on a credit card. Today, it’s about 50 percent. I thought only my credit-card sales were down, but now I understand folks are simply not charging without cash in hand. If a bass needs to be sold before another one is purchased, then so be it. I’m glad to see fiscal accountability take place. Very recently, a “client” bought a bass from me through e-auctions. He did not have the money for the purchase because his bass sale fell through.

Here’s something else I found interesting: Though my panelists are from California, Florida, the Gulf Coast, the Northeast, and the Midwest, each one gave almost the same responses to my questions. The economy impacted them similarly, they had similar concerns and issues, and so on. I learned from these gents and I thank them for that.

Warming Trends

Not everything is dire. My shop is seeing a lot of trade-ins—something we’ve not had in quite some time—and wish-list items seem to be resurfacing. In fact, several roundtable bassists mentioned lusting after a killer old J bass and some big cha-ching Ricks. At this time last year, none would have entertained the idea of buying a nice vintage bass.

So what are my thoughts on the vintage market? Honestly, I think, hope, and pray the price structure has bottomed out. Good vintage basses at fair prices will sell. Great and rare basses will start to command a premium. I am seeing a huge jump in trade activity that resembles mid-2006 levels. Folks seem happy to make a fair trade on a solid bass. I see a lot of bands, and players are using traditional gear a lot more than they were over the past two to three years. Why? Because they can afford the traditional stuff again!

The Low Down

I’ve learned a lot while researching my columns in this and the previous issue. I’m actually optimistic going into a busy show season in Arlington, Philly, Nashville, and Orlando. Hope to see you there.

Kevin Borden
Kevin Borden has been a bass player since 1975 and is currently the principal and co-owner, with “Dr.” Ben Sopranzetti, of Kebo’s Bass Works []. You can reach Kevin at Feel free to call him KeBo.