the low end

As projected, the 2011 market became even more aligned with players, rather than collectors, and certainly not investors.

While original-design Ibanez basses have a dedicated following, the company’s “lawsuit era” 4-strings have their advocates, as well. Despite being bolt-ons, these ’70s Ibanez basses certainly bear a striking resemblance to their ’60s Gibson forebears. Image courtesy of
As projected, the 2011 market became even more aligned with players, rather than collectors, and certainly not investors. The largest percentage of deals this past year has been for player-level gear—more so than anytime I can recall in the past five to seven years.

The pricing sweet spot in 2011 was between $600 and $4000, down from $1500 to $5000 the previous year. And this is down considerably from the 2007 numbers of $2500 to $10,000. One major change I’ve seen is that tradeshow attendance appears to have increased considerably and that tradeshow activity (buying, selling, and trading) is also on the rise. Just by looking at confirmed sales, internet auction transactions appear to have cooled a bit, even with lower selling prices. That said, it looks like in-hand prices have remained relatively static when compared to 2010. In talking with many clients, I’ve gathered that instead of opting for an internet sale by a non-dealer offering no guarantee or return privilege, people seem willing to pay a premium for a face-to-face deal—which amounts to an extra 5-10 percent— simply for peace of mind.

What’s Hot. There was not a single bass I put in my crosshairs as a “must buy” in 2011. Provided a bass played great, sounded great, and was correctly priced—it sold. Refinished Jazz basses, 4001s, and Thunderbirds continued to have a short shelf life, while refinished P basses tended to hang around just a smidge longer. Most any other refin bass had to be cheap to sell. Dead mint to firewood Thunderbirds from the ’60s and 4000 series Rickenbackers have had constant activity, while J basses and ’60s P basses have seemingly come back to life.

The key here is pedigree versus price—they simply have to be in sync. Industry-standard boutique basses have also been sturdy sellers, provided they were still pretty, played great, and priced correctly. Alembics under $5000 and USA Laklands, Spector, and Tobias basses under $2500 all traded steadily. I’ve seen Sadowsky, Fodera, and Warwicks remain as steady swingers with Warrior basses gaining some traction. And while early G&L and ’70s Gibsons continued to sell, the surprise of the bunch has been post-lawsuit, original-design Ibanez basses— extremely good instruments that have quite the following. Mismatched necks and bodies, hot-rod components, and refins on mishmash basses from the ’50s through the ’70s have been hot. This is a huge contrast to even two or three years ago when pedigree was everything.

What’s Not. 2011 continued to show pain in the marketplace. Just one example of this was the slowdown of 1970s P bass sales. Also, with a few exceptions, gear over $10K—even if priced fairly—did not seem to move. Realistically priced T-Birds and 4000 series Rickenbackers from the ’60s were the exception, along with the odd extremely rare or extremely clean instrument. While both Rickenbacker and early Music Man basses sold steadily, the former came down about 20 percent and the latter dropped in price by 15 percent. Epiphone basses from the ’60s—though cooler than their Gibson comps—witnessed triple the shelf life when comparably priced. And Christmas catalog basses—always popular because of their cheap nostalgia—have been dead in the water and most can’t be given away. Old may equate to cool, but not necessarily desirable. Just ask the SD Curlee owner who couldn’t get $300 for his bass at two guitar shows.

Projections for 2012. There is a lot of gear to buy at relatively sane prices—prices I expect to remain static. Because it’s the musicians buying instruments and not the speculators, gear trading has never been more fun. The tradeshow crowd seems to be enjoying themselves. Though not in dollars spent, it’s almost a throwback to the early 2000s in terms of vibe. The flavor-of-the-week club appears to have settled down and the up-and-down spiking of sales by make and model has leveled out. Traditional gear is the hot commodity and many players are coming back to 4-string basses, with basses sporting more than five strings having become a rarity compared to a couple of years ago.

I’m calling 2011 “the year that people did not understand.” I find used Rickenbacker 4003s listed online at $1500 to $2700 for the exact same bass, and I saw a late-’60s refin Precision listed for $8000. Basses with flaws are being tagged at top dollar, so going forward, the principle of quality-versus-price will become even more significant. Sorry, but you won’t sell a B00 StingRay to a dealer for $2700, when he has the same one for $2200.

The Low Down… We’re Undecided. Talking with my dealer buddies and many of my player clients, it seems everyone is looking for something different and nothing different at the same time. While staples will continue to sell just because people crave a different instrument, folks are not looking for the next trendsetter. Hamers and Jacksons have been trading in-and-out against StingRays— but is this bucking the trend or becoming the trend?

Live auctions have been showing up at major tradeshows. Will this be the norm or a flash in the pan? The jury is out on what’s in store for us, but boy, the opinions are in. Let’s just say there’s no joy in Mudville with this one, so let’s wait and see.

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Whether by phone or email, I’m most frequently contacted with this question: “I have three basses sitting in front of me, and I’m trying to decide which one I’m going to buy. What’s the best deal?”

Whether by phone or email, I’m most frequently contacted with this question: “I have three basses sitting in front of me, and I’m trying to decide which one I’m going to buy. What’s the best deal?” I usually can’t answer this question for several reasons: One is due to liability, another is I don’t know what’s right for you, and finally—and this is crucial—I don’t have the instruments in front of me, which makes it difficult to evaluate them properly.

To help you reach a decision the next time you’re pondering a purchase, I’ve summarized three actual deals in which I assisted the potential buyer. I hope this information will help you if you find yourself in a similar position. You may have some money for a bass burning a hole in your pocket and you’ve found several to choose from. You need to ask yourself if this bass is going to be a player, a closet queen, or a financial asset. Once you answer this question, your decision usually gets whittled down. If it doesn’t, that’s where Uncle Kebo’s Logic (aka UKL) comes in.

Deal One. My friend “Greg” called me and said, “Kev, I found three basses. I want all of them but I can only afford one.” Greg is a fine player who uses everything, but it has to play and sound great. This is what he’d found: (1) A 1958 P bass with a body-only refin and all parts present, but it had a refret and a new case. (2) A 1965 sunburst P bass in exquisite condition, frighteningly clean, no excuses, and 100 percent original. (3) A 1971 P bass finished in Firemist Gold, in nice, but not great shape. Each bass was a buck away from $6000—valued somewhat properly in my opinion—but each needed to be looked at on its own merits.

The 1958 is my favorite Fender of all time and my personal number-one bass is a ’58 P bass in beat-to-death condition. What this bass had going for it is that it was a ’58, all the parts were original, and it played and sounded great. The body-only refinish job was done by one of the best and was artificially aged to match the patina and wear of the neck—so it looked great too. This was a “fool your friends” refin, but the negative was that it was still a refin.

The ’65 was put under a bed when new and was so clean it glowed. All it needed was a level and dress of the frets for no other reason than it appeared to have been uplayed since 1965. We did not even need to open this bass up it was so honest, but the negative here was that the bass was really too clean to play—and Greg is a player.

The ’71 was a tough one. On the plus side, it was an all-original bass in a super-rare color that also played fantastically well. The drawback here is that the bass was competing against P basses from the ’50s and ’60s for about the same money. Had the ’71 been a sunburst, it would not have even been in the mix. So what to do? The ’71 was ruled out because unless you have the collection and needed the color, it just wasn’t as good as the other two. However, Greg still had a big dilemma. The ’65 was a relative bargain, but it would never be used. While the ’58 was a fantastic bass, it was a refin and ’58s are quite common.

In the end, Greg ended up with the ’65. It was one of the cleanest basses I have ever seen. In fact, I may only have seen two basses ever from this era that were cleaner. The ’65 was a once-in-a-lifetime find, and in my opinion, the price was light by about $3000. While the ’58 was a deadly good bass and fairly priced, Greg had four other basses he could rely on. So Greg’s closet has a new item.

Deal Two. “A regular customer of mine, “Joe” was looking at two Gibson Thunderbirds. One was a nice ’64 T-Bird IV and the other was a really nice ’64 T-Bird II. The Bird IV was a sunburst and 100 percent original, but had a very mild headstock break, though the break was nicely repaired and would not be noticed by a casual glance. The price on the T-Bird IV was $7000. The Bird II was super clean (8.9 condition) with no excuses, no breaks, 100 percent original, and priced at $7250. I knew both basses and thought the T-Bird II was crazy good—better than 90 percent of the others I’d seen over the past five years. The T-Bird IV was nice, not great, and it was repaired. But if I was deciding between the two, I would have opted for the IV if it was priced $1000 lower. As it stood, it was a tough choice with no wrong answer. Ultimately, Joe opted for the T-Bird II and ended up paying $7000 for it.

Deal Three.
This is a deal that involved none other than me. A few years back, I wanted a nice Ricky 4001 to use in a power-pop band I was with at the time. Almost immediately, three basses found their way to my computer. One was a crazy-clean ’71 in Burgundyglo for $4000. The next was an original, fair-condition ’68 in Fireglo for $9500. The third was a ’67 Jetglo with some changed parts for $4500.

The ’71 was a super-nice bass, but it was full priced and I knew I was going to use it—I did not want to make a player out of a collector bass. The ’68 was intriguing: The bass was great and the price was right by a few grand, but I just didn’t want to spend that type of money on a player bass. The ’67 was also very intriguing because it was in my price range, it had newer, vintage 4003 pickups installed, newer tuners with extra holes, and a newer tailpiece. Essentially, the body and finish were real and everything else came off a 4001v63. It turns out that a prior owner swapped parts from the two basses and sold the ’67 off as “real” to an unsuspecting customer (who later received a rude awakening).

So I had to choose between the ’71 that was too nice and fully priced, the ’68 that was a light bargain, but too expensive for my needs, and the ’67—a nice bass with no real pedigree. I ended up buying the Jetglo ’67 because the bass fit my needs and it fit my budget. It’s a great player and did everything I needed it to do.

I hope these examples provide some useful perspectives you can use to solve your next bass-buying dilemma!

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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!

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