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Checking in with the post-recession vintage bass market.

It’s December, and another year has passed us by. I don’t know about you, but I sure am glad to say farewell to 2009. In February, I lost my day job and I lost my shop, which forced me to join the other 9.5% of Americans on the unemployment line. Thankfully, my stint on the unemployment line was brief, and my new business opened a few weeks later.

But to sum up the rest of the year, especially in regards to the vintage market, 2009 may have been the first time in 30-plus years that this market was not “economy proof.” Today, the market is—to say the least—weird. Knowing that, let’s look at what’s hot and what’s not.

The Top Side
I once considered the top side of this market to be $25,000 and up. Now, I consider the top side to be about $10,000 and up. In a word, it’s a buyer’s market. A lot of the players currently in this market seem to be speculators that are optimistic the market will turn around. These folks are “getting in” to basses at prices that seem to have hit bottom. Clean, pedigreed basses, however, are still capturing buyers. Add a custom color to the equation and you’ll get a sale, provided the bass is priced right. Previously, a lot of the action in this market involved players trading up into a better bass. This activity, however, has been drastically curtailed. Unless you have a rare piece, prices have dropped like bricks in this segment—a 20-to- 30% price drop seems to be the norm over prices from two years ago, and some pieces have dropped as deep as 40%! Ask my friend that spent $18,000 on a super nice 1964 Tbird IV in October 2007.

Like I said, it’s a great time to buy that dream piece. Big Tbird prices are soft; big Rickenbacker prices are soft but stable; and big Fender prices are all over the map. The crazy thing is that some of these items are still priced at 2007 prices, and are still selling. This is not the norm. Personally, my shop’s inventory in this range is currently at about three percent. It used to be as high as 30%.

Upper Mid-Level
Basses in the $5000-$10,000 range are still holding their own, but they’re slow movers. Players are looking for superb playing basses with a 90-to-100% pedigree. Fret jobs and a changed pot are becoming accepted. Prices are roughly where they were a year ago, but circumstances are forcing some sellers to aggressively price these basses. Many basses that were previously priced at just over $10,000 have now found a new home in this range. Horseshoe Rickenbackers, Gibson Thunderbirds and second-tier vintage Fender basses have slipped to the high side of this level. Common custom color basses are now commonplace for under $10,000, too. Again, quality sells and imposters remain “guitar stand art.”

Lower Mid-Level
Basses priced from $1500-to-$5000 seem to be the sweet spot. Early ’70s vintage Fender basses are hot, provided they’re in nice condition with a great neck—and they don’t weigh as much as a toddler! Some Fender refins from the ’60s dropped in price and can now be found for the same price as a new Masterbuilt. Rickenbackers that previously grew wings and flew out of the store are now sitting at between 10 to 15 percent below what they were selling before. Gibson EB, RD and ’76 Tbird series basses have all dropped too. The funny thing is Fender-esque boutique basses seemed to have settled price-wise and have been selling quite briskly. Oddly enough, older Stingrays are all over the map, ranging anywhere from $1500 to $4000.

The Bargain Bassment
People, $1500 and under is where it’s hot! Fender vintage RI basses, Ripper Series, ’70s EBs, early Top Loader Stingrays, and the occasional early ’80s Fender basses are all nestled near the top of this price point, and are all dead-on steals. Player-grade examples can be found here too, including early G&Ls, which are a total party and the biggest bargains in the market.

The Low End Wrap-up
Back in January, I was optimistic at the Orlando show. The show was brisk and nicely attended. But for whatever reasons, my show attendance in 2009 was down. I did have representation at most shows, but show attendance was off all year. By my estimates, dealer attendance was off at least 20% at the summer Philly show, and walk-in traffic was way down. Other shows had similar numbers.

Over the long term, I think sales will pick up, but I think pricing will be more in control [at least for the short term]. As for the bass market, people still need basses, but not basses that cost more than their car. Do I think the collector market will come back? As soon as folks go back to work, I think we will see some movement. But I think the days of mortgagebusting basses are well behind us. Until next time, drop the gig bag and bring the cannoli!

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