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The Low End: Milestones in Vintage Bass Evolution

Kevin''s personal top items that influenced the evolution of today’s vintage bass, in no particular order of preference.

With my 49th birthday past and 50 on the horizon, I recently took time to look back and reminisce about vintage bass centricities. Vintage basses are wonderful things. For many of us, they are our passion and our love. Many budgets have been destroyed, many spousal brawls have been initiated, and many dreams have been chased in pursuit of this passion. They are 10-pound mistresses we hook up with every weekend. Many innovators, inventions, and even world events shaped and brought us these beautiful instruments. This month I’d like to take a look at my personal top items that influenced the evolution of today’s vintage bass, in no particular order of preference.

Korg GT-6 Tuner: When this gadget came out in the late ’70s or early ’80s, other electronic tuners were already on the market. But three things made this handy-dandy tuner different: It was affordable (if I’m not mistaken, it street priced at about $79), it fit in your case, and it was very easy to use. It sure beat a tuning fork!

Music Man StingRay:
Fender had its Precision, Jazz, and Telecaster basses, and they were the industry standard. Rickenbacker had the progressive and cool-guy rock scene sewn up with the 4001. Gibson had introduced the Ripper/ Grabber/G3 line, and every Gene Simmons wannabe had one. Me? All I wanted was a bicentennial Gibson Thunderbird. Then Leo introduced this sexy-as-all-heck bass, which hung and played like a Fender, had the three-plus-one tuner arrangement, and boasted the coveted B0-series preamp. You had the first modern onboard-electronics bass, and it was reasonably priced. My 1977 sunburst was purchased from King James Music for the princely price of $350 and a trade-in of my 1972 natural/ maple P bass, for which I received $225 in credit. This StingRay is still one of my favorite basses.

Alembic Series 1: The good folks at Alembic began modifying basses in the ’60s, and when they decided to build instruments, they knew what worked and what didn’t. The Alembic Series 1 was the first modern boutique bass. Impeccable construction, modern outboard electronics, unsurpassed playability. Wow! I remember watching Stanley Clarke, Louis Johnson, Chuck Panozzo, and all these other bass masters practically reinvent electric bass technique on Alembics. These basses are still coveted and are still quite expensive. A Rolls Royce isn’t cheap either.

Music Man Hybrid Amplification: Leo Fender was a genius, even if he got it backward sometimes. Since the dawn of electric bass, amp builders had been experimenting with all kinds of designs. But I believe Music Man was the first to bring us the hybrid tube/solid-state bass amplifier. Sturdy construction, decent tone, and good portability were the selling points of these bass amps. The cabinets looked really groovy with the double-M logo and a kinda-sorta modern pre-CBS blackface look. There was only one issue—they were designed sort of backward: They had tube back ends and solid-state front ends. Though the order is reversed in modern amplification, this was some groundbreaking stuff back then.

Peavey Combo 300: Peavey’s line of bass amps was always known for its reliability and value—you could buy a huge amp that looked great for half the price of an Ampeg. The problem with the early amps was that you also got half the tone. Fast forward to 1982 or so: I’d just bought an Acoustic 320 head and a Model 408 4x15 cabinet. Thankfully, my good friend and keyboard player Joey Lopilato had a ’70s-style custom van. We used to go to the Sam Ash music store every other week, and the store’s bass manager, Nabil Gaudy, whipped out this little 300-watt, 1x15 combo—the Peavey Combo 300. My life was changed. It was the first amp I ever heard with modern tone, it fit in my Corolla, the preamp was stout enough to stand up to the B.C. Rich Eagle I was using, and it was just bitchin’! In my humble opinion, the Peavey Combo 300 was the granddaddy of modern, affordable bass amplification. (By the way, if anyone knows Joey Lopilato’s whereabouts today, please ask him to contact me.)

Roger Sadowsky: When I was entrenched in NYC retail between 1977 and 1978, pre-CBS basses were hot. The ’70s products from the major manufacturers were lousy out of the box and required a major setup, and possibly fret work. (Dave Edwards, who was one of the first luthiers to really understand bass setups, told me every bass really needed a fret job to meet his standards.) Music Man basses were really taking off, as was the aftermarket replacement parts business. Roger Sadowsky was the first guy we all knew who was hotrodding basses. Onboard preamps, great fretwork, deadly setups—he had it covered. He’d swap hardware if that was needed or desired. Back then, pre-CBS Fender basses were just used basses that retailed for slightly over what a new, comparable model sold for, and Roger was the Jedi master at hot-rodding these things. Sadowsky was the pioneer. ’Nuff said.

The 1973 gas crisis: Huh? Just what does this have to do with a vintage bass? Well, in ’73 the vehicles that lugged the behemoth amplification were phased out and soon no longer existed. In 1975, there wasn’t a single new car model that could move big SVT, Marshall, or Cerwin-Vega cabinets—unless you drove your mom’s station wagon to a gig like a total dweeb. Running out of petrol was a game-changer, and it prompted the move toward smaller amplification. In fact, the gas crisis has been credited as one of the major boosts behind IC chip development. See? There was a good side to OPEC.

The Dallas and Arlington Guitar Shows: These two events represent Mecca for the vintage-bass aficionado. Each is a music event, a social event, a vintage bass event. They’re the original events and the granddaddies of all vintage-instrument shows. Through the years I’ve seen, played, and handled thousands of basses, met hundreds of people, and made scores of friends—all bass players. Bottom line: Attend one at least once. I always have room at my dinner table if you come on out.

While working on this column, I could have continued for hours. In fact, I did. I reminisced over modern accessories, pioneers (including Mike Matthews, Larry DiMarzio, and Seymour Duncan), small-market builders like Moonstone and Travis Bean, and larger outfits like Kramer. Having been involved with bass since about 1973 (I was 11), I’ve seen many products, players, and stores come and go. The shops on 48th street were my calling, and We Buy Guitars was my altar. Ah, the memories!

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.