Hello and welcome back to The Low End. In prior installments we explored Rickenbacker and Gibson basses. This month we will take a peek at “old reliable” – the
Hello and welcome back to The Low End. In prior installments we explored Rickenbacker and Gibson basses. This month we will take a peek at “old reliable” – the Fender bass line. The nice thing about Fender basses is that they are basically bulletproof and flaws are easy to spot, although there are also some Achilles heels in the product line. Luckily, most issues can be discovered with little more than a simple Phillips head screwdriver.
The Common Stuff
By now, most vintage Fender basses have played a million gigs. Expect to see a refret and changed pots. These are items that wear and I would personally rather have a playable bass than an original one that requires work. As long as the neck finish was not altered and the refret was done professionally, there shouldn’t be any issues. Changed pots are another story; it is an individual decision whether to buy a bass with non-original pots and it does result in a minor devaluation. The good news is that dated replacement pots are a pretty easy find online. I see more Fender basses with fret jobs and changed pots than any other brand, likely because they were simply used more often.
Another general malady affecting Fender basses is the infamous E tuner split – a slight split that runs off the E tuner mounting screw, which was also touched upon in our Gibson discussion [October 2007]. On Fenders, the split tends to run straight down and will sometimes wrap under the bottom of the headstock. This is common and easily fixed. A small split on a non-mint bass is nothing to worry about, although a larger split may result in some devaluation.
One thing to count on in vintage Fender territory is that virtually every Telecaster bass from the ‘60s has a changed pickguard. This is simply due to the fact that plastic deteriorates. If you expect this going into the purchase of a vintage Fender, you’ll be happy. If you actually find one with the original, give yourself a great big “Mazel tov!”
The Dark Side
Fender basses have two common areas of trickery that you should always check. First, remove the pickguard. I have purchased perfect-looking, pre-CBS basses where I skipped this step because I was assured it was perfect, only to find a swimming poolsized route underneath. The other area to check is solder joints. A typical scenario: you unscrew the J-Bass control plate and the solder appears to be original. However, the pickups were changed, clipped in the middle of the lead and tucked into the body. Make sure to pull the pickups – don’t take anything for granted.
The Two Big Problems
Neck issues and pickups are the only big component issues you will likely face when buying a Fender bass. Early ‘70s pickups are prone to blowing. Remember, a blown pickup may have output – it will just sound thin and terrible. If you put a multimeter on the lead, you will get an open coil reading, instead of the 6 to 9.5k reading you expect. Rewind guru Jim Rolph explained the issue to me. When they were produced, the holes on the bobbins were the wrong size, and CBS-Fender left the inner surface rough. This resulted in wire chafing where the leads were connected. Jazz basses of that era are especially prone to this.
Another electronic issue to keep an eye out for— early Music Man basses are now developing preamp issues. The issue presents itself like a bad pot or bad pickup and requires careful examination by a professional because parts are nearly impossible to get.
Of course, the big area to check on any instrument is the neck. Fenders with block markers and four bolts are usually either dead-on perfect or dead on their way to repair. Here are some common issues: For some reason, some truss rods do nothing. Luckily, these basses are easy to spot: they have super light strings, high action, and are usually tuned low. More common is the “Fender Flip.” The neck ski slopes from approximately the 14th fret, going into a rise at the rod adjustment point. The neck will choke on the high notes or be a little buzzy. I have seen some dots and bound J-Bass necks with the flip as well. Early Music Man basses have similar issues, with a rise between the 11th and 16th frets. It will take a fret job with some planing, but it can be fixed.
A repaired bass is easy to spot – just look at the binding height. If it’s lower in height anywhere from the 12th fret, wrapping under the bottom of the neck to the 12th fret on the other side of the neck, you may have a prior repair. Once fixed, there should not be any additional problems.
Well, that does it. I hope you found this three-part series informative. Next month we will meet a fellow player who is very active in promoting the vintage bass hobby. Until then, don’t forget the cannolis!
Kevin Borden has been a bass player since 1975, and is currently President of Goodguysguitars.com.
Feel free to call him KeBo.
He can be reached at Kebobass@yahoo.com
Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
D'Addario XPND Pedalboard
DR-05X Stereo Handheld Recorder
Wampler Pedals Ratsbane
This full-amp-stack-in-a-box pedal brings a new flavor to the Guitar Legend Tone Series of pedals, Missing Link Audio’s flagship product line.
Adding to the company’s line of premium-quality effects pedals, Missing Link Audio has unleashed the new AC/Overdrive pedal. This full-amp-stack-in-a-box pedal – the only Angus & Malcom all-in-one stompbox on the market – brings a new flavor to the Guitar Legend Tone Series of pedals, Missing Link Audio’s flagship product line.
The AC/OD layout has three knobs to control Volume, Gain and Tone. That user-friendly format is perfect for quickly getting your ideal tone, and it also offers a ton of versatility. MLA’s new AC/OD absolutely nails the Angus tone from the days of “High Voltage” to "Back in Black”. You can also easily dial inMalcom with the turn of a knob. The pedal covers a broad range of sonic terrain, from boost to hot overdrive to complete tube-like saturation. The pedal is designed to leave on all the time and is very touch responsive. You can get everything from fat rhythm tones to a perfect lead tone just by using your guitar’s volume knob and your right-hand attack.
- Three knobs to control Volume, Gain and Tone
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- True bypass on/off switch
- 9-volt DC input
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MLA Pedals AC/OD - Music & Demo by A. Barrero
Energy is in everything. Something came over me while playing historical instruments in the Martin Guitar Museum.
When I’m filming gear demo videos, I rarely know what I’m going to play. I just pick up whatever instrument I’m handed and try to feel where it wants to go. Sometimes I get no direction, but sometimes, gear is truly inspiring—like music or emotion falls right out. I find this true particularly with old guitars. You might feel some vibe attached to the instrument that affects what and how you play. I realize this sounds like a hippie/pseudo-spiritual platitude, but we’re living in amazing times. The Nobel Prize was just awarded to a trio of quantum physicists for their experiments with quantum entanglement, what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.” Mainstream science now sounds like magic, so let’s suspend our disbelief for a minute and consider that there’s more to our world than what’s on the surface.
I recently spent a day filming a factory tour of Martin Guitars in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. After we wrapped, we discovered that Martin has this amazing museum that showcases more than 170 historic instruments. We decided to meet at the museum at 7:45 a.m. the next morning to film a few choice pieces before catching our flight in not-too-near Newark, New Jersey, that afternoon.
These were not ideal conditions for a performance. Neither my brain nor my fingers work well before 10 a.m., plus I hadn’t slept well the night before. Even so, we loaded into the museum, met the curators, set up the shoot, and began rolling by 8 a.m.
The first guitar was an 1834 gut string, perhaps the oldest Martin in existence. It was beautiful but had some tuning issues and did not project very well, so playing it felt more like work than music.
Next was a prewar D-45 worth over $500k. The strings were ancient with that rusty feel, like you’ll need a tetanus shot after playing it. I’m sure it sounded great, but I was tired and thinking more about making our flight than playing guitar. Wonderful instrument but uninspired performance on my end.
Then, I played a 1953 D-18 coined “Grandpa” by Kurt Cobain. I picked up the deeply sacred D-18, and my hands went to an A minor. This sounds like hype, but honestly, I closed my eyes and connected with a deep, beautiful sadness. The feeling was palpable as soon as you picked it up. This guitar pretty much played itself, leading me to a sad version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” I don’t know if it was any good, but I know I felt something deeply. That’s why I started playing guitar in the first place. I don’t have to play well to feel moved.
I later talked to the museum director, who told me the D-18 was given to Cobain by his 1991 girlfriend Mary Lou Lord. Cobain played it on tour before and after Nirvana’s Nevermind. It was returned to her after Cobain married. Shortly after that, Mary Lou loaned the guitar to Elliott Smith, who played it until his death.
When I’m sad, I make myself play guitar to feel better, because it usually works. This 70-year-old guitar spent a lot of time literally pressed up against the hearts and chests of two artists who were so tormented by their emotions that they ended their lives. That’s heavy. You can’t explain those feelings that make the hair stand up on your arm, or when you feel like crying for no reason … but hitting that A minor made me feel it.
We had to split for the airport, so Chris Kies and Perry Bean started packing up. As they did, I saw this cute little 1880 Martin 000 that belonged to Joan Baez. In the photo next to it, Joan looks like my mom in the ’60s. I asked the curator if I could play it, and Chris grabbed his phone to do a quick Insta video. I swear there was a happy vibe coming off this tiny guitar. It felt like watching my mom dance—like a warm hug I needed after Cobain’s D-18.
In Chinese culture, there is a superstition that antiques may hold evil spirits, and chi (energy) transfer can bring this negativity into your home. Feng shui is all about objects carrying good or bad chi. Here’s how I see it: All matter is made of atoms. Atoms contain energy. Ergo, everything contains energy, or, more aptly, everything is energy. Ever walk into a room and feel powerful emotion: joy, sadness, fear, tranquility? That’s energy. We all have felt energy coming from people, places, and things. But that’s what I love about old guitars: Their atoms spent the first few hundred years as a tree in the forest connected to nature. Then, they’re turned into an instrument that makes people happy or consoles them when they are sad. That’s the kind of chi I want around me.
The Saddest Martin Ever? A 1953 D-18 Owned by Kurt Cobain & Elliott Smith
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Patented Railhammer Pickups take passive guitar pickups to a new level with rails under the wound strings lead to tighter lows, and poles under the plain strings offer fatter heights. With increased clarity, the passive pickup’s tone is never sterile.
Railhammer Billy Corgan Signature Z-One Pickup Demo
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