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What’s Going On in the Bass World?

Where the vintage bass market sits at the end of 2010

Around this time each year, I do my “state of the union” address for the bass world. Long story short, 2010 was quite possibly the strangest year I have ever seen in the vintage bass world, since there was a thing called a “vintage bass.”

In the fourth quarter of 2009, I was optimistic that the top side of the market (the $10k-and-up range) was going to make a comeback. In December 2009, my shop moved quite a number of big-ticket basses both to the general public and to other dealers, and we bought a famed 1960 stack knob Jazz bass once owned by Walter “Uncle Bookie” Booker (the purchase was detailed in the March and April installments of this column), along with some custom-color Jazz basses. This brisk, high-end dealing continued right through the Orlando Guitar Show, which was held in late January 2010.

Fast forward several months, and you’ll find that great basses are reasonably priced right now (if you could call a $15k bass reasonable), but are practically stagnant. To quote my good friend and colleague, Jim Singleton, “great, super high-end items will sell, provided they are priced where they should be.” The problem we are facing now is that a lot of the bassists buying in this range either do not have the capital to invest, have the capital, but have no faith in the future, or previously financed their passion with a second mortgage. By far, the last group was the majority, and those days are long gone.

I have a very rare, custom-color slab board Precision bass. I’ve known the whereabouts of this bass for about a decade, and know that it sold twice in prime markets in the mid-$20k range. I’ve had the bass for a year and cannot pull mid-teens on it. Likewise, big Thunderbird basses, once commanding mid-teens to the low-20s, are now pulling less than 65 percent of value.

Just where is the top side of the market going? I’m not going to venture a guess, but I cannot see prices dropping further. I believe everything has bottomed out. An interesting barometer to follow is the vintage auto market. Prices on big cha-ching autos are rebounding, and in the past, other collectible markets followed suit—this includes the bass market.

Previously, the lower and mid-priced segments of the market featured basses that were “flavors of the month”—models that got molten hot and then leveled off quickly. I have not seen that in the past year. There was a period of time when you could screw a Rickenbacker truss-rod cover to a dead armadillo and sell it for big money and then some, but Ricks have cooled, plain and simple. Generic 4001s and all 4003s are retailing at almost the same price, and a lot of them remain unsold. I have a newer, near mint 4003MG that I decided to blow out on an online auction site for $1699. I had it listed three times and it never made reserve. Last year, dealers were paying that money.

Other than older Thunderbirds, Gibson basses have been selling for less than expected. The good news is that they are selling—they’re just priced a little less than last year. Music Man basses I’m not getting at all. A dealer friend sold a Cutlass for $3500, and another dealer friend cannot pull $3000 on an Inca Silver. Personally I’m seeing generic B00-B02 series basses in nice shape and okay colors retailing in the high-teens to low $2k range. Notice I said retailing, not listing prices. Black B00 Stingrays are not $3000—they never were and are not going to be any time soon.

There have been two steady swingers in the market over the past year. Fender basses from 1982 and earlier have been constant sellers, and the prices have not budged up or down, provided they are in the $800 to $10,000 range ($1500 to $4000 is still the sweet spot). My old favorites, early G&Ls, are selling very quickly, and are my bargain pick, coming in at under $1350 for the most part.

The one segment that has taken off is the used, traditional boutique bass. This is because of increasing list prices on new boutique basses, and because buyers know they are going to take a beating on “weird” boutique models come resale time, causing them to flock to used examples. Right after Premier Guitar published an article on five builders of pre-CBS bass emulations last summer, interest in all of those manufacturers increased drastically. Players are looking for modern conveniences without the worry of taking a $10k bass to a $50 gig. If for some reason you don’t think vintage guys are flocking to boutique basses, stop by the Warrior booth at any guitar show—they’re jammed with folks.

The stagnation has affected me too. Maybe it’s because I own a bass shop and I can grab and go with any bass desired (provided my business partner hasn’t grabbed it first), but I haven’t purchased a vintage bass for myself in the past year. My one purchase was a Mike Lull T-Bass, which was custom ordered. I bought that bass for a band I was in, and expected to have some heavy work for it. No sooner than the bass arrived, I got launched from the band. I now have a sad reminder and a MasterCard bill. Fortunately, a very good friend of mine gave the bass a good home.

Next month, I will be having a roundtable discussion with a pile of PG readers who I know from several forums. I’ll be sharing their take on spending habits, expectations, and the downfalls of the past year. See you then.

Kevin Borden
Kevin Borden has been a bass player since 1975 and is currently the principle and co-owner, with “Dr.” Ben Sopranzetti, of Kebo’s Bass Works: He can be reached at: Feel free to call him KeBo.