Friday, December 20, 2013

Choosing a Bass: Price, Age, Quality, and Other Questions

Choosing a Bass: Price, Age, Quality  and Other Questions

Q: I’d like to know the difference between a quality bass and a mediocre one. I have a 1977 Fender Precision bass I absolutely love (I paid $450.00 for it in 1976. Until this year, I thought it was a ’76 P bass, but according to the serial number it’s a ’77).

I also have a 2011 Squire Vintage Modified Jaguar bass that cost $299 and it sounds and feels incredible. However, I’d like to know what makes a $2,000 bass guitar superior to one that costs $300 – besides being made in Indonesia, China or Mexico, or wood choices. If an instrument sounds good, does anything else matter? Will a $2,000 instrument last longer than a $300 one? I’m seriously considering a Music Man Bongo Bass (cost: $2,000). I’d like to sample a few first, but I can’t find one in the stores here in Nashville. From what I’ve heard through Youtube videos, they have a wide array of sounds and this is what intrigues me about them. However, $2,000 is a lot of money to spend on a bass. I play for the love of the instrument. So, please give me details and don’t sugar coat. If my Jag bass is a piece of crap, I’d like to know. It won’t stop me from playing it because I love the tones it produces. I would like to know if it will be around as long as my ’77 P bass.
A: Good question!
I will first say that beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder.
I’ve played $5,000 basses I’ve hated and I’ve played $500 basses that I’ve loved (a Jaguar being one of them!) The reverse has been true too.

I wouldn’t let the price tag sway you one way or the other. There is nothing inherently better about a $300 bass than a $3,000 bass, except for the fact that the $300 bass likely had more of a “conveyor belt, mass production” style build vs. one that was hand made and took far more time to build and was likely built by far fewer people who cared more about the end product.
My take on the vintage basses is that they are a crap shoot. You never know what you are going to get until you play one, while boutique basses all tend to be of a similar or more consistent quality.
That said, if you find an old Fender that you love, then that is the bass you should play!
Another caveat would be resale value. If you are a collector or plan on buying basses as an investment, then that adds a whole other dimension to the equation. Personally, my basses are for playing, and I don’t care about resale as much. If I bought a ’66 Jazz, it would be to play, not to put in a glass case until it doubles in value.
The vintage market has gotten a tad out of hand (much in part to the sheer number of people who will pay top dollar for an instrument that will never get played). Nowadays, it’s usually cheaper to have a boutique bass built than to buy an old Fender Precision. You sound like you’re interested in playing, not investing, so we’ll stick to that.
I have students who come in with very cheap instruments that sound and play beautifully. Ibanez SoundGear basses, for example, are incredibly inexpensive and many feel great and sound really good. Sure, maybe some of the shielding is sloppy in the control cavity, and maybe a screw in the battery cover is a little crooked, but the bass does it’s job perfectly well.
As an example, I once had a Korean-made Lakland that felt and sounded killer. The only thing that set it apart as “cheap” in contrast to the U.S.-built stuff was the control cavity. The screws were a bit crooked and it looked sloppy in there. But once it was closed up, you’d never know the difference. It played every bit as well as the U.S. version that cost three times as much, and it sounded identical to me.
To answer your questions specifically:
  1. No, there is no difference in life-span between any basses. Of course, if one has cheaper chinese volume pots, those might die earlier but, they all die eventually and electronics can be replaced easily.
  2. If you love the bass then it’s not crap. I’ve played some astounding Jaguars and Squiers and I would scoff at anybody who implied I should “get a real Fender”.
  3. If it feels and sounds good, it’s a keeper. The price tag says nothing about the quality of the piece as an instrument but, rather, usually speaks to a number of things like:
    1. Hand made vs templates and mass production
    2. U.S.-made vs other countries
    3. Branding and marketing (Fodera’s can cost double or triple even other boutique luthiers prices and they share the same build quality and often take much longer to build, because they have such a huge back-log of orders.
None of those things will make one bass automatically sound or feel better than another (although, hand made is often better than mass production as you can try and get exactly what you want from a build).
With regard to older basses, it’s generally more a matter of branding, marketing and hype. There’s is no reason a ’60s Jazz bass should cost upwards of $10,000, except that it has such a cachet attached to it that people will pay that so they can have a ’60s Jazz. Don’t get me wrong… some of them are very special instruments, but contrary to popular belief, there are luthiers out there that can recreate that Fender “magic” for much less money (and less rust and noise).
I never judge instruments by how they look. I absolutely fell in love with possibly the ugliest bass I’ve ever seen on a recent trip to Japan. If I could have afforded it, I would have bought it in a heartbeat! I don’t care if it’s got inlaid dragons from head to toe. If that thing sounds like chocolate and feels like butter, I want to play it. Pretty or ugly, $15 or $15,000… I don’t care. If it makes me want to play and makes the music sound better, I’m all in!
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