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Boutique Basses: Are They Worth It?

Custom Bass

Q: I see so many people spending thousands of dollars on handmade basses, but so many of the recordings I listen to are recorded using a standard P or J bass. What is it about these high end basses that is so “worth it” to so many?

A: There are so many possible answers to this question!

For some, it is simply a matter of beauty, individualism or even simply ego. For many others, however, it is a part of the quest to find that one instrument that really speaks to them. (I’m in the latter group.)

While a bass that could pass as a beautiful work of art or craftsmanship is a wonderful thing, I don’t honestly care what it looks like as long as it makes me want to play and helps me sound good.

My initial plunge into the handmade bass market began because I simply couldn’t find the instrument that I really felt 110% content with. Even to this day, of the half dozen basses I own, and the two or three I use regularly, I actually only love one on them.

It doesn’t need to be handmade for me to love it, either. I have fallen head over heals for a vintage bass before (’67 Fender Jazz), but it would’ve cost me about $7,000 to buy that one and I just didn’t have it.

For me, the amount of money I’d spend on the perfect instrument is only limited by what will clear in my bank account. I’d honestly pay a million dollars for the bass and rig that knocked me off my feet, if I had the money to do it.

You can’t put a price tag on tone, and especially that perfect combination of tone and feel.

I would assume that most bassists (collectors don’t count) are simply looking for the bass that gets them excited to play and the bass that gives you that smile when you hit the first note. For many, that means having something built to spec and having someone who (you hope) understands what you are going for in your sound and in your hands.

There are always the guys that will buy a Fodera just because Victor plays one. Many of them will find happiness in it too. There’s nothing wrong with that! I had a Fodera and it was fantastic… but it didn’t fit my hands and body the way I wanted it to, so I sold it within a year. I’m sure that if I had bought two or three more, they would’ve nailed it, but that would’ve cost me a small fortune. I was lucky enough to find a small luthier who could take the time to really understand what I wanted (he even came to a gig to hear my sound and played my basses to feel how I had them set-up) and wound up delivering a bass that was very close, right off of the bat. He then took that bass back and built an entirely new bass, altering some things based on my feedback. He nailed it. I lucked out and found the guy ho understands me musically. Now, any new bass is the result of a specific musical need.

The vintage market is actually more inflated than the custom build market, in many ways. Some stout competition keeps the custom jobs from getting too far out of a realistic price range.

There are as many reasons to buy one bass over another as there are reasons to own more than one pair of shoes. Some of us will make one or two pairs work for everything, and some of us need a pair for every occasion (and some just because they’re cool).

I don’t begrudge anyone’s reasons for buying gear. I’m just glad that people are passionate about music and especially love when they support independent companies.

All in all, if a Squier revs you up more than your buddy’s $13,000 custom bass, rock that Squier for the rest of your life and love every second you spend with it. It doesn’t matter as long as you feel good about your music and the gear you use to make it.

How about you guys? What is your dream bass? What are you playing now? Have you found nirvana yet? Tell us about it in the comments.

Photo by LyndieH

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Share your thoughts

Michael Lalonde

I just bought my first handmade custom built bass and have made a few mods. It sounds and plays incredibly well. It is a redwood burl neck thru fretted 6 string Warrior Isabella made by J. Dran. I added Bartolini classic dual coils and the Mike Pope Flex core 4 band preamp. It as close to perfect as I have ever come but it is $7000 to buy it. My favorite mass produced basses by far are BTB premium Ibanez 6 strings. I have the BTB 1606E as well as the BTB 1406E. My 1406E has been defretted and it sings like no other. Both of my BTB basses have upgraded Bartolini pickups as well.

herb

herb

I play a 1981 Gibson Victory Artist Bass..dual pickups..and will do both active and passive..and has a midrange notch filter..this is the best playing and SOUNDING bass I have ever played..it is heavy..one of the heaviest made..but that doesnt bother me..the sustain is forever..I guess the amp is important too..the head is an Ampeg SVT pro 4..1250 watts thru (2) 4×10 SVT cabs (4 ohms)..I have a rack mounted system..bass plugs into a tech 21 RPM Sans Amp (preamp)..and the output goes into the Ampeg head..also use a Korg rack mounted tuner and a surge suppressor that everything is plugged into..Gibson is the BEST..also have an American Fender Jazz bass..replaced the pickups with Seymour Duncan quarter pounders..replaced the bridge with a Babicz bridge..and put on a mother of pearl pick guard..this fender sounds awesome..I play both..but the gibson will go to the grave with me..it plays and sounds like a $10,000 bass..

Richard Nunez

Richard Nunez

I have owned soooooo many boutique bass guitars. I always base my judgement of them on consistency and feel. Some produce instruments as art and in my opinion are wayyyy over priced. My Carl Thompson basses are always the most fun to play. They speak to me and call me to play them. My Dingwall basses are probably the most versatile sounding basses I’ve ever played and gods gift to recording studios. They are very well built and can TAKE A BEATING. Fodera basses for me some models really seem as addictive as crack and others don’t, but that is just in my hands. Most of all I think I’ve had the best playing experience in live situations and recording situations with Pete Hilton’s basses. They are consistent and he puts a lot of love into his instruments. Pete worked with Carl Thompson for about 10 years and is just as much of a perfectionist as Carl. So as an all around great bass for me HILTON is at the very top BUT that’s not to say the others I mentioned aren’t far behind.
As far as the initial question though….. In my opinion my boutique basses are purchased because of the tone and feel I get. Attention to detail is a huge factor in buying an instrument and these builders do just that. An ibanez bass is a great bass but the necks don’t really work with my hands and the fret work is inconsistent. I hate spending days leveling a fretboard and getting it just right. Then if the neck wood used is not to quality dealing with that is another nightmare in itself. Overall though these companies that mass produce instruments would not be as successful as they are if they did not put out a great product! I’ve never found a bass I couldn’t love for one reason or another.