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

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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!

Readers, how about you? What’s your take on the whole price point discussion? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Photo by Beefy Basses

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    Ron Crum

    Ron Crum

    I live within walking distance of a great music store with wall to wall basses new and used. I have played everything they have from vintage Fenders to Peavey Fury’s and some basses I have never heard of. If it feels good in my hand and has the sound I want then I am all over it. Having said that, my go-to bass is consistently the Carvin SB4000 I bought used on Ebay for $500. The fit and finish is excellent, it plays fast and low, but let me tell you the harmonics on this bass are simply incredible.

      L. Brown

      L. Brown

      If you got a Carvin SB4000 for $500.00 consider yourself very lucky. Those are great quality basses (I also own one) that are unfortunately (or fortunately, in your case) devalued because Carvin isn’t a household name and also the body style. Which is not typical.

    Enrique

    Enrique

    Perhaps we ought to start making those acrylic basses again, like the Ampeg Dan Armstrongs.
    They had a punchy tone but no bubingas and cocobolos had to die.

sy

sy

I’ve never had any luck with the cheap basses. Perhaps it was my ego playing tricks, but I was never fully satisified with my gear until I got a real American Stingray.

That being said, I’ve recently had an old and broken Jazz Bass copy renewed. I got it dirt cheap as it was barely playable. I’ve invested like $300 into a refurbishment and this got me a bass that looks and sounds crazy good and plays like a dream.

So while I’m not one to endorse Squires and other such things, I recommend looking for steals at your local thrift shop.

    Kelly

    Kelly

    I’ve got a buddy who only buys knock-offs. He likes to dismantle them and switch their parts around like Dr. Frankenstein and pour $$ into buying hardware and pick ups for them to make them sound and look better. He’s made some interesting hybrids.

    As for quality of basses, I have three Fenders and you definitely tell that the American-made Fender sounds best. But i have a Mexican made J bass that I got for $200 that sounds killer even without the extra eq I have on my rig. Don’t sleep on the Mexican Fenders. They are still quality basses you can get for peanuts.

Tim Fletcher

Tim Fletcher

I play a USA Jazz which I love, and a Squier Vintage Modified fretless which I love too – both play and sound great. The guys at Squier have done wonders with their basses in the last few years.

Kelly

Kelly

I own three Fender basses (78 P-bass, Geddy Lee J-bass and a Mexican-made Jazz fretless) and a Yamaha. I love them all. The Precision was my first and is still sounding strong. Obviously the P and the Geddy hold the most value. The Yamaha I got for $100 from a friend. If I woke up with my apartment on fire and could only save one bass, it would be my Yamaha. Reliable. Versatile. Fast. Light-weight. Even tone throughout the neck. If I had to give up one bass, it would be the Geddy. I’m not a collector and I only bought it because it was comparable in feel to the Yamaha but with a stronger sound. But still doesn’t feel like the Yamaha. For me it’s about comfortability and feel as much as sound. If I can’t move around the neck with comfort and ease, then it’s not of much use to me on a gig.

Lawrence Adams

Lawrence Adams

I have had them all, starting with a Harmony, then a1957 Hofner Pre Beatle Bass, then a Gibson EB20 that is two big pickups and a colour job reworked, then a Ibanez,4, 5, & Fretless, Alembi,Stanley Clark Model, Custom Made Industrial Radio Midi Pj Special……
And the one I have now.I was walking down the street and there in the window of the local hock shop was this Beautiful Blue Bass Guitar!!!!! Of course I walked straight pass it, one who has been playing Bass Guitar for twenty years does not judge a ”Bass by its Colour” but it couldn’t hurt to go back and ah,um have a play, As the man said. To me it sounds like chocolate and feels like butter. It is a Fender Squire made in the the boondocks of somewhere or other, cost 200$A and I love it.So to answer you question, Do not listen to any one including me
Just wander around trying Basses untill you find the one that makes music for you,then buy what ever the price I am sure you will not regret it
Lawrence Adams
P.S Of course you realise that you will have to the same thing when looking for an Amp, Enjoy!

Wojtek “Immo” Cajgner

Ditto. I bought an old India made Encore P-Bass copy for an equivalent of ~$60 and modded it by adding 2nd split coil pickup and now I wouldn’t trade her even for an all-original MM Sting Ray. She feels nice, she sounds the way I wanted her to sound and she’s an unique bass that no other player has.
I found the ones who are defending “the more expensive bass the better” POV are either total beginners educated on web forums or guys who, well, bought expensive basses and can’t bear the notion of a cheaper instruments being good. Of course, there are some differences in quality and stuff like that, but still, if a cheapo bass (I love ho similar to “chapeau bas” it sounds, by the way) is comfortable and sounds the way the player wants, it’s a keeper. More cash for other stuff! :)

Erik Erdman

The author is dead on in this regard, but as he said there, are some very special vintage instruments. If you have one or find one that you love you should hang onto it. That being said, the inexpensive Squire basses are often very comparable in quality to their Fender counterparts, and the same goes for other manufacturers. If it plays well and feels good it’s worth the trouble and expense to put in some higher quality electronics, which is usually the weak point on the lower cost instruments. What the author didn’t mention is that sometimes taking a cheap bass to good luthier is all you need to do to turn it into a gem.

Charlie

Charlie

Stick with the P bass, and experiment with other basses, as you like. The P bass will unlikely ever fail to satisfy. Having a good 5 string bass (or more strings) can be a lot of fun and very useful. There are many many bass players that take their Fender bass as their main axe, plus a five string bass to cover some of the songs that need the additional low range. Sometimes a cheap bass can still be very good. There’s an element of luck there, especially with the quality of the wood used in the construction of the neck of the bass. The stiffness of the neck will determine so much about how clear the notes are, how well they sustain, etc. and how long the bass will remain playable. There are many videos on Youtube to learn about different basses. Ed Friedland recently reviewed some inexpensive Fender and Squier basses there that you might like to see. The Ibanez Sound Gear basses are well made, sound good, and don’t cost a lot, plus they have a really sleek neck, and many are equipped with Bartolini pickups, and preamps, or even Nordstrand pickups on some models. G&L Tribute has a great line up of basses that come close to their American made counterpart at a fraction of the cost. I’d say have fun and try out some basses.

David

David

I have a 78 Precision, a 75 Rick, and 2 Peaveys, both 80s vintage. The Foundation is a solid instrument, but I wouldn’t trade the Dyna Bass for any other. It’s just butter. I play it more than the others combined.

Brian Strom

Brian Strom

I was at a music store and spotted a Squire vintage modified Jaguar in a three tone burst for $199.00. When I went to play it the action was terrible, so I put it down right away. The sales man asked if there was something wrong, I showed him the neck, and he grabbed a wrench and did a quick set up on it and handed it back. It felt great! Satin neck was fast, jazz neck was sweet, and the active pick ups sounded great. For $199.00! My basses at home are an American Precision Deluxe and a Stingray, not $199.00.
The only thing I’d worry about is that I’ve owned less expensive basses and the neck has warped out due to a cheaper wood or method of build. And that’s why I have those big boys at my house, I bought the Fender and the Music Man some 18 years ago and have hardly made an adjustment on either. I expect they’ll live forever.

    Virgil

    Virgil

    I have owned everything from Peavey, Fender, Music Man (1978), Skjold, MTD, Basslab, Ibanez, Yamaha and others I can’t remember. To me, the feel of the neck is crucial, whether you have neck dive, whether the frets have been shaved down or do the burrs cut into your hand while playing. How does it rest on your lap. Ergonomics is very important. If your right hand does not strike the strings comfortably you may develop wrist problems over the years. And finally, the weight. After playing and buying many basses, I just found that the higher end basses did not have as many issues as the cheaper ones. I primarily play either my MTD (American), a Skjold or a Basslab. Each of them have their own mojo, but they all play like butter, are light weight and have been trouble free. I am not suggesting that cheaper basses can’t be of equal quality, but each lutheir mentioned build many of their basses for touring musicians who can’t afford a bass to fail or need constant maintenance, whether electronics or neck adjustments etc. Therefore, it has been my experience that the higher end basses, need little or no adjustments. The lutheirs tend to use better materials and more care goes into the build. Finally, when you do need service, they are a phone call a way. When I purchased my first MTD 535, there were a couple of dead spots on the neck. I called Mike Tobias. He asked me to ship the bass to him, at his expense, he saw the problem and his first question was “Do you want me to build you a new bass?” I said no, he said, “I will make you a new neck,” which he did. I mentioned that story to illustrate the service you get from higher end luthiers.

john

john

better selected wood means better stability and sound, this translate to a stable tuning and note clarity with tone depth. We do not usually find these qualities in cheap bass. Of course the hands plays a big part too but we are talking about gears here, so i will keep the hands factor out.

Bassopotamus

Bassopotamus

Play what you like. I’ve got several basses, but the one that is getting the love lately is a no name MIJ P copy that was my first bass. I think my dad paid 150 bucks for it in 1990, and I’d put it up against any P i’ve ever played. That said, I’ve been lusting after Foderas lately.

As for the Bongo, I tried one when they first came out, and really didn’t like it. I didn’t think it was possible for a bass to be too aggressive, but I was wrong :)

Ian Cunningham

I have some very nice basses, and some of them cost a bomb.
I have to admit though that one of my favourite basses cost me the least.

I have a late 1980’s Ibanez Musician Series that has been converted into a fretless. Cost me $350 in a pawn shop 25 years ago

I simply cannot find a better fretless bass even at 20x the price.

    Thom Miecznikowski

    im no collector but I have a few nice basses. The one that I have the most fun with in a super cheep Carlo Robelli. It plays great. i don’t know how it slipped out of the factory playing so well. I use it now as my stunt bass doing weird tunings or taking it to gigs in less then great circumstances. Right now its set up as a piccolo. Play everything you never know what you’ll find. the other day I was at a GC and they had a used yamaha they were blowing out for $99 best set up bass in the store. I should have bought it.

Chriss Kruger

Chriss Kruger

I have come across many people over the years with this question. and this article gives a little info on the topic.. I have always said myself, Try different basses in your price range. The one that feels and sounds like you want it to is the one you should choose. My basses over the years has a wide spread on the price range.. My regular bass is in the high price range (Luthier made custom thingy), reason for this being my regular is that it has more range and a few featuers I could not find in any other basses ( its MY) sound… but on the other hand.. my favourite “studio” bass when it comes to playing fretted is a chinese made one that cost me about a 100 usd including shipping 7-8 years ago.. So this only shows its not how much you pay for it that matters. Its all about if the bass is right for YOU…………..

Chriss

Enrique

Enrique

If you’re fortunate enough to have an instrument that plays well and sounds great then you’re set. My first bass guitar was a used off-brand product with one very fine single-coil p/u and a quartersawn bolt-on maple neck. When I put some high-grade strings on it I couldn’t tell the difference between it and my teacher’s Fender Precision, both of which we played through an Ampeg SV-T. That bass cost 50.00 in 1971. I kept it for five years and it never gave me any trouble. For reasons left unsaid it got away from me and I regret that.
Handmade stuff will cost more. If you’re just starting out, learn what qualities to look for. Don’t go for dirt cheap but don’t break the bank either. If you think your instrument is a piece of crap only because someone says so, then use your own ears to decide the facts. By the way, I’ve heard one of those MM Bongo basses and I’m not all that impressed; I expect more for 2M.
The “wide array of sounds” indicates that the Bongo has an active system. I prefer passive. Each has its pros and cons. Learn the difference and see which one fits your musical needs.

Sy

Sy

Ditto on Squire Vintage Modified Jaguar its just so playable and sounds great and is cheap they made a real mistake letting that leave the factory without the big F logo and a larger price

Bernard Gray

I’m relatively new to bass, and started out on a cheap Ibanez RD300. I liked playing it, and it got me a long way into my bass journey. I don’t live near a music store with a strong selection of basses, so I research the bejeesus out of basses since I can’t play them, and given my relatively short playing term I was pretty sure if a bass didn’t feel right it was probably me, and not the bass and I should just learn to play it better.
I got the chance to visit a dedicated bass shop a few weeks ago, and I had funds available if I found something I liked. I knew I was after a fretless, I wanted a 5 string, and I was pretty sure I wanted active. My research said Ibanez Portamento is what I wanted, so I tried it – and played it for about 40 mins straight. It did not feel comfortable, and it didn’t sound the way I hoped.
Maybe it was the unlined fretless board, but it didn’t work (for me).
So disappointed. I tried every other 5 string fretless they had (fender, lakland, etc) – with only a Gary Willis model actually *feeling* good… at this point I realised that maybe there was something to be said for *feel*.
Then I saw a bass I’d read a bit about, and had a reputation for *feeling* amazing. It was 4 strings, passive (both things I wasn’t looking for), and unlined fretless (same issue as the portamento?). As a last ditch on my way out the door I tried it, and it immediately *felt right*, like home. The unlined board was no impediment, everything felt right about it. The sound was beautiful, the variety of tone was perfect. It was slightly out of my price range but by no means expensive (AUD$1700), but I knew that I would not be disappointed if I bought it – so I did.

TL;DR I did not appreciate the importance of the *feel* of a bass before buying – I figured hours of research would be enough to know. I was so wrong, and I would not do it any other way now.

PS I realise this would sound like a shill post if I mentioned names/brands, so I’ve left them out.

    Thom Miecznikowski

    I just recently added a portamento 5 and wile the set up was beyond perfect I know what you mean about the feel. For me the spacing of the strings was too close and the flat wound strings felt stiff. Still I felt a little work could solve the problems (there was a lot about the bass I liked) I’ve adapted to the string spacing issue but the magic happened when I changed out the flatwound strings to a set of light roundwounds and a lower action. (which by the way the specifically tell you not to do) WOW great playability and the sound is like nothing Ive ever heard. It’s become something of a signature sound on the new Ovadya record The band looks disappointed when i strap on my jazz bass

      Bernard Gray

      I have no doubt that they’re a great bass, and I’m generally ok with working out the difference between a setup niggle and a problem, but yeah – just very surprised at how great it felt when the bass was right. I did some changes on it too (opposite to you, took the rounds off, and put flats on) – but I’m glad to hear that persevering with the portamento paid off. I’m still persevering with the RD300 which has become my project bass for all the stuff i want to try (alternate wiring, active preamp etc) to see what will really light it (me) up :)

    Count Vespasian

    Count Vespasian

    please i’m in your predicament what was the amazing 4 string bass you really liked?

kontrabissen

My best buy ever was an ESP 400 series P-bass made in Japan, serial number 152, bought from the original owner for 200 bucks. I also own J-bass from the same series. It’s actually this very bass:

http://cdn-assets.tcelectronic.com/ImageGen.ashx?image=/media/3173439/tp-app-beam-process-bass-iphone.png&Constrain=True&width=250

(I was an intern at TC a couple of years ago and lend my bass to the marketing guys…)

Dwight Mabe

One thing to remember with some cheaper basses – the factory setup may be poor. For example, I’ve several Fenders over the years. The mexican made ones were just as good as the Americans if you were willing to look through several. The mexi’s weren’t as consistent in setup as the American ones. Having said that, knowing whether or not the setup can be made into something usable requires knowledge of how setups are done. I think one of the best quickie tests is to play the bass unamplified. The good ones have quite a bit of sound unplugged and the bad ones don’t.

    Enrique

    Enrique

    There is some guy out there on the www who jokes that Fender MIM basses are made in Mexico by Mexicans whereas Fender Made in USA basses are made in the USA by Mexicans. He said he was referring to the proximity of the USA Fender shop to the USA/Mex border. I suppose I’ll buy that. He then took great pains to play a few of the instruments to see if the audience could discern which was which. This is, for me, a moot point. The Mexican Fender guitar makers across the border must build their products according to the standards established by Fender USA. The difference in labor costs is probably the reason for the great difference in pricing for USA consumers. If tone wood, pickup magnets/winding, potentiometers and other hardware and construction is the same, then the differences should not concern most of us, particularly students. You are correct; you must beware of factory set-up. I’m having an instrument custom made because I want something made for my particular set-up and style. It’s being made here in the USA but if I could get the same thing cheaper in Mexico, and I could be assured of its quality, I would get it without reservation.

Scott

My modified squier Chris Aiken will eat any ‘real’ (Fender?) 4 lunch! The ‘mod’ = pickgaurd & tone pot from…another squier-P

Paul Abrahams

Everyone has a different price point, for me these days it’s all about the prestige. Don’t get caught playing a bass cheaper than 1K with a cheapo name on it. No-one will care a rats ass what you think it plays and sounds like.

Get a US Fender and be done with it. You know you’ve always wanted one!