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bass guitar shopping

May 12, 2010

Just got back from Guitar Center, and all you anti-corporate people quit your yelling. I’ve gone to two independent music stores, and the service at both those places was terrible, and the service at Guitar Center has almost always been tons better, so I go where the service is best! If independent stores want to stay in business, they better have damn good service, since they can’t compete on selection.

Ok, on to the basses.

I plugged into a cheap Ampeg amp on a clean setting with no effects, because I’ll be plugging into a very simple amp here at home. I wanted to hear the sound of the basses, not the amp, since I was not amp shopping.

I have a limited price range, but after trying out many basses, I don’t feel bad about that.

I tend to be a Fender guy, for both electric guitars and basses. I like the old school look, feel, and tone, so I especially wanted to check out certain models in Fender’s Squier line (their cheapest instruments).

Before I get into the basses I tried this evening, a little bit of history on my attempts to be a bass player.

I’ve already owned a Squier P-bass Special – that is an instrument with a Precision Bass body, a Jazz Bass neck, which is more tapered and narrow than that of the Precision basses, and a P-bass pickup and a J-bass pickup to get a variety of tones and sounds, which I thought was great. I donated the bass, though, because the J-bass neck gets so narrow at the nut – that’s the part on the far end – toward the headstock – that my hands were cramping up some, so I donated the bass to a homeless mission. In their newsletter, there was a list of wanted items, and the first thing on the list was musical instruments. I’d gotten the bass and a Xmas present, so decided to pass the joy along. That might have been a mistake, but oh well.. It feels good to be a do-gooder sometimes.

Next bass I bought was by a brand called Samick. Not a major brand, that one, but from what little I read, the Samick factory made guitars for other brands that were sold at higher prices because the names were famous. I don’t know if that is true.

The Samick bass had 5 strings, I don’t know why I bought it. I used to spend countless hours on eBay and other sites, checking out basses, and happened upon that one. Was looking for something unusual, I suppose. It turned out to be an ok instrument, but by the time I got it, I wasn’t exactly stoked about playing a five string bass, so I sold that one on consignment at a music store in a town nearby.

3rd bass I bought, also off eBay, was a little Silvertone bass made sometime in the late 1960’s. It was a cute little instrument, but turned out to be in worse condition than I thought. The repair bill would have been kind of high, so I sold that one, without ever playing it much.

The 4th bass was one I rented for a little while. It was a fairly high-end model by Schecter, a pretty good brand. This bass was called the Stilletto Elite, and had active pickups. Active pickups – that means there is a compartment on the instrument for a 9V battery, and the pickups are hooked into it. Active pickups are designed to give a much larger range of sounds and tones for the bass, so the players don’t have to fiddle with their amps so much to get the sound they want. One problem with active bass guitars is that gigging musicians need to make sure to check the battery – if the battery goes out in mid-song, that means there is no sound coming from the bass! This has happened to MANY musicians, and can be quite embarrassing. I’ve never learned to play well enough as yet to do a lot of gigs, so this has not happened to me.

Active pickups are lots more powerful than passive pickups, and, unfortunately, when the EQ’s are set a certain way, a bass with active pickups can overload even a very good and expensive amp, and that really sucks. I was playing through an amp that cost over a grand, and I couldn’t set up the EQ’s on the bass in the way I wanted to without causing the amp to practically short out, and I had the volume low – maybe the amp was defective. Not sure.. but anyway.. got to be careful with active pickup basses.

The amp I just mentioned was the second one I’d gotten as part of the rent-t0-own deal. I was quite unhappy with the first amp, and even madder about the second, so I brought both amps back, along with bass. That bass might have been worth keeping I suppose, and paying off, but I was so pissed off I just brought all that gear back.

2 years ago, I bought the 5th bass I’ve brought home so far. I was really in a crazy state of mind when I bought this one! I’d already kind of decided I didn’t like active pickups much, and had no use for a bass with 5 strings, but could not make up my mind, got terribly frustrated, so brought home an Ibanez bass, one with .. 5 strings.. and .. active pickups. WTF??

What was even crazier about this bass was that the neck was made of walnut or some other type of wood not normally used, and a freak thing happened. My hand actually had an allergic reaction to the wood after playing the bass for awhile! Never, ever even heard of that happening before, and was something I did not notice while at the store. I actually got a bit of a rash on my left hand.. now that is really crazy!

So, I sold that bass to a guy in Kazakhstan, via eBay. He was quite happy with it.

Ok, so it is 2010, and got the craving, the jones, for playing bass.. again..

Right, so I have my saxophone for sale on eBay, and it is a unique sax, so it just might sell. I hope not to take a major hit on the price though. I need at least 3oo dollars.

And, after playing some bass guitars this evening, I have concluded that 300 dollars will indeed buy me a decent bass guitar.

Some really cool things that happened tonight – one was that both Squier basses I was most interested in were in stock! I’d called a day or two ago, and they didn’t have either of them, but tonight they had both! Great!

First one I tried was the Squier Vintage Modified Precision Bass. Almost all Squiers are made in Indonesia, by the way. The Precision bass is very basic, regardless of it being made in Indonesia, Mexico, or USA – One passive pickup, one tone control, one volume control, that’s it, not much sound variety at all, but it does sound good.

This model has pickups designed by a company called Seymour-Duncan. This company does not make instruments, it only makes pickups. Tons of guitarists out there know how to work on their instruments, and swap out stock pickups for better ones, and Duncans are the brand for after market p’ups. The other brands some people buy are Dimarzio, EMG, and Bartoloni, but mostly, people buy Duncans. Sometimes, certain models of electric guitars and basses will come stock with Duncans, (or those other brands) and that is really good!

I liked this version of the Squier P-bass – wasn’t overly thrilled with it, the neck is narrower than I expected, but overall, it felt good, and had decent tone.Price: $279.00. A bargain, I think.

Next I tried the Classic Vibe ’50’s style Precision Bass, also by Squier. This one has a larger body, a slightly different pickup, a thicker neck. It didn’t feel quite as comfortable, but not uncomfortable. The especially thick neck I thought I would like better than I actually did. The pickup was not designed by Duncan, and was noticeably weaker than the pickup on the P-bass I tried first.

Another word about pickups – besides active and passive, there are 2 other kinds – one is single-coil, and the other is called a humbucker, which has two coils of wire. The humbucking pickups, whether they be on guitar or bass, have a thicker sound, and don’t have a noticeable hissing background noise. Most Fender (and Squier) guitars, and almost all their basses have single coil pickups. Just about all the other brands out there tend to have humbuckers. The sound difference is noticeable, believe me. For example, Jimi Hendrix would have had quite a different sound if he’d used a guitar with humbucking pickups, I think his choice to use single-coil fenders was very smart.

Basses with single coil pickups tend to have a bit of a sharper sound, and I like the single coil sound better. But not always.

The single coil pickup on the Classic vibe bass just didn’t cut it, too much hiss, and the baby blue paint job didn’t quite do it for me either. Not exactly masculine.  Also, this one was made in China! Not cool! Almost all Squiers are made in  Indonesia. Why was this one made in China? I don’t know. I put that one back pretty quick. I had expected it to be better. But then, it was made in China, so there you go. Price: $349.00

Next I tried a used Epiphone Thunderbird bass. Epiphone is the cheaper line of Gibson guitars. Up until a couple years ago, most Epi’s were made in South Korea, as were just about all other guitars and basses, both acoustic and electric, except for Fenders, which if they are Squiers, still primarily made in Indonesia, and all those with the main Fender label either being made in Mexico or USA, or occasionally in Japan.

Nowadays, unfortunately almost all basses and guitars, both acoustic and electric, that are made outside the USA, are made in China, and this really sucks!! I have nothing against the Chinese people – but I have HUGE problems with the Chinese government. If you think America has bad human rights violations, check out China! Beyond ghastly! They exploit their workers terribly, and even use slave labor. I want my guitars and basses to be made in countries where people have more freedom than they do in China. I do not know much about the govt. in Indonesia, but I am guessing people are more free there than in China, or so I hope.

So anyway, the first Thunderbird bass I played was used, and was made in Korea, which made me happy. This one has 2 humbucking pickups, with a volume control for each one – for blending, and one tone control. Not a bad setup. Not quite the Fender sound, but ok, and pretty warm.

I’m not used to the Thunderbird body – chunkier, and much thicker neck. I liked the thick neck just fine, but the body felt less comfortable than Fenders. Something I could get used to perhaps, and if I get seriously into bass playing, I’ll own more than one bass, and one of those basses will no doubt be a Thunderbird, but I don’t plan on restarting on that one. Price (used): $200. – Excellent deal!! Quite surprising.

Next, tried a Jazz bass, even though, in the past, I’d not liked the J-bass necks, as I mentioned earlier. Before playing this one though, I went into the humidity-controlled acoustic guitar room, which is always pleasant and quiet and smells nice. I like acoustic instruments, and the only guitars I have here at home are 2 acoustics – one classical and one steel string. Sometimes when I go into the acoustic room, I like to try mandolins, which I hope to play someday. Sadly, the Guitar Center where I live only stocks a few mandolins – at most 3, and all are of poor quality, but still fun enough to try out. Talk about a narrow neck – these are little instruments! After playing the mandolins for awhile (only 2 in stock this time, and one was terrible -except it had a more comfortable neck than the other), playing the Jazz bass didn’t feel so bad!

I selected a Squier Jazz bass with active pickups – meaning more knobs. Jazz Basses with passive pickups have 2 pickups that are a little different than those on Precision Basses, and they have 3 knobs, 2 volumes and one tone, I am guessing, or I could have it backwards.

The active Jazz Bass had 5 knows – I don’t know exactly what they were for. At least 2 were equalizers, one was for volume.. hmm.. one for tone.. the other.. not sure, one was stacked on top of another. Also, there was a tiny pickup switch. You will almost never find pickup switches on basses. They come standard on electric guitars, but are rare on basses, and when you see them, chances are the bass will have active pickups.

Tons of tonal variety here! It took quite a bit of fiddling around with all the knobs and the switch – and wow! Amazing sound. I like the sounds I could get on this bass far better than the sounds I could get from the much more expensive basses with active pickups that I had previously owned.

Still, not entirely keen on active pickups – hard to describe what I don’t like about them – sound too clear, compared to what I’m used to – I am very sensitive to sounds, and the sensation was not entirely positive, but, overall, I enjoyed that bass, and the neck didn’t trouble me as much as I thought. But, I have to consider, I only played that bass for 15 minutes or so. Hour upon hour of practice might cause my hand to cramp up more, like when I had the P-bass special years ago.

The strangest thing about this bass was the fingerboard. Fingerboards are almost always made of wood. Most guitars and basses have necks made of maple. Some of these just have frets put into the maple neck – so you get a maple fretboard. Other instruments have a thin layer of a much darker wood, called rosewood, that is used as the fretboard surface. This particular bass apparently had a plastic or graphite fretboard. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this on any Fender product!

There is a rather expensive (as in instruments generally selling for $1500 or more) brand called Parker that uses graphic necks and fretboards, so I had seen this before, but on a Squier, very odd. I could see my reflection in the fingerboard. I haven’t read the details on this instrument yet, so I don’t know why plastic or graphite was used.. Ok, so really great sound, J-neck not so bad, at least while I was playing it for a short time. Price: $300.00 Very Good!

I plugged in 2 other basses. One was a new Chinese-made Thunderbird, and it really wasn’t too bad. Nice finish, decent tone. Solid instrument, sounded almost exactly like the Korean-made Thunderbird, and looked better. Still, Thunderbirds ain’t exactly for me. Price: $279.00 Fair price, I think.

I wanted to try one Squier or higher end Fender Jazz Bass with passive pickups to hear what that sounded like, and the two within reach were a very low quality cheapest of the cheap squier – their affinity line – and the other was an American-made Jazz bass costing over $1100. I plugged that one in. Trouble with Guitar Center is that so many of their basses are not within reach, and I have to go bug a guy to get a ladder to bring it down. This makes sense for their high-end expensive instruments, but some of their cheaper ones are way out of reach as well. Which is bothersome.

So, I plugged in the American J-bass. You know what? It didn’t sound great or awesome, etc. In fact, it didn’t sound any better than the others. The only reason I can think of for buying a made in USA Fender bass like this one is to help keep American workers employed.  And bragging – some people get REALLY hung-up on gear, it becomes an ego-thing, big time. So some musicians will need to feel especially cool and get one of these drastically over-priced instruments.  I can’t imagine spending 800 dollars more for a bass that doesn’t sound any better, or appear to be any more durable, than a bass costing $300. Let me tell you, playing that American Jazz bass made me feel good ! I felt good about not needing much money to buy a decent bass, and not missing out on great, or at least adequate tone.

Feeling good, I really did feel good playing those instruments!! I don’t know any bass lines from any songs, but can mess around on those things pretty well and quite enjoyed myself! There’s something mellow, even soothing about playing a bass guitar, so yeah, I’m gonna get one, as soon as I can sell my sax!!

Which one though??

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it?

The Squier Vintage Modified Precision Bass felt the best to me. Sounded decent enough. I guess I am afraid to take the chance on buying a Jazz bass or a P-bass special. The single pickup on the precision bass really does feel limiting, though, so I am not entirely sold on it – but if I had to choose today, I’d get that one.

Ok, that’s enough for now, I suppose..

Except for one last note..

There is a company called Carvin, which only sells their instruments from catalogs and online, with the exception of a few Carvin stores in Southern California. They custom-make their instruments in San Diego, CA, and there are tons of variations people can choose from. As you might guess, considering these are custom-made instruments constructed in America, they are expensive! The most basic of their basses sells for just under $800 dollars. I have no idea if they are worth it as I have never played one. Also, I do not know if the necks on Carvin basses are tapered and quite narrow like on Fender J-basses, or a bit thicker like Fender P-basses, or.. ?

So if anyone plays Carvin basses, let me know. This is just for the sake of curiosity though, as they are way out of my price range.

There’s another brand I’m curious about, called Reverend, which you can only get online, but they won’t start selling basses until January. Their guitars look really cool, so I’m interested in seeing how their basses turn out. Reverend instruments used to be made in USA, but these days are made in Korea.

Alight then.. still feeling good about playing bass! Very therapeutic!

Anyone want to buy a saxophone?!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 26, 2010 11:10 AM

    I find it very satisfying that you actually care where your music products come from. Way to go!

    • tomschronicles permalink
      May 26, 2010 1:56 PM

      I really do! It’s almost a spiritual thing.

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