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what's with all these new-old basses?

Discussion in 'Basses [BG]' started by nonsqtr, Jan 24, 2005.

  1. nonsqtr

    nonsqtr The emperor has no clothes!

    Aug 29, 2003
    Burbank CA USA
    Hi all, just got back from the NAMM show, and checking out all the high-end basses and bass gear (mmm... yummy, my favorite would still be the one killer 5-string that "does it all"). :)

    So, the question I've been going around asking, to the likes of George F, Keith R, Michael T, and so on, is "what happened to the lost art of making basses"?

    Of course, I'm asking this question with tongue very much in cheek. I feel kinda funny going up to a George and saying "so how come the old basses were so much better"?

    Not that I even really believe that really. It just seems to me that after all these years (what, fixty or sixty now), someone could have finally perfected the art of making a killer bass, so they could "get it right" every time.

    I'm sure that those of you with a stable of high end basses will agree, that this is really a "quality problem", but frankly, I'm getting really sick and tired of having to try like two hundred high end basses before I find one that actually works.

    No, I exaggerate. Well, maybe a little. My ratio lately seems to be around ten to one. For every one amazing high end bass, there are ten duds. Or, let's say, ten that "aren't quite perfect" - in other words, any other day and for anyone else, they might be okay basses, but compared to my Series 1 or even my loaner '65 J, they don't cut the mustard. Not even close. Stupid little things like D strings that don't sound quite the same as the rest of the world, or G saddles that won't go down quite low enough, or - god forbid - even nuts that aren't cut quite right. (I assume that a high end manufacturer would have done that "deliberately", yes?) :D

    Now, mind you, if I had a gazillion bucks and all the garage space in the world, I'd love to buy one of each different kind of bass, just to say I can create "any sound in the world". But, reality lately has been that I've seen a lot of basses without the "mandatory" features, little things like string balance, low frequency stability, something more than a "plink" in the low B... well, I exaggerate (again), but you get the picture. The essential elements in a bass (and specifically in my case, a 5 string bass), which would be fatness, sustain, a little bit of that desirable growl, a nice solid solo sound in the high registers, just basic stuff like that.

    I'm sitting here with my arms crossed, folks, in one of those "make my day" kind of moods. I was bummed at this last NAMM show, I didn't hear anything (bass-wise) that really made me drool. I'm not knockin' the guys like George and Keith and Michael, lord knows I own dozens of all their basses, but I'm lookin' for one of those guys to take the next step. Into the next generation, of quality, and tonal amazingness. Quality control would be a good first step (I know that's asking for a lot in a handmade instrument, but jeez guys, there's stuff out there these days with fewer side effects than even Valium). But really the goal would be the consistency of precision that allows a "line" of basses to be manufactured so that each unit sounds just as amazing as the next.

    Something that when you hear it, makes you sit up and take notice. "What was that?" :D When was the last time I said that? I don't remember. Maybe it was the first Series 1. Or maybe it was the latest Roscoe. I don't remember. I wonder how many of the Georges and Keiths and Michaels of the world have had to succumb to market pressures, and how much that's really affected the quality of their instruments.

    Just to draw an analogy, I remember back in the day, when you could walk into any electronics store anywhere in the country, and buy a piece of HP gear sight-unseen (like maybe a scope or something), and be 100% confident and completely certain that you were getting a working instrument, and that it was going to do what you needed it to do, the first time out of the box, with no gimmickry and no tune-up needed. There was never any question of whether the "B" probe would behave quite the same as the "A" probe. That only started happening in the mid-80's (when HP was having to succumb to market pressures, just as I suspect all of our up-and-coming and talented luthiers will have to do at some point in their careers - unless they're just making basses for a hobby - and there's a lot to be said for that).

    I mean, let's face it folks, 99% of the so-called "high end basses" aren't even set up correctly when they reach the marketplace. Wait, did I say "correctly"? I meant, "nowhere near correctly", I meant like, way out in left field somewhere, where only a field mouse or the jolly green giant would feel comfortable playing it. And that's just basic stuff - when I spend two or three thousand bucks on an instrument, you know darn well it's gonna piss me off when I have to spend another few hundred bucks and another few weeks just to set the darn thing up.

    Ah well, I suppose "reasonable expectations" are germane in this context. But heck, even Alembic makes a dud every now and then. There's gotta be a way to stop those instruments from reaching the marketplace. Wait, I have an idea - an annual Alembic bonfire (or insert "F bass", "Roscoe", "MTD", whatever your luthier of choice is - maybe they could all get together and chip in - that could definitely be a mystical experience for some of our TB membership). :)

    Anyway, I'm ready to be amazed folks. Anyone with a high end bass they think will perkify my ag'ed and cynical ears, let it be known you have a potential customer here. Still looking for the one. (and that probably makes me a good customer) :)

  2. pistoleroace


    Sep 13, 2002
    Well, I have not been through the number of basses you have but I do have an idea of what you have gone through. When you mention the saddles not going down far enough I know what company you are talking about because I have had the same problem plus many more problems with that company. I really do like those basses but have had numerous problems with them and not getting the problems fixed right.

    When it comes to even volume on all strings and notes, I just don't understand why companies can't get this right. Is is the pickups on how they are wound or is the the manufacturer making the bass? My F Bass BN 5 is pretty good in this area and my Suhr J Bass is the best.

    My Suhr J Bass is by far, the best all around bass I have ever played or owned. The quality of construction, pickups, preamp and finish is the best I have heard or seen. Every note on every string and every note across the fingerboard is perfect volume-wise. The finish on the whole bass is flawless and whatever John Suhr does to the back of the necks makes them the nicest feeling neck. Last but not least, the customer service is the best I have ever dealt with - period! If there is a problem, John wants to hear about it and he will talk to you about it personally. He really cares about every instrument that leaves his shop, if there's a problem, he really takes care of you. The only problem for you (and myself) is, he doesn't yet make a five string bass. I've been on him for over a year and he recently told me that they are in the future for him, maybe even this year. Another advantage that just crossed my mind, John also makes his own pickups and preamp so that can be an advantage if you want something a little different. I recommend you try a four-string out anyway, just so you know what I'm talking about.
  3. Maybe your expectations are too high, nonsqtr. ;)

    Is that possible when working with a material like wood? Even if a builder hand picks each piece, is it possible for him or her to determine with absolute certainty how the finished instrument will sound and perform?

    Maybe this isn't pertinent, but I've heard a high end, hand-built acoustic guitar open up to sound like mud. Others that are boxy at first open up to sound complex and beautiful. My fiancee's Taylor sounded great when she bought it new -- and it still does -- but the sound hasn't changed appreciably in the two years she has owned it.
  4. BartmanPDX

    BartmanPDX Supporting Member

  5. Adam Barkley

    Adam Barkley Mayday!

    Aug 26, 2003
    Jackson, MS
  6. SteveC

    SteveC Moderator Staff Member Supporting Member

    Nov 12, 2004
    North Dakota
    A friend of mine said the same thing - sort of anyway. He wasn't at the show (neither was I) but in looking through pictures, press releases, etc., he said there was nothing really "new" that blew him away. I agreed.

    We thought maybe we finally had a handle on our GAS and were actually happy with all our gear.
  7. burk48237

    burk48237 Supporting Member

    Nov 22, 2004
    Oak Park, MI
    I can't speak to the construction issues as I haven't owned a high end bass that had set-up or initial flaws. Most of the high end stuff I've bought was either used or well set by the time I picked it up. And I've owned Warwick, Alembic, Pedulla, Tobais and Kubicki factor among others. I think part of the problem now is the choices we have become the ultiment consumer society, so we have choices. Just take a look at the MTD catalog, Bubinga, Wenge ,Tulip, Ash, Maple, Splatted Maple, Burled Maple, Flamed Maple, Mahogany, Rosewood, Marado and I'm sure I missed about a dozen others, Not only do you have to deal with how these multiple combinations will sound when mixed but you have the effect of fingerboard and neck woods, the effect of finnishes, and God only knows how these woods will age in combination, plus what kind of climate are they stored in. Any you want Consistancy? GOOD LUCK!!! I find myself going more and more back to traditional styled instruments (Fender Jazz) and my last purcahse (Sadowsky Metro) amazes me with consistancy. The Rosewood/Alders sound like Rosewood /Alders, ditto for the Ash/Maples the constuction and set-up are flawless on every one I've played, and they sound consistant from instrument to instrument. I guess thiss goes back to one rule KISS, Keep it simple stupid, which I've been applying to my playing too!! If you buy one of the high end multi laminent beast you'll get a one of a kind instrument, It may be a great one, on the other hand it may be a piece of......................
  8. RAM


    May 10, 2000
    Chicago, IL
    I understand exactly what you're talking about. For every amazing MTD I've ever played, I've tried several that just didn't float my boat. And, every Fodera I've ever come across (well, not 4-stringers) have had at least one major negative quality, especially given the price. I remember sitting at Bass Central a few years ago plucking Roscoes off the wall and playing, and playing, and playing. Of the 4 or 5 I went through, only one truly "sang" and felt "right". And...so on and so on...

    But, what strikes me as a major issue here is not entirely the fault of luthiers...sure, some could learn about the proper way to design a bass to reproduce the B string as well as others, perhaps "seat" the strings in the saddles correctly, set the proper pickup height, or what-have-you. What I'm talking about is wood. It's a living organism. Luthiers refer to a "green" quality. But, as wood is a living organism, it can behave erratically. Will it continue to "grow" in a certain direction? Will the fibers communicate the same in every piece of wood? Are there microscopic deformities not identified when hand-selecting wood for use in the bass? In my mind, the wood itself is just as much to blame for some of these instruments not having "it" as well as others. But it's this wood "factor" that distinguishes each instrument. I don't think it's possible to *always* get it right, unless you remove wood from the equation.

    Insofar as other issues, such as level frets, properly filed nuts, correct saddle-height, consistent routing, etc, I have a different take. This is where luthiers become true craftsmen. I believe some luthiers are absolute masters, total geniuses when it comes to wood selection. In my mind, other luthiers don't spend much time worrying about how to blend the right ingredients to develop a complex tone as they do on proper setup, making the fretboard PERFECTLY flat, crowning the frets flawlessly, and taking pride in a perfectly setup instrument. Fewer still can *usually* get both. Those few who seem to nail both rarely seem to be able to hit both at the same time.

    It's as much of a mystery to me as it is to you. For this reason, I'd be hesitant to ever buy an expensive wooden instrument without at least trying it first. Kind of a shame.
  9. mikezimmerman

    mikezimmerman Supporting Member

    Apr 29, 2001
    Omaha, Nebraska
    Hmm, I can only go from my own experience, but for me at least one difficulty seems to be my own expectations, experience, and points of reference. Simply put, after having played and owned so many great high-end instruments--Wal, MTD, Elrick, Curbow, Modulus, Zon, Fodera, Sadowsky, Nordstrand, etc. etc.--it's just a lot harder to be amazed anymore.

    But aside from a couple of custom pieces, most of what I've owned has been bought used, so I can't speak to the question of whether or not setups, attention to detail, etc. have gone downhill. I agree with some other folks that there's definately a certain amount of pressure to make instruments visually striking and hop on the latest exotic wood bandwagon. That may well affect companies like Roscoe and MTD, where the wood selections have expanded a whole lot in the last couple of years...

  10. My Stambaugh did (& does)everything I ask of it from day 1. Oh, wait- I did have to file the nut under the B string- Chris!! You Bastige!!
  11. jvbjr


    Jan 8, 2005
    Unfortunately with taxes, high rents and other costs these boutique builders want to appear like they agonize over every detail, but the truth is, they can not afford to. People scream FOR $2500 IT SHOULD BE PERFECT, but if a guy has $6,000/month in fixed expenses and can only build a bass a week, and he has to furnish the materials, how much is left?

    America is pricing itself out of the market, even to fellow Americans as the burden to keep and tax a home is straining every other mechanism in the economy.
  12. RAM


    May 10, 2000
    Chicago, IL
    Consider the flipside for a moment...

    A luthier who doesn't put his "all" into a bass runs the risk of losing his business to someone who DOES put his "all" into it. The world they live in is a world that demands perfection. If you can't live in that world, expect the consequences of choosing that line of work.;)
  13. Brad Johnson

    Brad Johnson Supporting Member

    Mar 8, 2000
    Gaithersburg, Md
    I'll preface this by proclaiming a serious bias towards some of the brands I own;). I also work with Kevin Brubaker.

    Getting it right every time does happen. Getting it right "for you" is another issue entirely.

    For consistency I think Elricks and Brubakers are tough to beat. Their standard packages have yet to disappoint me. When customers deviate from that ("I'd like an Evolution with NJS headstock, lipstick pickups and piezo frets"), all bets are off. The consistency I'm speaking of isn't just fit and finish, it's playability and high quality sound. If you like the Elrick sound (and I really do), there's no better way to get it than with one of Rob's basses.

    I've dealt with a lot of luthiers and none have surpassed Kevin Brubaker's and Dave DeMarco's attention to detail. Anal in a good way. Stuff you'd have to have pointed out to you with a micrometer bugs these guys. There's an overall quality to the sound that I'm sure is tied to how meticulous they are. I've been able to check out a large number of the basses Kevin has built since 1999 and have yet to be disappointed. They've ranged from excellent to "I don't care whose mother I have to smack, I want that bass!". I basically goaded several people into playing my Brubaker fretless at NAMM, it's fun to see if it hits them the same way it hits me. For me it's basically a perfect instrument. So are the rest of my Brus and my Elrick, too.

    Try the two brands I mentioned and get back to me. If you can, try them without a lot of tweaking first. No quality issues as far as I'm concerned. Not saying there are never any problems, just that they are by far the exception not the norm. Much like Elricks and Brubakers, Sadowskys typically are as close to flawless as I've seen. Benavente and Nordstrand too. Laklands and F Basses. It's up to you to decide on whether the sound and playability floors you.

    I hardly ever see this. What I do find are instruments that just don't float my boat.

    You just described every one of my Brubaker fives;)

    Did you stop by and plug in a Brubaker? Just curious.

    Learn how to set a bass up. It's easy. If you're spending a few hundred bucks having it done, spend a few minutes on the web and get educated;)

    I like low action so most basses aren't set up exactly as I'd like. I understand though that the initial setup is hardly a permanent thing and I really can't hold that against an instrument.

    Every builder brings something to the table. I don't dwell on the instruments I don't like, I wallow in the ones that I do. Simple.

    As long as you understand your responsibilties (knowing what you want and how you affect what you get) it shouldn't be all that difficult.
  14. Just to interject something here, any bass I have ever gotten, new, custom, used, has always needed a personal setup. I try them a while to see how they are, and always tweak a few things within a day or two. Always a truss rod tweak, and intonation and or saddle height.
    The problem is everyone has their own idea of a setup, I know my taste is not what any store instruments I have tried had.

  15. Bassmanbob

    Bassmanbob Supporting Member

    After playing stock basses for a number of years, I was introduced to the high end world about three years ago when I took some time off at a convention in Orlando. That one afternoon I was completely overwhelmed with not only the quality but selection that was offered in the bass world. And that was only one store!

    Since then, I've become an occational visitor and have purchased a high end bass and recently ordered another one. Yes, not every high end bass does it for me, but any one of those high end basses would have been great prior to that day. I guess my point is that we've become so spoiled over extremely high quality basses, that really really nice just isn't good enough anymore. I can no longer go to a Guitar Center and pick up a bass that I can really get into. I've become so spoiled with the high end market, that nice just isn't good enough.

    Take that a step further, now we can go to a boutique store and try 10- 20 different brands of high end basses and try a half dozen of each brand! And now that's not good enough. It's easier to find flaws, however minor, if you look close enough- even if your expectations are very high.

    From a customer's standpoint, it's never been a better time to be a bass player. There is a lot of good quality and great quality basses. There is also more variety than ever before. You just have to find the one that's best for you.
  16. nonsqtr

    nonsqtr The emperor has no clothes!

    Aug 29, 2003
    Burbank CA USA
    That seems to be the bottom line, right?

    Well, good input from everyone. I certainly understand the issues with the woods and so on, that's a "raw material" thing, and we probably depend on our favorite luthiers to use their expertise to select the right slab of raw material.

    On the other hand, the setup thing seems to be pretty straightforward. Not much room for excuses there, yes? For instance, let's say Bass Company A always ships all their basses already set up, with the "lowest possible action" (I'm not sure how that would be defined exactly, but let's just say they set it up in advance). Then, when an individual buys the bass, all he/she has to do is raise it to where it feels right (for that individual). On the other hand, if you're trying out a bass in the store, and it hasn't been set up (ie "at all", in other words, it's in whatever random condition it came out of the shop in), how the heck can you tell whether or not it'll play "correctly" (when the action is lowered and it's set up "correctly" for your playing style)? You can't, unless you can do a mini-setup right there in the store.

    Now, I'm pretty good with setups. I'm also very particular about what I consider to be the "optimal" setup for a specific instrument. I can dial in a bass "into the range" within about five minutes, for my playing style. But to get it from there to something approximating "correct", I'd usually take two to three weeks, of constant playing and futzing around. Some basses will never dial in, no matter how hard you work at it. Others will dial into the "range" amazingly quickly, but the sound that results isn't necessarily what I'm looking for.

    So the equation seems to be, first get the bass to feel right (playing-wise), then tweak for sound (saddle angles and pickup height and etc). See, the thing is, the world of electronics is totally cut-and-dried, relative to the world of wood. With Bartolini's and all the rest of the great bass pickups, it's relatively trivial to get "a sound" once the bass feels right. But a bass that has "the sound" but doesn't feel right, is unplayable. And not worth any further effort. IMO.

    So, a huge step in the right direction for these bass manufacturers, would be to set up the bass before it leaves the factory, with the "lowest possible action". That seems to me to be a very basic quality control step. That would tend to reveal the problems in an instrument, and therefore would tend to trap any basses that can't cut the mustard (or let's say, it would at least reduce the ratio of unusable basses from ten to one, down to maybe two or three to one).

    My own personal experience is, it's a heck of a lot easier to tell whether a bass is any good, if the action is "too low", as distinct from "too high". If it's too low, I don't have to tweak it, I can pretty much imagine how it'll sound when it's raised. But if it's too high, there's no way to tell what it'll sound like when it's lowered. So, the bass manufacturers should do us all a favor by proving "in advance" that their instruments will function correctly with low action. Set the darn thing up before it leaves the shop, that's all I ask. :)
  17. RAM


    May 10, 2000
    Chicago, IL
    Ah...but you make a big assumption here, that all luthiers are capable of the same nitpicky quality alluded to above by Brad Johnson with Elrick and Brubaker (and Lakland, IME).

    Here's a personal anecdote regarding another high-end luthier and his setup expertise...

    I have a bass (not my Jerzy Drozd, btw) that I bought it new back in 1995. I always thought it played well, but knew there could be some improvements. I took it back to the shop where I bought it and they told me the neck was way out of wack and cranked the bridge to new records of height! I then sent it back to Spector who called me, with bass in hand, and told me there was "nothing wrong with this bass except as to the saddle-height on the bridge".

    The luthier who called me, supposed to be among the elite, was confident there was nothing wrong; I had every expectation that he knew what he was talking about.

    Fast forward a couple of years when I discovered Lakland was now doing setup work on non-Lakland products. I setup an appointment to take my bass in for consultation and was shown the "sins committed" in my bass! Carl (of Lakland setup fame) yanked the frets, planed the fretboard, refretted it and returned it. $300 and one month later, and I have a bass that's far better than it ever was! :hyper:

    The reason I bring up this story is not to bash this luthier, but rather highlight a problem in this industry alluded to in previous posts. A well respected, long-time luthier with ridiculous amounts of credits and kudos from players of several generations across several genres of music is quite capable of poor quality.
  18. nonsqtr

    nonsqtr The emperor has no clothes!

    Aug 29, 2003
    Burbank CA USA
    That sounds good RAM. I need to find a couple of good setup people like that. One thing I recently found, is a computer setup thing called Plek. It works great, but all it's really going to do is give you the "fundamentals" (good neck relief, that kind of thing). You still have to tweak the instrument after the computer gets done with it. However, it's just about the best thing I've found so far, it's reduced my average setup time from several weeks down to a day or so. Once the basics of the setup are done, it's a trivial matter to raise or lower the saddles and find the right saddle angle for each string. But when starting from scratch on a brand new bass, and without the computer technology, there are so many interacting factors that it makes it pretty difficult to tell what might be wrong with an instrument (and what part of that might be correctable). Basically, the setup guys I know take one of two approaches: either a) start with the assumption that the bass is way off and has never been set up at all, so this is basically a "top-down" (theoretical) approach that attempts to make the bass conform to the "ideal", or b) start with the assumption that the bass is basically okay the way it is, and look for any "tweaks" that need to be made to get it to work "better". The Plek is the (a) approach. It makes no assumptions about the bass, and so once in a while there'll be an "unusual" bass that doesn't quite conform to the theoretical standard, which the machine will have some difficult with. (Although, it's obvious right from the start if that's going to happen on a particular instrument, the machine will give you the signals up front). On the other hand, most of the "human" setup guys I know take approach (b), they basically assume that the luthier knew what he was doing and that the bass just needs a tune-up. Frankly, I've had a lot more luck with approach (a) recently. And, it's served as my own "inbound" quality control step, basically everything I get in the door goes through a Plek procedure, and it tends to weed those basses out "early" that aren't going to perform well (ie where no amount of tweaking is going to make them sound "right"). And yes, I fully agree with you, respected luthiers are completely capable of producing (and selling) high end "junk". We need ways to protect ourselves from that kind of thing. "Try before you buy" is a good policy, but there are levels beyond that - in other words, trying a bass in the store will only tell you so much, and beyond that there's no substitute for spending time with the instrument. I can tell you two things based on my experience: one, the Plek has made some instruments eminently playable (where before I wouldn't even have given them a second try in the store), and two, when I look for a new bass in the store, I look for one that isn't going to need much Plek work. In other words, I want the luthier to take the extra few minutes to set up the instrument correctly before it leaves the shop. Any luthier that can't do that, how's he going to expect to stay in business? Like his basses are so great that people are falling all over themselves just to stand in line for a setup? I think not. :D
  19. From all what I heard, for example, all the F Basses sounds great.
    One more example, that quote is coming form Adrian Garcia himself.
    And as I never tried or heard things about others manufacturers, I can't give my opinion...

  20. jvbjr


    Jan 8, 2005
    Why do you think the small companies that look like successes from the outside always get folded into big firms like Gibson and Fender eventually? After working you butt off for a decade and making basically nothing for you 70+ hours a week Henry or Fender offer you $500,000 cash for your "business". Many builders can not get up fast enough to kiss these big companies butts and thank them for bailing them out from what was a losing battle of "love". People demand perfection on the surface, but truth is they are most interested in price and prestige, this is why companies like Mercedes and BMW can continue to put out cars that are far less perfect than their Japanese competition.