January 2024 – A Brief History of the Bass Guitar


WELCOME FAIR MUSIC‑MINDED PATRONS to the first CRAVE Guitars’ monthly article of the New Year. While we may be less than a full month into the year Two Thousand and Twenty Four of the Common Era, one hopes it is off to a good start despite global uncertainty (and insanity). Let us hope that those intent on geopolitical conflict come to their senses, unlikely as it may seem, rather than escalate tensions further. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to be part of the doomsday generation. Scary.

Bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all)” – Thomas Hobbes (1588‑1679)

Getting back to the musical point, ask pretty much anyone with a slight interest in modern music culture, the question, “Who invented the first bass guitar?” and I’m sure a lot of people would say, “Leo Fender, of course”. Well yes… and no. In the world of vintage guitars, things are rarely quite as straightforward as one may at first think.

With the recent addition of CRAVE Basses to the CRAVE Guitars, Amps and Effects family, this month seems perfectly apt to take a quick look at how the electric bass guitar as we know it came into being and how it has become such an integral component of contemporary music.

Primarily as a guitarist, my dalliances with bass guitars up to now have, I admit, been spawned out of curiosity and exploration, rather than a serious preoccupation. Those dalliances, though, span well over four decades, so the bass encounter isn’t a single, short or recent ‘event’.

We do not start the story, as many might imagine in the 1950s. We’ll come back to that in a little while. Before we get there, though, we should go back quite a few years. Many, many years in fact, starting with the classical orchestral double bass, originating from the 15th Century or thereabouts. Then we’ll explore the modern‑day innovations starting in the 1920s and 1930s before the ‘big bang’ that really exploded in the 1950s and 1960s. Finally we’ll come up‑to‑date, with a look at the instruments, equipment, artists and sounds that have helped to shape the modern musical landscape. Finally, we’ll take a wee peak into the near future of bass instruments.

The fretless acoustic double bass

Before the solid body fretted electric bass guitar, popular music relied almost totally on the acoustic upright double bass for low frequency impact. The instrument’s origins date approximately to the 15th‑16th Century in Venice, Italy. Venetian musician, Silvestro Ganassi developed a ‘bass viola da gamba’ in 1542, widely regarded as the forerunner of today’s double bass. It wasn’t until around 1700, though, that the double bass became part of the opera orchestra. The double bass as we now know it is the largest and lowest‑pitched chordophone in the classical music orchestra.

As a quick recap, defined by the Hornbostel‑Sachs system of musical instrument classification, a chordophone is a musical instrument that makes sound from vibrating one or more taught strings by bowing, plucking or striking the strings. Examples of chordophone types include violins, guitars, and pianos respectively. The word chordophone stems from the Greek words for string (chordē) and sound (phonē).

For more on the historical origins of musical instrument classification (to provide a context for the development of the guitar), see CRAVE Guitars’ March 2018 article.

A Potted History of the Guitar Part I (The ancient world up to the early Renaissance):
March 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part I (craveguitars.co.uk)

The traditional 4‑string double bass is usually played in one of two ways, either by rubbing the strings with a bow (arco) or by plucking the strings with fingers (pizzicato). Some modern double bass players, for instance in rock & roll and rockabilly, also use a distinctive ‘slap’ technique. This percussive sound derived from the ‘Bartók pizzicato’ (‘snap’ pizzicato) named after the Hungarian composer and pianist Béla Bartók.

Double Bass (courtesy of Roxanne Minnish)

Depending on the style of music, the double bass is also known by a number of other names, all of which refer to the same instrument. Some of these alternative monikers include bass, upright bass, string bass, acoustic bass, acoustic string bass, contrabass, contrabass viol, bass viol, bass violin, stand‑up bass, bull fiddle, doghouse bass and bass fiddle.

The traditional double bass is a large acoustic fretless instrument of the violin family that is played upright. The deep, resonant, woody tone of the double bass endows it with a very different sound when compared to the modern solid body fretted electric bass guitar. The tuning of the double bass is different from other members of the orchestral sting instruments, in that it is tuned in fourths (E‑A‑D‑G) rather than a violin’s fifths (G‑D‑A‑E). The double bass, then, is tuned the same as a modern bass guitar, an octave below the bottom four strings of a 6‑string guitar in standard tuning. This particular characteristic aided the bass’s transition from classical to modern day musical styles.

Originally, double basses were more likely to have three strings until four strings became commonplace by the 19th Century, by which time the standard format and construction of the double bass had become established. There are, however, 5 and 6 (or more) string variants and there are also various alternative tunings.

The double bass has been the mainstay of orchestral string sections and chamber music for several centuries in one form or another. It was predictable that, with the emergence and evolution of the major modern popular music genres, such as jazz, blues and country & western that the double bass would become the go‑to bass instrument, at least up until the 1960s when the solid body fretted electric bass guitar became predominant. However, the double bass hasn’t disappeared from contemporary music completely. Plenty of present‑day artists still use or revert back to the double bass for authenticity and/or effect.

The main drawback experienced by many players is that the double bass is a substantial piece of equipment. The full‑size double bass is almost 75 inches (190cm) tall, weighing in at c.20‑25lbs (9‑11½kg), without its hefty case. The scale length is set at around 42” (107cm), much longer than most modern bass guitars. Given these dimensions, the double bass is sizeable, cumbersome, unwieldy and plain heavy, making it far from the easiest of instruments to move around or play. There are smaller double basses including ¾, ½ and ¼ size, mainly aimed at younger players. Even so, the double bass not for the faint hearted, as the smallest ¼ size instrument is still over 61” (156cm) tall.

Another drawback is the double bass’s acoustic construction. Like the acoustic guitar, in the first half of the 20th Century, the acoustic double bass’s lack of volume made it hard to be heard in a jazz‑era big band mix unless there was some form of electrification through either a magnetic pickup or a microphone connected to an amplifier and, even then, acoustic instruments can be prone to feedback in high sound pressure level environments.

Traditional double basses are not only large but, because of their construction, they are also quite expensive, making them a major investment and therefore difficult for novices or younger players to access and learn.

Even so, despite its limitations, during the 20th Century the double bass became widely used in a diverse range of modern music genres, including jazz, blues, swing, rock & roll, rockabilly, country & western, bluegrass, folk, funk, reggae, metal, rock, pop, tango and visual media soundtracks.

Trivia: Believe it or not, there is an even larger bass, first built c.1850 by the French luthier Jean‑Baptiste Vuillaume (1798‑1875) in Paris. The octobass, as it is called, has three strings and is basically a larger version of the double bass tuned a further octave down. The octobass is a truly gargantuan beast, approximately 137” high (348cm).

The electric upright bass

To enable modern players to experience the spirit of the acoustic double bass in a more convenient and amplified form, there is the modern Electric Upright Bass (EUB), which is also played, as its name suggests, upright, like a traditional double bass.

EUBs allow for greater portability while retaining the playing style and general sound of its forebear. As the EUB doesn’t require the substantial acoustic resonating chamber of a double bass, they often feature a ‘skeleton’ body, making it much smaller, lighter and cheaper to produce. The minimal structure may have either a solid body or a small acoustic body.

A magnetic, piezo or condenser bass pickup provides the means to route the signal via a bass amplifier to loudspeakers. Like a double bass, the EUB’s strings can be bowed or plucked, although that is dependent on fingerboard and bridge radius. While evoking its acoustic origins, the structural and electric characteristics of the EUB endow it with a unique sound all of its own.

As the EUB’s construction isn’t bound by convention like its orchestral sibling, the flexible format allows for a range of scale lengths to be employed from around 30” (76cm), through 34” (86cm) like a long scale bass guitar to the full 42” (107cm) of a double bass, making it much more accessible to a range of players. Almost all EUB necks allow for a full two‑octave range and most but not all are fretless. Compared to the double bass or the electric bass guitar, the electric upright bass tends to be a modern, notable but relatively niche instrument. There are EUB models at all price points, making it easier for novices and experienced players alike.

The first production electric upright basses were developed independently in the mid‑1930s by Regal (Electrified Double Bass), Vega (Electric Bass Viol), Rickenbacker (Electro Bass‑Viol) and Audiovox (bull fiddle – see below). Gibson introduced their special order Electric Bass Guitar in 1938, which was still an upright fretless instrument with a hollow body and a magnetic pickup.

Manufacturers of electric upright basses include Framus, Ampeg, Warwick, Ibanez, Yamaha, Palatino, NS Design (Ned Steinberger), and Harley Benton.

Electric Upright Bass

The first solid‑body fretted electric bass guitar

As hinted at above, while Leo Fender was the major innovator associated with the solid‑body fretted electric bass guitar, he wasn’t the first. He was beaten to the starting post by at least some 15 years. Hardly a photo finish!

The first indication of the possible future of a bass guitar was in 1924 when the legendary Gibson designer, Lloyd Loar came up with a prototype electric bass. The Loar concept focused on the body, pickup and strings but with little additional detail. Loar’s radical design was rejected by Gibson management at the time. Loar left Gibson shortly thereafter in 1924, so his visionary ideas for an electric bass guitar went no further.

Nearly a decade later, around 1933, American musician and inventor Paul H. ‘Bud’ Tutmarc (1896‑1972), based in Seattle, Washington, began experimenting with reducing the size of the double bass to a more manageable instrument. Tutmarc originally devised an electrified fretless double bass‑style instrument described as an electric 4‑string upright ‘bull fiddle’, slightly smaller than a cello.

It’s worth a quick diversion to go back in time to take in an original report from the ‘Seattle Post‑Intelligencer’ newspaper, which published the story on 17 February 1935. The headline read, “Pity Him No More – New Type Bull Fiddle Devised.”

The article went on to state that, “People have always pitied the poor bass-fiddler… who has to lug his big bull-fiddle home through the dark streets after the theatre closes. But he doesn’t have to do it anymore. Because Paul Tutmarc, Seattle music teacher and KOMO radio artist, has invented an electric bull-fiddle. One you can carry under your arm. And it doesn’t even need a bow, either. You pluck a string – and out of the electric amplifier comes a rich, deep tone, sustained as if five or six bass violinists were bowing five or six bass‑violins with masterly artistry. The tone is sustained as long as you want it, too, without a bow.” The instrument described in the article was a cello‑like upright fretless instrument with an electromagnetic pickup.

Tutmarc was, however, about to do something far more radical. By 1935-1936, Tutmarc, had changed direction and developed the first solid body fretted electric bass guitar, pretty much recognisable in its modern form. It was this version of Tutmarc’s bass that was intended to be played horizontally, rather than upright, in a similar way to the modern bass guitar. The 1935 sales catalogue for Tutmarc’s company Audiovox featured his ‘Model 736 Bass Fiddle’, a solid‑bodied electric bass guitar with four strings, a fretted neck, with a 30½” (775mm) scale length, an ebony (or purpleheart) fingerboard with 16 frets, a black walnut body, a hidden single Tutmarc‑Stimpson horseshoe pickup below a mirror-steel faceplate, and a single volume control.

Tutmarc AudioVox Model 736

In addition, as an electric bass guitar would be pretty much useless without the means to amplify the sound, Audiovox also sold an accompanying ‘Model 936’ bass amplifier with 18 watts of power and a 12” Jensen Concert speaker.

Around 100 of the Model 736 Audiovox bass guitars were made in the mid‑1930s. However, there are only thought to be three Model 736 Tutmarc bass guitars still in existence today, making them remarkably rare. One belongs to the Experience Music Project (EMP), now known as The Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP), a non‑profit enterprise founded by Microsoft co‑founder Paul Allen in 2000 and based in Seattle, Washington state, USA. In 2018, a 1936 Audiovox Model 736 bass guitar was reportedly sold by Tutmarc’s grandson on eBay for $23,850.

Sadly, for Tutmarc, the Audiovox 736 was not a commercial success. The price tag was high for the mid‑1930s, in a country still severely affected by The Great Depression (1929‑1939). The 736 bass fiddle originally cost $65 and the matching 936 bass amplifier cost $75, placing it well out of reach for many musicians. The high price and the radical concept didn’t attract enough musicians at the time and it wasn’t long before it was discontinued and was subsequently forlornly forgotten to history. Tutmarc’s company, Audiovox folded in 1950.

It can well be argued that Tutmarc was ahead of his time. Perhaps it is a case of supply looking for a demand that consumers didn’t know they needed. Maybe it was bad timing and/or bad luck. The Model 736 also arrived shortly before the outbreak of World War II when the guitar manufacturing industry was deemed ‘non‑essential’ and resources were diverted to the American war effort. Furthermore, a bass guitar didn’t seem to fit seamlessly into any of the prevailing musical styles at that time.

It is surprising, though, that such a significant innovation in guitar history isn’t more widely known about. Perhaps it is time, nay overdue, for Tutmarc’s milestone achievements to be deservedly recognised.

One company, Luthiery Laboratories, makes modern‑day replicas of the Audiovox 736, keeping the spirit of the original instrument alive.

Audiovox 736 Bass (1/4) ~ Luthiery Laboratories (luthierylabs.com)

The first commercially successful mass produced solid body fretted electric bass guitar

And so it was that the scene was set for someone else to step in and make the bass guitar ‘a thing’. That someone else was Clarence Leonidas Fender (1909‑1991). Unlike poor old Paul H. Tutmarc, you may just have heard of him.

“I wonder if I could make an electric bass” – Leo Fender (1909‑1991)

For more on the history and development of Fender guitars and musical equipment, see CRAVE Guitars’ August 2018 article for the context behind Fender solid body electric guitars.

A Potted History of the Guitar Part VI (1950s and 1960s):
August 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part VI (craveguitars.co.uk)

Once the proverbial ball started rolling, the bass guitar had a phenomenal, transformative and relatively rapid impact on modern music that cannot be underestimated or understated. It is also very easy to take the electric bass guitar’s presence on stages, in studios and bedrooms all around the world for granted. Back in 1950, though, no‑one other than a select few in Fullerton, California had any idea of what was to come.

So… what are we actually talking about? The answer, after the lengthy preamble (apologies for keeping you on tenterhooks for so long), is the mighty Fender Precision Bass. Three little words. Game changing, era defining and well‑deserving of all the hyperbole attached to it over the past seven‑plus decades. So much has been written about the Precision that there is little need to dredge up the detail again, so what follows is a brief overview.

Leo Fender was working on a prototype back in 1950, bringing the world’s first commercially successful mass‑produced electric bass guitar to market in 1951. Fender designed the Precision Bass (often shortened these days to P‑Bass) to overcome the many drawbacks of the acoustic double bass alluded to earlier in this article. Even the name, Precision, referred to the fretted neck to enable musicians to play in tune far more precisely than on the double bass’s fretless neck. Conservative double bass players may well have looked at the Precision Bass in the same way that conservative guitarists looked at the Fender Telecaster, which had been introduced a year earlier in 1950. Consternation and indignation were probably natural initial reactions from the ‘old‑school’.

At its most basic, the Fender Precision Bass is a solid body, 4‑string bass guitar equipped with a single pickup and a one‑piece 20‑fret maple neck with rosewood or maple fingerboard. It all sounds so very straightforward and unremarkable nowadays doesn’t it?

The Precision Bass didn’t, however, appear fully formed. The original design of the Precision borrowed several design features from the Telecaster guitar, other than the double cutaway body. Initial models carried one single coil pickup, a slab body, large scratchplate and a Tele‑like headstock.

After Fender introduced the Stratocaster guitar in 1954, some of its design features were brought over to the Precision including a contoured body and a Strat‑like headstock. The original pickup was replaced with a single split coil hum cancelling staggered design and a sleeker redesigned scratchplate. It is this version of the Precision from 1957 that has stayed in production largely unchanged to the current day. There have been many, many variants with numerous changes in specification over the years, including a fretless version (ironically, given the origin and intention of the Precision’s name). 5‑string versions, 22‑fret necks, active electronics, multiple pickups, etc. followed.

The original pre‑1957 Precision design has been re-issued by Fender at times over the years, often called the Telecaster Bass to differentiate it from the post‑1957 Precision specification.

The popularity of the Fender Precision Bass grew significantly throughout the 1950s especially with rock & roll and country fraternities, as well as with session musicians. During the 1960s the solid body fretted electric bass guitar became dominant in most modern musical genres. During the early days, there wasn’t a great deal of choice in terms of alternatives to the Precision but that was to change later on.

1977 Fender Precision Fretless Bass

Fender capitalised on their supremacy by introducing the solid body fretted electric Fender Jazz Bass in 1960 (originally called the ‘Deluxe Model’). The svelte Fender Jazz Bass (often now shortened to J‑Bass) was designed to appeal to a different customer base. Like the offset bodied Fender Jazzmaster guitar, it was aimed squarely at the dyed‑in‑the‑wool jazz community. However, like the Jazzmaster, the Jazz Bass’s appeal spread far wider than jazz musicians. Like the Precision, the Jazz Bass has rightly become an iconic industry standard solid body electric bass guitar.

Throughout the years, both the Precision and Jazz Bass have featured sizeable chrome covers over the pickup and the bridge, despite these items limiting playing techniques such as palm muting the strings. As the covers are purely aesthetic, rather than functional components, it is fair to say that the vast majority of musicians removed these covers permanently.

Without doubt, the Fender Precision Bass and its younger sibling the Jazz Bass are icons of contemporary music and remain hugely popular today. Consumers can purchase genuine P‑Bass and J‑Bass models from the budget Fender‑owned offshore‑produced Squier brand, through Mexican and American‑made Fender models, to the high‑end Fender Custom Shop versions. Throughout the decades, the Precision and Jazz Bass models have oft been imitated and/or blatantly copied by other manufacturers, eager to cash in on Fender’s industry‑dominant status.

Understandably, over the years, the Precision and Jazz Bass have become highly collectable, especially the earliest models. The highest vintage market prices undoubtedly belong to the models from 1951 (Precision) and 1960 (Jazz Bass) to 1965, when Leo Fender sold his company to industry giant CBS. Fender equipment from this period is known as ‘pre‑CBS’.

For more information on the Fender Precision and Jazz Bass, just complete any Internet browser search and, alongside a great deal of drivel, there is a massive volume of fact and opinion available, often described in forensic detail.

1989 Fender Jazz Bass American Standard Longhorn

Evolution of the electric bass guitar

It is probably fair to say that, since 1951 and the introduction of the Fender Precision Bass, other brands were in the position of having to play catch up. In particular, Fender’s biggest competitor, Gibson, was wrong‑footed and they have never been able to compete on a level playing field. In 1953, Gibson released the EB‑1, which was a violin‑shaped solid mahogany body bass with a set neck. The EB‑1 didn’t catch on and was replaced by the semi‑acoustic ES‑335‑shaped EB‑2 in 1958, the SG‑shaped Gibson EB‑0 in 1959 and the EB‑3 (made famous by Jack Bruce of Cream) in 1961. While the semi‑acoustic EB‑2 proved popular, its Epiphone‑branded counterpart, the Epiphone Rivoli proved more successful. All these early Gibson basses used a shorter 30½” scale. In 1959, Gibson also released a hollow body EB‑6 6‑string bass.

Possibly Gibson’s best contender for an iconic bass guitar is the Gibson Thunderbird, originally introduced in 1963. The Thunderbird was based on Gibson’s Firebird guitar, designed by legendary American car designer Raymond Dietrich (1894‑1980). The Thunderbird was the first Gibson solid body bass to use the 34” scale made popular by Fender. Like the Firebird, the Thunderbird was redesigned in a simpler ‘non‑reverse’ form for 1966 and the original ‘reverse’ shape wasn’t reissued until the mid‑1970s. During the 1970s, Gibson also released the Ripper and Grabber basses but neither really captured bass players’ imaginations (or their precious dollars!). Later additions like the Gibson Triumph, Victory and RD basses didn’t fare much better as viable competition for Fender’s stalwarts. Epiphone have Thunderbird and EB basses in their line‑up alongside Epiphone‑specific basses such as the Newport and the Embassy.

Over at Danelectro in Neptune, New Jersey, Nathan Daniel launched the world’s first 6‑string bass, the UB‑2 in 1956 comprising a single cutaway semi‑hollow bass with a 30” scale, 24 frets and dual single coil pickups, earning its nickname the ‘Tic Tac bass’. In 1958, Danelectro replaced the UB‑2 with two new 6‑string bass models. The first was the Long Horn 4623 bass with a radical new lyre‑like design 24 frets, and a short 25” scale. The other was the Short Horn 3612 with stubby double cutaways, 29½”scale and only 15 frets. All Danelectro models substantially undercut the retail prices of both Fender and Gibson’s basses. The 6‑string models seemed to attract guitarists rather than bass players to their designs, providing a novel bridge between guitar and bass camps.

It should be noted at this point that older 6‑string basses are generally tuned an octave below a guitar in standard tuning, to E-E, while the baritone guitars that were appearing at the time were tuned either to B‑B or A‑A. On the other hand, modern 5‑string basses simply add a lower B string while modern 6‑string basses tend to add lower B and higher C strings compared to an equivalent 4‑string bass. Confused?

Meanwhile, back in the 1960s, Fender weren’t resting on their laurels. Following the popularity of the ‘student’ Mustang guitar, Fender introduced the short scale Mustang Bass in 1966. The Mustang Bass spawned two later variants, the Bronco Bass (introduced in 1967) and the Musicmaster Bass (introduced in 1971). Fender also released two esoteric ‘bass’ guitars, the Fender Bass V (introduced in 1965), which was the world’s first 5‑string bass guitar and the 6‑string Bass VI (introduced in 1961). The latter was strongly influenced by the Fender Jaguar guitar design. The Bass VI was Fender’s upmarket response to the Danelectro 6‑string bass introduced 5 years earlier. The Bass VI is unique in having 3 pickups, 6 lighter gauge strings, a short 30” scale, a floating bridge and a mechanical vibrato as used on the Jazzmaster/Jaguar guitars, as well as a removable string mute. To compete with the Gibson EB‑2 and Epiphone Rivoli thinline semi‑acoustic basses, Fender introduced the hollow Coronado Bass in 1966.

In addition, the ‘other’ Californian company, Rickenbacker, run by F.C. Hall at the time, also wasn’t going to be left on the side‑lines in the bass department. Rickenbacker had hired Roger Rossmeisl (1927‑1979) who designed the brand’s key guitars and the 4000 series basses. The Rickenbacker 4000 bass with its distinctive cresting wave body outline and thru‑neck construction was launched in 1957. Subsequent models were named 4001, 4002, 4003, 4004, all being variants of the same basic instrument. There isn’t enough space to go into the specification differences here.

Rickenbacker 4001

A decade after Leo Fender left the company that still carries his name today, Music Man was formed in California and released Leo Fender’s vision for the next evolution of his era defining bass guitars. The Music Man Stingray Bass was released in 1976 with a single large bridge humbucker, distinctive 3+1 headstock, innovative on‑board active electronics and an integral string mute. While Music Man’s guitars never caught on at the time, the Stingray Bass has joined Fender and Rickenbacker as an iconic design for many bass musicians. The Stingray Bass was especially popular for funk slap‑style bass technique for the likes of Louis Johnson of the Brothers Johnson.

1978 Music Man Stingray Bass

There are a few other notable basses, such as the German Höfner ‘violin bass’, the 500/1, made famous by Paul McCartney of The Beatles. This model, introduced in 1955, with its carved solid spruce top and humbucking pickups, is often nicknamed the ‘Beatle Bass’. Beyond the Beatles connection, though, the 500/1 remains a relatively minor entry in the bass stakes, while the company’s only other notable entry being the Höfner Club and Verythin basses.

Another oddity to mention at this point is the Swedish Hagström H8, unique for being the world’s first mass‑produced 8‑string bass, with four pairs of strings on a short 30” scale. The H8 was only produced briefly from 1967‑1969.

Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s a plethora of other companies jumped on the bandwagon, eager to make the most of the massive increase in demand as rock, pop and other genres proliferated. Many of the basses produced during this time were flagrant facsimiles of the best‑selling American brand models, often by Japanese companies (now termed ‘lawsuit‑era’ copies). Other companies like Warwick in Germany were making their own headway with their successful original‑design Thumb and Streamer basses.

Today (2024), Fender arguably still rules the roost with basses covering all bases (sic!) from budget to elite models. All other brands stand firmly in Fender’s enviable shadow. While Fender may dominate, there are now plenty of alternative options. There are some incredible bass guitars out there, some of which are listed later in this article for those that want to diverge from the predictable industry standard ‘Fender sound’. There are numerous ways to deviate from the common path, with different brands, string/pickup configurations, electronics, scale lengths, body construction, etc. The quality of budget instruments is vastly superior to anything available in the past and provides a strong basis (again, sic!) for players seeking to learn and develop their skills.

The acoustic bass guitar

While the solid body electric bass guitar finally took the world by storm from the 1950s and 1960s, the acoustic bass guitar has proved to be another modern, notable and niche instrument. The first (largely unsuccessful) attempts at acoustic bass guitars began to appear in the 1950s as a logical extension to its electric counterpart.

Historically, one of the earliest acoustic bass‑like instruments was the Mexican guitarrón, which has its roots in the 16th Century and is widely used in Mexican Mariachi bands. While looking similar to a guitar, these huge instruments were either 6‑string or 12‑string acoustic instruments, tuned in A‑D‑G‑C‑E‑A.

In 1972, Ernie Ball introduced the Earthwood acoustic bass guitar, stating that “…if there were electric bass guitars to go with electric guitars then you ought to have acoustic basses to go with acoustic guitars.” A simple yet ‘blindingly obvious’ observation, given the benefit of hindsight. Ernie Ball took a guitarrón, being the nearest thing to an existing acoustic bass guitar, and created a more practical instrument for guitar‑centric American consumers. The Earthwood was relatively short‑lived but the foundation of the acoustic bass guitar was established. American company Washburn took the concept and created more successful instruments that coincided neatly with MTV’s Unplugged concert series (1989‑1999). Interestingly, despite starting it all, Ernie Ball does not have an acoustic bass guitar available to buy at the time of writing.

Acoustic bass guitar construction is essentially similar to the steel‑strung flat top acoustic folk guitar, with a larger hollow wooden body and a longer scale neck. Most acoustic basses have four strings, tuned in the same way as an electric bass, E‑A‑D‑G, an octave below a standard guitar. The majority of acoustic basses have fretted fingerboards, although some are fretless.

Acoustic Bass Guitar

Like many modern day acoustic guitars, many acoustic bass models have pickups to enable them to be amplified for stage use or DI’d for recording purposes. Some instruments are thinline electric semi‑acoustic basses while others are full‑depth electro‑acoustic basses. These are designed primarily as acoustic basses with an on‑board pickup for additional amplification when needed.

Today, there are any number of acoustic bass guitars on the market for every level of player and every price point from many key manufacturers including, amongst others; Martin, Taylor, Guild, Fender, Takamine, Ovation, Tanglewood, Epiphone, Warwick, Epiphone, Washburn, Godin, ESP, Breedlove, Larivée, Framus, Hohner, Ozark, Dean, D’Angelico, Ibanez, Sigma, Alvarez and Cort.

Bass guitar amplification

In the early days of bass guitars, brands released bass amplifiers to accompany their instruments, often sold as a package (see Tutmarc’s Audiovox above, for example). Other brands like Rickenbacker did the same in the early days. The main difference between guitar amps and bass amps is that the latter are tuned specifically to reproduce bass frequencies accurately. A standard 4‑string bass guitar produces low frequencies in the range 41Hz to 100Hz with overtones extending up to 4‑5kHz (not dissimilar to an acoustic double bass in fact).

In terms of sound pressure levels, bass frequencies need more power to be heard by the human ear/brain at the same volume as higher frequencies, so bass amps tend to have higher power ratings than guitar amps. In the past, speakers for bass also tended to be larger with 12”, 15” or even 18” to shift the amount of air needed at lower frequencies. In contrast, guitar speakers tended to be 10”or 12”. Bass speaker cabinets, especially those with multiple speakers, normally had sealed or ported enclosures to increase volume. For all these reasons bass amplifiers and speaker cabinets tend to be different to their guitar equivalents.

Probably the most famous brand associated specifically for its bass amplification is the American company Ampeg, founded in 1946 and now under the ownership of Japanese giant, Yamaha. Ampeg started out attempting to amplify the acoustic double bass in 1949 by using a microphone/pickup in the instrument’s stand. The ‘Amplified Peg’ as it was called was then shortened to ‘Ampeg’ and the rest, as they say, is history. Their most famous range of amps was the 300W Ampeg SVT from 1969 and their bass combo amps, the B‑15 from 1960, as used by the likes of Motown session bass player James Jamerson.

It was no surprise that Fender, the leader in the world of bass guitars from the 1950s should also produce bass amps/cabs. Perhaps the most famous Fender bass amp was the Bassman from 1952 onwards, first introduced as a combo valve amp with a 15” speaker. The most desirable though, was the Dual Rectifier Bassman valve combo with 4×10” speakers. From 1960. Fender also released a ‘piggy back’ amp head and speaker cabinet design to cope with higher power levels and to provide flexibility. From 2000, Fender released a solid state version of the legendary Bassman amp. The original valve Bassman also became beloved by many guitar players for its tone, for instance by the late blues rock guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan (SRV).

Student bass players also needed a bass amp. So Fender introduced the Musicmaster Bass amplifier in 1970, as a companion to the Fender Musicmaster Bass guitar. The Musicmaster Bass combo amp was a very simple affair with one channel, 12W of power, volume and tone controls and a single 12″ Fender speaker. Like the Bassman, it has latterly been enjoying a bit of a revival as a budget vintage amp for guitarists. The Musicmaster Bass amp was discontinued in 1982 after the introduction of the Fender Studio Bass combo and Japanese Fender Sidekick Bass 30. Nowadays, the extensive Fender Rumble series has proved very popular with bass players.

Legendary British amplifier company Marshall was not going to be left behind. Marshall’s first 100‑watt bass head was the JTM 45/100 / JTM 45 Super 100 model. Another, also dating from the second half of the 1960s, is the JMP #1992 Super Bass 100 (100W) and JMP #1986 Bass (50W). Like the Fender Bassman, the Marshall Super Bass 100W also proved popular with guitarists. Bass players were also known to use the Marshall #1963 Super PA (50W) and Marshall #1968 Super PA (100W) amps.

Another legendary British amplifier company, VOX produced bass versions of its AC‑15 and AC‑30 combo amps. These were followed in 1963 by the VOX T‑60 and Foundation amps, the latter promoted by Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones.

German acoustic amp company AER also produce a range of bass amps, particularly well‑suited to amplifying acoustic and electro‑acoustic bass guitars.

Bass guitarists turn out to be a little less conservative than their guitarist counterparts, especially when it comes to amplification and speaker cabinets. For instance there are plenty of modern‑day bass amps that use efficient solid state D‑class amplification (a type of amplifier that uses digital switching technology to amplify audio signals efficiently), with very high power ratings – 500W and 600W or more being not uncommon. Bass amps often also make wide use of sophisticated on‑board EQ. Speaker cabinet configurations also tend to be more versatile with reflex ports, horns, tweeters and combining multiple speaker types being common.

There are many other valve, solid state or hybrid bass amplifier manufacturers not mentioned above, including Trace Elliot, Ashdown Engineering, Mesa/Boogie, Peavey, Music Man, Hiwatt, Laney, Sound City, H/H, WEM, Hartke and Orange.

Bass guitar effects

Things have changed a great deal over the decades since 1951. In the early days of the solid body electric bass guitar, most players plugged straight into their amps without much in the way of tone augmentation.

By the 1970s and 1980s bass players had a paucity of effects specially designed for their instruments, so they generally adopted guitar effects with just a few bass‑specific pedals to choose from. Since the industry started to migrate to digital technology from the 1980s onwards, the major effect companies began to produce pedals designed primarily for use with bass guitars. Now, in the 2020s, there is plenty of choice with most of the big players in the effect industry now making bass‑specific effect pedals, including Electro‑Harmonix, MXR, BOSS, Ibanez, Fender, Laney and Ampeg.

In addition, from around the start of the new millennium, a number of manufacturers turned their ideas for integrated multi‑effect units into practical musicians’ tools that became popular for both guitar and bass, including BOSS, VOX, Zoom, Tech 21, Behringer and Valeton.

In 1998, Line 6 introduced a ground‑breaking innovation called the POD, which put many guitar effects, amps and cabinet emulations into a single portable unit. While the little red kidney shaped POD was initially directed at guitarists, the rack mounted Line 6 POD Pro models came in both guitar and bass versions. Since then, Line 6 and other manufacturers now combine guitar and bass amp/effect/cabinet emulations into a single unit. These units are constantly improving and are gradually replacing stage backlines with direct input (DI) into PAs/monitors, as well as into studio desks/DAWs. Along with the POD, Line 6, also now part of Yamaha, is still in the same business with their extensive Helix range.

Alternatives to the Line 6 POD and Helix units include the Axe-Fx III from Fractal Audio, which is a pro‑level amplification/effects processor suitable for both guitar and bass. Meanwhile, Kemper Amps took a slightly different route with their Profiler, which has all‑in‑one effects, amplifier and speaker cabinet profiles designed for both guitar and bass.

Just to finish off, there are numerous boutique effect pedal manufacturers that produce stomp boxes, often to very high degrees of quality, including brands such as Way Huge, TC Electronic, EarthQuaker Devices, Darkglass, Aguilar, Origin Effects, Free The Tone, Providence, Source Audio, Walrus Audio, ZVEX, Mooer Audio, Sansamp, Digitech, Eventide, Strymon, JHS, Keeley and Empress Effects.

Iconic (and other) bass guitars

The next sentence is likely to be highly provocative and intentionally so. While there are innumerable bass guitar models out there from 1951 to the current day, there are probably only four bass guitar models that can truly be called iconic (i.e. something that is widely considered to epitomize an era, culture, community or place). The four key instruments – none of which are based on guitar equivalents – that stand head and shoulders above the rest are:

Truly iconic bass guitars:
Fender Precision Bass (1951‑date)
Fender Jazz Bass (1960‑date)
Rickenbacker 4000 series (1957‑date)
Music Man Stingray Bass (1976‑date)

In addition, below are listed just a very few of the other great electric bass guitars manufactured from 1951 onwards. This is far from a comprehensive list and is intended only to be broadly indicative of the type.

Fender bass guitars:
Fender Bass V
Fender Bass VI
Fender Coronado Bass
Fender Mustang Bass
Fender Musicmaster Bass
Fender Performer
Fender Telecaster Bass
Squier Bronco Bass

Gibson bass guitars:
Gibson EB series
Gibson Thunderbird
Gibson Explorer Bass
Gibson Melody Maker Bass
Gibson Grabber/Ripper/G3
Gibson RD series
Gibson Triumph
Gibson Victory
Gibson 20/20 Bass

Epiphone bass guitars (not including Epiphone versions of Gibson basses):
Epiphone Embassy
Epiphone Newport
Epiphone Rivoli
Epiphone Viola

Other American brand bass guitars:
Alembic Series 1/2
Ampeg Dan Armstrong Lucite
Ampeg AEB-1
BC Rich Eagle
BC Rich Mockingbird
BC Rich Warlock
Danelectro Longhorn 4623
Danelectro Shorthorn 3612
G&L L1000/L2000
Gretsch 6071/6072
Gretsch G2220 Junior Jet
Gretsch 5440 Electromatic
Guild B-301/B-302
Guild Starfire
Harmony H22
Harmony H27
Jackson JS
Kramer 450-B/650-B
Kramer DMZ
Lakland Skyline
Music Man Sabre
Music Man Sterling
National Val Pro Model 85
Ovation Magnum
Peavey T-40
Peavey Millennium/Milestone
PRS SE Kestrel/Kingfisher
Schecter Omen
Schecter Stilletto
Silvertone 1440 series
Steinberger Spirit XT
Steinberger Synapse
Supro Pocket
Travis Bean TB2000
Washburn Taurus

European bass guitars:
Burns Sonic
Hagström H8
Höfner Club
Höfner HCT-500/1
Höfner President
Hohner B2
Hohner The Jack
VOX Clubman
VOX Cougar
VOX Phantom 4
VOX Sidewinder
VOX VBW Teardrop Bass
Wal Mk1/Mk2
Warwick Thumb/Streamer/Infinity/Corvette
Warwick Rockbass

Japanese bass guitars:
Other than perhaps the Yamaha BB and TRBX series, and the Ibanez SR and TMB series, Japanese bass guitars do not have the same level of brand/model heritage when compared to those produced by American and European companies. There are, however, many Japanese basses produced by companies such as Ibanez, Tokai, Greco, Jedson, Westone, Teisco, ESP/LTD, Fernandes and Aria.

“Without the Fender bass, there’d be no rock n’ roll or no Motown. The electric guitar had been waiting ’round since 1939 for a nice partner to come along. It became an electric rhythm section, and that changed everything.” – Quincy Jones (1933‑)

Famous bass players

Below are listed seventy of the world’s most famous and influential bass players – alive and departed – including upright double bass and electric solid body bass guitar players. There are, of course, many, many more but this is an indicative list for those interested in exploring some of the music created by these diverse musicians (in alphabetical order):

Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett (Bob Marley & The Wailers)
Walter Becker (Steely Dan)
Andy Bell (Oasis)
Bill Black (Elvis Presley)
Jack Bruce (Cream)
Cliff Burton (Metallica)
Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath)
John Cale (Velvet Underground)
Stanley Clarke (Return To Forever, solo)
Adam Clayton (U2)
Bootsy Collins (James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic)
Tim Commerford (Rage Against The Machine/Audioslave)
Billy Cox (Jimi Hendrix)
John Deacon (Queen)
Kim Deal (Pixies, Breeders)
Willie Dixon
Gail Ann Dorsey (David Bowie)
Bernard Edwards (Chic)
John Entwistle (The Who)
Flea (a.k.a. Michael Peter Balzary – Red Hot Chili Peppers)
Bruce Foxton (The Jam)
Simon Gallup (The Cure)
Roger Glover (Deep Purple)
Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth)
Larry Graham (Sly & The Family Stone)
Marshall Grant (Johnny Cash)
Steve Harris (Iron Maiden)
Dusty Hill (ZZ Top)
Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order, The Light)
Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple)
Jah Wobble (a.k.a. John Joseph Wardle)
James Jamerson (session musician)
Louis Johnson (The Brothers Johnson)
John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin)
Carol Kaye (session musician)
Lemmy Kilmister (Hawkwind, Motörhead)
Mark King (Level 42)
Alan Lancaster (Status Quo)
Geddy Lee (Rush)
Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead)
Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel)
Jenny Lee Lindberg (Warpaint)
Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy)
Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols)
Paul McCartney (The Beatles, Wings, solo)
Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses)
John McVie (Fleetwood Mac)
Marcus Miller (Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, George Benson)
Charles Mingus
Krist Novoselic (Nirvana)
Pino Palladino (session musician)
Jaco Pastorius (Weather Report)
Guy Pratt (Madonna, David Gilmour)
Suzi Quatro
Dee Dee Ramone (Ramones)
Noel Redding (Jimi Hendrix)
Mike Rutherford (Genesis)
Robbie Shakespeare (Sly & Robbie)
Billy Sheehan (Steve Vai, David Lee Roth)
Gene Simmons (KISS)
Nikki Sixx (a.k.a. Frank Carlton Serafino Feranna Jr. – Mötley Crüe)
Chris Squire (Yes)
Sting (a.k.a. Gordon Sumner – The Police)
Danny Thompson (John Martyn)
Thundercat (a.k.a. Stephen Lee Bruner)
Robert Trujillo (Metallica)
Sid Vicious (a.k.a. Simon John Ritchie – Sex Pistols)
Roger Waters (Pink Floyd)
Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club)
Tal Wilkenfeld (Jeff Beck, Prince)
Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones, Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings)

“The gunk takes the funk” – James Jamerson (1936‑1983)

Bass in the (near) future

It is difficult for, and unfair of, me as a guitarist, to predict any sort of unified future for the bass guitar but I’ll give it a shot.

The traditional conservative brigade will still stick to tried and tested instruments and equipment. Musicians looking for something a bit different will probably want to experiment with the format, for instance number of strings, scale lengths, pickups and electronics. If anything there will be more radical and custom bass guitar designs from up‑market and boutique luthiers that diverge from the traditional archetype set by Fender over 70 years ago. Many additions to the form extend the flexibility of the core instrument, so it may be a case of further evolution, rather than revolution.

Bass amplification will continue to diverge from its simple valve origins and continue to embrace the digital realm, probably dispensing with backline amps/cabs altogether with signals being DI’d into desks/PA/monitors.

While bass players haven’t been particularly well served in the past for bass‑specific effect pedals, I anticipate that bass effects will achieve greater representation, including some out‑there effects not currently available to guitar players.

Bass guitar players have struggled to compete, with synthesisers dominating the world of modern electronica, dance and popular music. At least, for now (thankfully), the bass guitar remains essential to most guitar‑based music in a sort of symbiotic, co‑dependent relationship. As long as guitars keep going, so will bass, and vice versa. Bass players, being ever inventive individuals, will adapt and cultivate new ways to keep the instrument relevant, current and in the limelight for decades to come.

Technique‑wise, there will continue to be the traditional approaches towards walking bass lines, typically using the fundamental root/fifth styles that has been the general mainstay of modern music for decades. In contrast, there will be many more amazing virtuoso bass players who see the versatility and potential of the instrument in its own right.

So, other than tangible incremental progress around the margins, there is probably not a whole lot that will change profoundly in the near future. I may be wrong with that last sentence. In many ways, I hope so!

Interestingly, while the upright double bass continues to appear in modern music from time to time, the solid body fretted electric bass hasn’t really made any headway into the clique of conservative classical orchestral music, which still relies heavily on the traditional, some may say archaic, acoustic upright double bass.


Periodicals dedicated to bass guitar may be the best place to keep up‑to‑date with the technology and equipment associated with the instrument. Publications include Bass Musician Magazine, Bass Player Guitar Magazine, Bass Guitar Magazine, Bass Magazine, Bass Musician and Bass Gear Magazine.

Online resources include Music Radar, TalkBass.com, Basschat and No Treble. There are also many books on bass guitars and bass playing techniques, including the inevitable, ‘Bass Guitar For Dummies’.

As far as purchasing bass guitars, there are the large Internet sites, brick & mortar retailers and the usual online sites, Reverb.com and eBay. For vintage and rare bass guitars, there are outlets purely for basses including (in the UK) Andy Baxter Bass, The Bass Gallery, The Bass Centre, Vintage Bass Room and ClassicandcoolGuitars.

Some final thoughts

I certainly learnt a lot from researching and writing this article. At first sight, there may seem to be quite a bit of relevant information on the Internet. It is only when one starts to dig deeper and attempt to put something together that makes some form of sense that things rapidly become unclear. All of a sudden, much of the available information seems incomplete, contradictory, vague and/or outright erroneous. In the end, it comes down to evidence and corroboration but sorting the wheat from the chaff isn’t always easy. It seems that online information about vintage guitars is far more reliable than that about vintage basses. There are far too many poorly informed people who invent facts and present opinion as truth.

Despite my best attempts to piece things together, I may have fallen foul of the same issues raised above. However, I have tried very hard not to fill in gaps with assumptions and/or fiction. While I endeavour to be thorough and rigorous, my approach isn’t academic and I don’t have the time, funds or energy to provide the last word in scholarly fact. The contents herein should therefore probably not be relied upon too heavily. This article should, for that reason alone, be regarded as my best intention to balance fact with entertainment.

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” – Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama – c.480‑400BCE)

This is just the sort of article that would benefit greatly from images to illustrate and break up the narrative. Sadly as a (broke) not‑for‑profit entity, I cannot afford the costly copyright/royalties charged for the use of relevant images, so I have had to rely on very limited free/public domain resources or my own photographs. I apologise for the thousands of words used to describe what images could do in none. Once again, no AI was used in the research and writing of this tome – only my own hard work.

NB. Apologies to anyone disappointed by the wait for a cheap, clichéd joke at the expense of ‘the bass player’! T’ain’t gonna happen here. Love ‘the bass player’.

CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Album of the Month’

Given that this month’s article focuses on the fascinating history of the bass guitar, it seems only fitting to select an album that demonstrates the virtuoso bass playing of one of the greatest bass guitarists of all time, Jaco Pastorius (1951‑1987) and his famous modified fretless Fender Jazz Bass.

Weather Report – Heavy Weather (1977) – The seventh and most commercially successful studio album by the American jazz fusion band. ‘Heavy Weather’ was the first album with Pastorius on full‑time bass duties. The smooth jazz funk production of the album, which was released at the peak of the punk rock movement in the US and UK, stood in stark contrast to the otherwise brutal sounds of the late 1970s. Given that it sold in huge numbers (and still does) is testament to the composition and musicianship on display. Initial sales were about 500,000 and total sales to‑date are over 1.06 million. Other Weather Report albums may be ‘better’ according to purists but this is the one I heard first and it has stuck with me over the years.

Weather Report – Heavy Weather (1977)

To me, this album hit me right between the eyes about what virtuoso bass playing can be like. There are many, many other artists and albums that could arguably take the acclaim, for instance Stanley Clarke’s successful solo album, ‘School Days’ (1976), but on this occasion, the late, great Jaco (& co.) takes the accolade, such as it is.

“I’m the greatest bass player in the world” – Jaco Pastorius (1951‑1987)


Well, there you go. I think that most of us love a bit of decent low bass in our music. I hope y’all got something out of this fleeting exploration into the defining instruments, artists and music of the lower registers. I think the narrative works well as a complement to the launch of CRAVE Basses at the end of 2023, but that’s just my (obviously biased) opinion.

I hope you feel inclined to come back next month to see what’s currently fermenting in the CRAVE guitars’ secret brewery.

Truth, peace, love, and guitar music be with you always. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Quote of the Month’: “Mundanity is the devourer of lost dreams”

© 2024 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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August 2017 – A Peak into the Pandora’s Box of Guitars

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

Over the last 30 months or so, I’ve been going on and on about the mainstay of CRAVE Guitars ‘work’, which is to share with you not only stuff about music and stuff about guitars generally but also specifically stuff about Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars. If you’ve taken a look at the web site, you’ll know that the focus tends to be on mainstream U.S. brands and, within that, if possible, some cool variations of well-established guitar models. However, perhaps stating the bleeding obvious, the guitar world is much bigger than that.

This month I’m dipping a toe in the water of some of the other guitar treasures out there. When one looks across the whole guitar landscape, antique, vintage, old, used, new, American, European, Eastern bloc, Asian, mass manufacture, boutique makers, unique luthiers, home‑made, traditional, basic, hi-tech, innovative and whacky, there is infinite variety and a veritable cornucopia of interesting and wonderful instruments to appreciate. The same goes for amps and effects of course (as colleagues into those things keep reminding me) but there’s not enough room in a single article for those as well. Besides, although I don’t claim to be an expert on guitars, I’m even less well‑acquainted the minutiae of amps and effects – that’s another ballgame altogether. The focus of this article is essentially on electric instruments.

When researching this article, it became ridiculously clear that I simply can’t do justice to every aspect of this enormous topic. I can only mention a figurative iceberg’s tip of what’s out there and I apologise in advance for the probable monumental omissions herein. Before we get going, none of the guitars covered in this article are part of the CRAVE Guitars’ family. In order to illustrate the diversity, I’ve resorted to using pictures sourced from Google Images – I acknowledge all guitar owners and photographers.

Let’s face it, love them or loathe them, the centre of the guitar universe remains occupied by the American ‘Big Two’, Fender and Gibson, along with their subsidiary companies including, respectively, Epiphone and Squier that concentrate on the budget end of the market. Incidentally, Fender and Gibson also own a number of other iconic brands that come under their wing. For instance, did you know that Fender own Gretsch, Jackson, Charvel, DeArmond and Tacoma, and Gibson own Baldwin, Kramer, Steinberger, Tobias and Wurlitzer? Until the mid-2010s, Fender also owned Guild and Ovation guitar brands.

It would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Fender and Gibson are massive multinational industrial giants, but in actuality, they are pretty modest business concerns compared to the sheer scale and scope of some truly global companies. Fender and Gibson are, above all, very successful brands with a strong identity, whose reach extends well beyond the music industry. This general public awareness helps to shield them from some of the economic, social and technological pressures facing them. Business fortunes, however, go in cycles and the ‘Big Two’ have had their ups and downs. Both companies, along with many others, were taken over in the 1960s, leading to a period of corporate complacency and weakness that opportunistic competitors were able to exploit. While they have been able to rejuvenate their image, they are now dealing with a radically different global context.

While the ‘Big Two’ are fortunate to have genuinely iconic products including Fender’s Stratocaster, Telecaster and Precision bass, and Gibson’s Les Paul, SG and ES-335 (among others), this otherwise enviable position can also constrain them operationally. It has proved very difficult for them to innovate and stretch too far from the proverbial straightjacket imposed by their core instruments. Existing models are scrutinised minutely and often face intense criticism if they move away from the accepted recipe. At the same time, it is difficult for them to introduce all-new models, as they are often compared unfavourably with the classic mould. Without sustainable growth in a finite market, these companies are commercially vulnerable and their potential success is increasingly limited by their past. This strategic conundrum for Fender and Gibson actually creates fertile ground for other smaller firms to grasp opportunity to enter the market through differentiation, diversification and innovation, as well as imitation.

Circling around the ‘star’ of the Big Two, there are the other recognisable brands such as Rickenbacker, Danelectro, Guild, Ovation, Music Man (now part of the Ernie Ball corporation), G&L, and, as well as the aforementioned Gretsch (the Gretsch family retains major influence as part of Fender) and relative newcomers such as PRS. There are other companies that don’t immediately spring to mind but which have enormous presence in the industry. I include Peavey here, as one of the world’s largest musical manufacturing company. Then there are the other recognisable ‘independent’ American manufacturers that tend to focus on niche markets, such as BC Rich, Dean, Jackson, Alembic, Carvin, Schecter, Steinberger, Suhr, Parker, Heritage, etc. At the same time, some major US guitar companies focus predominantly on acoustic guitars, such as Martin and Taylor.

There is an incredible history surrounding brands that have either disappeared completely or those that have gone, some of which have now been resurrected, e.g. Supro, Airline, National, Dobro (acoustic, now part of Epiphone), Bigsby, D’Angelico, D’Aquisto, Silvertone, Kalamazoo, etc. American guitar manufacturers suffered particularly badly in the 1960s and 1970s as a result of multiple pressures including falling production quality, increasing manufacturing costs (including union labour), and hostile competition from high quality cheap imports from the Far East.

As you might expect, the history of many of the brands already mentioned goes back to the early-mid 1900s (or even further), which means that there are plenty of very cool vintage guitars floating around. In the guitar world, age doesn’t mean valuable – it is the combination of age, rarity, quality originality and current condition that matter for those with an eye on the dollar value. While the Big Two tend to command the premium prices, pretty much across the board, there are plenty of bargains to be had by looking more broadly at these, sometimes ephemeral makes. I recently come across an early 1960s U.S. Airline in all‑original clean condition that went for a little over £300GBP. These never were top‑of‑the‑range instruments back in the day, and they can be picked up as bargain vintage instruments now. Some of these leftfield guitars present low-risk options for entry into the vintage market if you research carefully and don’t expect too much. History suggests that, in all likelihood, they won’t accumulate vintage value very quickly without major artist association. Look around and there are gems to be found from under-the-radar guitar makers. Some are very nice, including Washburn, Hondo (mainly copies), Mosrite, Harmony, Kay, Valco (maker of a number of other brands), etc.

Moving away from the American continent, Europe also has a long tradition of great musical instrument manufacture, with brands such as Vox, Höfner, Baldwin, Burns, Watkins, Framus, Hagstrom, Hohner, Shergold, Hoyer, Wandre, Bartolini, Levin, Goya, Welson, along with newer entrants such as Warwick, Duesenberg and Vigier, Some of these were prolific during the ‘golden years’, capitalising on the rapidly moving musical paradigms of the 1960s and 1970s. A post-war embargo on American guitar imports certainly helped European brands (and bands) get a foothold and to prosper up to the early-mid 1960s. While, as in other markets, the quality of European guitars varied considerably, many models have become synonymous with the period and, as a result, highly collectable, for instance, the teardrop Vox guitar used by Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones or the Höfner violin bass used by Paul McCartney of The Beatles.

Even further away from America, the Japanese companies competed head on with the American brands in the 1970s. Plenty of the budget guitars were blatant copies of American guitars, which resulted in protracted litigation to protect U.S. patents and trademarks. Many ‘older’ guitarists may remember copies from the likes of CSL and Columbus, as well as Ibanez. Japanese firms didn’t just replicate American designs; some also produced original designs and have retained a credible reputation over time for quality and consistency, including their dominant brands – Yamaha and Ibanez. Takamine, which focuses predominantly on acoustic guitars, is also Japanese. There have been plenty of Japanese names that are or have been familiar, including ESP (and subsidiary LTD), Roland, Italia, Aria, Tokai, Teisco, Greco, Guyatone, Apollo, Kawai, Kent, Westone, etc. Many of the instruments made by Japanese companies in the 1960s and 1970s (including some copies) are now becoming very collectable in the off‑the‑beaten‑track vintage niches. If you want some truly whacky vintage designs at reasonable prices, take a look at Japanese guitars. Plenty of people now specialise in conserving these vintage Japanese/Asian instruments.

The old Eastern Bloc countries have also produced a wide range of brands catering for home-grown musicians. The strategy of government-owned manufacture was partly nationalistic, in that they were required to protect their home market from capitalist imports from both the west and east. Many of these guitars were typically utilitarian with little in the way of flamboyance. Many of these brands will be little known in the western world, even now. As you might expect, there are experts who concentrate on collecting these communist bloc guitars for posterity. The ones that have penetrated the western markets offer something different from, and cheaper than, the mainstream names. Look out for names like Aelita, Elgava, Formanta, Migma, Musima, Odessa, Stella, Tonika, Marma (East Germany), Jolana (Czechoslovakia), etc.

There are a few other territories that have developed their own guitar manufacturing, including Godin and Eastwood in Canada and Maton in Australia. In addition, there are a large number of unmarked guitars out there with no means of identifying age or source. Some can be traced back to similar designs by known manufacturers while the creators of others are lost in the mists of time and geography. These ‘pawn shop’ guitars are often poorly made and may be considered curios, although, there are aficionados looking to conserve the more vernacular heritage.

The modern-world picture is far more complicated and can’t be talked about in terms of familiar regional territories. Some multi-national companies, including Fender and Both Fender and Gibson have their headquarters in the US and produce large numbers of their subsidiary ranges in other countries. Some brands are designed in the US and constructed offshore. Some are assembled and quality checked in the US from parts made elsewhere. Larger companies have international distribution operations that channel product to dealership networks within economic regions, e.g. Fender UK servicing the European Union (at the moment!). Others have to manage distribution through networks of independent dealers. Some smaller companies have to rely either on local markets or alternative methods of distribution, direct or indirect. Some companies make instruments that are branded by one or more retail chains. A classic example is Silvertone whose instruments were made by Danelectro, Kay and others, sold through Sears & Roebuck department stores and mail order (remember that?). Similarly, many of the diverse Japanese brand names were actually made by a relatively small number of manufacturers, e.g. Kawai and Teisco.

Another feature of new millennium guitar building is the explosion in bespoke guitar building, either by small specialist companies or individual luthiers. Low volumes, creative designs, alternative materials, custom features, and high quality tend to characterise the sub-industry but there are always exceptions to the rule. There have, pretty obviously, always been bespoke builders catering for the well‑heeled or professional musicians’ need and this has led to further opportunities that are difficult for the mass manufacturers to match. In response, the larger manufacturers, including Fender and Gibson, created custom shop operations to provide tailored services for individual clients. Custom shops also heralded the explosion in vintage-styled recreations and the more recent craze for relic finishes, both building on the growth of interest in vintage guitars.

Remember, even the (now) big companies had to start somewhere, usually with an inspirational leader, visionary pioneer or commercial entrepreneur at the helm, often working on their own or in a small workshop. Many of today’s big brands started out with some names you might just recognise, including Friedrich Gretsch and son, Fred Gretsch Jr, Orville H. Gibson, Christian Frederick Martin, Adolph Rickenbacker, Nathan Daniel (Danelectro), Epaminondas Stathopoulo (Epiphone), and one Clarence Leonidas ‘Leo’ Fender. More recently, Paul Reed Smith has earned a place amongst this exlusive group. Even these industry giants relied on other key individuals and their skills including John Dopyera, George Beauchamp, Lloyd Loar, F.C. Hall, Les Paul, Ted McCarty, George Fullerton, Ray Dietrich, Roger Rossmeisl, etc.

Other well-known names span out of larger companies, for instance, Travis Bean, well known for metal-neck guitars, split from Kramer. Kiesel Custom Guitars is another example, producing some astounding instruments having been formed following the splitting up of American company Carvin in 2015. Perhaps the most successful modern entrepreneur is Paul Reed Smith of PRS Guitars, based in Maryland USA since 1985. While growing his reputation, Smith wisely sought advice from Gibson’s ex‑president Ted McCarty to mentor him, and several PRS models now proudly bear McCarty’s name. The tradition continues with renowned luthier Joe Knaggs setting up his own prestigious guitar company after leaving PRS, producing some wonderful instruments in relatively small numbers.

One of the most celebrated and influential craftsmen to exploit niche demand in the 1960s was Lithuanian immigrant to the UK, Tony Zemaitis who made some very remarkable guitars for some very remarkable guitarists. Zemaitis’ legacy can clearly be seen in other current models from the likes of Duesenberg and Teye, as well as the Japanese company that currently carries on Zematis’ illustrious name.

There have been many excursions into the application of alternative materials to wood. The use of metal in guitar production was pioneered by the likes of National and Dobro in their resonator guitars as a means of producing more volume from acoustic guitars in the pre‑electric era of the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1960s, Valco used fibreglass (coined Res‑o‑Glas) for futuristic designs in the 1960s, such as the stunning National Newport. More recently, acoustic maker, Ovation, used a variation of fibreglass (lyrachord) on its bowlback instruments. Zemaitis experimented with other materials in his guitar construction and many others have followed suit, including the aforementioned Kramer/Travis Bean. Around the same time, there was a ‘fad’ for acrylic guitar bodies, perhaps the most well-known proponent being Dan Armstrong who used acrylic for parent company Ampeg.

On this side of the Atlantic, another luthier has set the bar for innovative use of metal; French luthier, James Trussart, Italian company XoX Audio are making some nice instruments out of carbon fibre. 3D printing also presents opportunities for greater use of plastics and metals in guitar production. Some luthiers have experimented with stone as part of the construction but it is not common – or very practical. With ever increasingly stringent restrictions on sourcing, use, sale and movement of hardwoods commonly used in guitar production, expect wider use of alternative sustainable materials in the future.

There are hundreds if not thousands or even tens of thousands of guitar makers out there, all wanting a proportion of the overall demand for great guitars. Here are a very few notable names from all around the world to keep an eye on, including (in no particular order); Collings, Stone Wolf, Flaxwood, Palm Bay, Hutchinson, Emerald, Ed Roman, Suhr, Mayones, Nik Huber, Matt Artinger, Tom Anderson, Patrick James Eggle, Fano, Gus, Goulding, Prisma, Frank Hartung, Michael Spalt, Michihiro Matsuda, TK Smith, Rick Toone, Carillion, McSwain, John Backlund, Reverend, Ron Thorn, John Ambler, Mule, Tony Cochran, Walla Walla, Ezequiel Galasso, Langcaster… The list could be endless as there are just too many great guitar buillders out there to mention and apologies to those I’ve left out and, sorry, I can’t post pictures of every one – I wish I could. The point, I guess, is to broaden one’s perspective and perhaps open one’s mind to a wide range of other possibilities beyond the obvious in-your-face guitar shop fare. I don’t usually proffer advice but on this occasion, I would simply just say, take a look out there and you might just find something weird and wonderful that you probably didn’t know existed. I regularly feature some of this wonderland of goodies on Twitter for those that may want to take a look (@CRAVE_guitars).

For the amateur hobbyist or artisans with aspirations of becoming the next notable designer, there are now plenty of DIY kits for everything from generic product to some quite fancy customised guitar construction. Access to information the Internet provides plenty of plans and specifications for people to design and build almost any type of instrument without the need to track down books or luthiers willing to share their knowledge. Experimenting in this way can present all sorts of opportunities to be taken. What about you?

Renovation ‘husk’ projects are probably best avoided unless you really know what you’re doing, as there’s probably a reason why they are in that state to begin with. For some, though. a ‘bitsa’ guitar may make an ideal low cost player’s guitar. My lack of practical skills prevents me from trying out a DIY (re-)build beyond my limited capabilities. Besides, given CRAVE Guitars’ fundamental raison d’être, I simply can’t create an authentic American vintage guitar.

I hope that this article has given a tiny indication of the beauty and multiplicity of guitars out there. That’s without going into oddities with unconventional string configurations, double (or more) necks, hybrid instruments, etc. It is this fascination with making things different while also keeping things the same that is quite inspirational and, I think, pretty unique to guitars, at least on this sort of scale. We are blessedly spoilt for choice and there are some ridiculously good guitars out there for very reasonable prices without experiencing the diminishing returns associated with esoteric exotica. Ultimately, this clearly indicates that there is something for everyone with an interest in the world’s favourite musical instrument.

So… you may ask… what’s my favourite out of everything covered here? Truthfully, I can’t say; I find guitars endlessly beguiling and preferences vary continuously. It would be unfair to single any one brand or model from the others. As my obsessive quest for ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars’ continues, the CRAVE name gives a hint of bias but that is not so dogmatic that I can’t appreciate all aspects of the luthier’s art and craftsmanship. MY position is firmly ‘on the fence’. If any of the names mentioned wish to persuade me off the fence with a prime example of their product(s), I am more than happy to accommodate them (f.o.c. of course!). I optimistically await a swathe of e-mails to that effect (hint, hint).

Me? I’m off to plink a new CRAVE Guitars’ plank. The new addition to the family is something both very recognisable and very unusual at the same time. All being well, I’ll try to cover it in next month’s article. All I’ll say at this juncture is that it is definitely one that fits the Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitar bill very aptly while also strongly dividing opinion. Intrigued? The lengths we go to, to bring you guitar ‘stuff’. Watch this space…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “There is a finite limit to the amount you can know, there is no limit to the amount you can imagine.”

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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November 2016 – Where to Start with Vintage Guitars

I was recently asked a simple question, “What’s so special about vintage guitars, why would I go for a vintage guitar over a modern one and where do I start?” Well now, that’s actually 3 questions but plainly very sensible ones to ask. As usual, they are not so easy to answer. Thus, another proverbial can of worms was duly opened.

Remember, I am no expert myself, just an enthusiastic amateur who’s obsession tends to cloud objective judgement. This is based on my own experiences, so a pinch of salt may be required. This article focuses specifically on vintage electric guitars. It doesn’t cover acoustic guitars or amps and effect pedals. Are you sitting comfortably, this is quite a long article?

What does the word vintage mean for guitars?

Let’s begin by taking a step further back and try to understand what is actually meant by ‘vintage’. Dictionaries refer to ‘vintage’ as something dating from the past that is valued as having enduring interest, importance or quality, or referring to the best characteristics of things made or done by a person or organisation. Well, that doesn’t necessarily help, especially as any interpretation of ‘past’ is relative and subjective.

Specifically focusing on electric guitars, there are essentially 2 camps; a) the purists who assert that ‘vintage’ only applies to the ‘golden era’ up to c.1965, and b) those who believe that any guitars over 25 years old are ‘vintage’. To me, neither of these adequately provides hard and fast rules for concluding vintage status.

While pre-1965 guitars are now clearly vintage according to both criteria, applying a fixed cut-off doesn’t really hold water in the long term, as the gap between 1965 and the present day continues to widen. Why 1965? Well, many American guitar manufacturers sold out to large, corporations in the 2nd half of the 1960s including Fender (1965 to CBS), Danelectro (1966 to MCA), Gretsch (1967 to Baldwin), and Gibson (1969 to ECL). Commentators point to corporate decision-making, to standardised manufacturing techniques, and to falling quality standards from the 1970s onwards. To me, this argument is difficult to justify, particularly as there are plenty of poor quality pre-1965 vintage guitars (as well as some great post-1965 ones). The purists have countless arguments to support their somewhat dogmatic position.

The 25-year ‘rule’ is also not particularly helpful. It is a bit of an arbitrary cut-off point because it presents us with a constantly moving target, albeit in one direction. Think about it a moment… what tangible differences justify one instrument to be defined as vintage and the next one off the production line as not vintage until the date cut-off catches up? Ultimately, many high, quality, mass produced guitars that the purists currently poor scorn upon will eventually become vintage, but isn’t that actually what happens anyway as the industry evolves over time? The opposition to the introduction of solid body guitars in the early 1950s, which have since become revered, is just one prime example. We shouldn’t confuse the picture by simply correlating quality and age – old=good, new=bad – it’s not that straightforward.

Perhaps obviously, there should be some shared understanding and guidance to help us all out. However, the above debate indicates that there is no black and white definition of ‘vintage’.

My personal feeling is that there are plenty of excellent vintage instruments up to and including the 1980s. After that, they become a bit, ‘samey’, while often also being much ‘better’. Common sense tells us that this view will also undoubtedly change as time marches on. There is a lot more to an instrument than whether it was CNC machined or not, take PRS electrics and Taylor acoustics for example. There are plenty of fine new sustainable tone woods to replace the ‘classic’ now-protected ones and they will all age. There are advances in the use of many materials and how they are used to improve guitar tone. Let’s face it; early instruments can be as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ as later ones in terms of construction and materials.

So, from a beginner’s point of view, the older a guitar is, the more likely it is to warrant being called vintage. No-one disputes that instruments from the 1960s and earlier are now vintage. The current ‘grey area’ is the 1970s and 1980s (and in the not too distant future, also the 1990s).

Why should I buy a vintage guitar?

Having confused rather than clarified from the outset, perhaps the obvious next point is to pose the question, “Why should I buy a vintage guitar?” If you don’t have a good answer to this simple prompt, keep asking the same question until you have something that makes sense. Some examples may help…

If the answer is, “To make money”, then I switch off. I am not the person to talk to about using guitars as a financial investment. My position on pecuniary speculation and Return on Investment (RoI) has oft been handed out with abandon, so I won’t labour the point again. Suffice to say that the idea of a vintage musical instrument as an investment for its own sake is an anathema to me. It squanders the whole point of what it was originally built to do, which is to play music. Exclusivity and rarity just make items more valuable to collectors aiming to protect their investments, thereby denying access to the rest of us to play them. I’m not denying that some vintage guitars are valuable, or rare, and even that some are worth it. What I am saying is that a short-term profit motive does not make a good entry point into the competitive vintage guitar marketplace.

If the answer is, “To play it”, that falls into the ‘not good enough’ category. There are plenty of modern instruments that are far better built, far more reliable and basically much better to play than many vintage instruments. Many new guitars can feel just as good to play, if not better than their ancestors and many manufacturers are working hard to close any gaps that remain. Many older guitars are just not up to playing live and some are too risky to take out and about. Let’s face it, all vintage instruments are irreplaceable. Once they’re gone, they’re gone, so a modern working instrument makes a lot more sense than gigging a vintage one.

If the answer is, “They are nice to look at”, that is also inadequate and is almost as bad as the ‘make money’ case. Buying to look at is just guitar porn. If you want something pristine, lightly aged or beaten up, there are plenty of outstanding new, ‘aged’ and ‘relic’ guitars that fit the aesthetic bill. When it comes to playing, they also have the advantage of modern manufacturing and reliability to boot. Some replicas even cost more than the vintage counterparts they are trying to reproduce – go figure! Age does not necessarily equal beauty.

If the answer is, “They sound great”, it also fails to convince. Modern analytical techniques and advances in technology mean that the differences between many vintage instruments and the many excellent modern examples are so subtle that, for most beginners, they will prove insignificant. Your playing technique and the rest of the signal chain are equally, if not more, important to what we actually hear. Being practical, in a live band or recording situation, the nuances are often obscured.

If the answer is, “Because they’re old”, then I’d say, “so what?” Mere age does not imply significance. There is something about the authentic patina brought about by both age and use that is hard (but not impossible) to replicate. There are a huge number of exceptional new instruments available, and intense price competition means that there are some very good deals to be found by hunting around, especially at the lower end of the market. At the other end of the scale, modern boutique and custom guitar makers make some wonderful guitars with amazing levels of quality to boot, Collings for example.

If the answer is all of the above, then go back and start again until you have a persuasive rationale for getting into vintage guitars. If you decide vintage isn’t your ‘thing’, then that’s a positive and at least you’ll know why. In that case, why not check out new or used instruments to appreciate what modern guitars can do and how they can easily fulfil the vast majority of needs, accepting that they aren’t ‘old’ and won’t be for a long time. Remember that the market value of new guitars will continue to depreciate for quite some time before bottoming out and eventually rising again. Buying a vintage guitar is the only short cut to the waiting time associated with age.

What is so special about vintage guitars?

It is too easy to trot out that old euphemism, “if I have to explain, you’ll never understand”. So, if you’re still intrigued, here is my answer to what is so special about vintage guitars.

The distinctiveness of vintage guitars is difficult to articulate, yet the differences are real. My personal fascination lies in the place that these instruments have in, particularly, American and European musical and social history. Although this will change, I don’t currently include Japan in this statement, as the Far East was mainly manufacturing products to meet western demand during this period, rather than being inculcated in the zeitgeist, i.e. they contributed to it without being part of it.

Vintage instruments somehow epitomise the popular culture of their era in a way that new instruments can easily evoke but of which they cannot be an integral part (until their time eventually comes). The value, playability, looks and sounds of an old instrument are quintessential elements of their decades-long journey to the current day. The artists associated with instruments (that were new at the time) and the classic recordings they made with them are all small pieces of the complex jigsaw.

To provide context, it helps to read up about the history of the guitar and popular music, the innovators and artists, the way the industry and markets evolved, and the way in which manufacturers’ various model lines adapted over time to reflect fashion and to meet musicians’ needs. Set that within the broader complicated and rapidly changing socio‑political and technological environment of the times, the enigma surrounding these simple bits of wood, metal and plastic really start to come alive.

There is something that appeals about the authentic scars of age and prolonged use that, while they can be reproduced, just don’t have any genuine history behind them. However, most guitars’ life stories are lost in the mists of time as guitars change hands, often many times over, so we can only wonder what happened to them since they left the factory all shiny and new. Their journey is as important as the eventual destination.

A good vintage guitar can be inspiring to play and will bring out a way of playing that a generic modern guitar struggles to do. I don’t have a good answer as to why this should be and there is no objective reason I can find for asserting it. Perhaps it is just wish fulfilment. I can only put it down to a number of elusive factors that combine to make it feel… ‘right’. Playing different vintage guitars bring out different stylistic traits as well, so it’s clearly not a single characteristic. Not necessarily better, just different.

Furthermore, current generations are just temporary stewards of these unique historical musical artefacts. Many guitars existed before we were born and many will survive long after we’ve passed. While we are here, I believe we have a moral and ethical obligation as guardians to conserve and share this important heritage for future generations.

If this explanation seems complete gobbledegook, hokum and hogwash, then vintage guitars are probably just passive objects as much as any other guitar. The search for a simple, compelling raison d’être for the joy of vintage guitar ownership goes on.

Where should I start?

OK, enough with the pretentious (but relevant) twaddle. If you are still reading this, I assume that you are still intent on exploring the wonderful world of ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric’ guitars. So, being practical, where do you begin?

Right up front, I would suggest that it is a good idea to set your budget and stick to it. It is all too easy to get caught out by paying either more than you want or what something is worth. The next step may well be to decide what brands and models to investigate. There are plenty of options available, once you’ve selected the outcome you want to achieve. In the end, it all comes down to lucre and what you’re prepared to spend.

Whether you go for an acoustic or electric is fundamental. I’m not really qualified to cover the former so, assuming the latter, consider the type of basic construction, i.e. hollow, semi or solid body guitar. As a starter-for-ten, solid bodied guitars are simpler and more robust, and therefore comparatively easier to evaluate and look after.

The big two producers – Fender and Gibson – are often relatively safe places to start as there is a huge amount of reference material to inform choices and the names on the headstocks are, generally speaking, known quantities, which provides reassurance. Your choice between these two will depend very much on personal taste. If you’re into acoustics, Martin is also a safe bet. The downside is that the big brands also tend to attract premium prices, so they usually aren’t the cheapest options to start with. Finances may dictate whether to persevere or start looking elsewhere. You may hanker after a vintage Gretsch or Rickenbacker although, for various reasons, caution is advised to avoid potential mistakes, so they may not make the best ‘first purchase’.

Buying guitars built in the ‘grey area’ (1970s and 1980s) mentioned above can be a good bet. After a relatively modest initial outlay, the guitar’s value probably won’t go down much further, if at all. In fact, guitars from this period will be on the verge of starting to increase in value, which may enable you to start modestly and ‘trade up’ to get what you really want. The vintage guitar market is now quite mature, so if a ‘bargain’ seems too good to be true, it probably is, and it is probably sensible to resist temptation. If you are face to face with a seller, try haggling – as long as you are not in a hurry and are prepared to walk away, there is no harm in asking, and there are often some good deals waiting to be struck that keep everyone happy.

While a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster from the ‘golden era’ (1950s and 1960s) are likely to be out of the reach of most, mid-price Jaguars, Jazzmasters, or ‘budget’ Musicmasters and Mustangs have many of the same characteristics without the associated eye‑watering price tags. The same applies to early Gibson Les Pauls, ES‑335s and Flying Vs, which attract premium prices, while ES-330s, Explorers, Firebirds and SGs occupy middle ground, and ‘budget’ models like the Melody Maker, LS-6 and S-1 reside at the lower end of the market.

There is SO much more to owning vintage guitars than face value and/or model snobbery. A pre-CBS Fender Strat is worth 10 times the market value of an equivalent Mustang. It may be your dream instrument but is it really 10 times better as a musical instrument and therefore is it really justifiable as a vintage newbie purchase? It’s clearly the buyer’s prerogative but I would suggest dipping your toe in the water and see whether you like it first. If you then decide it’s not for you, something inexpensive also provides a relatively easy exit route. There are plenty of positives about the cheaper end of the vintage market, despite the purists’ unerring disdain. There are some fantastic ‘alternative’ guitars out there and they can be great fun to own and to buy at reasonable prices.

Don’t be fooled into following the crowd – stick to your own preferences. If your tastes are more eclectic or esoteric than the traditional stalwards, you may want to ‘stray off the beaten track’ and ‘take a walk on the wild side’. Depending on how finely honed your intuition, ‘a bit of what you fancy’ is often a good guide and take it from there. There are plenty of very cool vintage European brands, (e.g. Vox, Burns, Hofner) or Far Eastern ones (e.g. Yamaha, Ibanez, Teisco) from which to choose. There are also plenty of cool American brands to consider (e.g. Epiphone, Danelectro, National, Supro, Kay, Harmony, Guild, Ovation, Music Man). Many of these brands are now well documented and can provide low cost access to quirky ‘old school’ Americana.

After 40+ years, be prepared for variable and unpredictable reliability, such as switches, pots, tuners, wiring, pickups, etc. Originality and good condition are big pluses if you can afford them. While ‘museum’ or ‘collector’ grade guitars are lovely to look at (much in the same way new guitars), they can be intimidating to play, just in case their ‘perfection’ is ruined forever. In addition, untouched ‘closet’ guitars are relatively rare and can be prohibitively expensive. As a general rule, good guitars get played. If you like the relic look and/or want something pragmatic, then unoriginal or battered ‘players’ guitars can be great to use without being scared of adding the odd nick or scratch. To start with, I would avoid badly damaged, badly repaired or ‘project’ guitars, as these generally aren’t good examples of their type and they may be more problematic than they are worth. Refinishes and unoriginal parts lower a guitar’s collectable value, although they may make what you’re looking for more affordable, as long as you accept that it will not realise a high value when you come to sell it. You pays your money…

Do your research

In all circumstances, it pays to be diligent. Do your research first and read as much as you can from credible sources, so you know what you’re looking at and understand what you’re buying into. Scrutinize and filter carefully what’s on the Internet as it can be pretty unreliable on the subject (especially highly opinionated forums). It is wise to check out a variety of sources, look for corroboration between them and then reach your own conclusions. Going old tech, i.e. books, can help. Respected vVintage guitar ‘bibles’ include:

  • ‘Gruhn’s Guide to Vintage Guitars : An Identification for American Fretted Instruments’ by George Gruhn and Walter Carter
  • ‘The Official Vintage Guitar Magazine Price Guide’ by Alan Greenwood & Gil Hembree (values are in $USD, so work on a 1:1 ratio)
  • ‘Guitar Identification: A Reference For Dating Guitars Made by Fender Gibson Gretsch and Martin’ by A.R. Duchossoir.

None of these are light reading; however they do provide essential reference material to help inform sound buying decisions. Even these are not infallible though. Coffee table tomes are nice to look at but are generally not comprehensive enough, as recently evidenced by a ‘history’ book that failed to spotlight the historic significance of several milestone guitars including, the Gibson ES-150, the Gretsch 6120 and the Fender Jaguar.

Determining the date of vintage instruments can be problematic. The above references can assist, so can manufacturers’ web sites and many other online resources. Again, the advice is to check and then double check before relying on them too much. If you can’t date an instrument definitively, it may be best to go elsewhere. Avoid any instruments where the serial number has been removed or obscured. The topic of vintage guitar dating is complex and well beyond the scope of this article.

Until you have experience, I don’t advise buying without seeing and, more importantly, trying, feeling and hearing the actual guitar you are interested in. Even experts can get caught out, so buying unseen (e.g. on auction sites) can be a minefield, even when the seller provides nice photographs. To begin with, if you can afford it, buy from a reputable source and buy from your own country to avoid potential transport and import issues.

Be aware that there are fakes out there, although these have tended to be for higher value instruments, as that’s where the big money is. The old adage of caveat emptor (buyer beware) applies! If you have any doubts at all, resist temptation and walk away. There will always be others – be patient. Yes, you may miss out on something special but it isn’t the end of the world. ‘If in doubt, leave it out’.

The risk of diving headlong into the subject unprepared is to be disappointed, to lose faith in the idea and miss out on some inspirational experiences. After looking and trying a few guitars out, you’ll quickly get a feel for what grabs you and what to look for. The ‘fatal attraction’ symptom goes a long way to opening the doors to vintage guitar ownership, whether it’s for a personal guitar collection or to buy and sell. Remember a vintage guitar collection is simply a case of owning more than one! As knowledge and experience grows, your horizons will (probably) expand naturally and you can manage risks with confidence.

Owning your vintage guitar

Once you’ve bought your vintage guitar, it is vital to look after it, which is pretty obvious but very often overlooked. First up, keep it secure from undesirables who want your precious instrument and who are not afraid to take it off your hands for nothing. I hate insurance. However, it would be irresponsible not to mention that you should consider going to a specialist insurer to cover your irreplaceable gem in case the unthinkable happens. Use a good guitar case, stand or hanger and avoid environmental extremes of temperature, relative humidity, dust and direct sunlight. Keep it clean and avoid using chemicals.

One of the best ways of maintaining vintage instruments in good condition is actually to play them regularly. I would also recommend getting to know a reliable and dependable guitar tech to check it over and commission them to deal with any maintenance issues as they arise. Even if you have some basic know-how, it is particularly important to have an expert who really knows their craft and is willing to help you look after it.

Selling on

At some point, you may wish to sell your prized possession. Be realistic about what someone is prepared to pay for it – it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking it’s worth a lot more than it actually is. Internet prices tend to overinflate value hoping the inexperienced will take the bait. Dealers, on the other hand, will devalue and offer 20‑30% less than market value in order to make a profit. Some dealers will sell for you on concession but, again, they will take their 20-30% cut (at least). Private selling is now less common, so be prepared to wait for the right buyer. Specialist musical instrument auction houses exist but beware their somewhat punitive commission rates.


Of course, if money is no object, then a sunburst 1959 Les Paul Standard remains the pinnacle of vintage desirability, especially if it has documented provenance. Expect a stratospheric price tag to go with it though. Heck, I wouldn’t turn one down if one came my way (hint, Mr Claus).

In summary, there are no hard and fast rules. What you do with your cash is entirely up to you. I will leave it to others to judge the value of this article, however, I genuinely hope that it helps a bit – take from it what you will.

A final word of warning though; beware, owning vintage guitars can be highly addictive and bank-breaking. However, in my view, it is all worth it. Just be careful out there. In the meantime, I’m off to plink one of my planks. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Music is an art, not a commodity. It is the people who sell it to the masses that cannot tell the difference.”

© 2016 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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December 2015 – What’s New at CRAVE Guitars (yet again)

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A busy end to 2015! As mentioned in my November 2015 article, “… another great imported ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric’ guitar [was] wending its way from its birthplace in New York via Texas…”.  Well, it arrived safe and sound and I can reveal that it is a rather tasty and very cool 1965 Gretsch Corvette. No, on reflection, let’s use hyperbole, this guitar is AWSOME! Take a look at the feature for more information (click here to see guitar feature…)

1965 Gretsch 6135 Corvette
1965 Gretsch 6135 Corvette

While most pundits understandably veer toward the classic hollow body models, particularly the iconic 6120 Chet Atkins, I took a conscious decision to find something from this great company that is unusual and distinctive. The Corvette, I believe, fits the bill nicely. In the shadow of it bigger and bolder brothers (and, let’s face it, more ubiquitous, more expensive and, well… more orange), the Corvette (designated 6135) was considered to be at the ‘budget’ end of the Gretsch range. It didn’t succeed in competing with Fender and Gibson’s ‘student’ line-ups. However, that doesn’t mean that it should be overlooked or disregarded, quite the opposite in my view. Just look at it! I almost feel honour-bound to promote the Corvette’s unique charms for a discerning audience that appreciates ‘Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric’ Guitars. 

So, what are we actually talking about here… well, firstly, it is a solid body guitar, so it won’t feedback as much in higher gain environments. AND, it doesn’t have the body binding of the hollow body guitars, so many of which are now sadly irrevocably disintegrating. The Corvette sports 2 original HiLoTron single coil pickups (rather than the upmarket FilterTrons). Despite what some critics say (weak, thin‑sounding), it depends how you use them. The neck pickup, in particular, has a lovely ‘60s jazzy vibe that modern pickups struggle to replicate, while the bridge pickup has a steely, crystalline clean sound. Perhaps HiLoTrons just suit the solid body guitars better. It also has an unusual, factory original Burns vibrato in gleaming chrome, which is great and not hugely familiar to players used to the more commonplace Bigsby, Fender or Gibson units. Interesting factoid – around 2 decades before Music Man famously went with asymmetric 4+2 tuner layouts on its guitars, Gretsch did it on the mid-60s Corvette – here’s the evidence (NB. So did Japanese manufacturer, Teisco!). Aesthetically, I am drawn to this idiosyncratic approach rather than the more familiar (read ‘predictably boring’) Gibson-esque 3+3 used on so many guitars. The fingerboard is quite wide and flat compared to, say Fenders of the era, so easy to play. 

This exquisite guitar plays as well as it looks, with a sparkling, jangly resonant sound that, while it isn’t perhaps as evocative as its more illustrious Gretsch sibling, it is distinctive in a way that differentiates it from ‘mainstream’ guitars by Fender and Gibson. Anyone familiar with the CRAVE Guitars’ ethos will understand where I’m coming from. Gretsch has wisely reissued the Corvette for the new millennium as an off-shore produced budget model, suggesting that there is growing interest in the ‘alternative’ side of Gretsch instruments. GOOD!

This beautiful little vintage guitar was made by the family-owned Gretsch company in Brooklyn, New York, USA before the firm was sold to the Baldwin Piano Company in 1967, a move that ultimately led to the brand’s decline and subsequent demise. Pre‑Baldwin Gretsch guitars are now becoming much more sought after, and prices will increase accordingly. Why not find out more about Gretsch’s long history as a guitar brand (since 1883) by taking a look at the CRAVE Guitars feature on Gretsch (click here to see brand feature…). Thankfully, Gretsch’s fortunes have recovered strongly since the 1990s and the brand is successfully resurgent under Fender’s paternalistic wing. Hopefully, the classic ‘T-roof’ Gretsch logo will grace fabulous guitars for many years to come. 

Thanks for your interest in cool vintage guitars in 2015. CRAVE Guitars is now looking forward to 2016 and wondering where we will be a year from now. In the meantime, I’m off to ‘plink my planks’. Peace and Love to the world before it’s too late. Until next time…   P.S. Keep an eye on the CRAVE Guitars ‘For Sale’ web page with links to any active eBay items (click here to see CRAVE’s ‘for sale’ items). 

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “If music be the food of love, plug in, turn up the volume and head bang the hell out of it like there’s no tomorrow!” 

© 2015 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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August 2015 – Vintage Guitar Supply and Demand

posted in: Opinion | 0

If you’ve followed my recent posts, you’ll know that I have been looking around for cool and rare American vintage electric guitars (and basses) again recently. Nothing new in the way of CRAVE Guitars stock to report this month, so it is an opportunity to reflect and pontificate, as well as to share my biased opinion on our shared hobby again.

As part of my on-going research, I regularly check a well-known auction site beginning with ‘e’. One thing that I have noticed is that many prices are now escalating at least back to where they were pre-recession and often higher. The rate of increase also seems to be accelerating but inconsistently so, which makes the market uncertain. While the general upward trend might be good news for investors at the genuinely rare instrument end of the market, it is also putting some great, and even some ordinary, vintage guitars beyond the means of your average amateur collector or re‑seller. It seems predictable that fickle speculators will soon jump on the bandwagon (again) and what would otherwise have been considered run-of-the-mill instruments will hit stratospheric levels (again). The dreaded ‘boom and bust’ cycle looms ugly (again), which isn’t good for anyone. The upper extremes are more to do with damnable greed and detestable avarice – commonly called rampant capitalism – the economic law of supply and demand in a free market. At more modest levels the pressures are seemingly more complex.

Another thing that I’ve noticed is that, while the ‘common’ models are still relatively numerous, some of the more esoteric, niche guitars are often nowhere to be seen these days. This may suggest that people are hanging onto their valued old guitars, rather than putting them out to the unpredictable market, especially risky in an online auction environment. The result of this anomaly is that prices are increasing due to an artificial rarity factor – the supply dries up while the demand increases, making some less popular instruments disproportionately and unsustainably pricey. To test out this hypothesis, I have been looking for some slightly more unusual instruments and they can be really hard to find, resulting in some diverse and frankly crazy price differentials, especially compared to new guitar prices. However, you can still get a nice late vintage guitar (which will go up in price in the medium to long-term) for less than a new one (which is likely to depreciate for the next 20 or so years). That, at least is still good news for many of us preferring used instruments.

So… my next step was to look further afield. When comparing the UK with the US and Canada, there is, understandably, more choice in that much larger continent (and birthplace of our beloved classics). At first glance they can seem to be offered at an attractive price. However, when taking exchange rates (currently not good for importing from the US into the UK), international delivery, import duties, national taxes, handling fees and insurance (if you can afford it!), importing isn’t the bargain it first seems, especially as HMRC has tightened up the process significantly compared to a few years ago. Other markets, like mainland Europe, Australia, Japan, etc. are relatively inconsequential to the US/UK trade. Asian and Russian trade is certain to increase. In summary, importing is still worth a look though, as long as you do your research first. The Epiphone Olympic below was my last costly import from Canada.

1966 Epiphone Olympic
1966 Epiphone Olympic

Coming back to that well known auction site for a moment, the word ‘auction’ seems to be largely a misnomer these days. Actual auctions where you can bag yourself a bargain vintage guitar are now a frustrating rarity. ‘Buy It Now’ (BiN) seems to be the default option for most high value sellers. This means that many a cheap purchase can turn out to be risky and ‘Best Offers’ are rarely a source of great joy. Also, that heart thumping, sweat inducing, adrenalin pumping rush of the last few minutes…and seconds of a bidding frenzy for a desirable vintage guitar that you really, really, really want seems to be becoming a thing of the past. That’s a shame if you ask me, as a lot of the fun has gone by the wayside. BiN prices often seem to be set high initially and guitars sit there until the ‘real’ market value catches up, so there are quite a few that hang around until people see them as affordable. My inference is that, while it may be fine and convenient for one-off purchases, it is no longer a great source for a fledgling business enterprise on a tight budget, as precious net profits can rapidly be eroded. This applies to both buying and selling. This is probably similar to other ‘collector sectors’ such as classic cars, so I guess we adapt and move on.

Fender and Gibson still dominate with Gretsch and Rickenbacker hot on their tails, as well as early PRSs. Don’t forget other classic brands like Danelectro, National, Vox, Guild or Burns. Japanese originals from Yamaha and Ibanez are increasingly collectable too. There are plenty of whacky vintage guitars from minor brands, often long since demised, Supro, Silvertone, Teisco, Harmony, Kay, etc. that can prove real bargains if you’re careful. If you are into acoustics, Martin is still probably the most reliable bet.

So, where does this leave us in the post-recession world? Not as much choice when buying and what there is, is of variable value. The desirable instruments that we might aspire to are becoming increasingly exclusive again, except for the affluent in the vintage guitar community. Looking to the future, prices look set to rise inevitably and keep rising inexorably thereafter, until the next bubble bursts. The high end (i.e. occupied by the super-rich) will carry on regardless of global economics but that’s hardly the rarefied atmosphere us ordinary mortals will ever find ourselves in. There are bargains out there but, as ever, you have to seek them out and auction sites are as good as any other source. If you’re after a return on investment on a newer guitar, you may have to wait a while, so why not enjoy playing them in the meantime? In conclusion, if you want to get your hands on a lovely vintage guitar at a reasonable price and if you can find a good one, go for it while you can. Good luck. Thanks for reading this article.

© 2015 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars

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