Vintage Bass Guitars: Classic Gems or Just Old Basses?

Do older basses really sound that much better than newer ones?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read about a bassist who raves about his vintage Fender sounding so much better than newer models.

But are there any hard facts to back up these claims that vintage gear is superior, or is the whole vintage craze just more hype and clever marketing?

Wood dries out and resonates more, pickups age and become warmer, more organic sounding. The entire instrument fuses as one whole entity instead of just a jumble of parts. These are just some of the things I’ve heard over the years about why vintage basses sound, play, and feel better than newer axes.

The immediate thing I noticed when I picked up a vintage bass (in this case a Fender 1964 Precision Bass for the first time), was the feel. It felt like a broken in baseball glove, especially the back of the neck which was worn down to a smooth satin-like texture. For some odd reason, it just seemed easier to play, as if all those years of wear from endless hours of playing was rubbing off into my own hands.

This particular bass was heavily worn, with almost no finish left on the body. Bare wood was exposed on the entire upper arm bout, and what wood was left looked rotted. The bass felt very light (8 lb range) and well balanced with no neck dive. When I finally plugged it in and played, it sounded at first just like your average good old P-Bass. After about 5 minutes though I started to notice some subtle things in the tone.

Sound and Feel

The mids sounded creamier and yet more present than most P-Basses. The highs seemed a tad crisper and the lows were fuller and a little thicker than normal. Notes seemed to blossom after plucking them and the overall tone felt woody and pleasant. Of course, this was just one bass, I’ve played several other vintage basses since and not all were that awesome.

One thing that really stands out is the overall feel of a vintage bass. I remember playing a friend’s ’74 Fender Jazz a couple of times, and even though I wasn’t really impressed with the tone, it still had that broken in feel and vintage “mojo” that I love.

I’m sure there are plenty of brand new basses out there that sound just as good if not better than many vintage axes. There’s just something very appealing to me about an old, well played bass. It’s as if the history of all that playing on the bass is somehow affecting the tone…like the bass knows what to play. I’m sure all that is psychological, but I love it nevertheless.  If vintage Fenders weren’t so darn expensive I would definitely own one.

I think one of the main reasons that I’ve bought used basses over the last several years is because I wanted a bass with some “play time”, some history. The other reason is they’re cheaper. Also, I avoid the first ding, scratch, dent event as the bass already has a few. So, when it does happen it’s no big deal…just more “mojo”. But the bottom line is price. Used is less expensive, vintage is more expensive and new is just…well new.

I suppose my final word on this subject is that vintage basses can be very cool, and they can sound better than newer basses…sometimes. If I ever get a chance to own one I think I would go for it, as long as it sounded good. I wouldn’t collect vintage basses, I would play them.

Leave a Comment