Many bass guitarists choose vintage instruments as opposed to those in current or recent production for a variety of reasons. The vintage instrument may have a quality that lends itself to certain musical styles. Sometimes, the materials used in the production of earlier instruments cannot be sourced today, and these materials give the vintage instrument a unique quality. Some players may simply prefer the appearance of a certain instrument no longer in production.
About the Bass Guitar
The bass guitar was pioneered in the 1930s by a musician and inventor, Paul Tutmarc. After this, it wasn't until Leo Fender pioneered mass production of his Precision Bass, sometimes called the P-bass, in the early 1950s, that the instrument began to be widely adopted by musicians, and in fact, the electric bass for many years was referred to as the 'Fender bass' due to their market dominance in their early years. Gibson followed with their early model of 'violin bass' in 1953. This early model was obviously intended to appeal to the traditional player who had to be weaned off the double bass, as it had an extendable end pin, in the same style as a cello or double bass, allowing it to be played horizontally or vertically, and was styled in a similar fashion, with a hollow scroll-style body, and f-holes. This style was later echoed by the German maker, Hofner, whose violin bass came to be known as 'The Beatle Bass' after its most famous user, Beatles bassist Paul McCartney.
General Buying Principles
Before looking at individual vintage models, there are a few basic ground rules that should be observed when buying vintage instruments.
The Serial Number
Firstly, check the serial number. The numbering schemes of the individual makers are many and varied, but a good starting point for those makers still in business is their own websites, which often have tables or charts outlining the various eras of their manufacture. This won't always be possible for those who are no longer in business, and the best approach here is either to look for published histories of these makers in book form, resort to some internet searching, or consult back issues of guitar-related magazines for relevant articles. The location of the serial number will vary by maker and model, but it can often be found stamped into the back of the headstock, in the area where the neck joins the body, or, for semi-acoustic instruments, on a label inside the body. For vintage instruments, it is generally expected that the seller would include specifics on this in their listing.
Look at the photos, and the detail about the instrument to ensure that all characteristics mentioned correspond to the era it is from. Consider the type of wood, the colour, the headstock and machine heads, and various other features.
There is an abundance of general and brand-specific buying guides, both in book/magazine form and in online sources, many of which will go into more detail than can be specified here, and it's wise to be forearmed with as much knowledge as can be mustered of the instrument(s) that are being considered.
Always establish if the seller has any history for the instrument, to prove its provenance. Previous owners may have retained receipts for purchase, setup or repairs, effectively forming a 'logbook' for the instrument.
Deciding on a Vintage Base Model
There are a few manufacturers who have shaped the production of bass guitars over the recent decades.
Fender's first model was the Precision Bass as mentioned above, the early 1960s saw the introduction of their Jazz Bass. With the Precision viewed as the companion to the Telecaster and Stratocaster, the Jazz Bass was likewise intended to match the Jazzmaster guitar.
With regard to serial numbering, many of Fender's instruments have the year of production stamped into the heel of the neck. Whilst this can be used as a guide, it requires removal of the neck, which the seller may not be willing to do. This is also not definitive; since the neck is removable, this production date doesn't guarantee that the body of the instrument is that which was originally paired with the neck.
Gibson's Violin Bass was renamed later as the EB-1, and a sister model, the EB-2, in a similar style, was introduced around this time. A solid-body style, the EB-0, mirrored the Gibson SG guitar in appearance. The EB-3 was the first of the Gibson range to feature two pickups, the second mounted close to the bridge, whereas the EB-1 and 2 had been fitted with one pickup, adjacent to the neck joint. The early Gibson models are notable for being of a short-scale design; 30", as opposed to the 34" standard adopted by Fender.
Apart from Hofner, the other notable maker of the pre-1970s era was Rickenbacker, who introduced their 4000 bass guitar in 1957. This was the first bass to feature a through-neck design, as opposed to the glued or bolted neck joints favoured by Fender and Gibson. Rickenbacker's 4001, with its distinctive trebly 'buzz', came to be identified with certain players and their styles, notably Chris Squire of Yes. Danelectro achieved fame with a bass guitar of double-cutaway style, which was used for a short period by John Entwistle of The Who. This had a similar trebly sound, favoured at the time by Entwistle for his soloing.
Developments in Electronics
In the 1970s, development of the bass guitar was primarily driven by advancements in electronics. Smaller makers such as Alembic pioneered the use of active electronics in their bass guitars, in juxtaposition to the simple, passive tone control setups favoured by Fender and Gibson in their early models. Further developments have included the exploration and utilisation of more exotic woods, and extension beyond the original four-string design, with custom and mainstream makers offering five, six, and even eight-string basses.
The British maker, Wal, pushed boundaries even further with the construction of double and triple-neck basses for a number of custom clients.
Whilst the more recent of these examples are obviously considerably younger than the earliest Fenders and Gibsons from the 1950s and 1960s, a discontinued model from this era by Alembic, Wal or perhaps a similar low-volume maker is still deserving of the 'vintage' title.
In the 1980s, makers such as Steinberger started to use synthetic materials as the basis for their instruments. Whilst not a totally new approach, given that Dan Armstrong had marketed guitars and basses with plexiglass bodies in the 1970s, the use of materials unavailable in earlier decades, such as Steinberger's graphite and carbon fibre composite for the body, allied with a unique headless design, with the machine heads integrated into the tailpiece, made for a more distinctive instrument, so much so that other makers have licenced the rights to copy the design.
Finding a Vintage Bass on eBay
Many sellers will tag their listings for vintage basses with keywords such as 'classic', 'vintage' and possibly 'retro'. The direct use of these terms, along with 'Bass' or 'Bass Guitar' in the search bar found on any page within eBay should bring positive results, possibly with the inclusion of a certain year or years, if quite a narrow range of basses is desired.
Alternatively, open the eBay homepage, select Browse by Category, Categories, and select Musical Instruments, then Guitars and Bass.
However, note the Fender-specific term, 'pre-CBS'. In 1965, CBS acquired a number of musical instrument production companies, Fender included, and it's generally perceived that their quality took a downward turn from that point on, and that the pre-CBS instruments, from the era when founder Leo Fender was still in control, are far more collectable.
Purchase of a musical instrument is always a very personal affair, and shopping for a vintage bass can yield an instrument that not only suits the musician, and possibly gives them a unique sound, but one that also enables them to stand out from the crowd. It is unlikely that a purchase of this nature will yield the chance to compare prices for a number of similar models, as most true vintage basses will tend to be rarely offered, possibly one-off listings, that could encourage a high level of competitive bidding.