Philthy Thoughts

by Phil Maneri

Ever wanted the brand-new shiny thing, only to buy it and lose a bunch of value walking out the door with it? Sure, you have the bragging rights of the new thing, at least while it’s still the new thing. Then it becomes the old thing soon enough. New basses are no exception. Very few new instruments maintain their value after first owner purchase; most decline.

One other consideration with new instruments is that most factory made – and even some smaller hand-built instruments – are made from kiln-dried lumber that isn’t too far from being a tree before it becomes a working bass. As such, it’s prone to move around quite a bit in the first five years as it travels the long, slow road to a petrified rock. Sometimes its movements are benign, other times they are crippling, and on occasion require early serious intervention, like premature refrets, to straighten warps and twists.

As such, I rarely recommend people buy newer factory instruments, but rather let them age a bit and see how they move around. After 5-10 years, if the instrument is still straight and solid, it will most likely stay that way. If it’s not, you don’t have to suffer the extra loss of value of a compromised instrument.

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Instruments in the “small-batch handmade category selling over $5,000 range” rarely have wood settlement issues. Unless they are priced inappropriately, those instruments use selected small-batch lumber with controlled natural drying over time, and are constructed in a fashion mindful of potential future expansion and contraction that dissipate those issues that can affect lower-budget, mass-production instruments – where price point and manufacturing volume priorities makes being particular about wood a much greater challenge.

Seriously old things are an entirely different conversation. Pre-CBS Fender basses (made before 1965) are coveted by a huge swath of players, even if they don’t have them. Their prices can be $10,000 or more, and are as high or higher than the top-tier of brand new, bespoke single-luthier made instruments. The irony is they were factory made instruments that were bolted together with way less regard than anything made in small shop builders, or most factory builders today. From a construction and materials standpoint, the idea that they are somehow “worth” the same is preposterous.

It points out how the “value” of vintage instruments is not tied to function or quality of build, but rather the value ascribed to antiques, especially those prized by baby boomers. That’s not to say vintage instruments aren’t good; they are. I play mostly vintage instruments, myself – pre-CBS Precisions, specifically. I love how they feel, how they sound, how they sit in a mix. Some of that is habit; what I’m used to, and what my ear is used to. Those instruments were used in the vast majority of music on the radio from 1960 through the ‘80s, when I developed what I like in bass sound. They are comfortable and intimately familiar. I was born in the ‘60s, so that makes perfect sense. If you were born in 1990, you may feel quite differently.

None of that makes them worth it.

New builders are making things now that are of higher quality and more precise construction than ever possible in the heyday of the Fender bass. Vintage considerations aside, one could argue that the old wood is the main thing that sets them apart from each other. No doubt, a 50-year old Fender is a lot further from a tree and closer to a petrified rock than just about anything made today. If that’s the case, then when these new instruments get several decades under their belt, I’d guess they will far out-perform those from the early Fender era.

As audio reproduction moved away from the Fender heyday forward in the current century, the lowest notes of a B string became easier and cheaper to accurately reproduce. Concurrently, synthesis became commonplace, and lower and lower notes were not only typical, they were expected. As such, the sound of the 5-string became more and more in demand. Newer instruments are constructed with this in mind and have way more strength and clarity in those lower registers than you can usually find in a vintage instrument (without modifications that seriously devalue them).

Last NAMM Show, I played a 6-string electric bass made by Gerald Marleaux that was one of the highest-caliber instruments I’ve ever played. Wood choices, fit, finish, and all the little details of construction are impossibly high. The electronics were designed and constructed specifically for this wood and the bass after the lion’s share of it was completed. This allowed for a perfect marriage of electronics and lumber. Everything flowed together, creating an instrument that played well everywhere on its huge range. No vintage Fender bass could ever reach that level of sophistication or utility.

Now, I didn’t pay $12,000 for my Pre-CBS Precisions; nor would I. In today’s market, if I had to choose between my one-trick pony Pre-CBS Fender and that Marleaux six for similar prices, I’d get that Marleaux in a second. Would I trade my stock 1963 for that? Probably not. But that decision is more about resale value and future appreciation than utility.

Interesting choices for an old guy.

What would you choose?