Private Collection – Bass Odyssey
Lovingly assembled by a puppet of indeterminate species, this month’s Private Collection is merely a ‘greatest hits’ selection of one of the coolest, largest and most impressive groups of basses we’ve seen in a long while. Lars Mullen has the story…
Not all our Private Collection subjects fancy the idea of having their names spread far and wide across the musoverse. These are people of mystery, weaving their way through a secret network of contacts in search of the items of their dreams. This month’s subject is just such a cloaked figure: a guitarist and bassist since the ’70s, he’s the author of a popular some-guitar-but-mostly-bass blog who for the sake of anonymity has chosen to assume a nom de plectrum… Flat Eric.
Flat Eric started out playing guitar in the early ’70s but moved to electric bass and was soon thumping away on a low-budget model which, to his surprise, actually sounded rather good – and ‘alternative’ is still the key word to his approach to instrument acquisition. Spurning, mostly, the golden age of American twang and thunder, he prefers to wander in the realms of the ’70s and ’80s, and though he has room for a few guitars his overwhelming theme is bass, bass and bass.
‘I do have a few things from the big names, but over the years I’ve been well rewarded by reaching out and not being afraid to try something that’s a bit odd or unusual,’ Eric explains. ‘I’m particularly interested in basses made in the Far East in the ’70s, a period when companies such as Aria and Ibanez had to a long way to prove that they could take on and beat the big names from the USA for quality and playability. After all, it would be a dull world if we drove the same car, wore the same clothes and ate the same cereal!
‘I can’t argue that Strats, Teles, Les Pauls and Precisions aren’t classic icons, but what fascinates me is that there’s always one around the corner that doesn’t have a big name on the headstock but plays wonderfully well and sounds amazing – and it doesn’t have to cost a fortune. For me it’s all about how the instrument performs, although I do like to get hold of clean examples too. It’s a balance, I suppose, between looks and performance.
I can relate to the old British TV comedy-drama series Lovejoy, where this antiques dealer supposedly had almost supernatural powers when it came to recognising a good purchase. I don’t have psychic powers, but I can sniff out a cool bass!
‘I’m certainly not embarrassed to gig with any one of these. To me, they’re alive with energy, as opposed to some modern ones, which I think can feel a little lifeless or cold to the touch. All my basses respond well, and none have any noticeable dead spots; play a low F note and you get the balls, and an octave G gives you brightness and power. Plus, they didn’t cost me a fortune.’
Let’s begin with a couple of straight replicas. ‘The fretted maple-neck sunburst one is a Hondo Professional. I saw it on eBay and the Lovejoy gut reaction kicked in. I fitted a set of Grant-branded strings which had been in the packet for way over 25 years, took it to a band rehearsal, and was completely astounded – I really thought someone had turned my amp up. It has that great sound that you hear on so many records.
‘Next to it is a fretless CMI Artist bass with an almost identical story. I actually bought this one after the Hondo to see if the ’70s value-for-money theme continued, and it really did. I’m definitely not the world’s best fretless player, but I can make it sound pretty good.
‘Early Ibanez basses also do it for me, and these next two are from the early RB Road Star Series, a RB920 with a single J6 pickup, finished in sunburst over a birdseye maple top, and a two-pickup blueburst RB950, also from the ’80s, with a double-octave neck. Both have alder bodies and the famed Ibanez Tri-Sound wiring which offers series/parallel and single coil options. I find these neck profiles are perfect. I’m not fussed about the rosewood verses maple fingerboard thing… in fact I can’t hear the difference, and I would like to meet someone who can tell the difference! To me, it’s all in the fingers. We buy all the special gear and effects to use on stage, but if you are mic’ed up, you’re in the hands of the sound guy anyway.
‘Here’s another pair of Ibanez basses, but active – a fretless RS940 on the left and an RS924 on the right. Both of these are loud, even played acoustically. I can get pretty much all the sounds I need via the passive/active switches, and I love the Super P4 and Super J4 pickups for their sound and for the adjustable polepieces. I don’t like a dead sound, or one that’s too bright, but with these I can tinker and tailor my own tone and balance the output.
‘Here’s a pair of heavy Ibanez basses in more ways than one, an active ST980 eight-string bass and a passive four-string ST824. The active Studio Series models were obviously designed for studio use, but they’re also great for live work. Both have walnut and mahogany bodies and three-ply maple necks, plus the Tuned Response feature with steel bars inside the double-octave necks to eliminate dead spots. This was a real golden era for Ibanez. They sound like pianos, and with the Tri-Sound wiring and their great playability I reckon they can compete with some modern high-end boutique basses.
‘On that note, I wanted to just slot in this Ibanez six-string SB70 guitar. This one’s been played within an inch of its life. Allegedly it was a limited run of a few hundred models, and it seems to be quite rare. It’s a straightforward no-frills guitar, and a fantastic player. When I get my moments of fantasy, I’d like to think I was the British blues player, Davey Knowles… I wish!
‘We’re jumping the gun here as we’ll get on to Peaveys in a bit, but next to the SB70 is a Peavey T-60 six-string. It’s definitely my desert island guitar. The see-through red finish, maple board, black scratchplate and hardware all look amazing. I remember going to a demo on the T-60 when it first came out and I was confused with the switching and pickup permutations, which are the same as on the basses. I managed to get hold of one for a while to noodle with it and all became clear, and I was fascinated by this guitar.
‘But back to basses! I’ve gigged with this ’80s Ibanez Musician a lot. It’s got passive/active, series/parallel, a three-band EQ – but when I find a sound I’m happy with, I’m inclined to just leave it alone. It’s not a criticism, but I know a lot of players who spend ages talking about how a bass is wired up like an aircraft. I’m less interested in that aspect, and more about the sound it makes.
‘The next one’s quite rare. It’s an Ibanez Artist 2626B with a stained ash body with a German carve. The three-post bridge is a great design – you can string it with the ball-ends at the bridge or through the body. The pickups are a fair way apart, so the neck gives a big thuddy sound and the bridge is the opposite. Each pickup has a mini on/off switch, which can be deadly live, so I leave them both on. I have to float my arm as there’s no resting place for the thumb, so I can be a little inaccurate on occasions!
‘I have two of these mid-’80s Ibanez Roadster RB650 basses. This white one also has the Super P4 and Super J4 pickups and a maple fingerboard. It’s a simple set up, but you really can alternate between the pickups and blend them in and out. This would be a fantastic bass to record with.
‘I don’t have much information about this white Parkinson Bass, which was built in Leigh, Lancashire. It’s based on a Precision but tonally leans towards an angry Rickenbacker… it’s very alive. It’s handbuilt and a little rough around the edges, but it’s a definite case of sound over cosmetics.
‘I think Ibanez basses are just so “right”. Here’s a RS900 Roadster with a stained ash body, maple neck and fingerboard, single volume control and a two-band EQ… it’s a rocker of a bass. One of my all-time heroes, Phil Lynott, played this model, so if it was good enough for him… say no more. I still love Phil’s playing, he made it look so easy. That bass intro to Dancing In The Moonlight using a phase shifter was so haunting.
‘Yamaha have always been an iconic name in the industry, but I do prefer the older instruments. This SB500 Super Bass is more or less Yamaha’s version of a Jazz. According to the paperwork it was made on March 3 1978 and the 54th instrument produced on that day, so the production line was really on fire – but they still managed to maintain consistency and quality. I’ve heard it said by a lot of people that they’ve never played a bad Yamaha.
‘Talking of Phil Lynott and his phaser, I can pretty much get that same sound from this Electra X620 MPC Outlaw bass. It has interchangeable electronic modules with 11 different effects available, including Tank Tone and Frog Nose! On this late ’70s model we have the Phase Shifter and a Treble And Bass Expander. The Tone Spectrum Circuitry gives five different pickup permutations, and with the mahogany through-neck, large tailpiece and Magnaflux pickups, the sustain is huge. I love the butterfly fingerboard inlays, too. Chris Squire from Yes famously altered his, and I believe he still uses it. I looked for ages for one of these… there are very few on this side of the Atlantic.’
Eric is known amongst fans of the Peavey T-40 bass as one of the keenest collectors. He calls it an ‘iconic classic’ and has even become acquainted via the internet with Chip Todd, the ‘T’ in T-40 and the man who, along with Hartley Peavey, designed the model in the first place. ‘I’ve chosen just three to show you,’ Eric grins. ‘The sunburst one next to the Electra we just talked about plus the natural-finished one are both from the ’80s and have the “blade” pickups, while the lighter “tan burst” is from the late ’70s and has the warmer earlier “toaster” style pickups.
‘T-40 basses are built like Mack trucks. The wiring varies the humbucker/single coil options: for example, when the tone controls are up full, the pickups are single coil; back them off, and you can hear them change to humbucker mode. I mentioned to Chip that the natural one, made from heavy North American ash, is the loudest T-40 I’ve ever come across, and he said that the pickups were wound in such a way that some were more powerful than others.
‘Here’s another Peavey bass, a fretless Foundation. It’s an early one from ’87, US-built, with the same black line around the headstock as on the T series. The Super Ferrite pickups are brilliant – a bit like a Jazz Bass on steroids. It’s a no-frills workhorse with a really nice narrow neck. I also prefer the lined fretless fingerboard – otherwise for me it’s a bit of a challenge.
‘Guild also have a great bass pedigree. I first played one of these B-301 models back in the ’70s. They were frowned upon because of the body shape, but they’re well respected now. I had a hankering for one, and as soon as I got it, it was like travelling back through the decades. It’s great in every department – a simple “plug in and get on with it” bass. It’s my only bass with flatwounds, Rotosounds in fact, but even with those it’s got rightness, punch and power.
‘Here’s a pair that echo in quite good detail the 4000 series Rickenbacker basses – a mono version, a Greco PMB, and a stereo Aria. Not the real thing, of course, but they do have plenty of that character. The Greco PMB arrived from Australia; the owner used it in a Beatles tribute band. The “PMB” actually stands for “Paul McCartney Bass”!
‘Aria’s Elite Series basses from the ’80s play and sound so good, and I personally think they still look exciting today. They were a bit of a milestone in bass design. The one I’ve chosen to show has a wonderful grain pattern on the ash body wings, and it also highlights the five-piece through neck and the MB-II pickups. This is a bass that really does benefit the multi-tonewood construction. These basses are so well-balanced, they feel part of you… they almost play themselves.
‘I’m also a big fan of the Ovation’s Magnum Series basses… another underrated model, and quite unusual even by today’s standards. I have two here to show you – a see-through red stereo Magnum 1, and a Magnum III with a mono-only output and more defined double cutaway body in a greyburst finish.
‘The build is very robust, but that large humbucker-sized neck pickup isn’t as monstrous as it looks – rather the opposite, in fact, as it has four separate, adjustable single-coil polepieces. The Magnum 1 is in top condition so it wasn’t a cheap buy, but it’s a great player, and the large one-piece pickup surround – or the “corral”, as one of my USA friends calls it! – runs all the way from neck to bridge, making an ideal thumbrest.
‘I also have a pair of Ovation’s solidbodied six-string guitars I wanted to include here – an active Breadwinner with the textured LyraChord finish in black, and a single cutaway Viper with a pair of single coils. Both have the same tuxedo greyburst finish, but the Breadwinner has a slightly “rough to the touch” textured sheen, while the Viper has a satin finish. I seem to recall reading that the Breadwinner was one of the first commercial active six-string guitars, and it has since become very collectable. It took me ages to find this one in this particular colour. It can be hard to date some of the early Ovation models, as the serial numbering tends to be a bit ambiguous.
‘This mid-’70s Attila Balogh Odyssey Bass was made on Granville Island, Vancouver, Canada. It’s one of my gigging favourites – a much-played, much-loved bass that’s been my first choice for a long time now. If I had to grab one bass and run, this would be it. It has it all… balance, power and tone. The DiMarzio pickups have a punch that would remove kidney stones at 10 paces, in either series/parallel or out of phase, and with quality tonewoods like the ebony board and maple through neck, it’s no wonder these have become high on collectors’ lists.
‘I’m thinking now that if I had to run, I’d also have to grab this next one. It’s a single-pickup through-neck Greco GOB II 750. It took a while to find this one as they seem to be quite rare these days, but it’s another exceptional bass with a double octave design, and with the same pickup that you’d find on the original Ibanez Blazer.’
Eric also has an eye for a pointy body… or three. ‘I’ve put these next few together as the body shapes are rather similar,’ he explains. ‘This first one is a ’76 Ibanez 2495B Destroyer, and as far as I know it only ever appeared in a catalogue from that year. It’s one of the rarest Ibanez basses, and quite sought-after by collectors. It’s a bit of a headstock-diver, but I can put up with that! There’s something about this one that makes me go all Dusty Hill from ZZ Top.
‘The one in the middle is a medium-scale Ray Cooper custom bass, built in 1977. Ray is still based in the UK and building guitars. It arrived in a pretty grubby state, but I really enjoyed sprucing it up. It’s loaded with DiMarzio J-type pickups and wired to Ray’s own active circuitry. I’m not a slap player, but the small cavity in the top is ideal if you want to go into Mark King territory.
‘Also in this group is an Gibson RD Artist bass. I was one of the few players I knew who really liked the design when it came out in the ’70s, and I still do. The maple fingerboard is a little out of character for Gibson. I believe the Who’s John Entwistle had a hand with the design, but didn’t really follow it up. The circuitry by Moog is sonically amazing – the circuit boards almost take up the full length of the lower bout. Adam Clayton of U2 gets a really great sound from his. The case has “Dizzy Bitch” written on it… after some research, I found out that they were a sleaze-rock band from that period.’
Big brands aren’t banned from Eric’s collection by any means, and a couple of Fender Jazz Basses fit in quite happily. ‘On the left is a 1972, and on the right is a Japanese ’62 reissue – another good example of an East-West pairing,’ he says. ‘I must admit that I do love a Jazz Bass – the necks are so slim and fast and comfortable. It seemed correct to have a real vintage model, but the reissue does a pretty good authentic job as well.’
Eric’s passion for the unusual also holds up for British makers of the 1970s. ‘The UK has always had a reputation for producing some of the finest luthiers,’ he points out. ‘These include Peter Cook, who did a lot of work for British rock bands in the ’70s, including John Entwistle. He operated from Peter Cook’s Guitar World in Hanwell, West London. He often said that Entwistle had “Noah’s Ark syndrome’, and by that he meant that if he saw a cool bass, he’d want another one exactly the same as the first! I can relate to that and believe I have the same delightful problem!
‘I have several of Peter’s instruments, including a pair of Axis, a bass and a six-string guitar. They were both built in the early ’80s, both have the same body shape, and they’re a “reverse match” in terms of the colour of the timbers. Peter recalls that he only produced eight of each model. I know where some others are in the world, but to my knowledge this is the only pair in a collection on the planet. The Axis wiring was developed by a guy who worked for the BBC, and it was detailed in a book about guitar electronics. The sounds are quite stunning. Both are a delight to play, and I get a real buzz from playing the bass live.
‘Also from the UK are these two Status Graphite models built from woven carbon fibre and the finest tonewoods. Status are renowned for their flagship headless designs, but these – a passive Status Shark bass and an active Status Groove, both from the 1990s – were offered in a mid-priced form with headstocks. Thanks to the carbon fibre construction, they’re totally lacking in any dead spots. There are some very innovative design touches here, like the indexed pots, the tapered neck profiles, and some of the best fret work I’ve ever seen. They also came with lockable bridge systems.
‘Ironically, I do have a headless bass – it’s just not a Status! It’s an ’80s Gordy, built by Gordon Whittam, a great builder and one of the founders of Gordon Smith. He left them to start his own brand. It doffs its cap to Status and was an expensive bass back then – about two grand in present-day money.
It wasn’t built down to a price but up to a specific quality, with a lot of tonal variation.
‘Alongside the Gordy is a Wilkes Classic four-string active custom bass, built for a customer who had been to Doug Wilkes’ workshop in the Midlands and handpicked all the exotic tonewoods that included Brazilian mahogany, wenge, maple and purpleheart. The customer was a mature university student and needed all the money he could get, so he had to sell it – and it’s now happily living in my collection.
‘The Kent Armstrong pickups bring out the best of this bass; a fine choice, I must say. This is a very organic-feeling model… a bit like Doug’s workshop, which is always knee-deep in sawdust!’
Lastly, Eric has a cool story to end our walk through some outstanding guitars and basses. ‘Here are two more Peter Cook electric guitars, all in one – a six-string and a 12-string doubleneck, making it an 18-string! It’s a mid-’70s Firebird Twin. He made just two of these: this one in the 12/6 neck configuration, and a 6/12 model for Del Bromham from Stray, a ’70s UK rock band. Both have Peter’s own pickups and banjo tuners on the six-string headstock. Apart from all the custom models he made for named artists, he only built around 50 production models and all are now very rare. Like the Axis models, you can tell this Firebird Twin was put together with feeling, and it’s a great nod to Gibson.
‘I thought I would finish with this Jaydee Gemini twin neck 4/8 string bass, a totally unique one-off. It was built by John Diggins in 1978 and designed by Richard ‘Fez’ Ferriday, the bassist in Cryer, a band that didn’t quite make the big time. I showed it to Fez, who hadn’t seen it for over 30 years; he had thought it was gone forever. When he saw it he was totally speechless, and caressed the strings almost in a daze! The choice of tonewoods and inlays, right down to the wooden pickup covers, were all his own ideas.
‘This bass really belongs at home with him, and I’ve decided to let go of ownership… and the smile on his face is going to say it all. I’ve experienced so many guitars and basses and have met so many nice people over the years, and for me, handing this bass over to Fez will be the epitome of real guitar collecting
For Mor on Flat Eric’s instruments visit flatericbassandguitar.blogspot.co.uk
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