Bobby Vega on Finding the Right Bass

Bobby Vega is a world-class collector and vintage bass freak of the first order.
By Bobby Vega ,

Bobby Vega is a world-class collector and vintage bass freak of the first order. The gear is real. The stories are true. The dates are foggy. And the names of the innocent have been changed to protect their identities… and save Bobby’s ass!

I’VE BEEN BUYING, SELLING, AND PLAYING BASSES A LONG, LONG, TIME.

My first bass, a Norma, cost $52.95, and my mother bought it for me with monthly payments from Montgomery Ward when I was in eighth grade. (Thank you, Mom. I love you!) I played that bass for about two years, but even before that Norma, I’d go to all the music stores and “hock shops” in San Francisco to see what they had. But I didn’t know what I was looking for. I didn’t know what a good bass was, and I didn’t know the difference between a cool bass and a good bass, let alone a good bass for me

One day, I went to Sherman & Clay, a piano store that also sold electric guitars and basses. They were having a going-out-of-business sale, and they had two basses left: a paisley pink Fender Telecaster Bass and a Gibson EB-1. They were each on sale for $175, and guess which one I got? Yep, the EB-1. Yep, my mother took out a loan to buy me that bass, too. And yep, I’m lucky and my mother is cool.

Why, you ask, did I choose the Gibson EB-1 bass? I had seen Mountain at the Fillmore West, and when I looked at the EB-1 at Sherman & Clay, I remembered how cool Felix Pappalardi had been at that show. He played his ass off, and he was singing though his bass. The EB-1 had to be good, right?

Well, it was a cool bass, even a great bass, but at the time, it wasn’t the right one for me. In fact, it got me fired from my first soul group, the Quick Grits Soul Band, because they said I wasn’t funky. After they fired me, they told me to leave my amplifier and my 2x15 cabinet because it was theirs now. Ouch! That was a cool bowl of chili. I loved that bass and I wish I had it today.

Not long after that, I traded my Gibson EB-1 to Don Weir for a blond Fender Jazz Bass with a maple neck and black binding. The deal was $150 plus my EB-1 for the Jazz Bass. Now, that was a cool bass and a great bass for me! That’s how I got my first Jazz, and it was the first time I could hear what I was doing and what I sounded like. I could express myself on that bass, and I realized, Shit … I am funky! I had found my voice, and it was on a Jazz.

So when it comes to finding the right instrument, there are a few things I’d like to pass on to you. Before you go spending your money, ask yourself what kind of bass you want.

Start with a Jazz- or Precision-style bass. Why? Because you can play almost any style of music on either of these basses. It doesn’t have to be a Fender—there are so many builders making great J-basses and P-basses, in all price ranges. The pickup placement and configuration affect how the bass sounds, and the body shape matters, too. Find something inexpensive—say, $150 to $350—and see what you can do with it. Play it, adjust the action to find out what works for your touch and feel, and listen to the difference when you raise or lower the pickups. Adjust the neck so you can see how it affects the action and sound, but remember to turn the trussrod in short increments. Imagine you’re looking at a clock; you see 12, 3, 6, 9, and 12 again. When you adjust the truss rod, do it, turn it from, say, 12 o’clock to 3 o’clock and then 3 o’clock to 6 o’clock. If the trussrod is working, you will see, feel, and hear a difference. Turning the trussrod to the right tightens the neck, and turning it left loosens the neck. Adjust your bridge for string height and adjust your pickup height in small increments, too. Like they say in the movie What About Bob?, use baby steps!

How does the bass feel on you with a guitar strap? How does the neck feel in your hand? Are the knobs or switches in your way? Does it inspire you to play? Oh, and let’s not forget about the other part of the biscuit: the strings. Do you like flatwounds or roundwounds? If you’re looking for a James Jamerson or Chuck Rainey tone, La Bella Stainless Steel Flatwound 1954 Original Vintage strings are the ones for you. If you are looking for Jaco Pastorius or John Entwistle tones, then Rotosound Swing Bass or roundwound stainless steels will get you in the ballpark. No set of strings works for every bass: I use D’Addario EXL165 nickels on my Shark Bass, a 1961 Fender Jazz, but my 1960 Precision likes D’Addario’s EXL170 set. There are so many types of strings, from nickel roundwounds and groundwounds to nylon tape and coated strings … It’s like Forrest Gump’s friend Bubba talking about shrimp!

Now you’re on your way. If you start here, you will find your voice. Remember: A bass doesn’t go to you, you go to it. Find out what it does by using your playing skills.