Bobby's Bassment: Tom Ribbecke, Rob Turner & The Acoustic Bass Guitar

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

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!

Now that I’ve come through the other side and I’m still alive, I see and hear things in different ways—especially music. Playing an acoustic instrument, for example, is like sailing a sailboat: If you don’t know how to make it go, it just sits there, but if you know what you’re doing, it’s a beautiful thing!

My first acoustic bass guitar was an Ernie Ball Earthwood Bass I bought from Hideo Kamimoto in 1982. It’s a really cool short-scale bass with a maple neck, and the body is eight inches deep. Yep, from front to back, the bass is eight inches. Ouch! And yes, I still have it.

The second acoustic bass I bought was from Michael Tobias at the 1995 Summer NAMM show in Nashville. He had made two basses for Dave Holland—one had a 34" scale, and the other was a 35. I played the 35 at the show, and I wanted it! I had to wait for Dave to pick the one he wanted, and he picked the 34. YES! So I got the 35" MTD 435, and boy, I was the lucky one. This bass is a motherfather. I like it so much that I played it in the delivery room when my son Rocco was being born.

MTD 435 Acoustic Bass I bought acoustic bass No. 3 in 1999, when I was on tour in Canada with the band KVHW. I met John Larrivée Jr. at a KVHW gig, and he invited me to take a tour of the Larrivée Guitar Company. I played some of the new acoustic basses they had in stock, but although they were good, they didn’t knock my dick in the dirt. I asked John whether he had any older ones in stock. Sometimes, companies have older models in the warehouse or in the offices, but John said he was sorry to say they didn’t have any. As luck would have it, two days later I got a call, and he told me a local music store just sent an older bass back because the store couldn’t sell it. Shit, that bass was great, so guess what? Yep, I bought it. All this is leading up to today. Way back in 1995, when Rocco was in the womb, I ordered an archtop acoustic bass from luthier Tom Ribbecke. At the time, Tom was known for making some the best archtop guitars on the planet, period (he still is!). When I ordered the bass, I ordered it without a pickup. I wanted to get to know the instrument, to learn how to play it, and see what it could do before I put a pickup on it. Well, I got it seven years later—yes, in 2002—and boy, it was well worth the wait. I’m glad it took that long, because I got to know Tom and showed him my other instruments, including my Earthwood, my MTD 435, and my 1961 Fender Jazz Bass, a.k.a. the Shark Bass [see January ’14]. I got to sit and play those basses for him, give him solo CDs to listen to, and spend time together. After all is said and done, the quality and performance of my Ribbecke bass are on par with having an Aston Martin or a Bentley.

The pickup is another story. Well, sheet . . . . We tried piezo bridge pickups and we tried magnetic pickups, and they all came up short; they colored the bass too much and did not reproduce the instrument’s sound. So we took them off the bass and I played it acoustically for seven years. Then, in 2009, I asked EMG Pickups founder Rob Turner if he would make me a pickup. He gave my Ribbecke bass a listen, and then he made a pickup, and man—that pickup perfectly reproduces the acoustic sound of that bass. I played the Ribbecke for amp builder Phil Jones at the 2014 Winter NAMM Show. Yes, I know you can’t hear shit at a NAMM Show, but at 8:30 in the morning you can! After hearing me play the Ribbecke with Rob’s pickup, Phil said that the pickup went all the way down, and the sound of that bass made him feel the way he did the first time he heard the Beatles.

Thank you, Tom Ribbecke and Rob Turner, for the experience. Now that bass is alive and has a voice. May the groove be with us!