From the late ’60s through the ’70s, I’d go to every music store I could find in the San Francisco Bay Area. Sometime around 1974, I heard about a store in Mill Valley called Prune Music; people were saying Prune had some cool old guitars, basses, and amps (old gear wasn’t called “vintage” yet). I lived in San Francisco, so to get to Mill Valley, I had to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge. Back in those days, I didn’t know where I was going most of the time, and would often wind up getting lost. Sometimes, the journey itself was the prize.
So I hopped in my Ford Pinto and finally got to Prune Music. I walked in and saw all this really cool stuff—used Teles, Strats, acoustic guitars, basses, and amps. I wasn’t looking for it, but boy, I found it: an old amp that looked like a toaster or a radio. I asked if I could try it out, and then I plugged in. Man, I had never played through an amp that sounded like this. It had that sound, the sound I’d heard on so many records—real warm, like the 45s that were played through the old jukeboxes.
Right while I was playing, a lady came over and told me I sounded good. When she noticed that I played with a pick, she told me she played bass with a pick too, and she introduced herself. That lady was the one and only Carol Kaye. I didn’t know who she was…oops! (If you don’t know who Carol Kaye is, Google her. You will be amazed.)
So I asked the guy how much the amp was. He said $165. I told him I’d take it, but I didn’t have any money—I had to go home and get it. Another trip over the Golden Gate Bridge! That was going to be four times in one day. I paid about $179 out the door. I put the Ampeg B-15 in my Pinto, went home, and played bass all night long. Man, I was a happy duck.
Later on, I found out that Prune Music is where Randy Smith made the first Mesa/Boogie amps, and that Carol Kaye was giving bass lessons there. Eventually, I would record with Lee Michaels, who ran Globe Studios in the back of the store. Wow—all in one building!
A couple decades later, I was at David Freiberg’s house recording some tracks. David, one the greats, is my friend and mentor; he also founded Quicksilver Messenger Service in the ’60s and played bass and keyboards for Jefferson Starship. While I was at his house, I saw this cool old fretless Ampeg Scroll/“pretzel” bass like the one Rick Danko used in The Last Waltz when The Band played with the Staple Singers. I asked David about the bass, and he told me that it belonged to Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who had given it to him. I said, “Wow, cool!”
Then David said, “I’m not using it—would you like it?” I couldn’t say anything; I was at a loss for words. After a while, I managed to say “yes,” and “thank you.” Man, how lucky is that? The Ampeg Scroll Bass was reputed to be the first production fretless electric bass. The one I have has a transducer below the bridge for a pickup—it sounds great, kind of like an Ampeg Baby Bass—and it also has a Telecaster Bass pickup that sounds great for R&B stuff. And this bass kills for salsa and reggae music! I’ll put up some videos soon. Until then, may the groove be with us.
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!