Retro-Rama: 1960s Kent Bass Guitar

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THIS MONTH’S RETRO-RAMA BASS IS AN INTERESTING JAPANESE twist on a classic American design. Kent was one of many brand names used on inexpensive basses made by Japanese companies for import to the United States. Over the years there has been some controversy about where various Kent instruments were made. The confusion arises from another late-’60s import brand that was sold primarily in Europe, and mostly famous for being used by David Bowie. These “other” Kents were made by Hagström in Sweden, and were sometimes sold under the Futurama name, but are not related to their Far East counterparts.

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There is very little information available on this bass, and even its model number seems to be lost to the ages. It was made by the Japanese company Guyatone in the mid 1960s. One of Japan’s oldest instrument manufacturing companies, Guyatone was founded by Mitsuo Matsuki and began making its first instruments in 1933, originally under the Guya brand name. After World War II, Matsuki began to make instruments using the Guyatone name. In 1962, American importer and distributor Buegeleisen & Jacobson, based in New York City, made a deal with Guyatone and created the Kent subsidiary of their company to market instruments imported to the U.S.

This bass, courtesy of Gruhn Guitars in Nashville, has held up very well over the years, and plays very nicely thanks to a recent refret job. The body is a slimmed down P-style shape with the classic elbow and back contours, and with some additional carving in unusual spots like the back of the headstock and the upper cutaway, making this bass very light. The anodized aluminum pickguard and the rectangular fret markers up the cool factor of this bass. It sports “hammerhead” enclosed tuners—which still work well—and the less typical metal “K” logo, as opposed to the more common script version found on most of Kent’s other models.

The scale length is an unusual 33.5," which gives it a slightly springier feel than a standard 34"-scale bass. The pickup has an unusual cover, with a chrome top and bottom separated by a thin plastic insert holding the polepieces. The sound of this bass is straightahead, as one might expect from a P-style design. The tone knob has a small but very useable frequency range, mostly affecting the midrange in a nicely musical way.

The “X” factor of this quirky axe is the massive bridge cover and string mute. In the early days of electric bass, the natural sustain and punchiness of a bass guitar was not yet a universally desired sound, and some players wanted nothing more than a more portable version of an upright bass. For their sake, many bass guitars of the time had some sort of mute in the bridge. As the bass guitar evolved into its own animal, many players removed the covers and mutes, and in many cases eventually lost them. On this bass, the cover is easily removed with a single screw, which may have contributed to its survival. Unfortunately, the mute foam has seen its better days, so its effect is somewhat diminished. But the foam could be easily replaced for those seeking a mellower sound.

With the bridge cover off, the sound of this bass opens up quite dramatically. Acoustically, the bass is already quite lively due to its lightweight body; freed from the foam, this bass really sings. Unfortunately, taking off the cover also reveals a number of protruding screws and metal pieces that could really hurt if you hit them hard while playing. Either way, there is a lot to like about this unpretentious import with a bit of a split personality. Until next time, peace, love, and grooves.