By Mike Ippersiel
So what’s the big deal about boutique basses?
Perhaps this is something that you’ve thought to yourself as you’ve looked at high resolution images of handmade or highly customized basses that cost $3,000 and up.
Are they worth more than triple what you can spend to pick up a decent bass off the shelf at your local music store?Do all those exotic woods do anything besides look, well…exotic? Are they really just over-priced pieces of furniture fashioned into the shape of a bass guitar?
Yes and no.
You see, any particular bass guitar is going to be worth more or less money from one person to another. Some instrument collectors will pay outrageous sums of money for rare instruments because they happened to be owned or even were only played a few times by someone famous like Paul McCartney or Jaco Pastorius.
Others may pay to have a bass guitar built by hand that many may feel is either ugly, or even unplayable. It’s true that one man’s trash is another
For me, it was the price tag that really put boutique basses on a pedestal for me.
Here I was, a modest rock bassist playing covers and original music who was happy to go home after a gig with $100 bucks in his pocket – what right did I have to daydream about a high-end custom bass guitar? The ‘realistic’ side of me said that I could own a bass like that ‘one day’ when I ‘made it’.
While there is a market for boutique bass guitars that look like furniture and that span 5, 6, 7, 8 strings and beyond, a significant chunk of the high end bass guitar market is devoted to what I’ll call ‘modern vintage’ instruments.
Luthiers like Sadowsky, Mike Lull and Alleva-Coppolo (just to name a few) offer modern takes on the classic Fender Jazz bass guitar – that cost several times more than it would cost to just pickup up an actual Fender bass yourself.
So why pay more for a ‘copy’ than buying the original bass from the actual manufacturer?
The reality is that the art of creating a bass guitar has changed dramatically in the last few decades.
Basses are now mass produced and outsourced to overseas operations all in the effort to keep them as affordable as possible. While this is great for the typical musician, the professionals and perfectionists among us have often lamented that many of the instruments just don’t feel or sound as good as the basses made back in the 60s and 70s.
Part of the reason for this could be using inferior woods, rushing the manufacturing process and not allowing even the quality woods to age sufficiently.
Perhaps in an effort to trim back costs to compete in the global market place, wages were reduced to the point where it’s not as economically viable for master craftsman and women to be employed at some of the bigger name companies?
Whatever the reason, the best advice I’ve heard and often repeated when it comes time to buy a new instrument – especially one that’s mass produced by one of the more popular brands out there – is to play as many as you can and let your hands and your ears tell you which one to buy.
In a perfect world, you should be able to just walk into a store and pick the model you like the best and get it in your preferred colour and walk out. You wouldn’t worry about another bass sounding better because they’d all sound the same right? However, even among the most reputable manufacturers the consistency may fluctuate from bass to bass.
With Fenders I’ve heard of some people exclaiming that Made in Mexico basses were as good or better than Made in America basses – but you’ll only find that gem of a great sounding bass at a more affordable price if you’re willing to hunt for it. So again the advice, play every bass you can get your hands on, play every bass in the store and buy the one that sounds and feels the best to you.
Do you see where I’m going with this?Advantages of using a luthier?
Time is a huge factor behind why many people are more than happy to pony up the big bucks for a modern take on a vintage classic. They can chat with the luthier about what they’re looking for and get it made to order – the finish, the string spacing, the woods, the hardware – whatever.
Compared to hitting every music store in every neighbouring city within an hour’s drive; or camping out on Ebay or classified ads sites waiting for a certain vintage bass to come up for sale, the amount of time saved can be tremendous…and we all know that time is money right?
Plus, who’s to say that when you finally do find that vintage Fender that you’ve been pining over for years that you won’t pick it up and find the dreaded ‘dead spot’ after plunking a few notes?
Going the custom route alleviates a lot of those difficulties; many of the luthiers have exceptional warranties to go with the instrument. After all, it’s their name on the headstock and they want to make sure every customer is going to speak highly of their products and customer service.
Boutique basses aren’t really about a particular style of music, or the status of the player – you don’t have to be a celebrity to own these high end basses (and I’d argue that the vast majority of owners are nowhere near famous)– the instrument just needs to offer that something that you can’t easily find elsewhere to make it worth the cost.
For some, it’s a replica of a vintage bass guitar that they always loved but could never find. For others, a boutique bass is where they get to tailor things like the weight, the neck shape and depth or the number of strings that the mass produced versions just can’t do in an economical fashion. Still others want the best of traditional styling and a 20 fret fingerboard along with modern features like a low b string and active electronics.
Whatever your reason, boutique basses are worth a closer look whether you find modern instruments lacking or covet extremely rare vintage bass guitars that are in short supply.
In the end you might find the biggest pain is not how much the custom basses cost, but the agony of waiting for your boutique bass to be built!
You can learn more about boutique bass guitars and more by visiting http://bassguitarrocks.com/how-do-i-buy-a-custom-boutique-bass-guitar
– thanks for reading!