How to Buy a Vintage Fender Bass
For many Fender bassists owning a vintage Fender is the ultimate experience. There's nothing quite like the feel and sound of a well played Fender Bass.
The question is how do you find a good, authentic vintage Fender for the right price...and how do you know it's for real?
One of the most important things to remember when shopping for a vintage Fender is that old does not necessarily mean good. Unfortunately Fender did make some subpar basses, especially in the mid to late 1970's. Of course for some buyers just the fact of owning a vintage Fender is good enough, regardless of it's quality.
Another crucial aspect is the authenticity of the vintage bass. For many people a couple of changed parts is no big deal. On the other hand there are some, especially serious collectors, where having a completely original vintage Fender Bass is a must.
Knowledge is Everything
Having a good knowledge about vintage Fenders is a tremendous help in knowing what to look for. There are so many different things to look for that it can be overwhelming. Right off the bat look carefully at the finish. Many vintage Fenders have had their finishes either stripped or repainted at some point. It's not uncommon nowadays for a vintage bass to have a refinish that is distressed to make it look old and original. It's often difficult to tell the difference between original and professionally refinished basses, so if your not sure it's best to play it safe and assume it's not original. A refinished vintage bass can lose up to half of it's original value.
Another important thing to look at carefully is the electronics. Pickups, pots, knobs, and wires are very often replaced at some point in a basses life, and all these have an impact on the value. Knowing what to look for is crucial and the more you familiarize yourself with different types of vintage Fender basses the better your chances are of getting a good vintage bass at the right price.
Make sure the bass is in good playing condition. Check the neck for twists or bows. Many vintage Fenders have neck issues, especially 70's Jazz Basses with the 3 bolt neck plate and bullet truss rod. Play the bass through a good amp so you can clearly hear any noise problems. Scratchy pots, weak or microphonic pickups are a common issue with old Fenders. If there are issues with the original pickups it's always better to have them repaired or re-wound (by an expert) than to replace them.
Although Fender Basses are probably the most sought after vintage bass in the world that also means that they're the most faked bass out there. For someone who has had years of experience with looking at and handling Vintage Fender Basses it's usually pretty easy to spot a bogus Fender. For inexperienced Fender buyers spotting a phony Fender can be difficult, especially if it's a good fake.
There are several small things to look for depending on the year and model of the Fender Bass. A good place to start is the headstock. Compare the decal and headstock shape of the bass in question to photos of real Fenders of that era. Usually a counterfeit Fender will have something "off" with shape of the headstock or the font, style and placement of the decal.
Body shape is another good indicator of a real or fake Fender. Again, compare the bass to pics of real Fenders and take special notice to the contours and thickness of the body. The body wood is also sometimes a good indicator for for spotting fake. Most vintage Fenders used either alder or ash, so if the wood looks like basswood or poplar it's probably not legit.
All in the Details
Pay careful attention to the small details and compare any of those to real vintage Fenders. Something as subtle as pickup placement or the shape of the control knobs can give a clue as to whether the Fender Bass is real or not. Serial numbers and stamp codes are always vital and should be looked at carefully. Most vintage Fenders have the serial code stamped on the neck plate, although many 70's Fenders have them on the front of the headstock. Stamp codes on the pots and pickups should be looked at also. These codes can checked by Fender to make sure they are legit and also to verify the year they were produced.
One important note to understand about all vintage Fenders is that the year of manufacture is only an approximate estimation. Fender Basses were built from parts and all those different parts were made at different times. The body may have been made in 1966 but the neck may have been made in 1968 and the pots in 1965. Back in the day Fender was not worried about dating their basses accurately, they just didn't think anyone would care. Generally speaking for most vintage collectors the most recent made part determines the year. So in this case the bass would be considered a 1968.
This often presents a problem for a potential buyer who doesn't know whether the neck was made originally for the bass or was a replacement changed sometime later. It was quite common in the 60's and 70's to replace a neck that had been warped or twisted or to have the body refinished at the Fender factory if it had become worn or damaged. Luckily bodies were usually stamped as refinished by Fender under the pickguard. Necks are harder to determine unless the date stamp is more than a couple of years off, for instance a 1964 body with a 1972 neck would be an obvious replacement.
Buying a vintage Fender from a trusted dealer with documentation is always safer than buying one from a private owner although the dealer will usually cost more. It's always a good idea to ask for any paperwork the seller might have regarding the bass, such as the original sales receipt or repair and maintenance bills. Just remember that there's no fool proof way to insure that a bass is 100% original. There's always some risk when buying a vintage Fender, even if it's verified by a Fender expert they can only say that it is in their opinion most likely all original. Using these basic guidlines however will give you a much better chance at getting the vintage Fender Bass of your dreams.