Private Collection: Bass Station Alpha

We love seeing bass collections, and this one’s a corker. Paul Dunbar is fixated on acquiring the long-for instruments of his youth, and that means Fenders, Hofners, items from Vox, Burns, Guild… and a spectacular array of Gibsons. Interview by Lars Mullen

‘Many players and collectors from the 1960s seem to have a similar answer to that familiar question, “How did you get into guitars?”’, says Paul Dunbar. ‘It was just so cool to own a guitar – well, usually the good old red Hofner was the closest you could get to the unaffordable pink Strat in the guitar shop window – and there were all these heroes you could aspire to being if you could just thrash out a chord or two.

‘As a kid, I wasn’t quite in that gang of wannabe players, though I was in a gang, a bike gang… well, we had bicycles! I was hanging out with two lads called Alan McKay and Charlie Williams, and we all had Dawes bikes. It felt good, as it seemed really trendy to hang out in a bicycle gang listening to early rock’n’roll!

‘It soon became obvious that riding around on a pedal bike wasn’t as cool as playing guitar, so Charlie bought a Fender Strat and Alan purchased a Rosetti Airstream finished in ice blue… and they said that if I wanted to remain in the gang, then I had to buy myself a bass!
‘We’re talking about the early ’60s, and at that time – apart from the few mainstream guitar shops in the big cities – guitars and amps were sold in places that also sold TVs and radios. In Jim Moore’s Music Shop in Hornchurch in East London I found a Burns Sonic Bass, which cost a pretty enormous 25 guineas, bought on hire purchase. I have one today – it’s identical to the one I first bought, and it dates from late ’63. But back when I was 12 years old, I had to pay for my Burns bass by riding hundreds of miles doing paper rounds in all weathers on the famed Dawes bicycle!’

Paul has two other basses that are strongly of the early/mid ’60s. ‘This Vox Phantom IV bass dates from the mid-’60s,’ he says, ‘and it has a massive neck. The Danelectro Longhorn bass is an original from 1961 but I’ve had it refinished, as someone had decided to hand-paint it in matt green. I bought these three to serve as a reminder of the great years I’ve had playing in a variety of bands, and they’re all basses that I probably couldn’t have afforded at the time.’

Our next trio of basses are all Hofners. ‘I feel that Hofners are really important milestones in early rock’n’roll,’ says Paul. ‘On the left is a semi-acoustic archtop Senator Bass from ’63, which plays beautifully; unplugged, it’s as loud as any acoustic bass I’ve played, with a gorgeous tone… ideal for casual late-night bass noodling.

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‘In the middle is a Violin Bass from ’65 – this one doesn’t have side position markers, which I find a little frustrating! And finally on the right there’s a red solidbody red Artist Bass, also from 1963.’

Back in the 1960s, Paul used his Burns Sonic bass for quite a while in the ‘bike gang’. ‘Charlie had the coolest guitar, the Strat of course, but Alan upgraded his Rosetti Airstream for an Epiphone Casino, so to keep up, I traded in the Burns for a Fender Precision bass,’ he explains. ‘By this time, Fenders were becoming a little easier to find in the UK. The Precision made a huge change from the short-scale Burns, of course, but I was tall for my age, so I could handle the extra weight and the extra length of the neck.

‘Considering that the three of us were all still at school, we had some pretty nice instruments between us! None of us were old enough to drive, so we had to cart a heavy Vox AC30 around the streets – we all simply plugged into that one amp.

‘As a band we progressed quite well, and played a lot of early rhythm and blues. But in the late ’60s, Charlie, Alan and myself decided we’d had enough, so we split… and I sold all my gear. Many years followed of just casually playing a lot at home, but then in the ’80s I started playing in bands again, using an Ibanez Roadstar bass.

‘Before long I part exchanged the Ibanez for this black ’83 Fender Precision, with some nice figuring on the maple board. This one was advertised as one of the last American-made Fenders just before they were produced in Japan, and it was responsible for starting the bass collection I have now.

‘Since that time I’ve bought this ‘65 sunburst Precision with a rosewood fingerboard as a reminder of that first one I had in the bicycle gang; this is used quite a bit for gigs. It’s very similar, in fact, with a “tug bar” on the scratchplate below the strings so you can play with your thumb. This other sunburst Precision, which is a ’78 with a maple fingerboard, has a thumb rest above the strings so you can play with your fingers.

‘Back then I did love Precisions, but in my heart it was always a Fender Jazz Bass that I really wanted. I always liked the sound and that narrow neck. These days, I’ve got several.
‘The black fretless Jazz is from 2000… it does take a little time for me to get my head around playing a fretless sometimes, especially putting my fingers in a different position.
‘I sometimes use this white Jazz from ’74 – the extra attack you get from the maple fingerboard is quite apparent. Note once again the different positions of the finger and thumb rests between this and the sunburst one on the right, which is a ’69: the ’74’s rest is above the strings, the ’69’s is below. 1974 was also the year they moved from tortoiseshell to black scratchplates.

‘As for the ’69, if I’m playing new material in a band that I’m not that confident with, then I’ll take this one out, no question about it. It’s been my first choice for live work for a long time now. I’m currently playing bass in two bands – a blues outfit called Big Fat Shorty, playing some pretty obscure material like the Red Devils, and a pub rock band called the Lazy Sundays. The big, warm sound of the ’69 Jazz is ideal for both bands.’

Next up is a fabulously cool trio of Fender Competition Mustang basses. ‘One of my favourite bass players was Alex Dmochowski from Aynsley Dunbar’s Retaliation, and he often used a Fender Mustang bass. I always liked the simplicity of them, and the short scale… there’s a powerful midrange tone going on, and because they’re strung through the body, there’s a fair amount of sustain too.

‘All three of mine have the “competition” stripes. The yellow one dates from ’69, and the blue one and the red one are both from ’73. The stripes, I think, ran from the mid-’60’s to around ’74. The yellow one is the scruffiest of the three, but it’s a beautiful little bass to play. It also has an early example of Leo Fender’s string damper assembly at the bridge. You can see that the body is covered with wear marks – someone played this for years wearing a bracelet of some kind. I’d love to be able to mind-read these old basses… I find it fascinating to think of where they have been and the stories they could tell.’

The Fender Telecaster bass has earned a reputation as a real workhorse, and Paul has three examples to choose from. ‘I have one version from ’72 with a humbucker at the neck, plus two earlier ones that are almost identical apart from the way they have faded over the years. The creamy one in the middle is a ’68, and the slightly pinker one on the right is from ’69. Telecaster basses are really solidly made, with great playability and a very distinct sound, but the trade-off is the weight of them – mine are all pretty heavy.’

The basic plan behind Paul’s collection is to try to acquire the basses he lusted after as a youngster, and in the same approximate order. ‘That isn’t always easy, and while waiting for a decent example of a particular model a different one will often catch my eye,’ he laughs. ‘The best way seems to be “while looking for one, buy something similar”!
‘For example, I was looking for a Fender Bullet bass, but the first one to show up was this little short-scale version built in ’82, and it looked so nice in its fitted case in the shop that I bought it.

‘Since then I’ve found this nice example of the long-scale model, the Bullet Bass Deluxe, from the same year. I get the impression that the Bullets basses were a mismatch of parts such as Tele necks and Mustang pickups… they were using up stock before they started to build Fenders overseas in ’83. The short-scale versions are really easy to play, and they’re popular with guitar players who just want to dabble with a bass or lay down some tracks in a studio.
‘This little Squier Musicmaster with the matching headstock also fits into that category. It couldn’t be any simpler – one pickup, one control knob. The pickup is one of the Vista Series pickups, purposely designed for bass, rather than the Strat guitar pickup they used with a cover over it. This is a fantastic little all-round bass.’

Next on the list are two lesser-seen Fender basses. ‘On the right is a USA-made JP-90, and on the left is a Mexican-built Stu Hamm signature called The Urge with active pickups and a double-octave fingerboard,’ says Paul. ‘I’ve got several active basses, but I think The Urge has the best tonal range of them all, while the JP-90 was developed in the ’90s from a combination of my two favourites, the Jazz and Precision. The body is slightly downsized, but with this hardware and spec it makes for really good value as a secondhand buy, and it sounds amazing.

Paul also has an impressive assortment of Gibson-made basses, although not all of these have arrived in the ‘order of want’. ‘I was initially after a Gibson Thunderbird bass with a reverse body, but a single-pickup ’64 Gibson non-reverse Thunderbird surfaced first, and I had to have it as it was one of the models that was in the Selmer catalogue we used to read when we were kids, so it became the next in the collection.

‘This one used to belong to Paul Martinez who played bass with a host of major artists, including Robert Plant. Looking at the stickers on the case, he must have done a few world tours with it. It’s a great bass to play, with a thin neck and a lot of drive from the centrally-mounted pickup.

‘Soon afterwards I heard about this reverse Gibson Thunderbird from ’65, also with a single pickup, so I had to have that one as well!

‘I’ve also since picked up this cute Epiphone Embassy Deluxe, and I thought I’d put it with the Thunderbirds for the photo shoot today as they all came out of the same factory and share the same hardware and scale length.’

For the next three, we stay with Gibson and with solid bodies. ‘This Gibson EB-O dates from ’59, and the single humbucker at the neck has a fearsome growl. There’s evidence that this bass has seen some serious work – there’s a groove that’s been carved above the E string by a lot of players’ thumbs… or maybe just one thumb over many years! There are also some very small holes on the top side, which fit the reverse shape of the scratchplate, so at some point it’s been used left handed.

‘This EB-O is of course the early version, with the Les Paul Junior body shape; later models had the SG shape, like these two EB-3s, which are both from 1969, and the only two of all my basses that are almost identical to each other. The four-way switches offer a variety of sounds including a really low thud – a bit like the baritone switch on an Epiphone Rivoli. They’re not the most versatile of basses, but for that big reggae vibe, or if you want an Andy Fraser-type sound, you play one of these… it’s as simple as that.’

Paul has a particularly soft spot for semi-acoustic Epiphone and Gibson basses. ‘Back in my school days I used to follow a band called Scrooge And The Misers, and the bass player had a blonde Epiphone Rivoli. They were dream basses in the early ’60s, so many years later I went on the quest for a Rivoli.

‘It just so happened that while I was looking for a Rivoli I came across a Gibson EB-2 for sale in a local guitar shop. In reality it’s more or less exactly the same bass, as they came out of the same factory and look almost identical aside from the headstocks, pickguards and a few other details.

‘On the left of this group of three is the ’63 Rivoli that I finally found. It has an unusual three-tone sunburst; the following year they only used the two-tone shade, as seen on the Gibson. This Rivoli also has the black flanged plastic pickup cover that Gibson used up until ’64, when they changed to metal covers.

‘About a month after I bought the Rivoli I saw this other one, finished in a shade of burgundy and built in ’67. It was in a guitar shop, and I had just dropped in to buy some sheet music. I didn’t think much of it as I already had one, but I was curious as it didn’t have a price on it, so I tried it out while the guy did some research. He came back saying even though it was a bit scruffy, they still wanted about £225 for it. Well, I wasn’t going walk out with just the sheet music after he’d he said that! The finish was indeed pretty rough, but it was mostly just layers of nicotine, so I took it to Bob Barry, who is based in Birmingham and looks after all my basses, and he did a great job cleaning it up.

‘Connoisseurs of these basses will be aware of the slight change in profile over the years of the top horns, going from “Mickey Mouse” ears to a slimmer profile. I just love these basses… they have such a sexy shape!

‘Another Gibson semi-acoustic bass I have is very different – a ’74 Gibson Les Paul Signature Bass. It has just one pickup smack in the middle and has a really usable sound – I’ve considered using this one live recently.

‘Staying with semis but going back to Fender for a moment, here’s one that never seems to be in the spotlight, the Fender Coronado bass. It was designed by Roger Rossmeisl, who had previously designed guitars for several of the major brands, including Rickenbacker. He learned his trade as a youngster at the famous Mittenwald school of guitarmaking in southern Germany, which had an almost trademark kind of binding that he introduced to the Rickenbacker line, and you can see a similar resemblance in the Coronado. The model I have is the two-pickup Coronado II – and it’s got both a finger rest and a thumb rest!

‘I love recording with this bass – I seem to be able to get a really big live sound with a small amp that’s working hard. To be honest I can’t really crank it up through a big amp. It’s hollow, without a centre block for the pickups, so there’s too much feedback. This one was built in 1968, and is still in perfect condition.

‘I also have a quite rare early-’60s solidbodied Epiphone Newport bass, which was basically Epiphone’s answer to the Gibson EB-O. This particular bass came over from California via eBay. It’s an early model with the black plastic pickup cover and it was built before they changed the body shape to have a smaller lower horn… it’s the same body profile as on this six-string Epiphone Olympic guitar from ’67.

‘I don’t have that many six-string guitars, but I thought the Newport would make a nice photo with the Olympic Double. During its life it’s been upgraded with a pair of mini humbuckers, and a lot of friends have offered to buy this one – it’s such a screamer when you crank it up.’

Next, Paul arrives with three more solidbody Gibson basses that reflect the late ’70s. ‘The ’70s was a time when Gibson was looking to produce something a little alternative, and the Ripper, Grabber and G3 basses are the classic examples. All three have the same large bodies, but they’re quite thin, so they aren’t that heavy. The Grabber was a lot brighter-sounding than previous Gibson models, especially with its maple body. The G3 is basically another version of the Grabber that had an innovative sliding pickup design, but with three single coil pickups instead. All these basses balance well on the shoulder, play great and have a tight, well-defined sound – especially the Ripper, which comes the four-position rotary they call the “Q System” which is designed to fine-tune the humbuckers.
‘When I bought the Grabber, the guy in the shop offered me a really good deal if I bought this Guild B-301 as well,’ Paul recalls. ‘This has now become quite a sought-after little bass.’

Next to the Guild is a real rarity in Paul’s collection, a – shock, horror – five-string bass. I personally haven’t had the need for the extra low B,’ he explains. ‘So many legendary bass players managed with just four strings! I can understand if someone has a problem reaching down the bottom of the neck, though, and with a five-string you can drop across. I only have one here right now; it’s an Ibanez EDB605 Ergodyne with an onboard EQ that boosts the mids and highs. I quite like the quirky look, but it’s an oddity in the collection and stays at home most of the time.

‘Let’s go back to Gibson basses for a minute: these next three are all from the Victory Series from the 1980s, and I believe they were designed by Chuck Burge… he was part of the Gibson research and development team from that era, which was housed in the basement of the old Kalamazoo plant.

‘The two-pickup Custom model in the middle of the photo is quite rare, as I’m told only 250 were produced. The one on the left is a silver single-pickup Standard; both have series/parallel switching and use Gibson’s VII humbuckers. They’re great basses with double-octave bolt-on necks.

‘The black 22-fret Q80 on the right is one of the lower-spec’d Victory series basses. It’s still a real workhorse, though, and you can see how Chuck Burge was influenced by the good old Fender Precision for the Victory design.’

We’re still not finished with Paul’s Gibson basses, and the next to emerge is the four-stringed variant of the low-impedance Les Paul guitars built between the late ’60s and mid ’70s. ‘The Gibson Les Paul Triumph bass is an upgrade of the Recording Bass. It was one of the company’s flagship models at the time in terms of build, and also very sophisticated when it comes down to the electronics. Apart from the normal pickup selector switch and volume and tone controls, the extras included high-low impedance switching, phase-controlled low impedance pickups and a three-way tone selector switch, where one position I’m told is supposed to sound like a Fender Precision bass. I believe it was designed by Gibson and Les Paul himself, and it was really expensive at the time.

‘This Gibson IV bass also doffs its cap toward a Precision in terms of the body shape. It doesn’t really have the “drool” factor, but it sounds pretty nice… there’s a kind of big, woody vibe going on from the solid mahogany body and the set neck.

‘Surprisingly the IV isn’t that heavy, but this RD Artist Bass with its Moog active electronics certainly is. Quite a lot of younger bands seem to be pickup up on these right now. It was launched around 1979, and it was a result of Gibson working with Bob Moog and with Who bassist John Entwistle. It was also Gibson’s first-ever active bass. I did read that Entwistle walked away from the project. Although it was never a hit, it did overtake the Ripper bass in terms of sales in the late ’70s.’

Paul certainly has a hankering to seek out lesser-known models, especially those from the big brands, and his black Gibson V Bass is a fine example.

‘These were only produced for about 18 months, as was this Explorer bass from the mid-’80s, which came with these graphics as original. This is a cool rock bass and it sounds pretty great, but transportation is something else… the case is more or less the same size as a wallpaper pasting table!’
The V Bass and the Explorer inspire Paul to dig out another unlikely major-name weirdo from the ’80s, a Squier Katana bass. ‘This is a fairly inexpensive model from 1985, and in reality it’s a P-bass plus a pointy headstock and a chamfered body design. It was aimed at the metal market, and aside from the body, it does sound and play like a Precision. They must have sold a few at the time, but I haven’t seen many around.’

Next to the Katana is a blocky, squared-off bass that even some confirmed vintage freaks would be unable to identify. ‘This active Gibson 20/20 is both very rare and rather unusual, and it was available in Ferrari red or luna silver, like this one. It was designed by Ned Steinberger, as you can tell from the body design complete with flip-out leg rest. This bass was produced in very small numbers – I’ve heard that no more than 100 were built between late ’87 and early ’88.

‘I really like this bass, and even though it has a small body it seems to balance fairly well on the strap. I found it on eBay in the USA and it didn’t even reach the reserve price, so I contacted the guy and we came to an agreement.’
For the last bass in Paul’s collection, we were half expecting a bass from the future… but he walks in with a real oldie. ‘I’ve saved this Gibson EB-1 until last as it goes way back to ‘53, and it’s the oldest one in my collection. It’s a simple bass, but it features several designs that were later seen on many Gibson and Epiphone models… the wrap-around bridge, for example.

‘This is a short-scale bass, comfy to play, and even with a one-piece mahogany neck and solid mahogany body it still only weighs around 8.4lbs. I love the painted-on f-hole, the unmistakable body shape and the banjo tuners. The single alnico pickup under the brown Royalite cover measures 16.28k Ohms and has a huge, meaty output. Once again, if only these classic vintage instruments had log books so we could tap into the history of them! I’d love to know where they’ve been, and how they’ve survived.

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