If you’ve played more than 20 of these luscious instruments in your time, you should be proud – and if you’ve played them all, we want to invite you round for dinner.
65 GB Rumour
Brighton-based luthier Bernie Goodfellow makes beautiful basses in the finest woods available to man. The Rumour, available in 4, 5 and 6 string versions, has a curvaceous shape inspired, says Goodfellow, by the female figure. Play one of these high-end instruments and you’ll understand exactly how custom makers such as GB earn their keep.
64 Marleaux Mbass
The German Marleaux company specialise in single-cutaway basses of phenomenal playability and build quality, as one pluck of their Mbass model – or indeed any other one that they make – will confirm. While that wacky body shape may look slightly bulky, the company claim that the balance benefits as a result, and who are we to disagree?
63 Kala U-Bass
This cute little bass is essentially a baritone ukulele with a larger neck, passive piezo pickups and polyurethane strings. It may look tiny, but in fact the 20” scale allows you more space than you’d expect. The tuning is standard too, making this among the more desirable ukes for bassists.
62 Skjold Damian Erskine Whaleback
The Damian Erskine signature model is a whole lot of bass, all right, and is named appropriately as its top edge reminds you of a massive whale. The Whaleback may resemble a coffee-table made out of lovely wood and turned on its side, but check out the upper-register access on the lower bout…
61 Gus G3
If Han Solo played a bass in Star Wars, this would be the one he’d choose. With glittering metal horns, a futuristic shape and the ability to shoot lasers out of the headstock (OK, maybe not that), the G3 is the bass you want stored in the Millennium Falcon in case of ‘Imperial entanglements’.
60 Lightwave Saber
Reviewed back in our December 2010 issue, the ridiculously clever Lightwave Saber doesn’t need a pickup to make a noise. Oh no, it’s far too clever for that, using electronic ‘eyes’ to measure the vibration of the strings. As a result, the sustain goes on… and on… and on…
59 Gibson Grabber
Although the Grabber was less loved than its big brother the Thunderbird, it did boast a killer app in the form of a slideable pickup that the player moved up and down the body for extra treble and bass as required. The Grabber’s devotees, and there are many, swore by this cunning device.
58 G&L L2000
Loading a Fender-style body with two full-fat humbuckers is always a great idea, and G&L’s frankly luscious basses have a tone that their players insist is unmatched anywhere else as a result. The L2000’s zippy looks (we love the wavy headstock) give it stacks of on-stage cool, too.
57 Michael Tobias Design Eclipse
American bass-maker Michael Tobias sold his company to Gibson before starting up his own MTD company and continuing the innovative work on finishes which he’d begun under the Tobias brand. Any of his basses are worth a shot, but the Eclipse has great nostalgia value.
56 Washburn AB40
Why not have an acoustic bass or two on the list? After all, this nifty Washburn has none other than Stuart Hamm’s signature on it, and if it’s good enough for him it’s more than good enough for us. The AB40 will be smooth as butter to play, as sure as ham and eggs are Hamm and eggs.
55 Dean Jeff Berlin
Four strings, passive and sweet as a Smartie, Dean’s JB model is as spec-heavy and upmarket as you’d expect for a bassist of Jeff’s calibre. Remember, Jaco Pastorius admitted that Jeff was a better soloist then he was: a guy like that needs a decent axe, right? You know it.
54 ESP TA-600
Based on the ancient Hill and BC Rich basses that Slayer frontman Tom Araya used to play, the ESP TA series is a spiky-looking but slickly strummable instrument that metal players worldwide have embraced. Available in any colour, as long as it’s… oh, you know.
53 Sandberg California PM
We love the P-J configuration over here at BGM, and one good way to get your hybrid kicks is to invest several hundred sovereigns in this lovely instrument. With elite-level electronics and a body to die for, we say the Sandberg’s California range has something for everybody to love.
52 Eccleshall 335
Manchester luthier Chris Eccleshall is best known for the Gibson 335-shaped semi-acoustic basses he made for sometime New Order beard-wearer Peter Hook, a man whose grasp of the haunting upper-register melody is unique. The 335 is tasty, tasty, very very tasty, and highly sought-after in the indie-rock scene.
51 Ibanez GWB
Ah, the finger ramp! Like Marmite, you either love it or avoid it like swine flu, but we’re keen on its many charms, especially on the signature bass designed by its creator Gary Willis. Although Ibanez is best known for its heavy metal endorsees, you can plug their basses into any genre you like.
50 Schecter Stiletto
Reliable, versatile and great-looking. But that’s enough about our features editor – Schecter basses fill a seriously large gap in the bass market in which a reasonable amount of money meets a respectable amount of quality, and they fill it well. Try the Ultra too, for that wacky 1960s look.
49 Peavey Cirrus
Holy price-tag range, Batman! The Cirrus stands at the top of Peavey’s long line of basses, which stretches from the affordable Millennium range to state-of-the-art instruments that cry out to be played. Look at the wood on this bass. Just look at it.
48 Epiphone Jack Casady Signature
Another Gibson 335-alike, this time endorsed by past BGM alumni such as Andy Lewis of Paul Weller’s band, Epiphone’s creamy Jack Casady has a tone that cuts through the most irksome of guitar riffs without suffering from any undue feedback issues. We love that retro headstock, daddio.
47 Hohner Jack
Yes, we know the Hohner Jack was cruelly mocked for being a poor man’s Status back in the 80s. You don’t have to remind us: we were there. Still, though, we think it played like a demon, balanced like an acrobat and influenced a whole generation of fun, affordable basses.
46 BassLab L-Bow
Yes, it looks nuts – so what? We like crazy-looking gear, in case you hadn’t noticed, and the fact that the L-Bow looks like a bit of bubblegum that’s been melted with a blowtorch and then painted day-glo colours doesn’t trouble us. We think all basses should be this way.
45 Sei Flamboyant
If you’ve got a couple of grand to spare, you could do a lot worse than investing in one of these truly splendid, British-made instruments, made from the finest materials and in a gobsmacking array of options. The Flamboyant gets its name for a reason, by the way…
44 Shergold 4040
Shergold were something of a 1970s curio in manufacturing terms but that doesn’t mean they didn’t make some totally skill basses, among them the 4040. This solid beast of an instrument played and recorded like a dream, and came – somewhat ahead of its time – alongside 5- and 6-string models.
43 Vigier Excess
The choice of axe for Deep Purple’s Roger Glover among others, French manufacturer Vigier offer a unique feature on their Excess bass – a metal fingerboard – that adds an audible zing to the instrument’s sound and a slippery edge to the playing feel. This feels most obvious on a fretless. Yummy.
42 Bee GrooveBee
This Oregon-based company make a range of custom and extended-range instruments that use unusual body shapes and woods for a truly unique look. We like them a lot, as well as the fact that Bee prices are manageable for the professional. No need to blow the mortgage on one of these rare insects.
41 Manson E Bass John Paul Jones
Players of the stature of Led Zep’s John Paul Jones don’t tend to accept compromises, and Jones’s recently-launched signature bass from Devon-based luthier Hugh Manson is a world-class beauty through and through. The elegance of the horns… the subtlety of the finish… where do you start?
40 Ampeg ADA4U Dan Armstrong Reissue Plexi
Wait – this bass is made out of see-through plexiglas! You can see its innards and everything, both in the 1960s original and the new one reissued by Ampeg. It’s so unusual that we want to say ‘Wait – this bass is made out of see-through plexiglas!’ again… Oh, we did.
39 Jaydee Classic Series 1
Mark King’s first Jaydee was a slapalicious little bass, painted cherry red (the colour soon became a Jaydee trademark) and toted round the world when King made it big with pop-funk act Level 42. To this day the response of these splendid basses is second to none.
38 Godin A4
The Godin series is one of the wonders of the bass world, all eminently strokable woods and state-of-the-art tones. The A6 is a semi-acoustic instrument which comes in a particular orangey-brown wood that reminds us a bit of a trip to Ikea but without the meatballs.
37 Framus Star Bass 135E
Framus are a proper old-school brand, operating for three decades until the 1970s, when they bit the dust. The Star Bass, staple of many a greasy-haired rockabilly cat half a century ago, played like a tank and looked like a wardrobe, but boy was it influential.
36 Ritter Jupiter
Don’t play, or even look at, this fantastically bizarre bass if you’ve got a hangover: it’s a fairly psychedelic experience just having one around. It isn’t all about looks, though: the Jupiter plays like a dream too. The kind of dream you have when you eat Stilton at bed time.
35 Pedulla MVP
With its weeny horns and luscious wood, the Pedulla MVP – once used by none other than Gene Simmons of Kiss – is iconic. Few basses offer as much sustain per kilo of wood, and fewer still look like a manta ray’s face when you take the neck off.
34 Lakland Skyline
A manufacturer whose instruments are ever-growing in popularity, judging by the number of players we speak to who love them, Lakland are reliable, tonally generous and not over-complicated. That’s a surprisingly rare thing in the bass world, especially in the mid-market.
33 Kubicki Ex Factor
Futuristically-shaped basses were two a penny in the 1980s and 90s, and nowadays they tend to look pretty embarrassing. Not so the Kubicki, whose streamlined arrow shape still looks as keen as mustard to us, perhaps because of its not-headless-but-not-quite-headed appearance.
32 Jackson Concert
Still the headbanger’s choice of bass a couple of decades after its launch, the Jackson Concert has the droopy, pointy headstock that so many other manufacturers copied. In fact, Jackson were forced to fight them off with a trademark action. Quite right too: it’s an icon among instruments.
31 Burns Bison
Too many switches? Too asymmetrical a body shape? Ah, don’t be so picky. Back in the 60s, when session musicians did 12 albums a day and a bass guitar sounded like someone dropping a book on a duvet, instruments needed to be solid and reliable – and this one was.
30 Gretsch Electrotone
If you could play one of these gargantuan basses, you could make it sound pretty cool. The problem was that there was enough room inside for a grand piano. OK, we exaggerate: the Electrotone was and remains an immensely popular bass… among very strong people.
29 Gibson EB0
This curious-looking bass, resembling a Les Paul with two cutaways and a pickup jammed up against the neck to avoid any treble, was much loved by certain players of the 60s and 70s but suffered a loss of credibility as the decades passed. Old ones still sell for thousands, though.
28 Conklin Sidewinder
You know a luthier is fearless when six strings seems an embarrassingly low number and if they offer a 36-fret neck option. Conklin, whose basses seem to know no limits, will take you to places that other basses don’t, which sounds like a shameless plug – but it’s literally true.
27 BC Rich Beast
On this list because its sumptuous, alien curves and hot, hot EMGs make it essential for any true on-stage exhibitionist, BC Rich’s flagship bass is actually painful to play if you’re not careful. But that’s the way some people like it, and who are we to judge them, after all?
26 Fodera Monarch
Victor Wooten uses Fodera for a reason: because they play like nothing else on earth, because they are painstakingly assembled by hand, and presumably also because he likes the colour. Most of the rest of us will never get to own one, but hey, a bassist can dream, right?
25 Fender Mustang
Literally the little brother of the Fender family, the Mustang is much appreciated by small-handed and small-bodied players for its 30” scale and lightweight build. While it couldn’t compete with the Precision and Jazz on any serious level, at least you could carry it upstairs without doing your back in.
24 Spector NS
The first model made by Stuart Spector wasn’t quite as slick as the current range but wow, was it influential. With other luthiers queueing up to take a long hard look at the body shape, it left a mark on the bass world that is still obvious today.
23 Zon Hyperbass
There are three compelling reasons to buy a Hyperbass. One, that three-octave neck. Two, the incredible lower cutaway, which allows access like no other bass. Three, so that you can give it to us as a Christmas present. Ah, we’re just kidding! Er, no we’re not.
22 Sadowsky NYC
This American company make a bass out of swamp ash, they tell us, like we know what swamp ash is. Still, it looks lovely, and bassists queue up to tell us how amazing Sadowskys are – so what are you waiting for? Order three today, plus one to keep in a lead-lined vault.
21 Danelectro Longhorn
Personally we think the Longhorn works best in a Nashville bar, where men are men, steers and steers and basses had better look like cows or risk being run out of the county by the sheriff’s men. Not so effective if you live in Slough.
20 Warwick Streamer
A staple of the Warwick catalogue for over 15 years now, the Streamer was many bassists’ way into the German manufacturer and remains hugely popular. Sure, Warwicks tend to be heavy and you have to like natural finishes to get on with most of them, but where else are you going to get that tone?
19 Status S2 Classic
Introduced in 1981, the Status S2 was a revelation. Sure, headless basses had been seen before, but the sleek, symmetrical body shape and sense of massive solidity of this very British-feeling instrument gave it a pioneering reputation. The solid chunk of metal that formed the bridge, and the neck profile that made you yearn to give it a good slapping, only added to the mystique. When Level 42’s Mark King stepped up and lent his name to the Kingbass, which still heads up the Status range today, the deal was sealed. This is one righteous bass, make no mistake.
18 Carl Thompson ‘$10 Million Bass’
No, it doesn’t actually cost 10 million bucks, but this legendary Carl Thompson instrument – built for Primus bassist extraordinaire Les Claypool – has a reputation that is virtually unmatched by any other bass, and is pretty much priceless as a result. With a 37-inch scale and made of macassar ebony and bocote, this isn’t so much an instrument as a work of art. Put it like this, if we had this at home, not only would we never take it out of the house, we’d never leave the house ourselves. And yet Thompson made the thing in a tiny workshop in Brooklyn. Make that man President (and Claypool his deputy).
17 Modulus Quantum
Players of all stripes queue up to play the mighty Quantum, most notable among whom is Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band whose funked-up rock tunes were impossible to avoid between 1990 and 2005 or so. With his aggressive but refined slapping style, Flea required a bass with serious strength and response, and evidently got both from his signature model. The Quantum occupies an upper-market position, but no-one’s complaining as it’s a seriously desirable beast. If you see him, tell him we’ll take a few off him if he needs to clear out his garage.
16 Steinberger Synapse
Laugh all you like at the 1980s associations of Steinberger’s body shape – we loved it then and we still love it now. With a beautiful, slick finish courtesy of the composite materials from which it was made, that none-more-minimalist rectangular body and the genius tuning system, the Synapse was and remains an instrument that didn’t so much look to the future as define it. Five-string options and coloured finishes only add to its weird, unique attraction, as well as the fact that you could play it on the tour-bus without taking the drummer’s eye out. Oh, and don’t forget the cunning foldout gizmo that allows you to play it seated.
15 Ampeg AUB-1
Only about 1100 of these crazy basses were ever built, with the newest now over 40 years old, so you’ll have to look long and hard to find one – but your respect is due, as the AUB-1 was the world’s first production fretless. A bizarre pickup system permitted the bass to be played with gut strings: this was pure snobbism on the part of Ampeg, who assumed that these so-called new-fangled “frets” would die out before too long and players would return to playing their instruments like “real” double basses (hence the scroll headstock). They were wrong, but they did create these pioneering instruments, so we’ll let them off with a warning this time.
14 Yamaha BB
Ah, the BB! Heavy, hefty and for real men only, the Yammy was much beloved by players as diverse as Nathan East and Glenn Hughes for a reason – it played like a dream. From the original 1970s models to today’s Super BB line, this bass oozes playability, to the extent that you may well injure your thumb as you smack it repeatedly on the neck and watch it bounce back up again like a three-inch trampoline user. The tone circuit is a thing of beauty too, with the only real gripe levelled by the BB’s detractors at the instrument’s sciatica-inducing weight.
13 Wal Pro Series
This far down the list, every bass is legendary, and words almost – but not quite – fail us when we are required to describe the awesomeness of the Wal. The Buckinghamshire-based range established a reputation for state-of-the-art quality and tone back in the progressive rock era, with players from Yes and other chin-strokers of the prog persuasion favouring the brand. BGM writer, kilt-fancier and all-round bass guru Nick Beggs likes them, and if a Wal is good enough for him, frankly it’s good enough for us.
12 Höfner Violin Bass
The ‘Herfner’, as it’s never pronounced (but should be), was made famous, of course, by Sir Paul McCartney, who bought one because he couldn’t afford a Fender – and then, having fooled about on the Violin bass and discovered that its tone was much cooler than its looks would suggest, decided to stick with the cute little chap. Nowadays only indie bands of truly aching levels of irony play the things, but no-one can deny how massively influential they were in their day.
11 Gibson EB-1
Jack Bruce was one of the most accomplished bass player evers to stalk the earth, and he made his bones with a teeny little Gibson EB-1. This nifty instrument was Gibson’s first bass and proved to be a worthy competitor to Höfner’s Violin bass, which was also based on a small, narrow-waisted body shape. Although the EB-1 hardly offered a wide tonal range, it did have a middy sound that cut through the guitars if you turned it up loud enough.
10 Aria Pro II
Metallica’s Cliff Burton and Duran Duran’s John Taylor both used the highly underrated Pro II in the mid-80s, a mark of just how versatile the damn thing was. Burton overdrove his Aria and beat the life out of it, while Taylor’s funky, clipped approach was practically the polar opposite – and yet this elegant instrument gave them exactly what they wanted every time. Although the Pro II’s shape makes it look like a timid, even fragile instrument, underneath those gazelle-like horns and modest headstock there’s a bass of immense power and versatility. A five-string version was also made, although few of us have ever had the chance to play one.
9 Alembic Series I
Alembics have an indefinable something that has attracted the world’s finest bassists to them. Perhaps it’s the unique, rose-shaped body, the frankly wonderful electronics or even (for the show-offs among us) the LEDs that run along the neck and look amazing when the stage lights go down. Whatever it is, Alembic wouldn’t be the world-beating brand it is today without a giant dose of quality all over its instruments.
The American company began life in the late 1960s as a manufacturer of pickups and electrical components used in the sound systems of giant bands of the day such as the Grateful Dead, before making a gradual move into bass and guitar construction. And thank heaven they did, because the investment the company made into their instruments’ construction established new levels of awesomeness.
But don’t take our word for it: a whole host of world-class players have risen up across the decades to play Alembics. Stanley Clarke was among them, bending his wrist at that painful-looking angle to deliver the jazz, while Greg Lake and John Entwistle soon followed suit. You can even hear an Alembic on certain Led Zeppelin recordings, and it doesn’t get much bigger than that, does it?
8 Overwater Progress
Luthier Chris May has spent decades refining the art of bass construction to levels that most of us wouldn’t even understand if he explained it to us with a blackboard and chalk, and it’s just as well, as the results speak for themselves. Overwater basses offer the discerning player a package that combines the most tonally responsive woods with the most versatile electronics: the instruments have few equals in the rarefied upper strata of the bass industry. Sure, your bank manager will wince, but you pay for what you get, right?
7 Warwick Thumb NT
It’s hard to believe that Warwick’s bestselling bass has been with us for 30 years and more, as it’s such an inescapable feature of the bass guitar landscape. What’s the Thumb’s secret? Perhaps the trademarked ‘sound of wood’ is the answer, or maybe it’s just the instrument’s solidity and quality in combination. Of course, the fact that players right across the spectrum, from well-knowns like Jack Bruce to lesser mortals such as Ryan Martinie, used the thing gives it a boost – but we reckon that the Thumb’s position in the market is its key selling point. Those angled machine heads took a while to ‘bed in’, as it were (we’re old enough to remember how some reviewers detested them at first), but now they’re part and parcel of the Warwick image. It could also be argued that Western bass players’ taste for exotic woods was first stimulated on a large scale by the Thumb, without which the words ‘bubinga’ and ‘wenge’ would be just high-scores in Scrabble.
6 Spector NS-2 Doug
Doug Wimbish, now of Living Coloor and once of the Sugar Hill house band, is an unfeasibly talented bassist and also one of our favorite people, so we’re delighted to report that his American neck-through Spector signature model is a deservedly splendid instrument and worth the attention of every single person who has ever applied finger, thumb, or pick to string. A maple bass with a variety of options, the ‘Doug’ (we like Spector’s minimalist approach when it comes to names) will set you back the best part of six thousand bucks, but then again you can appreciate every one of them in the frankly jaw-dropping wood and hear them in the tone circuit.
5 Gibson Thunderbird IV
Show us a bassist who doesn’t have at least a little bit of affection for the old T-Bird and we’ll show you a bassist without a heart. How can you fail to warm to the old warhorse, when it’s been such an integral part of our world since what feels like the Jurassic era? Musicians from all genres have been known to deploy a Thunderbird, most obviously because of its mids-heavy tone but also because it looks so cool. Based on the Firebird six-string, which Gibson also launched in the early 1960s, the Thunderbird actually began life with a body shape that is the reverse of the one we rock with today – that is, with an extended upper horn. Perhaps fortuitously for us, Fender – then promoting the Precision body shape – slapped an injunction on the Thunderbird and Gibson were obliged to swap the horns round. This was the beginning of a path that led to the Explorer bass and the various small-top-horn-plus-sticky-out-bottom-horn guitars that dozens of luthiers knock out these days. It’s a living legend, although some users whine about its lack of bottom end. Who cares – it looks great…
4 Fender Precision
The Fender Precision is the original mass-produced bass guitar, and even after 60 years in production, many thousands of players believe that it will never be surpassed. It’s a persuasive argument, too. After all, its build, tonal range, balance, simplicity of construction and affordability are the features that have defined it for decades, as well as being the benchmarks for bass guitar construction as a whole. What can we say about it that you don’t know already?
Perhaps this. The P-Bass is a miracle of design for many reasons. While every field of technology has expanded beyond all recognition since the 1950s, its late designer Leo Fender – who based the Precision on his Stratocaster guitar – was nothing less than a prophet. The body is usually alder or ash, the neck maple and the fingerboard rosewood or maple. In its standard form there is a single split pickup, and a simple tone and volume setup that takes minutes to adjust or troubleshoot. All those specifications were essentially the same back in 1951: nothing has changed radically in the interim, because change hasn’t been necessary. That’s the essence of great design, in a nutshell. Bass guitar technology has moved in many different directions since Fender first applied pen to paper, but the basic design – two horns, a headstock with machine heads, a pickup and a scratchplate – holds true for at least 90 percent of the bass guitars we know and love today.
So why isn’t the P-Bass the number one on our list? Only because we feel that in certain areas, primarily versatility and visual appeal, it’s been outstripped over the years – but not by much, and not in any way that is significant. No-one will ever topple the Precision from its perch as the bestselling bass of all time, and deservedly so. Without it, your instrument of choice would be radically different, and we wouldn’t have jobs.
3 Music Man Stingray
There’s a reason why the Stingray sits between two iconic bass guitars: it shares many of the values that the co-creator of all three of them, Leo Fender, believed were important when it came to musical instruments in general and the lowest frequencies in particular. The build is of extremely fine quality; the tone is individual and applicable in multiple scenarios; and the bass is immensely playable. These add up to being one of the most usable bass guitars ever invented, in any of its formats or variants.
Music Man was formed by ex-Fender employees who weren’t best pleased with the way that their new owners CBS were running the company after Leo Fender sold it to them. Setting up the new company and joined after a year by Leo himself (who had to stand back for 12 months as he’d signed a non-competition clause with CBS), the new firm designed and released the Stingray to market in 1976, a worthy successor to the Precision and Jazz basses which Leo had designed two decades before.
The Stingray was and remains a highly distinctive instrument that fulfills a particular job with enormous panache, hence our fondness for it. Sure, its looks are obviously based on a Fender, but cosmetic details such as the egg-shaped scratchplate and the three-over-one headstock remind us that no, this isn’t a P-Bass. Dig deeper, though, and it becomes obvious that the Stingray is an individual, with that powerhouse pickup (close to the bridge for maximum honk) and that famously wide neck. If any bass can really compete with Fender, this is the one.
Well, apart from our number one choice, of course. But before we get there, behold just one more world-class bass…
2 Fender Jazz
We’ve made a list of reasons why the Fender Jazz is so important to bass history. Want to see it? Well, it goes like this: Adam Clayton, Tim Commerford, Chris Wolstenholme, Darryl Jones, Dave Pegg, Flea, Geddy Lee, Greg Lake, Guy Pratt, Jaco Pastorius, John Paul Jones, Larry Graham, Marcus Miller, Noel Redding, Sting, Verdine White and Victor Bailey. And that doesn’t even cover the tip of the iceberg: as much as the Fender Precision is the world’s best-selling bass and a treasure of which we should all be proud, we (and a lot of other people, evidently) reckon that the Jazz just shades it over its older sibling.
Of course, the old Jazz-versus-Precision debate is very much a matter of personal preference. The two basses sound different, play differently and balance differently. The Jazz has a smaller, thinner neck, which explains its popularity among slap and funk players, and thanks to its two pickups it offers the player a wider choice of tones. The body shape is little snazzier, too – we’ve always been suckers for that stuck-out bottom hip – and those concentric controls, reducing in size as they head towards the floor, reveal that Leo Fender was thinking about form as much as function when he first marketed it in 1960, nine years after the P-Bass.
Evidence of how popular the Jazz has always been came in the 1980s when a ‘P-J’ pickup configuration first appeared. The combination of the Precision’s split neck pickup and the Jazz’s bridge unit was just what players needed, it seemed, and in fact that iconic configuration forms the basis of many pickup combinations to this day.
An amazing bass, we’re sure you’ll agree. Now, what could possibly be better?
Paul McCartney. Lemmy. Chris Squire. Bruce Foxton. Roger Glover. Chris Wolstenholme. Cliff Burton. Mani. John Entwistle. Phil Lynott. Robert Trujillo. Geezer Butler. Glenn Hughes. At some point or other, these and many other household-name bass players have wielded a Rickenbacker 4001 (1961-81) or its successor the 4003 (’82 to date), and what a joyous noise they make, too. Sure, the Ricky looks a bit unusual; certainly, it sounds a bit eccentric. But it’s a stone-cold classic bass guitar that cuts through the most unfriendly mix and will be your friend for life.
Don’t believe us? Well, back in 2011 when we made this list, we drafted in the man who is arguably the most famous Ricky player of them all, Geddy Lee of Rush, to explain what it is about this iconic bass that makes it so splendiferous. Although he ‘crossed the floor’ to Fender more years ago than even he cares to remember, his affection for the old warhorse is unending – and frankly, what’s good enough for Geddy is good enough for the rest of us…
Do you remember the first time you saw a 4001, Geddy?
The first time I ever saw that bass was in a Beatles video – I think it was ‘Hey Jude’. I saw Paul McCartney playing it, and first of all it struck me as a great-looking bass. The aesthetics of it were very cool. When you’re a kid – and even today! – cool-looking basses have a particular value, ha ha! I don’t know what color it was, because our TV was black and white, but I think it was a solid color.
When was the first time you saw one played live?
The first time I saw someone playing one was Chris Squire, in the early days of Yes. John Entwistle played one for a short while too, but it was really Squire’s use of the 4001 that made me fall in love with it. The tone he got out of it was so clear and crisp, and it had such great definition.
The tone of the 4001 is both loved and hated by bass players: clearly you fell into the former camp.
Let me say that I do love the sound of the Rickenbacker, but I will qualify that by saying that I love the sound that Chris Squire got out of it – and that’s the sound that made me want to buy one. When we signed our first record deal in 1974, I got my share of our small advance and the first thing I did was buy a Rickenbacker. I think I paid about $400 for it. Much to my dismay, when I plugged it in, it didn’t sound like Chris Squire, ha ha! It took me quite a lot of fiddling to get it to sound the way I wanted. I tried to get one flexible sound that would work for all the songs. I found that all through the years I used the Ricky: it had a great trebly sound, but I had a hard time getting the right amount of bottom end out of it unless I used the Rick-O-Sound feature, which basically enabled you to send each pickup to a different source. I used to send the bass pickup to a bass amp and the treble pickup to an amp that was set up for that twangy sound. It took quite a lot of work to get it to sound like a classic Ricky. It wasn’t easy to get the sound I wanted!
Did you try other basses to see if you could get a better tone?
I tried a Fender Precision. I played with the shape of the body: I cut it into a teardrop shape and added a Jazz bridge pickup to hotrod it up. I actually destroyed that bass, pretty much! It had a pretty outrageous sound. I still have it, it’s quite an instrument. It looks crazy.
You play a Fender Jazz nowadays, our No. 2 bass. Why did you switch?
The Ricky worked well in the early days for the kind of tone that I wanted, but in the late 70s I picked up a used Jazz in a pawn shop and started working it into our sound almost immediately. On Moving Pictures  for example, half the songs are played on a Ricky and the other half are on a Jazz. I wanted to get a bit more punch in the bottom end. You can get that out of a Ricky, there’s no question about it, but it’s a lot of fiddling, as I said earlier. What I liked about the Jazz was that it was really easy to get a great tone in the studio.
Do you ever feel like giving the Ricky a shot on a Rush album nowadays?
I broke it out when we started recording Snakes & Arrows , but we just didn’t like the way it sounded. We just couldn’t get the sounds out of it that we get so easily out of the Jazz, so there didn’t seem to be any point. Could we have made it work? Yes. Would we have got anything unique out of it? I didn’t think so, and neither did our producer, so we just gave up on it. I think we wanted to use it just so we could say we’d used it, ha ha!
Last time we spoke to you, you told us that you bring out the 4001 for the encores just to make the people who always ask you about the Ricky shut up. Is that still the case?
Yeah, exactly, ha ha! My road crew even made some T-shirts up that say on the back, ‘Yes, He’s Playing The F***ing Ricky!’ I’ve been playing the Jazz now for many more years than I played the Ricky, but I’m still more closely associated with the Ricky.
Do you agree with our choice of Rickenbacker 4001 as the No. 1 bass everyone should play?
It’s a question of taste, really. Different strokes for different bass folks! I love lots of different basses. Also, different basses sound good at different times: I have a fantastic Wal at home that I used for a couple of albums, and I adore that bass, but there was time when it sounded right to me and a time when it sounded really wrong to me, so I stopped using it. The Ricky is a classic. It has a unique tone which makes it stand out, and it deserves kudos for that.