There is just something about the original Fender Precision bass. Whether you are looking for an original model with vintage mojo – or a newer model – here are some tips, as you head out to find the one…
The Ultimate Fender P MOJO
OK, first off you need to decide what your approximate budget is like. If you insist on going all in on the classic James Jamerson vibe, you need to look at a so-called pre-CBS bass or the L Series basses, as the serial numbers from this period had an L prefix. Basically, this means a bass that was built before Leo Fender sold his factory and brand to CBS in January 1965. If that is what you want, you better ramp up a budget to match because it will get expensive! But it will most likely also get pretty damn amazing!
Simply because there is this very hard cut between the ‘pre-CBS era’ and ‘the CBS era’, the prices often take a significant drop once you’re looking at a bass from 1966 and onwards. 1965 is a ‘transition year’ that can be a little hard to predict because once CBS bought Fender a lot of supplies was part of the deal. Also, obviously not everything changed overnight. Therefore, many claim that an early 1966 bass is just as good as a pre-CBS. Further, many of the parts such as necks, pickups and pots are dated individually and you could a bass from 1965 with pickups, pots or even a neck that is dated 1964.
Now, another important thing to decide at this point is whether you want your vintage Precision to be ‘a player’ or a ‘collector’s item’. To collectors, period-accuracy and condition are huge matters. Whereas the playability is less important….
But before we move on, let’s set the record straight! Square one of the classic P bass sound is the sound of James Jamerson:
Spot a ‘Cheap’ Vintage Fender Precision
If it’s a ‘workhorse’, you’re looking for, here are perhaps the three most important things to look for when you set out to spot a great bass from the early or mid 60’s at a price that will not leave you behind with a ton of debt. At the time, in the late 60s and the 70’s, no one knew that these basses might one day become hugely sought-after. And little did they know that ‘stripping’ a bass – taking off the original nitrocellulose lacquer (also simply referred to as ‘nitro’) – would diminish the value of the bass massively some 50 years later.
And a LOT of basses were stripped during the 70’s, as it was modern back then to have a ‘natural’ bass where you could see the raw wood. Some were treated with respect to the ear and a fresh coat of clear nitro lacquer was applied, but sometimes the instrument would be left without a coating or with a completely different type of lacquer. Not that it matters that much, because to the true aficionados and collectors out there, a stripped bass is a stripped bass and the value is likely to come down by 30% to 45%.
Another very popular modification in the 70’s was to carve out a piece of wood form the bass body and install a Jazz bass type single coil pickup by the bridge. This was how the P/J configuration was initially born – and while this was a great idea for a lot of reasons, it was a very bad idea from a value-increasing point of view.
Finally, especially during the late 70’s and the 80’s, a lot of players swapped electronics in their basses, installing on-board preamps and maybe also new pickups. This also decreases the value form a collector’s viewpoint.
But having said all of that, here is the important part. A stripped bass with additional or replaced pickups and/or other mods can easily play and sound great! In fact, Fender basses from the 1960’s – especially the first half – are very consistent in quality. They may differ in feel and most 60’s basses are fairly lightweight (as opposed to the 70’s!), yet still delivering tons of beautiful tone.
So, if you are looking for a 60’s Fender P bass and intend to play it rather than store it or hang it on the wall to gaze upon, looking for basses that have modified in one or more ways, might just help you find a vintage bargain.
Guide to 1970’s Precision Basses
To some collectors, nothing but 50’s and 60’s Fender instruments count, but still, Fender basses and guitars from the 70’s have increased in value and are by many of the ‘non-hardcore collectors’ and player considered vintage. While early 70’s Fender instruments can still be quite expensive, there is a massive drop in price compared with the pre-CBS instruments. And if you look at the late 70’s instruments, there is yet another pile of cash to be saved.
There is, however, a catch. Of course there is. The 70’s in general and the late 70’s in particular was one of Fender’s very inconsistent periods – both in terms of sound, playability and weight. It is definitely possible – even likely – that if you pick up, say, a 1977, 1978 or 1979 Precision (or Jazz) Bass, it might be a ‘dog’. A strung up piece of wood that is heavy, bulky, toneless and tough to play all at once… OR it could be an absolute low-end gem!
Trust me, I have learned this the hard way. About a decade ago it was perfectly possible to find decent deals on late 70’s P basses on ebay and bass forums. And a lot of basses changed hands very regularly being sold and bought online. So, I decided to simply take the chance and go for it and buy a 1979 Fender Precision on ebay. When I received it, it was in fact a really nice bass! And I still have it. It had a maple neck and since this first try went so well, I decided to also find one with a rosewood fingerboard. That was more or less a disaster. The bass I received was actually a mid 70’s bass with a refin and the above-mentioned P/J mod. That could easily have been fine, but it didn’t play well and sounded quite dull. Luckily, though, it was fairly easy to sell again without taking too much of a loss – as the circulation was pretty high at the time.
Fast forward. I spent about 18 months buying and selling late 70’s Precision basses in the search for that perfect P bass. In total, I must have been through at least 10 different basses in those months. I still have a handful of them, but I do have an absolute favorite – the one – and it turned out to be a fairly cheap (but all original) Fender Precision from 1979. Super classic in sunburst finish and with rosewood finger board.
So, the tip here is that if you are looking for a vintage (I do consider the 70’s ‘vintage’) Fender P bass at a decent price, look for a mid to late 70’s instrument. But do keep in mind that it may take a few shots before you find the one that is your perfect match. If possible, try the bass before buying – or be prepared that you may have to resell the bass after a while.
By the way, it’s a myth that you can’t get a cool slap sound out of a P bass!
Squier JV and SQ | Vintage on a’ Budget’
So, how about the 80’s, you may say. Isn’t basses from that decade becoming vintage? Hm… tough one. As mentioned, the late 70’s was quite a problematic period for Fender and unfortunately many of these problems continued well into the 80’s. But here is the good news! One of the things Fender decided to do in the early 80’s was to move some of its production to Japan. And it turned out that they were actually very good at making basses. Also, in many ways there were ‘technically’ very comparable to the Fender instruments built in the US, as the parts (pickups, electronics, tuners, knobs. etc.) were shipped form America and was exactly the same as were used for the MIA (Made in America) basses.
Some of the very first instruments actually had a Fender decal on the headstock, only it said made in Japan underneath. But these are rare. The Japanese-built instruments were branded Squier and if you can find one with a ‘JV’ serioal number it is most likely from 1981 to 1983. If it says SQ it would be from 1983 or 1984. Both the JV and SQ basses and guitars have become collector’s items, but the price is still considerably lower than for 60’s and 70’s US-built instruments by Fender. The sound and playability is very consistent and good, though. And to a player that is of course all that really matters.
I had an SQ precision bass once and to my ears it sounded just as great as my vintage US Fenders. And my fingers agreed – playability was on par or better in most cases as well.
The Lawsuit Basses of the 80’s
While talking about the 80’s, this was also a period where Fender had to cope with a whole other type of problem. Copycats! The Fender basses (Jazz and Precision) and the guitars (Stratocatser and Telecaster) were so popular and iconic that they were copied by other cheaper brands. I guess the one that is most known and sought-after today is the Tokai Hard Puncher. Even though I say ‘sought-after’ they have not exploded pricewise so if you want a P bass with a ‘scent’ of vintage and possibly some vintage patina, A Hard Puncher might be the bass to look for.
Precision Bass Price Brackets (2017)
To wrap up the price aspect of vintage P basses, here are some rough guidelines (2017):
- Pre-CBS Collector’s Items (mint condition / 100% original): $10,000 – $15,000
- Pre-CBS modified (refinish, changed parts, etc.): $5,000 – $8,000
- Post-CBS 1965 – 1975: $2,000 – $8,000
- 1975 – 1979: $1,200 – $4,000
- Squier JV & SQ: $800 – $1,250
- Tokai Hard Puncher: $300 – $1,000
I am aware that the price brackets are quite wide, but of course the final price depends highly on the condition of the bass. Again, the true collector’s items – or ‘closet classics’ meaning that a bass has been left in a closet ever since it was brand new – are very expensive. Plus, they often don’t play as well. Basses do benefit from being played regularly!
The wide price span for the Tokai Hard Puncher is due to a lot of cheap basses available in Japan (the original hime market). However, once you consider shipping costs and local import taxes, the price may well increase considerably.
P Bass Shootout
Well let’s wrap this up by listening to a bunch of quite different P basses. From an original Pre-CBS bass to a new, cheap Squier Jaguar (only the P pickup is being used).