Buying a decent bass online and "unseen" - any advice?

So, I have this friend (:grin:) and he is willing to invest a seizable amount of money on a great instrument (let’s say between USD 1,500 and 2,500; but, really, all the same challenges mentioned below would also apply to a 15,000 dollar instrument). He is, at this point, not interested in buying one of the big brands and well-known models, but would rather own an instrument from a smaller company/luthier.

Thus, if you wander off the beaten track a little, the challenges are:

  • there is no (big chain) guitar megastore close by where my friend lives, only medium-sized and specialized shops
  • even if there were big ones around, they are unlikely to stock this particular brand
  • and even if they did, they would certainly not have several copies of the same model for testing
  • the company/luthier is located too far away to make a visit there realistic/convenient
  • in fact, the company itself might not stock too many copies of the same model either, as they make them upon request/order
  • finding a used one has probably the same odds as finding Bigfoot

At least, there are (a few) reviews and product videos to get some impression and some more information about the model in question. The reviews are very positive and the next step would probably be to get in touch with the company/luthier and have a chat with them.

Still, more generally speaking, what are your thoughts about

  • ordering an instrument online without having played it at all (I guess it depends largely on the company’s return policy also)?
  • is it prudent to assume that a dedicated company/luthier would not let a “crappy” instrument leave their factory/shop? I.e., is it more likely such a small company would have a stronger ambition for producing with consistent quality than, say, Fender MiM (see extended discussions in another thread here in the forum)?
  • Similarly, can one assume that a USD 2000 bass will always be of higher quality than a USD 500 bass? (Again, putting aside the possibility that lunar phases and disgruntled employees might affect day-to-day variations in instrument quality). I ask this not to re-start a discussion on the general correlation between price and quality, but to get a feel for whether it would be less of a “gamble” to buy something “unseen” if it is more expensive…
  • Quality of the product aside, what other aspects of an instrument could make you not like it? Aspects you might have noticed had you had a chance to test it?

Thanks!

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Believe me, I understand your “friend’s” concerns, @joergkutter . . . :wink:

And yes, the first thing I thought of was the company’s return policy. That would be crucial if you can’t really get to see the bass in person to try it out. So if you get that nailed down, I would tell him to GO for it (but save all the packing materials) . . . :+1:

Further, I agree with your thoughts about a company not wanting to let a “crappy” bass out the door, and I do think that you get what you pay for.

Only downsides I can think of is not liking the feel of the neck or the tone. :thinking:

All best, Joe

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Neck feel and string feel seem like biggies to me. As a concrete example, I was certain I would love a Warwick Corvette 5-string until I tried one. And it was fine, not bad in any way, but just didn’t wow me like I expected, and I thought the B string actually felt a bit too flubby on the one I tried.

It didn’t put me off the brand in any way, or even the model, but I am glad I didn’t buy that particular one sight unseen.

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on the other hand I bought my TRBX304 sight unseen and was ridiculously happy with it. But there’s a big difference between $350 and $1500.

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Lots of thoughts here - I’ll try and address them.

First, and most importantly - if you’ve never played the instrument, or a version of the instrument, there’s no way you’ll know if you like it or not.
Unless - You’re buying it more as an art piece.

If your friend wants to invest in a bass, I would strongly recommend against any sort of small builder, custom work. They don’t appreciate, and they are very difficult to re-sell, as the market is very specialized. Vintage Fender instruments seem to be a very worth-while investment, as they appreciate and hold their value.

Things that have surprised me on playing a bass that I thought looked great (repeating @howard here) - the neck and fretboard feel.
The width of the fingerboard, the frets, the curvature and thickness of the neck - all of that is HUGE and difficult (impossible?) to assess without playing it first.

$2000 is going to get more than $500, but not necessarily better.
Better pickups, better wood quality, more quality time invested… but does it all equal a better sounding, better playing bass?
Impossible to say without the bass in your hands!!

HOWEVER –
If your friend loves the idea of a small-shop custom instrument and LOVES the look of it - I think he’ll be just fine. The instrument will be quality. It will be great. Everything will be down to preference, and without comparisons, it’s impossible to judge it. But if he loves the idea and the look, that’s 90% of customer satisfaction.

Hope this is helpful.

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Thanks, @Jazzbass19, @howard and @Gio for your very helpful feedback and thoughts, many of which echoed the discussions I had with my, uhm, friend :smile: But, also lots more new food for thought…

This is a particularly interesting point that I had briefly thought about, but didn’t include in my original post. So, basses from smaller (lesser known, more specialized) builders are a bit like new cars in that context - the moment you take them off the lot, they already lost 50% of their value!? Certainly worthwhile considering…

You guys rock!

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Another informative thread here, and I don’t have experience in most of this, other than sharing some thoughts about ordering online:

I ordered an Ibanez bass online recently through Reverb, connecting private sellers and shops, and the first seller simply sent me the wrong one. Sending it back and getting a refund took almost 4 weeks to happen. Sucked.

I then ordered the one I wanted from another seller. She arrived, perfect, a knob had come loose, but other than that, mostly as described. So I’m happy, but I don’t think I’ll order online again, unless from a large retailer.

You may get what you wanted, or you may deal with shipping logistics, item not exactly as described. Sometimes it may be worth finding a way to play the exact bass you want. But I guess it’s an individual thing.

And as far as how much $$$ to spend / quality you get - at this point, if a bass gives you the joy, the feel, the connectedness to your goals that you want - I don’t think any price is too high, if you can afford it! I tried out a $2600 BC Rich 1979 Mockingbird at a shop recently - damn, what a feeling - and it took me back to childhood- all the switches and knobs have a feel of the electronics of that era when I was a kid in the early 80s. Not going to buy something at that level anytime soon, but I can see how/why people do!!

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Thanks for sharing your experiences, @Vik - much appreciated!

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very very true ! and this logic applies for every piece of gear

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Just wondering; is your friend a nice friend who will let you play his bass? :wink:

I can’t offer any advice based on first hand experience, but something I read about on a FB guitar group was a guy who had forked out quite a bit of money on a custom guitar from a well known and well respected luthier who outsourced a lot of his orders to guys in Indonesia. The item that was delivered had so many workmanship issues - even I could see the problems and I know the square root of sod all about guitars - that he had to raise a complaint. Last I hear he was still having problems because the luthier refused to acknowledge that there was a problem.

The lesson, if there is a lesson here, is that ordering from a luthier requires the same due diligence that you would apply to any other significant purchase. Unless I could visit the luthier, or play the mass made bass, I’d be inclined away from spending so much money on a bass, sight unseen. even with a good returns policy you are heading for a hefty shipping bill if you don’t like what you get.

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Why, yes, I think he would, given how much time I already spent on his conundrum :smile:

But… that’s a bit of a horror story about that guitar there. Still, it is a bit beyond me why a respected luthier would risk the long-term survival of his business and his reputation for a short-term gain by outsourcing to a sub-par contractor!?! Perhaps the luthier got overwhelmed by success and couldn’t keep up!? A recipe for “disaster”.

Important take home message here! Thanks!

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I suspect he was unaware of what was happening and the subcontractor had gone rogue. A lot about the story hinted towards scam, probably against the respected luthier by his subcontractor AND the customer.

Coincidentally (and almost related) when I was in my local music shop yesterday, they only had 5 basses hanging on the wall (it’s a very small shop but they are very guitar oriented); 2 were entry level at under £200, 1 was my acoustic for sale, 1 was £1,500 (can’t remember which make but it was a signature model), and 1 was a cigar box. The cigar box and the £1,500 were next to each other and really made quite the contrast.

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Yeah, I would really like to support smaller local music shops, but it is almost impossible for them to compete with the big chains when it comes to showroom size and instruments on display for testing etc.

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Well, yes and no, in this instance. They have a fantastic selection of guitars, and even amps, though they are really more of a used equipment shop. They have pretty good repair facilities though and I had a look in the back yesterday to see the selection of amps they were working on. They’re just not really oriented towards bass - typical guitarists. :wink:

The big chains tend to have better range of stock, but they still only really have the most popular stuff. I guess you have to make the effort for your passion.

Then again, can you imagine being a drummer wanting to try a couple of different kits before buying?

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Haha, yes, it’s awful! I was a drummer back when, but I was never that much into gear as I am now with the bass! Then again, maybe I just didn’t have the same funds available…

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So… your “friend” bought it, right? :slight_smile:

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Ah, not yet, I am afraid… he is still in the decision-making process! Somewhat to my surprise, he is quite the sensible guy :grin:

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I’m really, REALLY enjoying this conversation . . . :slight_smile:

I have a “friend” just like @joergkutter’s too!

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Somehow, we all seem to have a friend like that! They can be annoying at times, but they all need our help :smile:

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Mine’s notoriously impulsive. He needs to work on that.

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