How Much is my old Kay bass worth?

Value estimates get challenging without being able to put your old bass up on the operating table and check everything in person. As vintage upright bass geeks, we’re in the rare position of being (somewhat) obsessed by one of the few pieces of vintage Americana that are still affordable to the common working man. In to vintage guitars? That old Les Paul now costs as much as your house, or more. The same thing has happened to classic cars and motorcycles and almost everything else that carries and honest old vibe. Go checkout most of the better bands, regardless of  genre, and everybody but the bass player has a LOT of $$$$ in their vintage instruments. For $1500-$3500, a vintage ply upright bass nerd can have almost the pick of the litter- enough money that we recognize they should be maintained and taken care of, we recognize that they are slowly gaining value, and yet still reasonable enough that you can take it out to your favorite Saturday night bar gig and pound the daylights out of it and have fun without being paranoid or obsessive.

In general, 30s Kays tend to get the best prices and they drop about 15% for every decade up you go. In today’s economy that means the best case scenario- like new with hang tags, perfect finish, and an excellent setup (almost never happens- maybee one out of 100 Kays that I see), no issues anywhere, and a heavy demand market- a clean ’30s will top out at $3500, $3k for ’40s, $2500 for ’50s, and $2k for ’60s models. Again, this is best case scenario; most tend to be 25-50% less. All prices are for 3/4 models. Smaller sized instruments tend to have a much lower price:  often 2/3-1/2 less or more.  5 strings tend to command a 25% premium (one more string- kinda’ makes sense…).

Our completely rebuilt models where the entire body has been opened up, re-arched, rebuilt, belly patched, reset necks and rebuilt dovetails, full carbon fiber neck inserts, fingerboard dress (replacement or compensated shim also if needed), and full setup with new adjustable Despiau bridge sell for approx. $3700, regardless of external condition. That is professional grade restoration that comes with a 15 month warranty- try finding that anywhere else on  a 75 year old instrument! Most of the time, a more well used and roadworn (Real honest gig wear- no poser fake wear distressing!!!!!!!) finish goes for a higher price than clean original. On a personal level, we almost always shy away from squeaky clean original finish instruments- if it was not inspiring enough to play for the last 75 years, we don’t want it!!!! The models that look like Willie’s old guitar or Stevie Ray Vaughan’s strat and have played 3000 gigs are the basses that get us excited!!!!!

Right now Epiphone basses seem to be hovering around $2k.  Big old American Standard basses tend to get the best prices in any market- $3-4k seems to be the range and they tend not to drop much. Vintage King basses (not to be confused with the more recent models that use a similar name) tend to get the high end of the Kay price spectrum. Old AlCoA and Pfretzschner aluminum basses tend to top out around $2500 in working original condition. If they have been highly polished and given the custom treatment they may go for quite a lot more, but it depends upon the individual instrument. Nice examples are rare and always in high demand. It is VERY difficult to fix structural damage on an old AlCoA bass, especially if the neck takes a hard hit and is bent.

Some of the best Englehardts I’ve ever played are the models from about 1970-74. That was right after they took over the company from Kay, so many were part of the leftover production processs- same parts, same old guys building them, in the same facility. Those are basically rebranded Kays that go for about half the price- they top out around $1500+ among folks who know and look for them, and are one of the true sleeper models in the vintage US plywood scene. By the mid ’70s and on they had changed things around enough that they started becoming a different bass, but with origins in the Kay style.

The days of these being  embarassing old garage sale dinosaurs are gone. Like everything vintage Americana, they represent a specific period of history, voice, and playing experience that should be treated with respect and as a tool that has value. If it was built with hot hide glue, it should be repaired with hot hide glue! Anything else is a compromise at best and tends to lessen the value. Any modifications change the value.

Everyone online seems to be asking very inflated prices right now, but the reality is that many of them have been for sale for a year or more with no movement.  A random old bass for sale from an individual has very little in common with one from a reputable business. Watch out for the Craigslist syndrome of, “A guy on line has a red one that Jerry Garcia owned in 1974 and mine is red, so I want $10,000 too.” There are lots of stories about finding one for $75 on Craigslist, but do you have five years to wait for that day to come and hope you get to it first? Whenever I give out a formal  evaluaton for insurance or selling purposes, the basic formula is what would it cost me to find a bass in very similar condition, setup, and voice somewhere in the continental US that can be either picked up in person with reasonable effort, or that can be shipped to my place within the next 30 days.

When trying to evaluate an instrument, use the rule of thirds. The total price can be broken down into three even areas:

1) the body- top, ribs, back, bassbar, linings, tail, corner, and neck blocks

2) the neck- the  mortise or dovetail, heel, main section, entire scroll, fingerboard quality and amount of thickness

3) the total setup-  This should cover the nut, saddle, how the fingerboard is dressed and cambered, strings, tuning machines, bridge, and tailpiece. This is a hugely overlooked area. Remember that if an instrument has a set of old strings (approx. $175), a dead bridge (approx. $300 or more for a Despiau quality installed with adjusters) and needs a new nut and a complete fingerboard dressing ($3-400) you can run up quite a bill getting it in good working condition, for just basic needs, without addressing any structural issues. The prices listed are the low end of the spectrum from a good bass luthier. Large metropolitain shops may charge 2-3x more. Make sure to read the section on What should it mean when someone claims the bass has a great setup?

Blonde or natural finishes tend to command the best prices.

A refinish is 1/3 -1/2 price drop.

Broken or repaired necks = 1/4 to 1/3 less if expertly done. 50% less if they are all butchered up and you’ve basically got a parts body with no backup. Complete neck replacements with modern, substandard copies are 1/3 less, if done very well. 25% additional decrease if there is any hardware visible from the outside like bolts, dowels, and screws on the outside of the heel. The original scrolls had very specific details and designs that I feel were very inportant to the overall style of that particular instrument, so every effort should be made to keep them and the rest of the bass intact.

Missing or broken original Kluson tuning machines: -$250, possibly much more if someone has poorly installed some other machines  and the pegbox on the scroll needs to be bushed or have extensive rebuilding. Subtract another $150 as stupidity tax if they poorly installed any cheap Chinese junk anywhere on the instrument..

Any pins, dowels, screws or the like visible on the rest of the body: 15-20%  less or more  depending upon location.

Extensive use of epoxy or other non hot hide glue repairs: 1/3 -1/2 less, sometimes more. In  many cases we won’t recommend a heavy epoxy instrument for any price and if all the seams and joints have been compromised we may refuse to work on it, the same applies for  carpenter’s glue.

Broken bass bar, top, back: 1/4-1/3 less

Strings, bridge, setup: 1/4 less or more

Missing original tailpiece  with original chrome logo badge  or original waterside decal (-$350). If you search online for  a year, you can likely find one cheaper but that does not mean that the seller only has a $50 liability. Original models, especially the wild striping and sapwood Brazilian rosewood models are in extremely high demand.  Reproduction cheap Chinese badges and aftermarket mediocre painted tailpieces may function ok, but this is a place where the original vibe is extremely inportant! Imagine a 57 Chevy missing the iconic hood ornament and fender badges. Nice factory original tailpieces but incorrect date or time period are generally ok because they can usually be traded easily for the correct model.

Accessories like cases, pickups, bows, and the like are nice, but they should not  be part of the equation. Your main concern should be a structurally sound bass with a great setup and good strings. Focus on that alone and use it as a pricing guide.

If buying on line or from an individual requiring shipping and not being able to see and play the instrument first, INSIST on a  Skype, Facetime, or similar live video stream so that you can see and hear everything and ask any unexpected questions. It is free and easy.

You can usually expect to pay a higher price buying from an established shop or luthier than you will from an individual. Buy one from an individual, and the second you hand over your money, you are on your own. Buy one from an established source, and you’ll likely get  decades of reputation and experience that will get your bass in top setup condition and also backup the bass if you run into any problems later down the road. Again, take a good look at the page about “what does a great setup really mean”.

When shopping around, it is  important to be honest with both the buyer and seller. Just because your local electric guitar shop claims they will install a new bridge for $100 does not mean that  the selling price should be $100 less with a bad bridge, or that a $100 job is what you want. ( I know firsthand what it means to be a 16 year old kid in an electric guitar shop doing “$100 fretjobz”… I was that kid back in 1983!) Your time getting to a good professional bass shop, being without the instrument while it is being worked on, and the fact that the seller expects you to pay up front for the instrument and then fix their problem all should be reflected in the price.  When in doubt, walk away from the transaction. Finding a broken up old bass that needs a lot of work to get running is as easy as finding a rusted out old volkswagon that does not run…

If it does not look, sound, and play top shelf, then it isn’t worth top tier price!

These opinions reflect the observations of someone who works on vintage US made ply basses daily in western North Carolina- one of the best locations in the country for this style of instrument. They are meant as a guideline to objectively evaluate  the worth of an instrument with the emphasis on originality and playability.  Your local market conditions will likely be different.

j. condino

November 2016