What should it mean when someone claims a bass has a “great setup”?

Here is our take: a very well dressed fingerboard that still has plenty of original  material; no big potato chip scoop or warp, no ruts in first position, dead flat and paper thin doesn’t count. Rhomberg bevel or no is fine. Non-original fingerboards don’t really add much  to  the bass, but if done well, they maintain it at slightly better value. Poor replacements are less than ideal. Brazilian rosewood or ebony were the prefered original factory options, but they vary  a lot. I’ve seen maple, walnut, Honduras mahogany, and others that appeared to be  original.

All tuning machines work well and turn easy with no slipping or missing gears. No audible creaks when turned!

Well fit nut- ebony or Brazilian rosewood if it matches the fingerboard. No  factory cheap “mystery woods” sometimes used; no majic marker colored maple. The same thing applies to the saddle on the tailpiece end.

A high quality adjustable brige- Despiau or similar, fit well with adjusters so everything functions and there is excellent contact on both feet with the bass top. The bridge should have a pleasant and balanced geometry- no stubby little legs and huge heart area; no shaved  half moon top and 5″ tall legs. All sharp edges dressed, going the extra bit to make a high quality and presentation bridge, even though it is not a 200 years old and $100k. No points for any bridge made in China or similar quality imports. Even though they make look like reasonable quality, our experience has been that they have a very fast failure rate compared to the Despiau. The bass should also have a good quality set of strings with reasonable wear. Spirocore mediums are my reference set, not  bottom feeder weed whacker type or no-lable imports.

The bass should have the original period correct tailpiece with original rigid tailwire replaced with a braided cable adjustable steel wire or similar.  Epiphone basses had one of the nicest looking tailpieces made on vintage US ply basses. Some of the best examples were beautiful curly and birdseye maple  that was sunburst to match the bass and sported a big enamel and brass namebadge. Any Epiphone missing this takes a huge hit.  A rosewood or ebony tailpiece can be easily replaced, but original Epiphones are very scarce. No old coat hangars or bailing wire, and we’re not very fond of the factory original soft thick wire “tailgut” with threaded nuts that are subject to chronic sudden failure. While we are down there, the endpin should be complete and function well.  A well fit and adjusted sounpost is also part of the package.

That is a great setup: everything is working well  and fine tuned such that you can make any variations for most styles of music- low and fast for jazz, crank it up and slap hard or play bluegrass, change it around and  it will also work for  arco, with acknowledgments to the limitations of some factory neck angles.  It allows you to get the most function and tone out of the instrument with the least stress on the player so you can evaluate the instrument.

Without all that, you don’t really have a “great setup”! You’re just guessing on the voice and holding a Kay shaped object!

Some genres tend to value very beat up original finishes  as more desireable than clean ones.  The construction and voices tend to vary between decades and from instrument to instrument. They all still sound like an old Kay, there are just a few subtle differences.  Often what folks think are differences in the basses are differences in the setup that allow one to work better than the other.

You’ll find lots of varying opinions; these reflect the opinion of someone who handles vintage Kays every day in western North Carolina- possibly one of the best areas in the country to sell one.