‘Bassic’ Instinct


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| July 10, 2012 | 0 Comments

You don’t have to be a musician to know how important the bass is to a song. The bass player supplies the foundation of the song and, along with the drummer, the pulse of the music. Technically speaking, the bass player is responsible for linking the harmony (chords) of a song with a distinct rhythm (groove). For me, it’s all about the groove. The bass player’s role is arguably the most crucial of the band. If the saxophonist or guitarist makes a mistake, hardly anyone would notice. But, if the bass player makes a mistake, everyone in the band and in the audience will instantly know that something is wrong: Groovus interruptus!

No matter how skilled (or unskilled) the bass player or how expensive the bass, no one will hear anything if the bass signal isn’t amplified, though. This is where my assignment comes in: shopping for a bass amp at four musical instrument stores in Central California. They are Gottschalk Music Center (Clovis), Guitar Center (Fresno), Guitar Center (Visalia) and Patrick’s Music Etc. (Fresno).

Gottschalk Music Center
328 Pollasky Ave.
Clovis, CA 93812
It was an unseasonable 72 degrees on this Saturday afternoon and many patrons were soaking up the UV rays. My timing was impeccable, because I found a parking space right in front of my destination (a very unusual occurrence, I might add!). As I entered the store, I quickly did a mental rehearsal of my cover story. Within seconds of walking through the door, a very friendly, cordial and energetic salesman greeted me.

“What can I do for you today?” he beamed.

I recited my story that a very good friend of mine has a nephew who will be coming home in a few months from his tour of duty in Iraq, and the nephew wants to take up bass guitar. Given that I am an experienced bass player, my friend wants me to audition some bass amps and give him my opinion on what would be a good first amp to buy for his nephew.

“Sure. Let me show you what we have,” he offered. “What kind of money is your friend looking to spend?”

I told him that my friend trusts my judgment, but he wants to get a decent amp that is not cheap and not expensive. Taking a casual perusal of the store layout, I was very impressed. My focus was directed to the right side of the store, where all the electric guitars, bass guitars and amps were located. Everything was neatly arranged and very easy to see. Despite the fact that there were numerous amps on display, all were easily visible and the prices were clearly marked. The brand names that popped into view were Line 6 and Fender. I asked about the numerous Fender Rumble amps that were on hand.

“These Fender Rumble amps are very nice and have a lot of features for the money. We have this Rumble 30 that puts out 30 watts through a 10-inch speaker and has a musical overdrive, tilt-back design, dual instrument inputs, a three-band EQ and a headphone jack for undisturbed practicing. The Rumble 75 steps up to a 75-watt with a 12-inch speaker and has the same features as the Rumble 30, with the addition of an auxiliary input for a CD player or iPod and a four-band EQ. And here we have the Rumble 150, which has a 150-watt amp paired with a 15-inch speaker, plus a horn and FX loop,” he rattled off with uncanny ease. This dude really knows about the products he sells!

Since I am a fan of bass cabinets with great high frequency reproduction, I zeroed in on the Rumble 150. “Tell me more about the Rumble 150,” I requested.

His face lit up like Christmas Tree Lane at night, and he replied, “Sure! Not only does this guy have a horn, but it also has a horn on/off switch, punch and scoop EQ presets, an XLR output, and casters! It’s on sale now for $319, regularly $449.99.”

When I told him that this amp has a lot of features for the money—I really meant it—he pounced on my response like a cheetah on a gazelle.

“It sure does,” he said. “A few years ago, you would have to spend about $600 to get a combo amp with this many features. Would you like to try this one out?”

When I told him yes, he asked which bass I would like to play. The only choices were one of the many Fender Precision and Jazz four-string basses that were hanging on the nearby wall. I asked if he had any five-string basses available so that I could assess how this amp handles the low B string in case my friend’s nephew gets serious about playing bass and gets a five-string.
“With the 15-inch speaker, I don’t think it will have any problems,” he replied. (My experience has been that a 15-inch speaker doesn’t guarantee the low B string will be faithfully reproduced; however, I didn’t debate him about this and asked for a Jazz bass.) He quickly grabbed a yellow Jazz bass with a rosewood fretboard from the wall and handed it to me.

As I was playing various impromptu bass lines and riffs, he set the four-band EQ on the amp flat and engaged the overdrive, which resulted in a nice fuzz sound. He also turned the high frequency horn off and on, as well as the punch and scoop EQ presets. I commented that this is a very decent-sounding amp, especially since the EQ was set flat.

At this point, I had some errands to run and had to leave. I asked him for a business card, which he quickly dashed to another part of the store to get for me. I thanked him, and he said if I ever have any questions to give him a call. I have shopped in quite a few musical instrument stores over the years and I can’t remember encountering a salesman with more enthusiasm, and who was as engaging and knowledgeable as he was. After looking at his business card closely when I got to my van, I realized that he was the store Manager. That explains his encyclopedic knowledge! If I were looking to buy musical equipment, I would not hesitate to visit Gottschalk Music Center and make a purchase from him. I walked away very, very impressed!

Guitar Center
5330 N. Blackstone
Fresno, CA 93710
Next up is Guitar Center in Fresno. When this store opened about five years ago, I was a fairly regular customer and made some good deals on basses and amps. The salespeople at that time were, for the most part, very friendly, helpful and knowledgeable about what they were selling. Over the past few years, however, the atmosphere has changed…and not for the better. The few cool people who I did business with were moved to open and run the newer store in Visalia (upcoming in this assignment). The difference between them and their replacements is like night and day.

As I pulled into the parking lot on another beautiful Saturday evening, I expected the same cold shoulder that has become customary as I entered the store. The person situated at a central “command post” booth greeted me with a cavalier “Hello” as I walked by. I headed left to the bass guitars and amps section. I passed by one salesman, made eye contact and he walked right past me! The second salesman behind the counter flanking the collection of various basses and amps looked at me and said nothing. The more things change, the more they stay the same…. I walked into an adjacent room occupied by numerous basses hanging on the walls and music stands on the floor, as well as numerous amps. While in there, I noted the time on my watch so that I could keep track of how long it would take before someone noticed me walking back and forth between various four-, five- and six-string basses and amps with great interest. I will give props at this point: This Guitar Center has a very nice selection of basses!

Seven minutes elapsed until someone walked my way and said, “Excuse me.” That was because I was in the aisle and she needed to get by while transporting some guitar stands. Finally, the salesperson who needed to pass returned and asked, “Is there something I can help you with?”

I gave my cover story of helping a good friend find a nice starter bass amp for his nephew, who will be finishing his tour of duty in the Army and wants to play bass. She pointed to some combo amps that were on the floor in front of me. I noted several of them were made by Gallien Krueger and Acoustic. The one that I zeroed in on first was a Gallien Krueger MB115 1×15 200W Ultralight Bass Combo Amp. The price marked was $399.99, but it was not easy to see since the plastic sleeve that contained the tag was tilted down toward the floor. This was a stark contrast to my experience at Gottschalk Music Center just last week, where the tags were clearly visible. I asked if I could play one of the four Music Man Stingray five-strings on display, and the salesperson handed me one with a sunburst finish, two pickups and a maple fretboard. She then plugged a cable into the input jack of the bass and the other end into the GK amp. She wasn’t quite sure whether to plug into the active or passive input. I mentioned that, since Music Man basses have an active onboard preamp, the active input is desirable.

“Yeah, I think you’re right about the bass being active,” she said. However, she turned the bass over so that she could see a battery compartment. I was cool with her wanting to be sure, especially after she mentioned later that she was not a bass player but “kind of fool around on it.”

She then turned on the amp and went over with me the various features on it. “Here, you have a contour switch, which gives the bass a scooped sound, a horn defeat switch for the tweeter, a boost switch, an XLR out jack, four-band EQ, gain and master volume,” she said.

As I played various improvised bass lines and then broke into the bass line for an old Evelyn “Champaign” King funk classic, “Shakedown,” she demonstrated the sonic effect of the various buttons and knobs. This was my first experience with a GK product and I was impressed! The amp reproduced the killer Music Man tone with its punch, growl and aggressive midrange intact! It also did a decent job handling the low B string. After about five minutes, however, a piercing scratching noise developed. When I asked if it could it be a bad guitar cable, she wasn’t sure. The noise disappeared briefly and then returned. At this point, another salesman appeared and said, “I think something is going on with this amp. It probably needs to be repaired.” When I mentioned that this was unfortunate because I really liked how the bass sounded through this amp, the other salesman quietly mentioned, “I think we have another one like this in the back.”
My salesperson informed me of this, which was soon verified by the salesman, who had returned. At this point, I decided to move on to one of the Acoustic amps. She quickly shifted her sales efforts to an Acoustic B200 200W 1×15 Bass Combo. Again, the price tag, marked $349.99, was hard to see until I lifted it up with my hand. The Music Man sounded nice through this amp! It, too, had numerous control knobs and buttons, including a tweeter on/off switch, a six-band EQ with a sweepable -10dB notch filter to tailor the mids, an XLR out jack and an extension speaker jack that she touted could be used to connect to an extension speaker cabinet. Without adjusting any of the knobs, I liked what I heard. I also liked what I didn’t hear: unwanted noises!
She then directed me to an Ampeg BA115 Bass Combo, which had a 15-inch speaker like the GK and Acoustic. After hooking me up, the salesperson right away focused my attention to the style selector knob that controlled five EQ presets.

“This setting is my favorite,” she mentioned; it did sound pretty good.

Unlike the GK and Acoustic, the Ampeg had a 100W amp and not a 200W amp. That really didn’t affect my opinion of the sound of the Music Man through the amp, but it didn’t appeal to my ear quite as much. As I was taking notes, she told me to be sure to write down the prices, today’s date and her name so that the current prices will be honored in case they increase later.
“There is one more amp that I want you to try just for fun,” she said, pointing me to a Markbass Micromark 801 combo. “I like to show this amp off because people don’t believe me when I tell them that this little amp really puts out.”

I wasn’t terribly interested, but I agreed to check it out. I was pleasantly surprised with this tiny amp! Although it lacked the girth that the other amps had, this little thing sounded good! When I mentioned this and asked what size the speaker was, she said it was an eight-inch speaker. Wow! For such a tiny cabinet, the Music Man had a very tight sound, even though the bottom of the low B was lacking.

I was ready to make my exit and asked for any brochures that she had and a business card. She said that she didn’t have either one, but wanted my contact information to follow up on my choices, and did provide her business e-mail address. Not having brochures was OK, but the lack of a business card was not. I gave her my middle name and my e-mail address. She quickly asked, “When do you think you’ll be ready to buy?”

I reminded her that I was just gathering information for my friend’s nephew and would not be making the purchase myself. Then I thanked her for her assistance and made my way to the exit. On my way out the door, the person at the central “command post” rather robotically recited, “Have a nice evening.” I told him to do the same.

All in all, I was impressed with the salesperson’s knowledge of the amps, even though she claimed that she didn’t really play the bass. With regard to my experience as a potential customer, I would be hesitant to shop at this particular Guitar Center. Hopefully, the vibe at the Visalia store will be a marked improvement….

Patrick’s Music Etc.
769 E. Barstow
Fresno, CA 93710

On my way home from work, I decided to make a run to Patrick’s Music Etc. to spy its wares and to decompress after a grueling Monday. I haven’t visited this store in many years. As a matter of fact, if my recollection is accurate, the last time I did was about seven years ago to get a cork replaced on my son’s trumpet.

As I pulled into a parking spot right in front of the store, I was curious to see what electric guitars, basses and amps they had in stock, as their main forte is band and orchestra instruments. I walked in and saw several salespeople at various spots in the store. I made eye contact with them, but they didn’t acknowledge me with even a nod. I kept walking toward the back of the store, where I spotted a sparse collection of electric guitars and basses and, to their left, an extremely small number of bass amps. There were also a number of guitar amps, PA speakers, an upright bass with a black lacquered finish and keyboards: a menagerie of musical equipment.

I moved to and fro between the amps and basses for a few minutes. Then, one of the people whom I’d made eye contact with appeared and, as though emerging from an anesthetic-induced sleep, asked,” Is there something I can help you with?”

I gave him my ruse line about looking for an entry-level bass amp for my friend’s nephew.

“We really don’t have a lot of bass amps on hand,” he said. “Where is he going to be playing? In his room? If so, we have a nice little practice amp over here.”

I responded that I was looking for something decent, which he could grow into. I then spotted a Peavey Basic 112 Combo amp. The price tag was very small and the information was entered by hand. He said, “Let’s see…this thing sells new for $379.99. Since it’s used, it’s going for $195.” One of the few bass amps they had and it turned out to be used. When I asked if he had anything new, he said that he did, but that it was a Custom keyboard amp.

“It’s for keyboards, but it’ll handle the low end of a bass. It’s kind of pricey, though: $539.99.”

I told him that I wanted to stay at or below $400.

“I can give you a discount on this,” he replied.

I asked if I could try out the Peavey and the Custom. He asked me if I played a five-string bass and I told him yes. At this point, the enthusiasm that I did have was waning rapidly. He retrieved a bass with the name “Carrera” printed on the headstock. It had a nice dark blue finish, a maple neck, a rosewood fretboard, what appeared to be aluminum tuning keys and an aluminum bridge: the first that I’d seen. Not a bad looking bass. He plugged it in using a very cheap instrument cable.

“I haven’t had a chance to go over this bass yet. I hope it’s working,” he commented.

Since there wasn’t much output, I asked if the bass has an active preamp and looked at the rear of the body. Sure enough, there was a 9V battery being held in place by a single strip of clear tape (no battery cover).

“Ah…now I remember the problem with this bass. It’s coming back to me now,” he said.

He dashed off to get another battery and exchanged old for new. He then went to retrieve a cool-looking Snark blue clip-on tuner. I’m in the market for a clip-on tuner, and I’ve seen some good videos and articles featuring this one. Pretty impressive! He left me so he could help other customers, and I checked out the Peavey. It had a decent sound, but I wasn’t really feeling it due to the fact that it was used. I declined the Custom keyboard amp, but my judgment might have been clouded because it was a keyboard amp.

The store was filled with sounds of students engaged in trumpet and guitar lessons as I walked over to the counter where the salesman was attending to customers and waited to get a business card. After a few minutes, he was free. I asked for a card and, just for the heck of it, the price on the Custom keyboard amp. He replied in a whisper, “Shhhh…but, if you wait until Wednesday, it will be on sale.”

After fetching a calculator and punching in some numbers, he said, “With the 35-percent green tag discount, the new price is $350.99.” He then moved over to the store’s center counter, grabbed a business card and wrote his name on a line at the top right corner. I thanked him for his help, shook his hand and made my exit.

All in all, I was very disappointed with my experience at Patrick’s Music Etc. The lack of bass amps on hand is my main gripe, which is significant as it applies to my mission. The highlight of the trip was the Snark tuner. The only thing that I would consider buying, other than the tuner, would be sheet music and instructional music books, which dominated the store’s floor space. Again, the store’s bread and butter seem to be slanted more toward unamplified bands and orchestras.

Guitar Center
4254 S. Mooney Rd.
Visalia, CA 93277

Finally, the last leg of my mission is at hand! It’s a beautiful Saturday morning and I’m off to the Guitar Center in Visalia CA after our band rehearsal. Since the trek is about one hour away, I decided to ask my good friend and band mate, Deric, to ride with me.

“Oh yeah, I’m down,” he eagerly answered.

“Cool. I’ve got some other errands to run and will pick you up at around 3pm,” I said.

Note: I need to inform you that this evaluation will not be very long. Why? Well, read on….

We arrived at our destination and headed inside the store. As is usual at every Guitar Center that I’ve visited, we were greeted by a friendly employee at the front desk. Deric made his way to the guitar section and I made a beeline to the bass area. I was very impressed with the wall of bass guitars and numerous bass amps in this relatively small store. This is going to be fun! I walked by several employees at the counter, made eye contact and nodded. No one said a word. I walked around, checking out the bass amp selection and spotted some familiar brands:
Peavey, Ampeg, Acoustic, Markbass, GK and Fender. As for bass guitars, what a feast! Music Man, Ibanez, Schecter, Fender, Yamaha, Epiphone, Hofner and more. As I walked laps around the bass section, I periodically looked at my watch. Five minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, one hour…and not a single offer of help.
Deric made his way into bass land to see how things were going. “It’s been over an hour and I’m still waiting to be helped,” I told him.
“No one has helped me, either,” he shot back under his breath.

I then grabbed a Schecter Raiden five-string bass, searched for a guitar cable and plugged into a Markbass Mini CMD 121P combo amp. This amp sounded great, and so much bigger than it had a right to! At $899, it was more than my max price of $400, but I was really feeling this amp. I pulled various Music Man Stingray and Sterling basses off the wall and gave them a go.

“Wow,” I exclaimed. Still after one hour and 15 minutes, no one offered to help me.

I was ready to make my exit when I heard the elusive voice that I had waited to hear all this time: “Is there something that I can help you with?” I told the salesman my by-now-familiar story. I asked to try out a Peavey Tour TKO 115. At $399, the price was right and it sounded good. About 15 minutes later, another employee materialized and asked if I needed any help while letting me know that he was a bass player. He said, “As a bass player and not as a salesman, I would recommend that you check out this Ampeg BA115.” I appreciated his opinion, especially since the Ampeg was the same price. He and I talked bass for what seemed like another hour. I then asked for a business card, but he said that all that he could offer was his name. I thanked him, and Deric and I made our exit.

Epilogue
Out of the four stores I visited, I would have put the Guitar Center in Visalia last on my list of stores to do business with. In spite of the amazing selection, my great time playing Music Man basses through the amazing Markbass amp, and running my mouth, waiting over an hour before being waited on is absolutely unacceptable. The almost two-hour round trip was definitely not worth it. So, in order of most likely to get my hard-earned money, it’s Gottschalk Music Center, then Guitar Center in Fresno, then Patrick’s Music Etc. and, if I were desperate, Guitar Center in Visalia.