My name is John K. I started playing bass guitar in 1967 when I was 13 years old. When I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, I knew immediately what I wanted to do in life, so a couple of years later, my parents purchased my first bass for me from a pawn shop in Los Angeles for $50.00. It was a St. George bass. I really didn’t know much about basses, other than Paul McCartney played one and they had only four strings with these big knobs at the end (tuning machines). The first song that I learned to play was Gloria, by Them (Van Morrison) since the bass line was simple enough. Then I leaned to play "Mr Tambourine Man" by the Byrds and "Hey Joe" by the Leaves. My older brother was learning to play guitar, so we would learn songs off of records and play them together. Soon afterwards we were playing Beatle and Rolling Stones songs and learning to play songs by Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Eric Burdon, Iron Butterfly, Steppenwolf, and Jethro Tull amongst others. (NOTE: After 20 years of looking for one, I recently found and purchased TWO St. George Basses, just like the my first bass!) Six months later, while in junior high school, I noticed another guy that had the exact same bass that I had. I tried his bass to compare them, and immediately noticed that his was ALOT easier to play. The strings were much lower and it took almost no effort to play. I didn’t know it, but I had been learning to play on a bass with super high action (over ¼ inch!), so I decided to try and figure out why. I lowered the saddles but the bass started buzzing. Then I looked down the neck and noticed a large front bow in it. I mean, you could shoot an arrow off of it! I adjusted the truss rod as tight as it would go, but it still didn’t remove much of the bow, but it did make play it a little better. That’s when I decided that I needed a new bass. After seeing the Beatles, I was dying to get a Hofner Beatle Bass, but at 14 years old, they were way too expensive. Whenever I could go to Wallich’s Music City in Hollywood ( they were in business from 1949 to 1978), I would just stare at their Hofners in the glass cases, saying to myself “one day, I’ll have one of those!”, but at $549.00 in 1968, that was out of the question for a 14 year old. Wallich’s also had a store in the South Bay area (Torrance/Redondo) and since a lot of my relatives lived in that area, every chance I could, I would go and see what they had in stock. No Beatle Basses but they did have a Hofner Club Bass, and I remember thinking that it was super cool as well. Soon, I saw the bass player in Paul Revere and the Raiders was using one of those which made me want one of those too. Then I saw Larry Taylor in Canned Heat playing a sunburst Fender Precision Bass on the TV Show, “9th Street West” and I thought, wow, I've got to get one of those!
Well, my dad said that he would consider helping me get a new bass so we went to another music store called Melody Music in Hawthorne. The owner pulled out a brand new Sunburst Precision Bass and I just drooled over it. I still remember the smell of it when he opened the brand new hardshell case. I begged my dad to buy it for me, promising to pay him back, but at $249.00 + $69 for the hardshell case, it was a bit too much to ask. The owner also pulled out a new Hofner Beatle Bass but that was even more out of my price range! The owner said that he had another bass that I might be interested in and it was out on a display stand. It was a 1966 Fender Precision Bass in LAKE PLACID BLUE!!! It had reverse tuners and the transition logo and although it was two years old, it was brand new! He said that the custom color basses didn’t sell as quickly as the sunburst ones and that he could let me have it for $229.00! Again, the begging started, and although, at the time, I REALLY wanted a sunburst one, that Lake Placid Blue one was super nice. Needless to say, again, that was out of my price range, but I will never forget that bass!
We went down the street to another music store called Hogan’s House of Music. It was there that I purchased a Hofner Beatle Bass clone made by Elektra for $105.00. It played and sounded great. It was actually a really nice bass and was one of the best copies of a Hofner at the time. Now I needed a better amp.
I built my first bass amp myself in early 1968. It was a Heathkit T-38 combo bass amp. It came in kit form and had a single 15” speaker. It was really cool looking and although it was solid state, it sounded great to me. Later that year I wanted something bigger (of course) so I got a Silvertone Bass 150. It had six 10 inch Jensen speakers, and it wasn’t really all that much louder, but hey, it was bigger! Then in mid 1969, I finally got one of the coolest bass amps of all time. A friend of mine was selling his 1962 blonde Fender Showman, complete with the single 15” JBL D130F with the tone ring. It was the rough blonde tolex, white knob, flat logo with the brown dog bone handles and it was practically mint (with covers!)! I got it for $300.00 and fell in love with it immediately! With its four original Tung-Sol 5881’s and compliment of RCA preamp tubes, that amp sounded amazing! Now I needed a “professional” bass to go with my professional amp.
My dad always said if I saved up my own money, that he would “allow” me to buy myself another bass (?!!) , so I saved up $300.00 and in December of 1969 my mom took me to Westchester Music (a Fender dealer). They had a brand new P bass in sunburst just put out on display. I asked them how much it was. They said that it retailed for $273.00 (which I already knew since I would sit at home and read the Fender Price lists and catalogues everyday until I had them memorized!). Then they said that the hardshell case was $79.00 making it a total of $352.00 retail. They said that they would give me 20% off of the list price making it $281.60 + 4% sales tax made it $296.84 out the door! Needless to say, I went home with the biggest smile on my face with my new bass and 3 dollars and change in my pocket. When my dad got home from work that night, I’ll never forget it.
He opened the door to my room and said, “What’s that?”.
I replied (enthusiastically), “It’s my new P Bass!”
Then he said, “Did I give you permission to buy that?”
I said, “No, but you said that if I saved up my own money………...”
He cut me off and said, “Put it away, I never told you that you could buy it.”
So, that was that, and being completely bummed out, I put it in its case and slid it under the bed.
The next day, while he was at work, I sneaked it out to just look at it, when my mom walked in and said, “I’ll talk to your father about it when he gets home”…… I mean, she was the one that took me to go buy it, so I knew that she would try to convince him, otherwise we’d both be in the doghouse. For three days, I had to play my Elektra in the meantime, just knowing that the new P was under the bed. I finally was allowed to play the P bass whenever I wanted. Man, parents were strict in those days! Its funny that when you’re young, those three days seemed like an eternity.
(note: I must say though, ever since then, both of my parents were extremely supportive and proud of my playing music. A few years later, they even let me convert my bedroom into a recording studio! And a few years after that, even after I moved out, they allowed me to convert the garage in their brand new house into an 8 track recording studio!)
Anyway, back to the bass. The new P bass thru the Showman was incredible. Everyone in my band class at highschool (Morningside Highschool in Inglewood) loved it too. I remember playing a few rallies in the gym and it was there that I could really crank it up.
How I got started repairing and restoring guitars:
Being somewhat paranoid about having a straight neck (remember my first St. George!), I would always check that the neck on my burst P bass was arrow straight. Well, after about 6-8 months, I noticed that I was developing a slight front bow. Still under its one year warranty, I took it to a Fender Authorized repair center to have it adjusted. Expert Audio Repair adjusted my neck for free. I dropped it off on one day and picked it up the next.
When I got it back, I noticed that it was better, but not great. I called them and they said that it was supposed to have some “relief” in it, which is what Fender also states, but I thought that it had too much “relief”. I played it another year like that and it was fine, but not as good as it could’ve been. So, about a year later, I took it directly to the Fender factory in Fullerton where it was made. They adjusted it again, but the guy couldn’t get it really straight. At one point, instead of having a slight front bow, it would then go into an “S” curve, with the dip being at the 14th fret and the back bow at the 5th. By now, I was getting very disappointed! I asked the service guy, “Aren’t your necks supposed to be straight?” He replied, your neck meets all of our specifications. I told him to write that remark on a piece of paper because I was now thinking about getting rid of it.
Later that day, I adjusted the truss rod myself and got it to play a lot better than the Fender tech did, but I knew that it still had a few problems. I remember going to Sol Betnum’s and Guitar Center Hollywood and looking down the necks of all of their fender basses. Most of them had HUGE front bows in them, but the maple necks seemed to be a little straighter.
So, in mid 1971 I was off to ACE MUSIC in Santa Monica to go trade it in on a new one. This time, I decided to try a one-piece maple neck, hoping that it would be stiffer and stronger. I traded my burst P in on a Black one with a Maple neck and white pickguard. I loved the new bass, and it seemed to resonate even better than the burst one. Sure enough though, 6 months later, it started developing a front bow. This time I adjusted it myself, since I knew that I could get it to play better than the tech at Fender.
A couple of months later, the bow was coming back and I couldn’t get it where I wanted it. Knowing that Fender wouldn’t replace the neck, since it was surely within their (funky) specs, I mentioned it to a friend of mine that had just purchased a new Telecaster. He said that Fender just replaced the neck on his Tele because of a finish flaw. His maple neck’s finish was already wearing thru on one edge due to the paint being a little too thin. They put a new neck on it right then and there. This got me thinking (uh-oh), so I took a piece of 600 grit wet or dry and slightly sanded the finish on the side of the fingerboard of my P bass until it just barely went thru the finish, and off to Fender I went. They put a brand new neck on it immediately and apologized for the finish flaw! The new neck was arrow straight and played perfect! About four months later, the finish on the side started to wear thru, but I didn’t care, I just wanted a straight neck. That neck stayed straight and never needed adjustment and I played the hell out of that bass.
In hindsight, I’m really glad that the techs that serviced my bass didn’t do a very good job of adjusting them. They basically forced me to take it upon myself to adjust them and start working on them myself. Whenever I would go to a jam with friends, we would often trade basses, just for the afternoon. And every time, the other bass players would want to trade basses with me for good. They would always ask why my bass played so much better than theirs. So I would offer to adjust their basses for them. Little did I know at the time, that that is how I would end up making a living.
In 1973 I started working in a music store called Whittier Plaza Music, in Whittier California. It was a really cool shop that opened in the 50’s and they had everything that Guitar Center Hollywood had and a lot cooler people working there. At first, I started teaching bass. I had about 30 students that I gave private lessons to. Soon, hearing that I could adjust guitars, the manager asked me to set up a few of the Fenders and Gibsons they had hanging on the wall. After setting up just a few, they noticed that they would immediately sell, so they had me adjusting every one of them. Not being all that thrilled with teaching, I went on to sales and repair. I had a little counter right at the front of the store where you could actually watch me repair/adjust your guitar. That is when I switched to being a full time guitar tech. I would play gigs in nightclubs at night, and come in and repair/set up guitars during the day. By 1975, I had quite a collection of basses, 29 of them to be exact.
In December 1975, Bernardo Rico ( of BC RICH) came into the store, which he often did. We sold his BC Rich Acoustics and his Seagull electrics. He saw me playing my new Alembic Series One and said, “Hey, you should be playing one of my basses!” I told him that I would play one if I could design the body on it and that he could only make just one of them. So later that night, we went across the street to a Sambo’s restaurant and I drew out the shape on a napkin. Back then, I liked the kind of unique shaped guitars like Rickenbackers’, so I borrowed a couple of curves from them. I came up with what was later called the Mockingbird. In the old days, he referred to it as the “Go-Go” model. Go-Go was my nickname. Neil Moser, one of his employees, later renamed it the “Mockingbird” since it was capable of “mocking” a lot of other guitar’s sounds.. He was supposed to make only one, and when I called him on it, he said that he was getting too much demand for them, and at the time his Seagulls weren’t really selling all that well. Shortly thereafter, Neil designed the Rich Bich, and together with the Mockingbird and the Bich BC Rich sales greatly improved. I remember seeing the Mockingbird on the cover of Guitar Player magazines and even in a 78 Chevrolet Camaro commercial.
By 1978 Whittier Plaza Music, in a roundabout way, became Whittier Music Company. Long story -short, it changed ownership but retained most of it same employees. I set up shop in the new larger location and continued to repair, restore and adjust guitars and basses. By that time, I owned no less than 4 Ampeg SVT’s, a Sunn 2000s, an Acoustic 360, a 370 and a 450, a Sunn Coliseum, and countless Fender amps. In 1979, my long time friend and rep, Dale Hiatt, who had worked at Fender’s Sales department in the 50's and 60's was again working with Leo at G&L. He introduced me to Leo, and hired me as a field consultant on the early G& L Basses. Leo told me that I was the only person that he ever actually gave a bass to, which was a great honor for me. Also while working at Whittier Music Company, I remember putting my mint Acoustic 360 rig on consignment on their sales floor. One of the reasons that I bought it in the first place was because I saw Larry Taylor playing thru one in the sixties. One day, a customer came in that showed interest in it so they asked me to go talk to him about it. The guy ended up being Larry Taylor himself! I told him that I was the owner of the amp and what inspired me to buy it in the first place. After he heard that, he just grinned and said, “I’ll take it”.
By 1983 I co-founded a band called the “Living Daylights”. Rusty Anderson had asked me to start a band with him, and he being the best guitarist I’ve ever known, it was an easy decision. Rusty now has one of the best gigs in the world, being Paul McCartney’s lead guitarist for the past 7 years (amongst playing on tons of other major records), and we are still very close friends. IMHO, the “Living Daylights” was a really good band, and the four years that we wrote music and played live together brings back a lot of fond memories.
In 1985 I opened my own guitar shop in La Habra California, called Red Duck Music.
A friend named John Page, used to come and visit me at WMC occasionally in the late seventies early eighties and told me that he wanted to start working on guitars for a living. He got a job at Fender and eventually worked his way up to be the head of the Fender Custom Shop. In 1986, he called me and asked me to work for Fender. He wanted me to be their master builder, but not to build guitars for the public, but rather, I was to build one guitar per month for their artist endorsees. He said that he thought that with my experience, he felt that there was no one on the planet that knew more about vintage (or modern) Fender guitars. When he said that, I was extremely flattered. He also offered me a large starting salary (a lot more than I was making at the time), but I had just opened my own shop a year earlier and explained to him that I wasn’t sure if I was a “corporate” type of guy. Looking back, it might have been wise to take him up on that offer, but then again, I’m still not a “corporate” type of guy ;-).
Also while in La Habra, I met Brain Gerhard (he was one of my customers). He mentioned that he wanted to start his own company, manufacturing tube amplifiers. So, I helped him get it started on his early amp designs using my experience as an amp tech. I recommended that he start by building a Fender Tweed Deluxe clone as they are one of the most desirable amps of all time. He has since increased his line of Top Hat boutique amplifiers to be some of, if not the best, tube guitar amplifiers made today. I continued my guitar and amp work in that location until 1998 when the owner decided to tear my building down and turn it into a mini-mall, so I moved the shop to Huntington Beach, CA for the next 5 years.
After working in music stores for 12 years and having my own shop for 22 years I decided to close the “brick and mortar” shop and try something else. Over that time, I was a factory authorized service center for Fender, Gibson, Ovation, Martin, Ibanez, Guild, Rickenbacker, G&L and PRS, and I have repaired/restored and adjusted over 50,000 guitars. It was always great to support my musician “habit”, and it allowed me to play gigs, produce other bands in the studio, but it just became a bit much for me to keep it going. Amazingly, I am now playing in a band with the same guys that I played with as a kid in 1969. The 60's and 70's songs that we play are now oldies, but we used to play them when they were new! Our band is called "the Boys From the Wood" (referring to IngleWOOD).
So now I am now offering my basses (and guitars) direct. When I would build one in my retail shop they would sell for $3000.00, but with not having to pay the high overhead of a retail business, and thanks to the world wide web, I can now offer them for a considerably lower price. After all the years of restoring vintage guitars and building new ones that replicate the old ones, I feel that I know what makes a great one great and a mediocre one mediocre. Every bass that I've listed on ebay has sold very quickly, sometimes within 15 minutes! Being a one man show, I can't really keep up with the demand, and they sell faster than I can build them, but that's a nice problem to have. And I refuse to take shortcuts or use anything less that the highest quality components to compromise their quality.
I am not trying to re-invent the wheel. It is my opinion that all of the mistakes have already been made. The main idea behind my instruments is to be able to play a bass that looks, plays and sounds as good as or better than its actual vintage counterpart, without having the expense of paying the big bucks for one or risking the loss of one at a gig. I still have a few of my vintage Fender basses, but I always use one of my clones at gigs as they actually play and sound better to me.
Sorry for the long rant, but I think that this information can help you get a better idea of my experience and background.