Hidden Bass Gems from the ‘80s and ‘90s

We’ve all had the experience of cruising around the guitar shop, scanning the floor for something exciting and stumbling upon an unusual “older” instrument that we've never seen before. Our instinct might be to pass over this obscure instrument and move on to the innovative new guitar or that classic vintage piece in the showcase.

However, some of the greatest buys can come in the form of these lesser-known, "newer side of vintage" instruments. These guitars might not have the notoriety, commercial success, or name recognition of a Les Paul, Strat or a P bass, but they still have a lot of music left in them.

They can also offer exceptional value relative to their price. Generally, you can find these instruments for well under $1,000, equipped with cool features like unusual pickups, unique tone circuits, and distinctive body shapes. And despite their lower cost, you’ll often find that these guitars were constructed using higher-grade tone woods — the availability of which was better when they were made 20-30 years ago.

Another benefit is that many lower-cost imports from this era were produced in Japan and South Korea. Newer production instruments from these countries are priced quite similarly to many of their American-made counterparts. There are many factors as to why, but generally, demand for basses made in these countries has increased, bringing up their prices as well.

However, basses from these two countries can sometimes be purchased for as little as $300 if made in the ‘80s or ‘90s. Beyond the price benefits, many of these basses were unique in their designs. Certainly, one can purchase a traditional precision- or jazz-style bass from this time period and make out very well.

But purchasing a bass that may have only been produced for a few years instead can really appeal to a player’s individuality. Today, we’re going to take a look at five of the most unique bass guitars from the ‘80s and ‘90s that, while perhaps harder to find, will definitely be gentler on your wallet.

Ibanez TR500/600

The Ibanez TR series is a line of basses that Ibanez produced in the mid-’90s. Glance quickly at one of these instruments, and you might mistake them for a modern super J from one of the high-end custom builders. But as it turns out, Ibanez was just a bit ahead of the curve with these.

Ibanez TR-500 Bass

The tone woods used are a classic alder, maple and rosewood combination. They’re also equipped with large, over-wound Jazz-style pickups and an onboard three-band preamp with a bypass option for passive playing.

The primary difference between the 500 and 600 models (other than colors offered) is the country of manufacture. The 500s were produced in Korea and the 600s in Japan. Two additional variants include the totally passive TR300 and the TR505, a 5-string variant. All were built very well for their price point, and the way pricing stands today, they offer excellent value.

Current market values for these basses vary but models can generally be purchased for anywhere between the mid $200 range to high $300 range. Also, as they were only produced for a short period of time, they offer the buyer the chance to own a unique instrument.

Yamaha BB1500a

The Yamaha BB1500a offers many similar features to the Ibanez TR basses. It comes with active electronics, the same combination of woods, and a similar body shape and overall vibe. However, it also sports a few differences, making this bass very much its own entity.

Yamaha BB1500A Bass

First and most noticeable is the more traditionally shaped J-style pickups. These, combined with the onboard preamp, still produce a huge sound that will cut through any mix, but this bass has more of that traditional Jazz-like bite to the sound.

The preamp itself is also a unique beast. The treble and bass controls function like most other preamps, but the midrange circuit is far from conventional. The midrange operates with a three-position switch, which offers the user access to three midrange presets. The middle position turns the midrange off, transforming the preamp into a two-band. The other two positions are preset midrange boosts or cuts. The frequencies that are utilized are adjustable internally on the preamp.

Under the control cover on the back of the bass, the player will find a series of trim pots controlling overall output, midrange boost and cut, as well as two additional controls labeled frequency 1 and 2 that adjust the frequency of the two midrange presets. This makes for a very flexible preamp that can be tailored to the user’s ear and playing style.

Like the Ibanez TR, the BB1500a was produced only for a few years in the early-to-mid-’90s, and current pricing for this bass is generally between $450 and $600.

Gibson Victory

The Gibson Victory bass has quite a lot going on, and one of those things is a ton of visual character. One of the best aspects of buying instruments that aren’t produced anymore is that you come across some really interesting and unusual designs, and there are few better examples than the Gibson Victory.

1981 Gibson Victory Bass

Issued for the first time in 1981, this bass was originally intended as a direct competitor to the P bass, but its unique electronics and maple neck and body meant a bass that is very different tonally from the Fender design. The Victory’s tone can probably be best characterized as somewhere in between and Rickenbacker and a P bass.

The series itself had three variations: standard, artist, and custom. The standard was a single-pickup design that was most directly intended to be a competitor to the P bass, the custom was the passive dual pickup iteration, and the artist was an active/passive dual pickup version.

All of the Victory basses had switches for operation in series or parallel. Price wise, the standard model will fetch between $600 and $850 with the custom and artists versions pricing out a bit higher.

However, for those seeking a bass with a unique visual presence and a percussive, midrange-focused sound for under $1,000, the Victory standard is a great option.

Peavey T-45

The Peavey T-45 is another cool alternative for someone seeking a vintage, American-made bass for under $1,000. The basses typically come with an ash body and maple neck and fingerboard combination. There is also another version with a rosewood fingerboard.

1982 Peavey T-45

This bass is equipped with two features that make it totally unique among other basses from this period. The first is a very unusual tone circuit. This tone knob functions differently than most passive tone controls in that it also controls how many of the pickup’s coils are in use.

From zero all the way to about seven the full humbucker is in use. However, when the tone knob is turned past seven, the second coil shuts off and the bass goes into single coil mode — a feature which really opens up the brightness of the bass as more than just a fully open tone knob on a humbucker would.

The second feature that sets this bass apart is the built-in neck tilt adjustment. One frustrating element with some bolt-on basses is the occasional need to shim the neck in order to achieve proper string height. The T-45 eliminated any potential for that entirely with its neck tilt screw at the back of the neck pocket, which can be used to adjust the angle at which the neck sits in the pocket. This allows the player to achieve their desired string height without ever needing to shim.

The Peavey T-45 can generally be purchased for between $400 and $500. With features like that, it’s a steal by most standards.

Yamaha Pulser

Up to this point, the basses in this article have all been a little outside of the ordinary in regard to design — basses that are out of production and aren’t truly built in that classic vintage style.

1980 Yamaha PB400 Pulser

However, if you are a fan of the classic P bass and still find yourself seeking the inherent benefits of instruments from the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Yamaha Pulser bass might be one to consider.

Produced in the 1980s, the Yamaha Pulser basses were more or less direct clones of a Fender P bass from the 1970s. Many of these basses utilized and ash/maple body and neck combination, equipped with a classically voiced pickup to match the overall vibe of this bass.

The basses were well put together, and current pricing from $450 to $550 make these basses well worth the cost to own. The design is fairly standard and won’t really set you apart in a crowd, but for anyone seeking a classic-looking and sounding P bass at a reasonable rate, an older Yamaha Pulser is a good one to consider.

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