THE LOW END
Top 10 Tips on Vintage Bass Maintenance
It’s a misconception that a vintage bass requires
a lot of maintenance and repair. The fact is,
vintage basses require no more and no less
bench time than modern ones—and you can
do a lot yourself with less than $20 worth of
tools: a flathead screwdriver, a medium and a
slightly larger Phillips screwdriver, and a small
screwdriver with changeable tips and wire cutters. Remember when using tools on your bass
to use your fingertips, not the palms of your
hands, to grasp the tools: you can over-torque
and do damage. If you’re not sure of what you
are doing with a particular repair, save it for a
professional. Okay, let’s get started!
TV-tuner cleaner or a potentiometer cleaner
sold at any electronics shack or the many online
guitar parts places. Using the straw, shoot some
cleaner into the gap on the side of the pot
above the wire prongs. Turn your knobs and
repeat if necessary. Shield against overspray.
conditioner. Read the directions and make
sure the product is compatible.
Tuners: All tuners get hard to turn after
years of use. All you have to do is put a
drop of any common hardware store oil on
the worm gear and turn it a few times. While
you’re there, tighten loose screws on the
base plate and butterfly wings.
Truss Rods: The big warning here: if you’re
not sure how to do this, don’t do anything.
Never force your truss rod. Especially on
Rickenbackers and Gibsons, do not
improvise with tools. My personal rule of thumb: if
your rod needs more then 1/3 of a full twist
in either direction, see your luthier. Bound,
tight, or overly loose truss rods should be an
easy repair for a professional.
Screw holes: Never use a larger screw then
the original size. Rather than using a bigger
screw, use a smaller hole. The best filler available is a wood toothpick. One toothpick offers
three sizes of filler. If a pickguard screw is
spinning loose, put a toothpick in the hole,
point down. Measure, remove, and cut to
size. Wire cutters work great. Now insert point
facing up and replace the screw. If the screw
falls out of a pickguard, use the toothpick
tip inserted down in the hole. For slipping or
spinning neck or bridge plate screws, cut the
tip off the toothpick, insert, measure and use
the shaft of the toothpick without either tip.
Bridges: I use toothpicks to clean the screw
heads and barrel threads of any bridge. A
filthy bass may not have proper metal-to-met-al contact. This could result in a softer tone
and slightly “off” intonation. If the bridge
needs adjustment, always do this after the
neck adjustment. If the bridge does need to
be adjusted to lower the action, always turn
the adjustment screw back up after adjustment is complete. This will help prevent the
bridge from lowering itself. Never use thread
sealant on bridge screws.
Finishes: In the past three to five years,
major strides have taken place regarding finish maintenance. Quite a few manufacturers
have come out with 2- to 5-stage systems
for finish care that can be found in just about
any catalog. I admit I was skeptical, but I had
a ‘ 63 P-Bass with a chalky finish and used a
series of products… my bass went from a 7. 1
to an 8. 3 out of 10 condition. Use only products meant for instruments: I’ve seen terrific
results with furniture polish, but I’ve also seen
it cloud up a perfect finish.
Pickguards: Never use a power screwdriver
on your bass, especially on your pickguard.
You will crack it. Most cracks are caused by
shrinkage. Unless a piece is going to fall off,
I never repair my guards. If you must glue it
and the guard can easily be removed, try to
glue the back side. Use a glue dropper or
tooth pick to get the cement into the crack.
Pots: With a very annoying crackle or sudden
drop in volume, odds are your pots are dirty.
This is one of the easiest fixes. All you need is
Frets: They should not be green, and they
should not be coated in sludge or toxic
waste. Try cleaning your frets with guitar pol-
ish to remove the gunk. Next, mask off the
surrounding fretboard. Aluminum fretboard
shields are sold at luthier supplies, or use a
light adhesive tape, like masking tape. Use
0000 grade steel wool and go across the fret
wire. Your frets will
be amazingly cleaner.
Strings: I do a ton of repairs that are nothing
more then incorrect, mis-wound or improperly
installed strings. Make sure you’re using the
correct gauge string. In 99 percent of vintage
applications, 40–100, 45–100, or 105 gauge
strings work perfectly. Before you install, check
the string windings for overwinding or gaps.
When you install your string, you should have
enough excess to wrap around the tuner post
2-1/2 to 3 times. Remember to wind down
the post, getting as close to the ferrule as you
can. Big vintage tip: if you have to back off the
string to tune it, turn the tuner back to tighten
it, to prevent slippage.
seen fretboards that
look like a Superfund
site—to the point
I needed rubber
gloves to work on
the bass. Most fretboards are slightly
dirty and need to be
cleaned. This process
is quite easy, and
everyone makes a
solution and wood
The Lowdown Wrap-up
Remember to use the correct tools.
Following directions and being patient will
yield a good result. Until next time, drop the
gig bag and bring the cannolis!
Kevin Borden has been a bass player since 1975, and is
currently President of Goodguysguitars.com.
Feel free to call him KeBo.
He can be reached at