What’s the best bass for guitar players? What’s arguably the coolest bass ever made? What’s got bottom that’s so huge, warm, and round that Mr. “I like Big Butts” Sir Mix a Lot would pen a moving ode to it? If you guessed the Valco-made Supro and/or Airline Pocket bass, you guessed right.
What makes it so special? Let’s start with the delightful design, typical of early to mid 60’s Valco. The Supros came in black, with transparent thumb and finger rests on either side of the body and the white (and sometimes, rarely, black) headstock. The Airline came in the Ice-Tea sunburst and white pickguard wings. Some of the Airline models came with a bound neck; some did not. For my hand, I dig the unbound, thinner neck, but that’s all to taste, I suppose. Either model is a ridiculously easy bass to play. Both models sport Brazilian rosewood fingerboards.
Is one better than the other? I think the AIRLINE model is better looking, but beware: The SUPRO model has a MUCH better down angle from the nut to tuning pegs. The Airline’s angle is too shallow, allowing the strings to pop out of the nut unless you add some after market string trees on at least the A and the D strings.
Other interesting features? Small (for a bass, at any rate) Kluson tuners. A monster of a fat Valco pickup in the neck position and a piezo pickup in the bridge. The knobs are for pickup blend and volume.
What’s the story behind these? They are pretty much a guitar-sized bass, which is really just too cool. Actually, the bodies ARE guitar bodies (or, at any rate, were USED for Valco-made guitars that are the cousin of these basses). The only things different are the necks and the bridges. So, it was probably an economical way for Valco to use the bodies as a duel-purpose body to get more bang for fewer production bucks (though they probably weren’t very successful, as the productions ran for fewer than 4 years).
But back to the bass at hand (if you’re lucky enough to have one at hand). None other than vintage gear collector and ex-Bob Dylan sideman and Saturday Night Live bandleader GE Smith called these the best recording basses around. I’d agree and go one further – they are the coolest bass for jam sessions and live gigs if you’re a guitar player who plays bass on the side or a bassist with small hands.
The neck pickup is a typical Valco monster. VERY full and fat and round (put some nylon strings on this and play along to “Rubber Soul” all day long) with tremendous depth and warmth. The piezo pickup (and the blend knob) result in a much lower volume, but have an incredibly woody tone that resembles a standup jazz bass. Maybe not enough volume for the stage at this setting, but a fabulous recording setting.
The 25 7/8″ neck practically begs you to play chords and/or two note combos. The bass has a ring and chime to it that jumps out of a good cab’s speakers.
How much should you pay? As I write this (always a danger to list a price for vintage instruments…a month later, this could be woefully out of date the way prices seem to go), a MINT example seems to be going in the $800 range (that’s with the original hard shell case). A beater that you could take to your garage or a bar stage? Around five hundred bucks. Which, really, when you think about it, is better than money in the bank. You have an incredibly cool bass that will have people coming up before and after the set asking “what the hell are you playing?” Which, of course, is part of the fun with oddball gear.
We have two of these in the house, and both get used with the bands. One is set up like a normal bass – one set up as a baritone electric ukulele (hey, why not?). These are fabulous made in the USA vintage basses that are still pretty affordable on the vintage market (the Reso-Glass super short scale Map Shape Bass is ALSO incredibly cool, but they’re going for well over a grand now). Get one while you can. And, hey Mike, how about a re-issue?
Editors note: We’ve considered doing a re-issue of this little beast for some time. But, the ultra short scale has some inherent design flaws; the worst of which is the extreme difficulty in keeping these in tune. The heavy strings combined with the short scale make intonation and pitch very difficult to nail down. If someone invented tuners with a much higher (or lower?) gear ratio, they would be easier to tune. Also, the short scale length does not give a full resonance as a Bass. But hey, it is a great BASS for guitar players indeed…
In the meantime, we decided to offer something that is the best of both worlds, and hence the AIRLINE Bass and the new AIRLINE MAP Bass. Both are 30″ scale (shorter than traditional 34″ scale BASS), and therefore offering 1) complete comfort for a guitar player, 2) long enough scale for accurate tuning and setup and 3) resonant enough for professional Bass players.
But, might still be cool to do the real McCoy in the coming years…
– Mike Robinson
29 thoughts on “1960’s Supro Airline Pocket Bass Guitar”
dang! I had one of the Airline sunburst models of these back in ’82. It was my first bass- I bought it for $99.50. Too bad I only held onto it for a couple of years!
I have one of these little gems. Don’t play it much as I’m mostly an upright player and my hands are a little too big for the instrument. Feel free to contact me.
I have this one, but mine is a little different. Its the exact same as this one but mine has Airline Sunburst style pick guards. If possible could someone tell me what version mine is?
Yours is the same bass–just the “Airline” brabded version. The only difference is the cool sunburst and the neat pick-guard “wings” on it…and the fact that the headstock has the gumby side toward the flood rather than the ceiling. Still a “Pocket Bass”. There’s no major difference, other than cosmetic..except that the Supro has a better angle on the headstock, which holds the strings in the nut better.
I have a Supro Pocket Bass with the White Head Stock and Original Case I Purchased from My Aunt back in the early 80’s!
She had Purchased it in the 60’s from a Public TV Station Auction Fund Raiser here in Detroit.
She Thought it was a 6 String Guitar when purchased and put it back in it’s case until I purchased it.
My Bass is in Mint Condition with the Origilal Flat Wound Strings Still on it.
It hasn’t been Played too many times and is an incredible sounding Bass.
I might sell it one Day, but not for only $800. The Quality of Sound, of this Bass, is UnMatched, I think they are worth Much More.
Thank You for Your Information and Post on this Great and Rare Instrument.
Hi there i have a supro pocket bass with black head stock with white outline? is this more valued then the white head stock
thanks for all the information .
I think a re-issue of this cool little bass would be a great idea. Perhaps if the neck were a little longer say 28”…….it would work out better. Either as an Airline or a Supro, I’ll be the first to buy one.
I have one of these I just rescued from the island of Maui! It’s a bit of a beater but I’m hoping to get ‘er fixed up. Any chance someone out there could send me a photo or diagram of the correct wiring for this bass? Mine has been messed with but both pickups are working. Pot values would be useful too…Also, any chance of finding a pickup cover? Just the silver part is missing on mine, not sure if anyone is making those.Thanks!
We recently found a 1960’s Supro pocket bass in hard case, with original strings still in package dated 1961. Right out of the woodwork. Like guitars but not my hobby. Anyone out there interested in buying? How much? fair price. Thanks Sidney G 715-341-6763 WI
Still have the pocket bass?
I have one of the Supro Pocket Basess. It sounds incredable as long as you play in the first position. It plays sharp from the 5th fret on. Since I’m more interested in playing it than looking at it, I’m installing a Tune-a-Matic style bridge on top of the original wooden bridge. The top of the bridge will need to be sanded (the action was high even with the original bridge lowered al the way)and the screws will have to be removed since they don’t line up with the bridge. The string spacing is a bit wide for the neck but looks workable. When done, it should go from wall hanger to travel bass for my upcoming trip to Europe. Don’t worry, I’m keeping all the parts and not drilling into the original bridge.
Does anyone have an original set of supro pocket bass strings for sale? Or can anyone me tell who made them for supro?
Have friend who started with one of these. Left it with nephew that did what nephews sometimes do. Trying to restore it for my friend. Only need to find top of bridge pickup assembly and tail section for strings. Any help in any direction would be great. Looking forward to bringing back to life.
That Black Supro Bass was my first and true love Bass in 1964. A fantastic starter bass for a 16 yr. old. That bass took alot of abuse and I traded her off for the 1965 Precision. Wish I’d kept the Supro. Am looking for one now.
Having read this I believed it was really enlightening.
I appreciate you finding the time and effort to put this article together.
I once again find myself spending a lot of time both reading and leaving comments.
But so what, it was still worthwhile!
I would totally dig a pocket bass, my preference would be around a 27 to 28″ scale though…I am primarily interested in tuning maybe a fourth higher.
Or really…just make a 27 or 28″ scale version of the Warren Ellis Tenor 2P and I’d be all over that…
I’ve had my Supro for 16 years. Bought it at a vintage music store for $275. “Coolest bass ever” was written on the price tag. A very diverse sounding instrument that covers a lot of stylistic ground (country, rockabilly, pop, soul, early funk). I know it’s worth more than what I paid for it but I could never bring myself to sell it. Supro bass + STA compressor = butter.
It would be nice an improved reissue with 30″ chambered body and better piezo for nylon tapewounds….i agree, the Airline sunburst is a winner!
Hi-I just picked up a semi beat up Supro with white headstock….it works but the wiring is not right. Does anyone have a schematic for this? I believe someone pulled out the original pots and rewired incorrectly because the piezo sounds terrible and shorts out the bass pickup. Would love to get this back correctly. Any help appreciated…even a few snaps of the pots with a smartphone would be great and zap to my email: email@example.com
In advance, thank you! I love this instrument…what a great design….love the way they drilled out the body!
The bridge pickup is not a piezo. Super called it a “silver sound” pickup.
i have a supro pocket bass with the zero fret and pin stripe head stock. transitional i presume.
the bass has intonation problems at the first 5 frets.
it intonates at the 12th fret; harmonic and and fretted note the same.
short scale 90-40 flat wounds.
the zero fret lowered to give the string it’s correct height.
i believe this may be a neck that was originally a non zero fretted neck that was converted or changed to the next generation.
quite a weird anomaly
any feed back?
started playing in Bands with Standup bass in 1962 when I was 14… when Beatles Hit in early 64, I found out about electric bass guitars… ran down to Monkey Wards and laid down $60 for a new Supro Bass like this one… I had a hard time selling it two years later when I switched to six string and bought a Guild Starfire II guitar. I think I sold it for under $50…
ok an update. re: sept 5 2017
the o fret eliminated. moved nut toward bridge 1/8 ” or so… all is well.flat wounds intonate. yay
playing out with this bass…
get an lr baggs para di and pre. you won’t believe the tone available.
that is all.
I bought one of these, but couldn’t get it to intonate right. My solution was a set of 5 string flats without the G string. Had to do a little bit of drilling, but it works.
edwin, correct not a piezo pickup.
actually two round perpendicular coils in the bridge body, with two corresponding magnets that fit into the coils in the bridge saddle
quite a different sounding pickup configuration.
I just bought mine at Paramount (Watertown WI) for 750. 725 after playing it. 🙂 so what i got was a bad E tunin mosheen. Anybody got any of these sittin around?
I bought my Supro Pocket Bass in 1965. It was pretty beat up, black body paint chipped. So I refinished the body: sanded off the chipped black paint and varathaned it. It still has the original black head stock. If you want it, make me an offer. I’m in Vancouver, Canada firstname.lastname@example.org. I can email you a photo of my ‘cool’ bass.