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