Talking Heads – Andy Baxter Vintage Bass and Guitars

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Andy Baxter Vintage Bass and Guitars - Talking Heads

Ask any bass player which basses they’d love to own and the chances are that after they’ve listed various custom-made exotica, they’ll pause and say “oh yeah, and a pre-CBS Fender Jazz or a late ‘50s Precision”

 There was a time when you could find old basses like these in pawn shops and small back-water music stores for a bargain price. But not anymore. The internet has seen to that. With specialist websites like Reverb and online Bass forums where people can trade between themselves, everyone knows that these instruments are rare and valuable and sought after by players and collectors alike. So where do you start looking if you want an ‘investment grade’ bass? Well in the UK, one man has become synonymous with vintage basses and latterly, classic ‘60s Ampeg B15 bass amps too; Andy Baxter.

 Kev Sanders spoke to Andy for MIN about his passion that grew into a business.

MIN “Thanks for taking the time to talk to us Andy. So how did this whole thing start? Why vintage basses of all things?”

AB Well it seemed pretty logical to me. Since my late teens I’d been in and out of bands. In my twenties I was in a band that was signed to a small French label and we were touring and gigging a bit. Also, during this time I was managing the Bass Centre in London and actually it was through that that I met my future business partner in America. Anyway, a few years later the band had fallen apart and my job at the Bass Centre came to an end and I was sat in my bedroom thinking “What am I going to do with myself now?” Long story short, I was staring at the wall and hanging up was a small collection of basses that I’d built up over the years – a ’65 Fender Jazz and an Old pre Ernie Ball MusicMan Stingray and a couple of other things and I thought “well, I’m not playing any of those” because the only bass I was really using at that time was a ‘70s Jazz bass which I’d had since I was 18. So, I decided I’d sell them – that would at least get me through the upcoming year on the dole.”

 MIN And what year was this?

AB “The idea dawned on me in 2008, but the business plan started to really take shape in 2009. I realised that although there was a thriving network of dealers for vintage guitars, bass players weren’t really catered for. I’d walk down Denmark Street in London or in fact anywhere in the world and I’d go into a vintage guitar shop and be confronted with maybe 60 or 80 vintage guitars and when I asked the guy at the counter where the basses were, they’d say something like “oh over in the corner” and there’d be five, maybe six if you were lucky with strings that were old and knackered and the action would be a mile high and the pots and jack socket would be crackly. And they’d be asking 6, 7, 8 maybe 9 thousand for some of these pre-CBS Fenders!

Even back then vintage basses were a real passion of mine and It just seemed obvious to me that here was an opportunity.”

MIN So how did you progress from that visit to starting the business?

AB “Well I contacted the guy who later became my business partner and told him what I wanted to do. I had a few grand put away from the sale of the basses I had had on the wall and I said to him that I’d buy a computer and setup a website if he could help me buy some stock. I basically wanted to do the reverse of the shops I’d visited – so the majority of the stock would be basses and I’d keep just a few six string guitars, the difference being that any six strings that I did have in stock would be perfectly set up and playable and displayed properly – unlike the basses I’d seen in other vintage shops.”

MIN Presumably you were working from home at this point?

AB “Yes, at the beginning I was working from home in London. Pretty quickly though I needed more space. It just so happened that the guitarist in the band that I’d been in all those years ago was the engineer at Scrutton Street studios in East London which at that time was HQ for techno-punk musician and artist Andrew Weatherall. A room became available there so I took that on and created a showroom within the studio complex we called ‘the basement’”

MIN Did you do any bass playing at the studio?

AB “Yes, Andy (Weatherall) would often use synth bass on his tracks but if he wanted live bass guitar for remixes or whatever I’d do those sessions for him. Pretty soon though the business grew too big for that premises too, so I took on a shop on Hoxton street in Shoreditch London which is where I was till March this year, that’s where the business really became established.”

MIN So how come you decided to move from there up to Leeds?

AB “As much as anything it was a financial decision. I wanted to move back to Leeds which is where I’m from originally and for what we were able to sell our flat in London for we were able to buy a really nice place up there where property is so much cheaper”

MIN So are you running your business from your new home in Leeds now or do you have a separate retail premises?

AB “Err..well both really. There’s a separate premise that came with the house we bought so it’s from there that I now run the business.

MIN Speaking as someone who spends an unhealthy amount of time looking for vintage Fender basses on the internet, I’m struck by the quantity and quality of the instruments you keep. How on earth do you find such amazing stock?

AB “90 percent of the basses I sell are sourced over in the states. The bottom line is, the role of my business partner in the States is to source the sock and my role is to sell it, although obviously we both dip into each other’s remits from time to time. Quite often I’ll be asked to source a particular instrument. If a customer comes to me and wants a ’61 stack-knob jazz bass (one of the rarest and most desirable Fender basses -Ed)

Then I’ll get him one. That’s my job. There aren’t many out there but if someone says “I want a ’61 sunburst stack-knob Jazz bass today” – then I’d say “ok, give me 25 grand and I’ll have one for you today!” Problem is, most people don’t want to spend 25 grand they want to spend say 17 or 18 grand and I have to tell them that that’s less than the kind of money they cost me now, and I have to find it, ship it over and still try to make a profit. Prices have just gone so crazy over the years.”

MIN Presumably with instruments making that kind of money there must be a lot of fakes and forgeries out there. Would you always advise a potential buyer to come to someone like yourself with the specialist knowledge needed to avoid a costly mistake?

AB “Well of course I’d prefer that they came to me, but people can do whatever they want. You know, I often hear people say that given the value of these things there must be loads of fakes but actually I rarely see basses that are blatantly trying to be passed off as something they’re not. What happens much more often is that things have been chopped and changed over the years and you end up with replaced components from an instrument of a similar vintage. But as for actual fakes? I’ve not really seen any. Of course, that’s not to say it couldn’t be done. I know people who restore and finish guitars and build them from scratch and could probably do a reasonable job that would fool a few people, but it would take a huge amount of work, time and expertise to make 7 or 8 grand and produce an accurate and believable fake – it would probably end up costing way more to produce one than the value of an original!”  

MIN As well as vintage basses I notice you always have a great selection of vintage bass amplification – particularly Ampeg B15 ‘flip-tops’ Is this a new area for the business?

AB “No, not at all. Right from the start I wanted to source and import at least one or two old B15s. I’ve always loved them – they sound great and they look so cool. For ages I was the only person buying them over in the States, but over the years the prices have gone up and up. I think the Americans must have cottoned-on to the fact that there was this bloke in the UK buying them all up. I’ve probably imported well over a hundred B15s to date”

MIN Are most of your customers working bass players or are some just collectors who want to own the best examples?

AB “With the high-end stuff it’s probably an even split between successful pro players like Adele’s bass player who recently bought a really nice early Precision from me after he came back from a tour of the States. Or Mani (Gary Mounfield from the Stone Roses) He’s been a customer of mine for some time and few years ago when the (Stone) Roses got back together he bought six or seven old Jazz basses to use live, some as spares and some for on stage ready for songs where he used dropped tuning. The other demographic for the high-end stuff are the middle aged or older collectors who maybe used to play bass when they were younger and now have a bit of spare cash to buy what they would have loved to have had back in their youth. It makes sense for them to put their money into something they can enjoy and will increase in value rather than sticking in the bank where it’ll earn nothing. With the lower priced stuff, by which I mean instruments in the two to four grand bracket, these are often bought by the pro or semi pro players who are out there gigging four or five times a week and want something to go out and work with that they can use and enjoy.”

MIN How about customers looking to buy their first vintage bass?

 AB “yeah, you know I had a lad down just recently buying his first vintage bass. He was a lovely kid and really reminded me of myself when I was about 18. He was so shy and nervous but I made him feel welcome and told him he could play anything he wanted to – I’d just leave him to crack on and not interfere. That’s the great thing about having a showroom rather than a shop, I just made him a cup of tea and told him that I’d be in the other room if he needed any help or advice. Anyway, he loved the experience and bought a bass from me.

I remember going into music shops as a teenager and, you know, I could play pretty well but it was really intimidating. I don’t want my place to be like that.”

MIN Good to talk to you Andy, thanks for your time.

AB “Yeah cheers, my pleasure”