VG Q&A: A Gilded ’63 Jazz Bass

Plus, Swappable Pickups, Bartell Guitars, and a Mystery Lap Steel
VG Q&A: A Gilded ’63 Jazz Bass
Dickie Harris’ (likely) home-made lap steel (left) and Paul Gertsen’s ’63 Jazz Bass with its all-original gold hardware.

I am the third owner of a 1963 Jazz Bass with a neck stamp “7Jan63A,” pots dated that May, and serial number from that spring. It also has original gold hardware – even the screws and springs. I know gold hardware was a custom option in the era, but can find no other information regarding what it cost at the time or how prevalent it was.
The original finish was sunburst, which the previous owner stripped to natural circa 1980 then applied Olympic White. What do catalogs or ledgers say about the cost of gold hardware? – Paul Gertsen

It’s hard to say exactly, but Fender would’ve added at least $50 to $60. Price lists in the early ’60s offered gold plating as an option on the Jaguar, Jazzmaster, and Stratocaster as part of a package with a custom finish; the September ’62 list has the Jag at $379.50 in sunburst, $398.49 in a custom color, and $456.88 with gold plating, while the Strat was $303.97 in a custom color, $349.50 gilded.

While the Jazz Bass was not offered with gold trim, it’s not a leap to imagine a customer might request it, perhaps as part of a matched set of instruments, which bands sometimes ordered in the early/mid ’60s. A dealer would certainly want to fill that order, especially if it included two gold-plated Jags! The Jazz Bass was $293.47 in custom finish, and gold-plating would have been particularly expensive because that bridge cover alone would use a lot of gold.

The option disappeared from price lists in ’68, and gold-plated Strats, Jazzmasters, and Jags are rare. In 45 years, this is only the second Jazz Bass I’ve seen with gold hardware; the other was black and also very striking. – Peter Stuart Kohman

Reading the January ’23 “Approved Gear” reviews in VG, I see there’s been another revival of the pickup-swapping concept. Did it originate with Dan Armstrong’s Ampeg Lucite guitar in ’69, or was it around before that? – Nathan Scott

I can’t think of an appearance earlier than Armstrong’s guitar, which used pickups made by Bill Lawrence. Danelectro offered the Convertible – a thinbody acoustic with a mountable lipstick-tube pickup – some years earlier, and in the mid ’50s, DeArmond offered a pickup mounted on a pickguard; to make an archtop electric, the player just swapped pickguards.

While those are different concepts, in theory you could easily change pickups with them, as opposed to guitars with built-in pickups. We also shouldn’t forget the well-made Player guitars from 1984, which took the Armstrong concept further by using a plug-in module installed through the back. They offered a range of humbuckers and single-coils, and blank modules that could mount a player’s favorite pickup. – Michael Wright

I bought a triple-neck lap steel from the estate of Richard “Dickie” Harris’ widow, who lived in Watertown, Tennessee. Dickie was a pedal-steel player for Ernest Tubb and played with Marty Robbins, Cowboy Copas, and other Opry stars, and that he was 86 when he died in 2016. I’m trying to identify the maker. The pickup is primitive and the guitar is heavy. – Robert Hawkins

Your lap steel looks to be from the ’40s, and the pickup construction is Regal-like, but not Regal. My best guess is it’s an interesting home brew. Aside from the Audio-Vox, it’s the only multi-neck I remember seeing that has two necks with different scale lengths. – Lynn Wheelwright

I’m trying to decide whether to buy a ’60s 12-string Bartell (of California) St. George, and wondering about their quality. Was it comparable to Fenders of the day? – Todd Brekke

Bartell guitars won’t compare favorably to their Strat contemporaries. Bartells were made by Paul Barth, who built the very similar Magnatone Artist line in the early ’60s. As a builder, Barth cut his teeth at Rickenbacker and his instruments bring that vibe much more than a Fender feel/sound. The earliest Magnatones, made by Bigsby, compare favorably to Gibsons as fully professional guitars, but later bolt-necks, while well-made, were not professional-grade. Like the Bartells, they have cheap slider switches for on-off function, and their single-coils are more like DeArmonds than Fenders; through a preamp or effects, they’ll be okay. – Michael Wright

I was hired by Don Johnson to work as a rep for Fender in 1997, and I recall one of the old-timers – neither Don nor I remember exactly who – talking about bassist Monk Montgomery (pictured in the February “VG Q&A”), visiting the factory in the late ’50s and suggesting enhancements like two pickups, a slimmer neck, offset body, etc. It sounds like the inspiration behind the Jazz Bass. Is there any record of Monk playing a role in its development? – Dan Gold

No published accounts credit Montgomery with inspiring the Jazz Bass, but it would make sense given he was the most-prominent jazz musician playing a Fender bass in the ’50s, so Leo and the team likely would have been keen to get his feedback. He appeared in Fender catalogs with his mid-’50s Precision into 1960, vanished for a while (probably as he reverted to upright), then reappeared with a CBS-era Jazz. In a 1977 interview, he says his Precision was stolen while he was playing with Cal Tjader in Los Angeles, and that Fender had given him a Jazz he’d been using steadily. The timing suggests he was never given an earlier one.

Fender sales head Don Randall once said, “The Jazz Bass wasn’t Leo’s idea… [it was] more of a market-oriented move.” So, even if Monk’s input did help shape the instrument, he never got credit. – Peter Stuart Kohman

This column addresses questions about guitar-related subjects, ranging from songs, albums, and musicians to the minutiae of instrument builds, manufacturers, and the collectible market. Questions can be sent to with “VG Q&A” in the subject line.

This article originally appeared in VG’s April 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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