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NBD! Smith BT4 1984

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New bass day for me - and quite a special one for me personally. I've always loved the 'Smith Sound' and grew up listening to John Patitucci playing his early six string Smith. I recently realised my dreams of owning one when I bought a beautiful BT5 from Basschat last year. However I'm not really a five string player, but I can adapt. Smith basses tend to be 5 or 6 string so there wasn't much choice. But then I saw this.

Not only is it a 4 string, but it's a very early one built just two months after I was. It was finished in January 1984. The serial number is 151. Early Smith basses have a few differences from today's models - first of all the brass fittings on the headstock, especially the 'S' logo in a brass disk which I remember seeing on those early Chick Corea vids, whilst my brother watched and analysed every move Dave Weckl made.

I got some info from Ken about the bass who said the neck joint is a hidden mortise which I believe was inspired by a damaged double bass from a car accident in the 70s. The preamp is made by Haz Labs; it has volume, balance, treble, bass (not sure of frequencies but the treble control always feels very musical) plus a phase switch which Ken said they subsequently removed because it's not very useful. 

It's quite unusual to see Smith basses without an exposed centre block like my 5 string - I think some of the Hadrien Feraud models have a solid top like this one. It has a walnut top and maple back with an ebony fingerboard. The whole bass has a very light satin finish which feels great and shows minimal wear except usual playing in. It's been well looked after!

I wasn't able to play the bass first so I was kind of nervous but Smith basses are so consistent I needn't have worried - the neck is dead straight and the action was pretty bang on right away. I've got the G string a little higher than my 'strings painted on' Vigier because I find it makes double stops on the G string more pronounced. As usual  have the neck with almost zero relief and the other strings very low. Someone described the sound of their Warwick Thumb as 'digital' here the other day; that's quite a good way to describe this. I'll do some sound clips asap to show you.

So yeah I'm really pleased. I think that's my bass buying escapades over for a while. 

Some pics!

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In all my years I’ve never played a smith, that just looks so comfortable , and the fretboard is beautiful, very nice  ped 👍

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Guest M-rek
25 minutes ago, ped said:

EPSN2772.jpg

now these have to be the cutest tuning pegs I've ever seen! Cool idea 😁

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7 minutes ago, M-rek said:

now these have to be the cutest tuning pegs I've ever seen! Cool idea 😁

I do that on all my basses for some reason!! A bass only earns its ‘puppets’ once it passes my strict setup and quality tests 😂

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That is a gorgeous bass and I'm glad the "selling one instrument to buy another" routine worked ok, it's always a pain when your gear doesn't sell and the thing you wanted gets bought up. 

Ken Smiths are very, very special instruments. I'm sure this one will serve you well - enjoy! 

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1 hour ago, White Cloud said:

There is something very special about early Smith's.. this one is an absolute corker!

And the more recent ones aren't too shabby either! 😀

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Thanks folks I’m over the moon with it :) 

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10 hours ago, Mastodon2 said:

That is a gorgeous bass and I'm glad the "selling one instrument to buy another" routine worked ok, it's always a pain when your gear doesn't sell and the thing you wanted gets bought up. 

Ken Smiths are very, very special instruments. I'm sure this one will serve you well - enjoy! 

How are you getting on with yours? It’s interesting to hear how similar this sounds to yours - the basic recipe has stayed the same I suppose. 

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5 hours ago, ped said:

How are you getting on with yours? It’s interesting to hear how similar this sounds to yours - the basic recipe has stayed the same I suppose. 

Oh man, I absolutely love it. As soon as I plug it in, I instantly hear that sound thst I've loved from all my favourite recordings using Ken Smith basses. 

I know the original pickups were designed and built by Bill Lawrence and in 2008 Ken said that Kent Armstrong had taken over making the pickups and had done so "for about twenty years", I guess your 1984 is Lawrence and my 1991 is Armstrong. I doubt the specs and design for the pickups changed much, if at all. As the company approaches its fourth decade of trading, he still makes, almost exclusively, double soapbar basses, one pickup in the middle and one right up against the bridge. 

I think Ken's vision, unwaivering as it is, has defined these instruments. He doesn't let customers go nuts with wood combos as he said he likes to work with what he knows will work well. 

The construction no doubt gives them a good portion of the sound too, like you said when I bought my bass from you, they're thin but incredibly resonant. 

I've got a review written up, I'll post it up here when I get a chance.

I think it is without question the finest instrument I've ever had the privilege of playing. 

 

PpPrzcX.jpg 

 

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Indeed. It’s interesting to read about the history of the company too, I know the first 200 or so we’re built in the original NY workshop by Ken and Vinnie in part and finished by Ken in his apartment and after that, Ken moved to Philadelphia where he continued making the BT shape but introduced the BSR shortly after that. Despite going through various sub contractors to make parts of the basses (most recently Brubaker) the design language and the sound Have remainder constant. 

I read an interesting story about how the pickup placement was ‘discovered’, basically a customer requested it early on, when the pickups had bezels around them. They were touching. With the newer design the pickups didn’t touch but the sound was great so the placement was kept. No measurements involved, just ‘two fingers apart’ (although I’m sure they measure it now!)

Looking forward to your review @Mastodon2

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6 hours ago, NickA said:

There's a VERY early 4-STRING Smith in the for sale section at the moment if this is giving anyone painful GAS.

https://www.basschat.co.uk/topic/338291-new-pricedrop-smith-pas-ii-1981-new-york-a-piece-of-my-history-quote-from-ken-smith/

Big pricey .. but I believe it's negotiable.

Have to get a go on a Smith sometime, bass bucket-list material.

 

Yes that’s a cool one, wonder how it sounds with the pickups further apart like that

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I’ve been away in an isolated cabin in Wales for the last week or so; normally I take my Wingbass but with an 8 month old son I quickly found the car was packed to the brim so had to go bassless. As soon as I got home (well, as soon as the boy was asleep!) I couldn’t wait to play this again... it’s so great to get everything set up and sounding great then leave it alone for a week, come back and and play again. 

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I've been on training in Milton Keynes this week (urgh...), stuck in a stuffy conference centre with bad air-con (double urgh) and I think I've read just about every Basschat and Talkbass thread about Ken Smith basses I can find. I am so looking forward to getting home this afternoon, having a big glass of rum over ice and plugging my BT5 in!

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On 26/07/2019 at 10:11, Mastodon2 said:

I've been on training in Milton Keynes this week (urgh...), stuck in a stuffy conference centre with bad air-con (double urgh) and I think I've read just about every Basschat and Talkbass thread about Ken Smith basses I can find. I am so looking forward to getting home this afternoon, having a big glass of rum over ice and plugging my BT5 in!

Any interesting threads? And how was your evening! 

Just a snap of a pretty ideal pair:

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On 27/07/2019 at 14:58, ped said:

Any interesting threads? And how was your evening! 

 

 

I didn't get the play on Friday as I tweaked my wrist getting my suitcase out of the car (doh) so I thought it best to leave it, I had a good session on Saturday learning "Peg" by Steely Dan. The rum was nice too!

There's such a treasure trove of info to get through out there. I think it's interesting that the Talkbass Ken Smith club thread is only on it's second volume at fifty pages, where Fodera, Spector, Pedulla etc, have had many, many more volumes - I guess for some reason they never caught on with that forum as quite the fashion accessory as some of the other builders, but those who have played them rightly revere them.

There are some good threads out there about Ken's acerbic style - a thread on here where someone complained that Ken wanted to charge $100 to ship a replacement pot to him, then people started rubbishing Ken so he joined the forum to explain why the cost was so. Various people complaining about inflexibility of customisation, which I'll get on to. Ken's very much like Jeff Berlin, both are New Yorkers (a famously short, straight-talking people), and when you know as much as those guys do and you know exactly what works and what doesn't, I suppose they just have little time for alternative methods when they know what works and what doesn't. People complain about Ken not offering maple fretboards or crazy wood combinations, not being willing to move the pickup positions or fit different pickups or preamps; he's said many a time that he won't change something if it will make an inferior instrument, and this is where Ken differs from other shops. He isn't building you your dream bass that you came up with, he's building you his dream bass, his vision of what a perfect bass guitar is. Some guys were upset about this, but Ken won't put his name on anything that isn't stellar and his 40 years of experience and his order validates his approach. 

I find him a fascinating character, he's one of these ultra-talented people who seems to do well in anything he tries. A successful studio session musician and professional concert player, particularly on double bass, got into upright bass restoration and repair and then decided to make a bass guitar that was designed and constructed with the care of an upright. I suppose 40 years back when he was starting this process, other guys like Mike Pedulla, Vinny Fodera and Stuart Spector were having similar thoughts, as really high quality instruments that moved the game on from Fender's designs didn't really exist, other than Alembic. I did find some of Ken's pointed comments about bass builders in NYC charging a fortune to be amusing. He talked about the exorbitant price of some NYC builders basses when they weren't really offering anything that you couldn't get elsewhere, except as they worked in inner NYC they were charging a huge amount to cover the rent, but they were also covering the lifestyle and sports cars off the back of their business.

He said "I'll sell you a bottle of Coke for a dollar. A guy from NYC will sell you the Coke for 3 dollars and show you his rent bill so you feel good about paying 3 dollars for the Coke, but it's still the same bottle of Coke". There's certainly no love lost between him and Vinny Fodera, but for the most part he doesn't really seem interested in what other builders are doing, I like his single-mindedness. It has produced the fantastic instruments that we love. I like the fact he doesn't hide his displeasure with how the older Burners and KSD basses turned out. 

Some of his comments about John Patitucci's move to Yamaha were a little off-colour by 2019 standards, but again I think there is no love lost between them either. I guess the way John tried to make subtle digs at the basses he was more than happy to play for so many years didn't sit well with Ken. I also found out that John had initially wanted a maple bass, I believe it was the Smith Jackson six string #5 with a flamed maple body that John was after, but it was purchased by a guy who irrc was a rep for Ken, who ended up teaching the Talkbass member who told the story. He took photos of it at his teacher's house and it s a glorious instrument. John Patitucci ended up with the #6 6 string they made. He later said he changed to Yamaha because he wanted a bass with "real bottom end that could really hold it down with a band" - if anything I think his Yamaha lacks punch and bottom end compared to his Smith sound and I say that as a current owner of a Yamaha custom shop instrument, so I'm not picking sides in the brand war, and also as someone who still intends to own a Yamaha JP bass some time - I nearly bought one a few weeks prior to getting my Ken Smith.

Reading all of the threads really gave me an appreciation of his design ideals and did also make me question how much the Japanese Burners made by Sleek Elite in Japan are "real" Ken Smiths. I know they are his design, his electronics and he inspects and sets them up before they go to the customer, but they're built in Japan, by admittedly very talented luthiers. Now, Ken's transferring his production from Pennsylvania to Kevin Brubaker in Maryland. I don't know if Ken's team are going, I guess they have something in place so Kevin can keep up with the demand but again, this will create a "pre-Brubaker" Smith tag. Even if Ken is 100% happy with Kevin's builds, which seems to be the case given Ken has given his public approval of the first Smiths made by Kevin, a Smith built by Brubaker is a Smith as far as I'm concerned, but the market won't see it that way. Smiths have always been built by many hands, but I think the fact that Ken won't be in the workshop every day will affect used values of the Brubaker instruments. Certainly as Ken moves into retirement I think the desirability of the older basses will increase again. That said, I think he's the kind of bloke who will struggle to retire, he's a high achiever sort and I think he'll always want to be involved. I think he is certainly the most interesting bass builder as a person that the electric bass has ever seen.

But, all of the politics aside, Ken as a person etc, I think Ken Smith basses are just the best. They have a sound that nothing else can replicate - the US Peavey Cirrus basses were considered closest but even they are a way off. Smiths look and feel incredible. Anyone that hasn't played one really needs to jump on the chance if they ever get the opportunity to play one.

 

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