Bass Guitar Suppliers Discuss The Market

MMR • Roundtable • March 17, 2015

As March is one of MMR’s two annual “fretted” issues, we figured we’d turn our attention towards a segment of the overall market that we haven’t explored in depth for a couple of years: bass guitars.

To get a bead on what’s driving this segment of the industry, MMR reached out to several key bass suppliers to participate in a roundtable discussion of trends, sales, and developments that have been making an impact. The results were wide-ranging and varied, but overall outline a vibrant section of MI that’s looking up (or at least holding steady).

How would you describe the overall “health” of the bass guitar market in 2015?

Roger Sadowsky: For us, sales are relatively steady, as we are a very small business and are always operating at our maximum capacity. Our gross sales have been almost identical for the last five years.

David McLaren: The electric bass market appears to be holding up better than the electric guitar market, which has been difficult, as you know. Over the past year, our ratio of basses to guitars was about 30/70, which is a bit more in favor of basses than it has been historically. Despite the performance of the electric guitar market, our business is up for both basses and guitars. The economic headwinds in overseas markets hurt export sales quite a bit, but we more than made up for it in the U.S.

Jeff Moore: At ESP, we've seen significant growth in bass sales over the past several years and have definitely increased our market share in that space, which has been a focus for our team here, so I have to believe things are looking promising when it comes to all things bass moving ahead.

Elliott Rubinson: Bass sales are very similar to the prior year. The market is very competitive and there are many established companies in this market that have instruments that are cornerstones.

Ned Steinberger: It's hard for me to say since I have only been back in the bass guitar business for about two years now, with the introduction of the NS Radius Bass Guitar. Our sales are coming on strong, but we don't have enough history to draw any meaningful conclusions about the market in general.

Scott Ball: In 2014, things may have been down just a little bit, but this year we came out with the neck-through Stingrays, so our bass orders have been really strong so far.

Justin Norvell: The bass market has strata within which it breathes up and down – we see it as stable at this time. It’s got the same fragility and cautious optimism that the electric guitar market has – we have released many new products and refreshed our core lineup in an effort to help create some newness, excitement, and discussion at retail and in the market at large (forums, media, et cetera). I think there are some artist happenings that could help drive bass interest and sales: newer buzz bands like Royal Blood (a drums/bass duo where the bass covers the space that a bassist and two guitarists would otherwise occupy via an extensive effects and amp chain), and Disclosure (an EDM duo where one of the two members often plays live bass). The bass is often more back in the ensemble in modern music, so it’s always a great thing where it’s featured front and center as the primary driving voice.

We have been experiencing steady and healthy bass sales, likely bolstered by our recent expansion of the active Dimension Bass and Jaguar Bass platforms… and the Precision and Jazz Bass are evergreen must-haves, but we are looking to makes sure more bases are covered that address all types of players.

Chris Walker: We are finally seeing a rebound in consumer demand after a long downward trend. We are flat with a positive incoming order trend. For Warwick, I think that we will grow this year with the new Pro Series line coming out. Many of our top bass dealers have pre-ordered the new German Pro Series models after seeing them at NAMM 2015.

Michael Smith: The bass market maintains solid and consistent sales in an otherwise volatile market. We've definitely seen a huge uptick in the past few years as we've increased our focus on bass guitars. I also think we've seen a bit of a change in regards to the customers, whereas eight or nine years ago there weren't that many bass players that started out wanting to play bass. Now I talk to a lot more young players that specifically went into music to play bass guitar. That's a good thing.

Tom Appleton: Overall the bass guitar market for 2014 was roughly flat. We did quite well, however, as we've seen a double digit increase over 2013's results. Looking at 2015 so far we are going strong with a healthy double digit increase in incoming orders.

Armando Vega: Well the bass market in the U.S. has been on a slight decline over the last few years. On the average, since 2009 it’s dropped 2.1 percent per year, by volume and price. The sector of the electric bass market that is trending down is from “$500 and below” but there is actual growth in “$500 and above” categories. Interestingly enough… We are experiencing a great year in electric basses. Sales are considerably up over last year, particularly in the $250 – $500 price range, which is largely due to our New TRBX line and continued success with our RBX series. We’ve also noticed a boost in high-end signature model basses, as well.

Are there any significant trends you’ve noticed lately with respect to bass design and manufacture?

JN: Similar to the guitar market, the feature sets and looks of basses keeps pushing – where you can get what looks like what used to be a $2,000 bass for $200 today – exotic woods, active circuitry… which creates an increased need for clear differentiation and education to the value proposition of higher price points.

NS: From my perspective, not much has changed. Leo Fender remains number the number-one bass guitar designer, as variations of his seminal work continue to dominate the marketplace.

CW: More than ever, manufacturers are leaning towards lightweight. In other words, road cases for the “Road” but gig bags for local performances. The same definitely goes for bass amplifiers where the 3-10 lb. lightweight/high powered amp is a go-to for the road and the local gig.

SB: It seems most brands are adding lower-priced models to their lineups, whether it’s foreign-made or just less expensive options. Brands have also been reintroducing classic designs, which we also did a few years ago.

TA: The trends I see right now in bass guitars are spec-driven by the consumer. Bass players are demanding very specific tools for their needs. I see bass players being more open to trying new offerings. They are not as brand focused as guitar players and are much more interested in what the instrument can add to their particular playing style, rather than playing the same old instrument or brand.

AV: I’m definitely noticing that the “vintage vibe” is rising in popularity, even down into the starter price points. Exotic tops are still widely accepted across the board. I am noticing more 5 and 6-string models showing up in the top 20, per se. Playability and quality construction are still king. As far as colors and finishes are concerned, there aren’t any radical changes that I’ve noticed, except for a significant spike in brown colored basses, more so this year than in years the past.

MS: There's definitely been more in the way of natural wood satin finishes in the marketplace, as well as a trend towards more body mass with basses. However, true innovations are hard to come by when talking about guitars and basses in general. A few years ago, we started including a unique invention called the PowerPlate on our basses. The PowerPlate is held on by the machine heads and is very effective in removing any dead spots on the neck as well as adding sustain and volume by adding mass to the headstock and projecting the string energy through the neck. We include the PowerPlate in all of our basses, from the entry level Milestone® to the Rudy Sarzo Signature Cirrus.

JM: There are many good companies out there that are always pushing the envelope and trying to find ways to be more innovative. We make sure to pay attention to what everyone is doing, as well as finding our own niches to create great instruments. Our line of 8-string basses is a good example of that.

RS: Nothing I would really call significant. I see a small trend with regard to headless guitars becoming popular again and it will be interesting to see if that happens with basses as well.  I think the most significant one is probably the continuing trend for bass makers to go "down market" with Asian import lines.

ER: Dean has been successful with edgier shapes and our Edge series that was started back in 1997. We have been more successful with bolt-on basses and passive pickup systems – maybe due to the lower price point.

DM: I see increasing diversity of design – not just in the high end, but across a wide spectrum. I have always believed that bassists are more open to exploring new and different things than guitarists are. With the U.S. economy slowly but steadily improving, this promotes increasing diversity as makers are more willing to take chances. Likewise, as consumers become more confident, they become more adventurous in their choices.

How about purchasing trends – both with respect to orders placed by retailers and purchasing habits of end-users?

AV: The average selling price in the market overall is $380. The high volume zone average selling price is around $200. Packaged bass models (starter kits) are not as popular as they used to be, which is largely due to custom bundles that are created by dealers. This is a trend that is growing across the board, not just for the bass business.

ER: Dealers order less [nowadays], but more frequently. We have been successful with many of our niche items like the upright Pace basses, 8 and 12-string basses, and 6-string price point basses.

MS: Bass players are usually a little faster than guitar players to try new things, however the classic stuff still reigns supreme. A couple of years ago, we revisited some of our finishes and took some of our instruments down a more traditional road and it really paid off. Our dealers bought into the idea and their customers responded with their wallets. At the same time, you see more varied shapes now with basses than 10 years ago, with larger top bouts and a tighter waist in some cases. Bass guitar players also seem less concerned with price point than guitar players, probably because there are fewer of them. They tend to buy based on a specific need rather than just a want.

SB: I think forecasting fears are a big deal for retailers. I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen, so they’re kind of playing it safe due to the constantly changing landscape.

RS: For Sadowsky, one of our niches has been lightweight instruments, so we see more and more dealers and end-users focusing on the weight of our instruments. As my clientele continues to age, doing a long gig with a heavy instrument is not appealing.  I began to pioneer lightweight instruments as far back as 1980.

DM: The Internet continues grow its influence on the ways in which end-users gather information and make purchasing decisions, and this lends itself to the diversity I mentioned earlier. Through discussion forums, social media, online magazines, and dealer websites with sophisticated product presentations, musicians learn about alternative choices which may better suit them. As musicians, we all respect and are influenced by our roots, but we derive satisfaction from expressing our own ideas and individuality. We do this through notes and phrases as well as the gear we choose.

Retailers are also diversifying their offerings to provide more compelling choices for musicians, because of a strong business incentive. Twenty years ago, one music dealer would stock much of the same gear as the next, but in today’s market where every dealer has a website, email list, and so on, they can’t all compete [by] selling the same things.

At G&L, we offer a wide variety of options, with something like fifty finishes, neck options, pickguard options – all sorts of ways an instrument can be individualized. Musicians love this flexibility, and this offers a dealer an opportunity to provide additional value through personalized service, helping the customer tailor a G&L instrument to his or her taste. Likewise, G&L retailers carefully choose their inventory, choosing combinations of models and options they feel would be most attractive to their customers. As a result, the instruments on the wall command attention and get customers engaged. The gearhead in all of us wants to be inspired, so walking into a store and seeing gear that looks like the same stuff as in the next store is mundane.  It’s vital for dealers to understand the importance of stimulating the imagination and creativity of their customers.

NS: I really don't know much about bass guitar trends, since we only have a couple of years’ worth of experience in this market. I can report that the demand for our upright electric basses is very strong and steady.

JN: Lower end basses have been strong sellers for several years. While the bass market for bass players is steady, we are seeing a good amount of project studio guitarists looking for affordable basses for their studio projects.

CW: I am seeing a trend of bass players looking to save their money and get a higher-level bass. Much of this may be due to musicians trying to go back to rehearsing more and honing their skills. In the early 2000s, many musicians just simply relied on Pro-Tools and they felt that they could get away with less skill and lower quality gear. Partially because of musicians wanting to hone their skills more, I think that we are at a rising point for bot retailers and end-users wanting to spend more money. Being a Warwick product manager, I have noticed an increase in bassists looking to save up their money, do more research, and get a higher-level bass – something that is timeless. Each day this year, I feel that I am getting more and more request for Custom Shop models.

JM: Higher-end sales tend to be steady. However, we're seeing more value-added basses being sold when it comes to the 6 or 8-string models. I think it's because that player is looking to branch out and try new styles without having to break the bank. We've done a good job covering that range of instruments.

For your brand, what’s currently the hottest seller (and why)?

JM: One of our most successful bass product launches for 2014 was the RB-1000 series which was designed from the ground up with legendary funk bassist Rocco Prestia. Rocco had very specific objectives for what he wanted in an instrument, so we came up with a line of 4, 5, and 6-string models that, in the end, all of us were very happy with. It was a very fun project to be a part of and these basses are still doing very well for us.

JN: Coming off the holiday season, our Squier starter packs are Q4 leader, with our core American Standard and Deluxe Precision and Jazz Basses ruling the Fender-branded roost. As a bassist, you just need a P Bass and a J Bass – those are go-to sounds.

SB: The Stingray – the regular black maple one. It’s iconic, that’s what we’re known for basses and players just love it.

TA: For Ibanez we are seeing huge growth in two areas. In the entry level market the GSR200 has long been the best selling entry level bass, but this year we augmented that series with flat finishes and Spalted Maple tops, which has really helped push our entry level sales through the roof. At the same time, Our Ibanez Bass Workshop series has been selling incredibly well. Each Bass Workshop model fulfills a very specific need and players have really responded to that kind of approach. All three releases from 2014 have done incredibly well. The Crossover – our six string guitar/bass hybrid, the fretless Portamento and single cut BTB Terra Firma basses have all been very well received by our dealers and the public at large. Again, I think that speaks to the fact that players are demanding the right tools for the job.

MS: Peavey's bass guitar lineup actually sells quite consistently from model to model. Since we don't have 200 different bass guitar SKUs, we don't see quite the peaks and valleys within the segment that some others might see.

CW: Warwick Custom Shop Thumb Bolt-On 5-String – Natural Oil Finish. Model # 1225080000BZBUBWWW. Why? Because it features many of the Warwick trademarks that truly make them a great manufacturer: Tonal woods, including a Bubinga Body, Wenge Neck, and excellent hardware such as the Brass Just-A-Nut, Brass Frets, MEC Pickups. This bass is a go-to for many of today’s top bass players in all genres of music.

AV: Hands down, the hottest bass line for Yamaha is the TRBX series. In fact, it was recognized as “Electric Bass of the Year” by MMR earlier this year. The TRBX models feature a slick contoured design that is optimized for playability and comfort, quality construction, high-end preamps and pickups, and sexy stage-ready looks… at a very reasonable price. It is the no-brainer choice, not only for bass players, but also for guitarists and tracking engineers looking for a great bass to add to their arsenal of tools.

DM: For over thirty years, our top-selling bass has been the L-2000. Leo Fender declared this his best bass ever. Its design was revolutionary and its versatility remains brilliant. A few years ago we introduced our M-2000, which is modern interpretation of the L-2000. With a simple, intuitive control setup and studio grade preamp, our goal for the M-2000 is to attract players who like the L-2000, but weren’t comfortable with its fairly complicated switching system.

Anytime you introduce a modern variant of one of your popular classics, you run the risk of it cannibalizing sales or simply not getting traction. From what we’ve seen, there’s not been much overlap – the hardcore L-2000 fans still gravitate toward that model, while the M-2000 is bringing new customers into the Leo Fender/G&L experience.

RS: Unlike larger manufacturers, we do not have any particular “hot sellers,” nor do we feel the need to introduce something “new” for every NAMM show.  But if I had to name one instrument that has been a “best seller” for us, it would be the Will Lee Model bass, which we introduced in 1972. It represents about 15-20 percent of our NYC bass sales.

ER: I would say the Zone basses and Edge basses at $249 and down have been very strong sellers. The entry-level market has been very good for a while now. Also, our acoustic basses continue to be a category leader.

NS: Right now we only offer only one model, the CR Series, made in the Czech Republic. I believe it sells well for several reasons. The balanced headless design and ergonomic body shape combine to make the player feel great when he or she plays it. The sound is unusually versatile. The EMG pickups, designed specifically for the radius bass, provide a rich magnetic tone second to none. These are complimented by our own Polarpiezo pickup for a crisp, deep, and dynamic response. Another important factor for any instrument, of course, is the way that it looks. Despite the inherent advantages of headless design, many players find it visually hard to accept. For the Radius Bass, I worked hard to overcome this objection by integrating the neck and body into an overall design that is in the comfort zone for most players. I think this has had a very positive impact on sales.

What are your expectations for the bass market in the coming months?

DM: If the U.S. economy holds up, I expect sales of mid- to high-priced basses – say, $600 street price and up – to pick up modestly. Bassists tend to be serious about gear and more methodical about planning their purchases. I don’t expect improvement in the low-price starter segment, as we’re not seeing enough kids taking up combo instruments. Retailers don’t seem to be too keen on them, either, as they often find they make it more work to get a customer, especially mom or dad, to step up to a bass that would be better suited to their child’s growth as a musician.

Again, if the economy holds up, this will be good for diversity in the choice of basses offered by manufacturers and retailers alike. We’ve got some new models in the works that we’re excited about and, we’d like to think, would make Leo Fender proud.

SB: This year I think the neck-through version of the Stingray is really going to bump our sales up. It may cannibalize the sales of bolt-ons a little bit, but overall the numbers will be good. The neck-throughs may even overtake the bolt-ons this year. I see things pretty much staying the same with the market, overall. Nothing’s showing me that things are going to get worse, certainly.

CW: I think that the business will increase. The tools for the online retailer for every level of dealer are becoming much more user-friendly on the backend. The online presence and content is also becoming more professional looking and trustworthy for the consumer. This will continue to get more people searching online, or actually going into the local store that has a great online store, as well. As a brand manager, I am all for helping to get the dealers the content that they need to help their business and our brands grow.

JN: We continue to be focused on the bass market – it’s one of the cornerstones of our business. We have several great models we just released: the Adam Clayton and Geddy Lee Jazz Basses, our active Okume Deluxe Basses, and we have some really great product in current development that we hope will make waves in 2016!

RS: I think one of the biggest reasons to experience disappointment in life is to have unfulfilled expectations… so to stay happy and grounded, I try to keep my expectations to a minimum!  

TA: It’s hard to speak to the market at large, but the year should be very strong for us. This year we added new models to the already incredibly popular Bass Workshop Series and we've already had tremendous reactions to our new Fanned Fret offerings as well as the new 33" Scale BTB.

AV: Our expectations are to have continued success with our TRBX line, which is fairly new and well received. We will continue to build the line with more options, like our new exotic wood models that we just launched at Winter NAMM, the TRBX174EW. We also have big plans for the rest of our models like the BB series in coming years. We have a rich and dynamic bass artist roster featuring iconic musicians like Nathan East, Billy Sheehan, Michael Anthony, and John Patitucci and a strong product offering. There really are no limits to where we can go in the bass world as a manufacturer. Now the market itself will probably stay flat for a few years, the growth potential is at the youth level. This something we all need to work at for the future of the bass market, as a collective. Plain and simple, we need to inspire the next generation of bass players. Whatever happens in the near future, bands will always need bass players. Backing tracks and synth bass just don’t have the same impact in the live setting. But, then again, maybe I’m old school.

ER: I expect the bass market to maintain, but not necessarily grow. Manufacturers are putting more and more features in their instruments at very competitive price points. 4-string basses continue to outpace 5-strings by a wide margin.

JM: We see opportunities in continuing to bring great, new, quality instruments to market that our customers expect from ESP… and maybe a few that they didn't see coming. We also are seeing a trend of very relevant artists coming to us asking to design instruments that will satisfy their high demands for quality and innovation. You will definitely see some new products launching mid-year that cover these trends that we are pretty excited about!

MS: I'm hugely optimistic about the next few years. The desires of the customer are an elusive, ever-moving target, but providing a rock steady product, excellent customer service, and a synergistic product line really helps to keep it in focus.

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