I was roused from sleep at 6am by the shrill ringing of a phone. As I scrambled, eyes bleary, to find it, I cringed as “The Chief” showed up on my caller ID. “I need you to search every single music store in the vicinity of Santa Cruz CA for basses,” he barked. “Then, report back to me pronto. No excuses!” I held the phone away from my ear. You could almost feel The Chief’s hot breath through the spy phone. Quite honestly, though, I couldn’t have been more ready to jet down the highway toward beautiful Santa Cruz. It had been a while since I’d been dispatched to the city, and I was ready to revisit it.
As usual, visions of hot, sunny weather warmed my mind. I thought of the waves lapping the beach near the boardwalk, as well as the quirky boutiques that line the streets of downtown. With nary a contrary word, I accepted the assignment, even before The Chief had finished spouting orders. He paused for a moment, before sputtering, “You have no problem spending your Saturday on assignment?” I replied, “No, sir.” Another pause. “Well then,” he mumbled, “best of luck to you.”
Highway 17, which leads into town, was easy going, even on a Saturday. However, on the other side of the road, I saw a huge traffic jam complete with roadside flares. Thank the stars, it was an accident I didn’t have to deal with. As I breezed down the two-lane thoroughfare, I realized that the gray skies above me were not letting up. “Crap,” I thought to myself. “It’s gonna be cold and gray all day.” That was the case the last time The Chief had sent me on a mission to Santa Cruz, some years back. Oh well, I thought to myself, such is life. I was still excited, I had to admit, just to be out and about. I wasn’t going to get grouchy while visiting Santa Cruz, regardless of weather.
The Starving Musician
1400 Ocean St.,
Santa Cruz CA 95060
Locating the first store on my list was pretty simple. I noticed new building developments as I drove past pedestrians with long, beaded dreadlocks, carrying either groceries or hobo packs. The building, near Highway 1 to head out of Santa Cruz, had parking in front and a small lot of its own. When I walked in, two guys behind the counter were busy. However, I immediately located the basses directly in my line of sight; they were hanging above a stack of amps piled in the middle of the floor. The glass counter to the right of the entrance made an L-shape along the wall, displaying pedals both new and used. Gear was scattered throughout the large space, with drum paraphernalia in the back of the building. As I approached the basses, the sound of a piano being played filled the room. There was an old woman walking around the back of the floor near the drums, gazing at drumheads intently.
I immediately noticed that The Starving Musician specialized in entry-level and used basses—at this location, at least. A Kramer V Bass ($649), used, in blue, caught my eye. It was in great shape.
While I was inspecting a used Ibanez SR300 in glittering red ($349) and a used Danelectro ($199), the fuzzier of the two fuzzy-haired salesmen in front asked if there was anything I needed. I told him that I had found what I was looking for, but thanked him. I noticed an adorable pink Daisy Rock bass ($199), a pink Squier ($199) and a white Epiphone Thunderbird ($299), all of them used, as well as a new Epiphone EB-3 SG. Finally, a used Music Man StingRay ($999) caught my eye, if only because someone had stripped the lacquer off the handmade U.S. gem.
I walked around the store a little bit after having taken in what I could. But, because there weren’t that many more basses to look at, I headed out. The fuzzy-headed guys nodded goodbye. New Age piano chords drifted after me as I left the building and climbed into my car.
1521 Mission St.,
Santa Cruz CA 95060
I had heard that Sylvan Music is a flagship store for musicians…a reason in itself, in fact, to visit Santa Cruz. When I entered the building, after having parked in the lot and passed a young man who was reading a book while walking, I wasn’t disappointed. There was a certain comforting feel in the store. All the instruments were hung with precision both high and low on the walls. The counter to my right was staffed by a guy who asked me immediately what I needed. I told him I was looking for basses. He leapt up from his station to help me, taking me to a back room. New and used basses were hung neatly in two rows, among many beautiful guitars. An entryway in the back of the room led to staff offices, and it was used frequently during the time I was in there.
“You can play to your heart’s content,” the salesman said as he stood in the room with me. Before he walked away, he added, “Just make sure you’re plugging into a bass amp.” Then, he closed the door softly behind him. His warning seemed the voice of unfortunate experience. I wondered what, exactly, had transpired in the room prior to my arrival. Whatever the past bad experiences might have been, I followed his instructions.
I turned to the wall and took in an Eastwood Guitars EEB-1 in black, with a mahogany body and a maple neck ($749). As I ran my fingers along the wood, becoming distracted from my mission, an older male staff member walked by and pointed to the floor. “There are some cables there if you want to plug in,” he said. I was getting the feeling that these guys really wanted me to play loud and plugged, as opposed to passively unplugged. Turning away their urgings, I looked at the other basses on the wall. I mostly noticed Godin and Hagstrom models.
A used Godin A4 acoustic-electric ($649), handmade in Canada but assembled in the U.S., spoke to me. It contrasted with a red-hued electric Godin Freeway 4 next to it. The ubiquitous, tiny, four-string, fretless Kala U-BASS ($450) in spruce also beckoned to be played. It hung alongside a Gold Tone ABG-4 acoustic bass and a used Gold Tone AB-4 ($550). A few entry-level guitars shared space with the others; among them was a Sunburst-style Samick ($200 used).
Before I left, I noticed another side room that had two Fender models: a 1975 Fender Precision Bass Sunburst ($2,300) and a 1977 Fender Precision Bass Blonde ($2,400). Overwhelmed by the beauty of Sylvan Music’s artfully procured instruments, I decided I needed to leave before I stayed there forever. As I walked out, I eyed acoustic guitars in the main room, reluctantly pushing myself to reach the next destination.
512 Front St.,
Santa Cruz CA 95060
The next stop on the list, More Music, had parking out back. As I walked up to the door, a homeless man with a very red face told me he needed an ambulance. Suckered in, I whipped out my spy phone and called for one, not wanting to be the one responsible for a sudden death that I could have prevented. The man lay down on the ground and, as I was describing the situation to the paramedics, the police pulled up. “We know this man well,” they said, calling the guy by name. I heard sirens in the distance and decided that that was my opportunity to exit into the music building and focus on the task at hand.
Inside, the Owner was deep in banter with a client. It was a spacious store, with high ceilings and plenty of instruments lining the walls. I walked back to the basses, which were located near the end of the room to my right. The Owner waved hello and the other clerk told me I could plug in any bass I needed to in the back room to the left.
“We’ve got a bass player in the house,” the Owner said after he was done talking with his other client. How he already knew was beyond me, and it made me slightly paranoid that my cover had been blown. I carried on nevertheless. The selection was mostly composed of used entry-level basses and mid-range models. One guitar I passed had fish stickers all over the body. It looked to me as though the locals of Santa Cruz used the location as their pawn shop for instruments not every store would love. It was the home for the quirky and the outcast among instruments.
An Ibanez Ergodyne ($399 used), a beautiful Boulder Creek Guitars RB-ZW4 ($449), a Warwick Corvette Standard ($699 used), an Ibanez SR300DXF ($339) and an Ibanez GSR200SM ($175) hung just above eye level. Running out of basses to check out, I briefly noticed a strange Japanese bass with an add-on wood bridge that looked funky as all get-out. Then, the Owner interrupted my drifting to announce that he had just the bass for me. “This is the bass that makes you a bass player,” he enthused, pointing out a Gibson EBO ’61, which, not surprisingly, given that he loved it so much, was priced relatively high ($5,000). He plugged me in and I sat down to play it.
The sound of the pickups reverberated through my whole body. I started to drool. (I knew that that would happen to me some time during the mission. And, frankly, it was surprising that it had taken so long.) I’d gotten briefly sidetracked by the beautiful acoustics in Sylvan while on my way out, I confess, but I’d stopped myself before purchasing a beauty upwards of $2,000. (I shall not name it, lest I wish to go back and acquire it later.)
“I love this bass so much,” the Owner said. “If you want a bass that goes Unpmh, this is it.” He continued, “In Kansas City, I found it in a pawn shop. I bought it and then, pretty soon, bought another.” I could see why, although, at the hefty price of $5,000, I was quickly convinced my temptation was fleeting. But, yet, the sound of that bass will live on in my mind as the holy grail of bass sounds…likely until the day that I die.
Union Grove Music
1003 Pacific Ave.,
Santa Cruz CA 95060
The final store on my list was right around the corner from More Music. As I walked in, all the clerks—two males and one female—were standing behind the counter at ease, arms crossed. The middle-aged male who was closest to me nodded half-heartedly as I marched in, ready to find the basses, but he didn’t say anything. After I circumnavigated the display of guitars and basses in the middle of the room—a strange circle inside the floor space, with various displays throughout—I came to the back of the store and found some basses at the far outer opening of the circle.
A clerk saw me and hesitated, but he came forward once he saw me poking around at the wide selection of mostly Fender basses (new and used) located on platforms and floor displays. The energy of this place was pretty subdued…a match for the gray weather that prevailed in the downtown portion of Santa Cruz. When the clerk asked what I was looking for, I replied, “Basses. But, I think I found them already.” The clerk pointed at a couple of used guitars on a raised platform display behind me. “We rarely get Gibson,” he said, laughing somewhat nervously as he pointed at a Gibson. “We’re not a Gibson dealer.” He also pointed at an oddball-shaped bass—a 1976 Alembic, which, to the initiated, kind of looks like a surfboard—that was going for $3,500. “Those are in demand,” he said. He wandered off as I touched the Alembic, a Gibson EB-0 ($1,099) and a used 1975 Fender P-Bass ($1,899).
Additional basses were mostly Fender models, as the clerk had alluded to, in all shapes and sizes. There were too many entry-level Squier instruments ($199) to count. A used Ibanez SR405 bass in black ($389), made in Korea, shared space with Fender models, along with a used, but “like new,” Spector ReBop4DLX ($1,095). At times, it was hard to tell which Fender models were new or used. Many of them were foreign-made models; I did, however, notice a used Squier vintage modified P-Bass ($349.99) and a three-tone Sunburst Squier vintage model bass ($449.99), along with a U.S.A. standard J-Bass. By then, though, my head had started to get cloudy. Without a glance from the clerks, I walked out and into my spy car to cruise down Highway 17, back through the trees and into my lair.
Even though each store did have its charms, I would say that Sylvan Music wins for atmosphere, parking, friendliness, clerk attentiveness and a unique selection. The guitars were curated lovingly, and it showed the minute I walked into the store. Without a doubt, my second choice would be Union Grove, if only because of the selection. As regards the clerks, on the one hand, it seemed that they were ready to assist should I pursue them further. However, since I didn’t approach them, I can’t say whether their hands-off approach is standard for the store. The shop had the widest selection of guitars, although more Fender than anything else. Third on my list would be More Music, due to the friendliness of the Owner and the staff’s willingness to talk shop and assist. Last on my list would be The Starving Musician. It’s not so much due to a lack of friendliness as due to having used and entry-level basses more than anything else, along with the pawn shop/cluttered feel of the store.