Trying to navigate my way around in a rental car in Phoenix, Arizona after a long morning at a business meeting and being baked by the sun on a 100+ degree day, I muttered on the phone “I’m looking for a vintage bass, Steve”. Boy, did I deserve the ribbing for that one later in our meeting. I arrive and am greeted by Steve Koscica at The String Emporium (not to be confused with Bass Emporium). I will have to say that this has to be one of the better experiences in shopping for an upright bass.
For those not already familiar with The String Emporium, it is owned and run by Steve Koscica who is a long time Phoenix Symphony bassist by profession who runs a great upright bass merchant business on the side. Don’t let the side business aspect mislead you, Steve has a very impressive inventory of upright basses that rivals any other upright bass shop. The fact that he’s a highly talented and skilled professional is a very important thing, because this means that he assesses the basses that he adds to the collection as a player, not as a sales person. It’s kind of like taking a test drive with cars from a formula 1 driver’s garage, rather than visiting Bob the used car sales guy.
I’ve been looking for a road warrior upright bass for jazz, versus my $20k bass which was ideal for arco/orchestral when I was in undergrad, but just didn’t have the jazz sound that I was looking for. I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to spend that much on an upright bass, since gigging with an upright usually means that the bass will be knocked an bumped even with the best of care. I started looking for an upright bass in the $7,500 to $10,000 price range, since that’s about the entry point that I’ve been seeing for quality instruments. Basses like all things in economics have a point of diminishing return. For a jazz upright bass, my perception is that it is at the $10,000 point where you’re pay more but netting less for each dollar.
When I arrive, Steve already has about a dozen upright basses in a room preselected from his inventory based on the basses that I mentioned I was interested in. I’ve been to the big name shops and this level of attention and service was unique. Even when I was shopping for a much more expensive upright bass in the past, I didn’t get this level of attention. Steve introduced me to the basses let me settle in and checked in periodically to make sure that I was doing fine. After narrowing down the basses that I considered buying down to three, here’s where Steve was completely patient and gave me the attention I needed to select the right bass for me. He’d play the basses for me so that I could hear how they sounded at a distance. He also a personable guy; we chatted about bass, life, careers, education, etc. After he got to know me better an where I am as a bassist, we were joking and ribbing each other. He knows his instruments and he doesn’t B.S. about the basses. I asked him which bass on the list was the nice German bass that I tried, and on his list it was listed as “Nice German Bass ….”.
Steve’s inventory is a mix of nicer Chinese upright basses through renowned basses from the 18th century. What I found unique about Steve’s inventory was that he carried a very good selection of basses in the entry level range. Some of these may not catch the eye or be of interest to collectors, but they played and sounded like a more expensive bass to the ear and are healthy basses. I’d encourage anyone who is on a tight budget to take advantage of these basses. I appreciate the fact that he’ll not only show pristine basses, but workhorses too. Steve was honest in his evaluations on the basses, if it had a new back or anything not original, he would say so. If the bass was of unknown origins and ambiguous, he would tell me his opinion, but wouldn’t swear by it as if it was the law. Lets face it, a lot of appraisals of unlabeled basses are just guesses on paper that were written to inflate a price on a bass. His prices are fair, which says a lot since a lot of dealer’s prices are outrageously high. Don’t think of it as fair compared to other shops, because his prices are better than others out there. Think of it as in fair, in value to monetary terms, so every time you pick up a bass your financial brain would say, “I like that bass and the price is good”. There were also a few basses that were impressive deals. There weren’t any prices on any bass that I thought was a ripoff. Straight-forward and priced competitive.
Choosing between the last three was a grind, but Steve endured through with me. It took a few more hours from selecting the three to finally choosing one. Most of his basses had orchestral strings, so I wasn’t 100% sure which one I would like better, so he did the favor of switching strings on the upright basses to Spirocores for me. After listening to them, playing them, listening to them with the Spiros, one stood out very clearly to be my jazz/experimental music bass. There’s a level of service there that can’t be beat. I felt like a fellow bassist with Steve, rather than a customer. Let’s face it, some of those upright bass shops make you feel like you’ve stepped into a used car lot, but not here. Steve has had customers of so many bassists of different levels and backgrounds, which he accommodates. It’s worth the trip there and you’ll feel comfortable at any level as a bassist. No snobbery there, except the ribbing about me calling old basses vintage . For more information, see their website at www.stringemporium.com/basscafe.htm