Greco SB-850 "Suzi Quatro" bass

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May 29, 2012
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Researching these old instruments are almost always fun, but some processes are more fun than others...

I recently received this 1975 Greco SB-850 bass, a sort of alternate-reality take on the Gibson Thunderbird. It features a P-bass pickup really close to the neck and an original Greco/Maxon humbucker in the bridge position, with individual volume and tone pots and a three-position switch. Furthermore, the headstock is shorter, with lightweight 2-a-side tuners and a weird, vaguley banjo headstock-like shape. The logo says "The Greco" a la early Gibsons and the fretboard inlays are quite elaborate. It was in the catalogs from 1975 to '77 and was Greco's most expensive bass at the time. Mine was early 1975 going by pot codes, the bass itself had no serial. Can't have been a big seller, these are quite rare these days.
Catalog specs are maho body and maple neck. Nice-playing slim neck and a somewhat extreme sound, huge and booming neck pickup (quite a lot further forward than on PBs) and really hard and nasal bridge pickup tone and a lot of flexibility in the center position, using the pots. Great instrument with its own character and significantly less neck-dive than a standard T-bird.

It's well-known that Suzi Quatro played a personalized version of the same instrument (with "Suzi" inlaid in the fretboard and a cream frame around the bridge pup), it's always been known as the "Suzi Quatro model" and it was also rumoured that Suzi herself was involved in the design, but I've never found any firm documentation on that. So I decided to see if I could contact Ms Quatro and ask her.

Getting int touch with her was quite easy, I just went to her web page and emailed her management address. She answered the mail herself (I suspect her professional organization hasn't been that large since the late 70s...). She's not the wordiest of correspondents but we did have a little mail exchange about the bass.

As it turns out, she was approached by Greco during a Japanese tour late in '74, offering to build her a bass to her own specs. Apparently, her then guitarist, later husband Len Tuckey handled most of the interaction with Greco/Fujigen, and the bass was delivered to her as a "gift". There was no sponsorship deal, which didn't stop Kanda Shokai for using pics of her in marketing materials in a few instances. She wasn't really aware of any series production of it.

She played it for "a couple of years", both live and in the studio (though she can't recall which recordings it was used on) and there are plenty of pics and a least one video clip of her playing it, at least up to 1977. At that point, she gave it away to a young relative in Detroit (she was UK-based at the time, and still seems to be) who had expressed an interest in picking up the bass. Sadly, this person promptly sold it for drug money (and eventually passed due to an overdose). The next time it turned up was in a 2012 Christie's auction, where it sold for $10 000, which Suzi wasn't aware of. Where it had been and where it is now is unknown afaik.
She said she'd ask Len Tuckey about getting more info on the design process, but I've had no more comms with her since, and I'm not about to badger her about it. I'm just happy that she took the time she did with an old geek like me. :)

My bass? I actually sold it pretty quickly (not for drug money though). I stumbled upon a very insistent buyer, and I'm not really about to start collecting basses as well, there lies (more) madness. And a anyway, my home studio workhorse bass is a 1974 Greco PB-750N Tetsu Yamauchi model, with basically the same electronics in a P-bass format. It weighs in at 5,2 kgs, but still magages to be more comfortable that a T-bird. Not the most ergonomic design, that...


Note the two little scrolls at the top of the the headstock. They were broken off during transit, probably due to the bass moving inside the case. Looking at pics of other SB-850s, it seems like at least half of them have the same damage. Easy fix, but obviously a weak point.

It came in a most probably original TB hard case, slightly too long for the shorter headstock on the SB:

Dec 74 pot codes, so the bass is likely from the very first production batch.

This original pickup design was also used on the contemporary PB-750. Note the attention to detail in the mounting: the threaded bushings sunk into the wood, bolts and springs. Fender would probably just have uses wood screws and a neoprene pad underneath...

With Suzi Q live in 1977...

...and in the studio, time and place unknown.
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Yeah, the scrolls break off parallell to the wood fibres. Bad design really, you'd need transverse wood grain in the headstock to make that construction secure. I told the guy who bought it to basically expect them to break off again. I've seen a few with the scrolls missing and the break surface painted over in black. Looks just fine without them, kind of like horns. :)
Yep. The guitar in this thread is a combination of design ideas. Almost like they were throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck. Like the way they approached professional musicians for ideas as routine to see what they could come up with. There was a lot of innovation in that period. Particularly with electronics.
I wish I'd been able to talk to Len Tuckey about the design process, but I strongly suspect that "a Thunderbird with less neckdive" was part of the brief.I can imagine Suzi digging the look but hating having to hold the neck up as much as play it. I did ask, but she's the kind of correspondent that just answers the questions she feels like answering. :)
As for the electronics, the pickups and their positioning are identical to those on the PB750N, apparently designed either for or with ex-Free and Faces bassist Tetsu Yamauchi when he returned to Japan in 1973, so I can't help wondering how "custom" for the Suzi bass they really are. It's more like Fujigen suggested something they already had.

But it's an interesting setup. If nothing else, it makes it apparent that the positioning of the pickup is pretty critical to the classic PB sound. The Tetsu doesn't really sound anything like a P-bass with the pickup that much further forward, and neither did the SB-850, of course:

Very interesting, thanks.
I tried a Thunderbird once in the late 60's but didn't like the balance at all, so the EB3 remained the main one and an early 60's P as an alternative. Oh how I wish that one was kept! It was a delight but not a looker, as most of the paint had already flaked off.
Thank you for a very informative post on the SB-850! I recently came in possession of one and have been trying to learn as much as I can but there really isn't that much info out there. I've been piecing things together and your post help a ton! And idea on production numbers for these basses?
You're welcome, happy to contribute.

The Japanese auction and sales sites I follow turn up dozens of vintage Grecos every day, and you see one of these maybe once every 12-18 months or so. So obviously not a big seller. No wonder really, the 85 000 JPY asking price was a lot in the early 70's and its oddity probably made it less desirable for a lot of ppl, especially as Suzi Q's star faded towards the end of the decade. Any guess as to the exact number produced would be pure speculation, but I would imagine probably not more than a couple of thousand at the most.

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