1974 Gibson Ripper L9-S Bass, as made famous by Krist Novoselic
Come As You Are. The utterly iconic Gibson Ripper bass, as made famous by Krist Novoselic, and the indie rock family tree of close relatives and distant cousins that followed... Queens Of The Stone Age, Foo Fighters, Green Day, and many more.
Unmistakable. That opening bass riff to Come As You Are, Nirvana's open-armed (and reassuringly unarmed), invitation to all, friends and known enemies alike. Krist Novoselic and a bass that, lock-step with Dave Grohl's drumming, held all things together, against the odds, when Nirvana took to the stage. Days of glory, the rebirth of the guitar band when so many had written off the guitar band. Only a few years later, Oasis and others were declaring their rejection of the US grunge guitar bands that were dominating the airwaves, but you've got to ask yourself whether the Britpop gang would have made quite the splash they did without someone having kicked down the doors and elevated the guitar band back to where it needed to be.
It wasn't just Kurt Cobain who made it his mission to seek out the poor and neglected beauties that underpinned Nirvana's sound. The Gibson Ripper ended its 10-year production run in 1983, but it would be Krist Novoselic that gave it its due place in the history books. He liked it so much, he had four of them. Two in the natural finish we have here, and two in the black finish introduced in 1978. It was a black one he famously threw up into the air at 1992's MTV Music Awards, only to miss the catch, and have it land on his head. Rock and roll.
On launch, the L9-S was at the affordable end of the Gibson range. Still a quality instrument, but the design was all about lowering production costs. No mahogany, no expensive inlays, scratchplate-mounted controls. But this wasn't about getting a cheap bass onto the market. The legend that is Bill Lawrence once again came up with something to make this bass unique - a brand-new super humbucker pick-up pair, built specifically for the Ripper, and the Q-System, featuring a Varitone switch, and mid-range and treble roll-off pots in place of a typical tone pot per pick-up. Basically, adjusting all controls, not just the Varitone, would unlock a wide range of tones from the clippy to the low, in and out of phase. Gibson realised that the full dynamics of the Ripper may have passed most users by, so even produced a vinyl record and user guide to showcase the different sounds the Ripper could achieve!
Manuals are a last resort for most of us, so fortunately it doesn't take much exploration of the controls to unleash the tonal expanses of this bass. Lovely rich bassy depth to high treble click, there's something here for every style. Even if the irresistible temptation is to patch in your Chorus and cue that intro to Come As You Are. Not such a bad place to start.
See & Hear It In Action
Come As You Are (1992): Well, I wasn't going to miss out on including this. You may not get to see the bass (or much at all) that clearly, but it's there, as it is throughout the recording of Nevermind and In Utero. Timeless.
Kings Of The Wild Frontier, Adam & The Ants (1980): And I can't let this one pass either. Kevin Mooney, bass guitarist with Adam & The Ants - is it just mean, but could that utterly distinctive sound from Kevin and his Ripper be the inspiration for Krist more than 10 years later?
Patrick Hunter 1974 Ripper Demo: Not only is Patrick a superb bass player, he fills his video with a wealth of information about Gibson basses, the story behind the Ripper, and his own story to upgrade a 1974 Ripper in need of some TLC. Not to mention some great sound and video of the bass in all of its tonal glory.
Gibson's 1975 Ripper Vinyl Demo: Not the first time Gibson had put out a demo disc for their guitars, but the first time they put one out on hard vinyl. Thanks to Fly Guitars (see Sources & Links) for digging out this class piece of history.
School Of Rock Lesson #17: How Not To Throw & Catch A Guitar: The story and video behind Krist ending up with a Ripper bass landing on his head. Only to be nursed back to recovery with a glass of champagne from a surprising guitar legend.
Number of Frets
Kluson 546-style "elephant ear" open-gear
Bill Lawrence Ripper Super Humbuckers
Gibson Three-Point Adjustable Combination Bridge
A perfectly original Ripper. An aged beauty, for sure. It's seen a life on the road, and bears testament with the nicks and chips you'd expect. But in terms of hardware, fretboard, frets, and electrics, it's in superb condition.
Aside from the unique Q-system electronics, there's many other things to love about this bass: the truss-rod cover boldly engraved "THE RIPPER" (a bass making no secret of its targeting at the heavier end of musical taste), the deep dark tortoiseshell pickguard (yes, it looks black, but it's definitely tortoiseshell), the chicken-head varitone that opens up all of those tonal options.
And it plays and sounds just fantastic. From deep bass depth to high click treble. Plus, as Patrick Hunter says in his video review above, there's a growl you can get from this bass that's unlike any other. I haven't been through the user guide, but even the most moderate changes to the mid and treble roll-off pots dial in tonal ranges to suit all styles. No idea how Krist Novoselic had his set, but if you want that Come As You Are sound, set the Varitone to 4, with both pick-ups out of phase, drop in your Chorus, and you're right there.
Finally (and geekily), late-60s/early-70s Gibson basses are never that easy to date. I had the same problem with our 1969 Gibson EB-3. And, just as then, I'm indebted to Fly Guitars for the wealth of information, spec and design changes that helped date this Ripper. Skip the rest of this section if that's a step too far into guitar geekery. Otherwise, read on . . .
The serial number wasn't that helpful in confirming the production date of this guitar. The Gibson Blue Book would have you choosing any date between 1970 and 1975. For a start, the Ripper was first introduced in 1973, so at least that narrowed the range down to three years. But it was down to other clues in the build to get to 1974:
The pots being the next best place to start. The latest datestamp on the pots is the 44th week of 1973. That was quite exciting. A good chance it could be one of the original 20 Rippers shipped in 1973. And yet . . .
I've never yet dated a guitar by its wood . . . and I'm no expert. But looking at the body, the grain seemed at odds with the maple neck. And so it turns out. The earliest 1973 and 1974 Rippers were produced with a maple body, replaced by alder later in 1974, before again reverting to maple in 1977. Comparing this one with the alder-bodied 1974 Ripper on Fly Guitars' website, the body has the same swirled pattern. Which would make this one no earlier than 1974.
Like I said, I'm no expert, so I could have got my woods wrong. Which is where, unlikely as it sounds, the tuners helped at least establish a pre-1975 build date. Rippers were installed with an updated version of Kluson 546's up until 1974, with a 9/16" tuner post. Which is what we have on this Ripper.
So, everything points to a pre-1975 build date . . . and all it would take is someone who really knows their maple from the alder to nail it. Which is a step too far, even for me. I'm just happy to play it.
Sources & Links
Fly Guitars - Everything You Need To Know About the Ripper: And some! Utterly indebted to Fly Guitars for the stories, the specs, the painstaking detail, and design evolutions. I wouldn't have got anywhere near as close to dating this Ripper without the info on this site. And that's not just for the Ripper. If you're looking for information about vintage Gibson and Epiphone basses, I've not found a finer place!
1975 Gibson Guitar Catalogue, Vintage Guitar And Bass: And hats off once again to Vintage Guitar And Bass. This is the 1975 catalogue, so a year later than this Ripper, but it's the same spec - and also features the first appearance of a fretless bass in a Gibson catalogue (nice).
How To Use It: With thanks again to Fly Guitars, if you want help in getting the most out of this bass and the Q-system, Gibson came up with this handy one-pager in 1978. Now you're all set.