After having used a few different basses during the time in Wicked Lester – an Epiphone that was stolen and a Fender P-bass with a Gibson EB-0 pickup that was sold to Stephen Stills – Gene finally found his weapon of choice in the shape of a Charlie LoBue custom bass. Actually, whether it was actually a custom instrument made for Gene is an issue on which Gene himself seems less than clear. This is something of a recurring theme when Gene talks about his gear, that his stories and recollections has a tendency to change a lot over time, and it makes the history of his basses a little difficult to untangle. "I saw a bass [LoBue] had built hanging on the wall and decided right then that I wanted it. It's only got one pickup with one dial for volume, one for tone; you can either turn it up or down. I love it." (Guitar Player 1978) Much later Gene would remember it a little differently: "So he made me a one of a kind natural wood custom made bass, no name, no nothing." (Metal Edge presents KISS Alive! 1996) Thankfully there has surfaced a handwritten note, written on Guitar Lab stationary, that appears to be the order of this particular bass and it specifically mentions that it is to be built to Gene Klein’s specifications.
Gene almost certainly got this bass in September 1972. In Face The Music Paul mentions that Wicked Lester got their equipment stolen when they had just completed the sessions for the unreleased album and in KISStory there is a receipt that is most probably from when Paul bought his LoBue Doublecut. Unfortunately the only part of the date that shows is the month and date, not the year, but the month tells us that it isn’t the receipt from when Paul bought his later LoBue Custom V. Since we can say for sure that Gene’s LoBue custom was on hand for the showcase for Epic in late November, 1972, a September purchase seems likely and that would mean that the order note above probably has to be from July or August 1972. This is the original version of the custom LoBue:
The iconic photo by Lydia Criss from the Epic showcase is the first known appearance of Gene and Paul’s LoBue instruments. This bass went through a lot of changes during the four-and-a-half years it was used on stage and I will give these changes different version “names”. Thus we begin with a rundown of the original look: mkI.
Both Charlie LoBue and Gene favored mahogany and that wood was used for both the body and neck of Gene’s custom. The construction is set-neck and this is where this bass differs most from other LoBue basses. All other set-neck LoBue basses I’ve seen have screws or even a neck plate to help secure the neck, but there’s nothing like that on this bass. There was probably no need for additional support here because the heel on this bass was massive. Even though it had a 24 fret neck, the heel starts all the way up at the 17th fret and the body joins at the 20th fret.
LoBue and several of those he worked with liked ebony fretboard and that’s what Gene ordered. The hue looks a little light at times but other photos show a very dark fretboard so I think it was ebony. The instruments built in LoBue’s shops usually featured bone nuts and we can assume that this bass had one. The fret markers were small white dots whose placement was a little unorthodox. Up to the 12th fret things look fairly normal, but quite unlike most other basses (and guitars) only the 15th, 19th and, 24th fret had markers. The 24th fret is the only one with double dots and these were placed very wide. This is in stark contrast to LoBue’s other work. Sometimes his fretboards only had fret markers up to the 19th fret but I’ve yet to find any other examples of skipping frets that usually have fret markers.
The idiosyncrasies continued for the side markers. They were “regular” up to the 12th fret – which, unlike the marker at the 12th fret on the front, was a double dot – and then there was nothing for the remaining 12 frets.
Alas, not everything about this bass has been caught by a camera. A lot of times we can identify guitar or bass tuners simply by the look of the knobs but in this case there’s not enough information to go on. LoBue tended to use Gibson hardware (and pickups) and from the look of the tuning heads on Gene’s custom LoBue it had closed-back M4s. These were made by Schaller in Germany and in this time period (roughly 1970-1972) they could have been one of three different versions. The three versions only differed in the text and/or symbols on the back. One had a stylized Schaller ‘S’, and another had a Gibson ‘G’ instead. Around the time when Gene bought this bass there was also a third version which had the name Gibson written in bas-relief in a semi-circle. (The order note above only specifies Schaller tuners, not which ones.)
Based on the admittedly limited number of LoBue basses I’ve seen photos of, Charlie seems to have liked violin-style rather than adjustable bridges. The bridge on Gene’s custom was a simple mahogany bridge with a bone saddle that was slightly angled and uncompensated. The tailpiece appear to have been Gibson part BR-750N which was used on the first two versions of the Gibson Thunderbird. Interestingly, the body of Gene’s custom had a slight rout around, or possibly just behind, the tailpiece. This rout is pretty hard to spot and even harder to make sense of. I tend to think it was to alter the string angle just a little.
Now, about that pickup… There are no known facts about what this pickup was. When it came to guitars, LoBue initially used Gibson or Guild electronics but I don’t know what he used on basses. The site devoted to LoBue has it listed as a LoBue/Gibson which can mean anything. The order specs say that it was a “handmade p.u. with choke”, something that apparently could be used to create an onboard passive tone circuit with multiple bands (in this case probably two bands). That would explain the slightly odd feature of a single-pickup instrument having three knobs. Gene’s repeated mentions that he went to school with Larry DiMarzio, and the fact that both Ace and Paul tried hand wound DiMarzio pickups early on, has led some to assume that the pickup in Gene’s custom LoBue was also a DiMarzio. It is true that Larry did work for LoBue and, after a while, worked on pickups and electronics, but based on recollections it seems as if DiMarzio came to work with LoBue in 1973 at the 206 Thompson shop so he probably wasn’t involved in the making of this pickup.
Throughout 1973 this was the only bass Gene had. He used for all the shows, the showcase at Le Tang's, recording the first album, and, naturally, the band's first "professional" outing at New Years Eve.