The Low End: Ibanez Black Eagle

Starting out with yet another series, this being my first blog about basses. In this series I will feature a specific bass or a particular model and showcases its history, musicians who used them and maybe some personal stories relating to whatever I’m talking about. If I get some good recording software I can upload a demo of the bass on YouTube or something. Been meaning to do that for a while anyway (also for guitar/synths) but I still haven’t got around to exactly record/buy anything…

Bass guitar was the first instrument I learned to play on and will always remain my ‘first love’ musically. Bass also got me interested in the history of guitars and basses; all the different models, the amps, effects pedals. I must have spend hours and hours looking at old catalogs on the Internet, browsing through forums looking at all these photos and reading stories of instruments I’d never seen in my life. My interest sparked by general curiosity and musicians who weren’t playing the regular ol’ Stratocaster or Les Paul. The scarcer the information online the more I became obsessed with certain guitars or basses. One of my first guitar memories was craving for a white Mosrite Ventures Mk II like Johnny Ramone played in the Ramones. Still only a bass player then, my obsession with vintage, quirky basses somehow started a little later.

At the time I was in the phase of ‘I-only-want-the-instruments-my-idols-played’ so I became very interested in the various guitars and basses Nirvana played during their heyday. This was a catalyst of sort and the ‘vintage shenanigans’ really started after I bought my second bass: an almost mint ’77 Ibanez Black Eagle. Inspired by the bass player of Nirvana, Krist Novoselic, and wanting something a bit ‘Fenderish’ I bought this beauty off eBay. Novoselic had several (3-4) Black Eagles while in Nirvana. He used them extensively on Nirvana’s first album ‘Bleach’ and most of the early tours before retiring them in favor of Gibson Rippers and RD basses. One Black Eagle was reintroduced during the ‘In Utero’ tour, instantly recognizable since the maple fretboard was replaced with a rosewood one (Krist broke the neck once…). Besides Krist I haven’t seen too many musicians playing these basses. Although endorsed by Ronald LaPread of The Commodores at the time, the only other ‘famous’ people who I have seen using a Black Eagle were Pete Reichert of Rocket From The Crypt and Lee Tomlinson of Clout.

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It wasn’t easy getting this bass. Intrigued by its sound and its strange look, a kind of lovechild of a Jazz Bass and a Burns Bison bass, I saved up all my money stacking shelves at the local supermarket. Getting the money was ‘easy’ since it took me almost a year to finally find one on eBay all the way out in California (I’m from the Netherlands). The day it arrived at my house I was as giddy as a 5-year-old at Christmas, maybe even more. Luckily this Black Eagle was everything I had dreamed off and more. Remember: I’d never played one in real life, let alone seen one IRL. This was my first taste of vintage and I demanded more! So it seems fitting that the Black Eagle was the subject of my first bass blog.

A little history: the Ibanez 2609B ‘Black Eagle’ was an electric bass guitar made by Ibanez in the mid to late 70s. The original Black Eagle were manufactured in Japan as part of a ‘limited’ edition series from 1975 until 1979, the peak year of production being 1977. The bass was made during the so called post-‘Lawsuit’ era in which Ibanez had to change their instruments to avoid lawsuits from Fender and Gibson. Before this Ibanez and other mainly Japanese (sister-)companies were building almost exact replicas of several established guitar models, such as those being made by the aforementioned brands. Especially Fender and Gibson were noticing a decline in sales because of the import of these copy instruments, being cheaper and a lot of the times on par with their American counterparts.

Although the Black Eagle clearly is a Fender Jazz Bass copy it differs on several areas. The body was made of mahogany, instead of the regular alder (or ash) found on Fenders. Earlier models had a three-piece hard laminated maple neck, later ones were one-piece. The neck is one of the more recognizable features of the Black Eagle. The fretboard was marked with ‘fancy intricate inlays’ as described in the ’76 Limited Models catalog of Ibanez. This pattern was borrowed from the banjos made by Ibanez, which in turn was modeled after old Gibson banjos from the 30s. The neck had a slightly smaller scale, 33 1/2”, instead of the usual 34” Fender necks. The most ‘bizarre’ feature was the F-hole cutout in the headstock. Besides companies like Travis Bean with their aluminum neck I never seen this on any other instrument. Made from wood and not too thick this cutout was prone to breaking off, leaving many Black Eagles with a sort of ‘parrots beak’. My ’77 is one of the lucky few with an intact headstock which made me a bit paranoid every time I took it out of the house.  Have since retired it from live performances. To compliment the other quirky features the body had elongated horns which made it slightly different from a standard Jazz Bass shape, again just so to avoid further future lawsuits. The pickguard was decorated with a mother-of-pearl flying eagle, hence the name Black Eagle.

The first production-made Black Eagles were made somewhere around June 1975. Since these first basses lack a serial number an exact date is unknown. It first appeared in a 1975 catalog as part of the Custom Series by Ibanez alongside some fancy wood-carved Strats and a ‘matching’ Les Paul guitar. There exists one prototype Black Eagle made by Fujigen Japan from the 4th of June that year. It has a different neck, the same as an Ibanez 2365B which was just a regular Jazz Bass copy. The fretboard has the correct inlays but made of pearloid rather than black celluloid. The body is the exact same shape as a Fender Jazz Bass, so without the extended horns that were later added. The pickguard had the same flying eagle template and it had an ashtray cover added over the bridge.

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The last of the original 70s Black Eagle basses were made in early 1979. In June of 2015 these basses were (shortly) reissued by Ibanez for the 40th anniversary of the Black Eagle, which caught me completely of-guard when they first showed this at Winter NAMM ’15. Unlike the originals they were made in Indonesia instead of Japan. I have since played one at a music store, quite liked it, but decided I didn’t need (yet) another Black Eagle. If you can still find one of these reissues try them out! The price is right and they’re much cheaper than a vintage specimen.

I’ve already talked about my ’77 Black Eagle but oh no, it doesn’t end there. About 18 months later I found another Black Eagle only this time much closer to home and a lot cheaper. This beat-up ’76 Black Eagle was demoted to wall furniture for the last 10 years before I bought it. The electronics were a mess, it was missing a strap pin and the pickguard but it played great! Some set-up adjustments and soldering shortly after and it was all up and running. After I bought the second Black Eagle I immediately noticed the major differences between the basses and figured out there was at least one ‘big’ production redesign in late ’76 or early ’77.

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The first thing that struck me was the neck shape and profile of both basses. The ’76 has a much slimmer neck, comparable with a 60s/modern Jazz Bass. On the other hand the ’77 has a wider neck and a U-shape neck profile like most mid 70s Jazz Basses. The shape of the body is also different, the ’77 having more contours while the ’76 has more of a slab body, almost Telecaster Bass-like. Minor cosmetic differences are the relocation of the trussrod access from the headstock to the heal of the neck. The bridge also has two extra screws compared to the ‘older’ Black Eagles.

Not that I would have minded two identical Black Eagles but I guess I lucked out getting two different versions of the same instrument. Currently I have the ’77 Black Eagle strung up with tapewound strings, giving it almost an upright sound. Love the vintage ‘oomph’ I can get with this bass but still enough brightness on tap if you really want to dig in. Before I was using Rotosound rounds, which were great but I wanted something different. Meanwhile the other Black Eagle hasn’t strayed far from the Nirvana look and sound. I tuned this bass down to C standard (CFA#D#) with some thick roundwound strings to get that real aggressive yet crunchy bass tone with some added overdrive (for example on the first few albums of QotSA). The weight difference is also pretty apparent. The ’76 bass will shatter your collarbone with the wrong strap while the ’77 is a comparatively more average weight. This tends to vary with most Black Eagles, it is not really bound to any particular year just the piece of mahogany used to construct the body.

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Almost forget to mention this but in the time between finding both basses I managed to score yet another Black Eagle. Well… only half of it. This ’75/’76 neck just came across on the Dutch equivalent of Craigslist completely random. I will be using this for my next bass project after finishing both my guitar projects first, (watch out for the next installment of Guitar Projects!) so it might take a while before I get around to finishing this ‘Black Eagle’.

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