Ray Appleton is in the midst of an afternoon ritual – something he does for an hour or so each day to unwind from his gig as a radio host at KMJ. You can hear the faint thump-thump-thump of a bass guitar from the street outside his house as it resonates through the neighborhood.
Inside, things are a bit ... louder.
“That’s great intonation,” Appleton says, letting a note ring that rattles the floorboards and the framed concert posters on the wall and sends his two cats scattering from the room.
He’s showing off his prized guitar, a red 1964 VOX Teardrop bass once owned by Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman. It’s the bass Wyman used to record “Mother’s Little Helper” and “19th Nervous Breakdown” and the same bass he played on two American tours in the mid-1960s, including the East Coast leg of the 1965 tour that stopped at Fresno’s Radcliffe Stadium. So, Wyman played a different guitar at the Fresno show.
“It was a Framus,” Appleton says. He knows this because he asked Wyman at a charity auction where he bought the guitar.
Appleton has been playing the bass for more than 40 years. He started on a Japanese guitar he bought new for $88, money he earned by throwing papers for The Fresno Bee. By contrast, the Wyman bass cost more than the down payment on Appleton’s first home, he says.
And it’s not his only bass.
In fact, it’s just one of five Appleton will play with his band at the Paul Paul Theater on Saturday, when he hosts a concert to celebrate his 30th year at KMJ (AM 580, FM 105.9). This is a rock concert doubling as an anniversary party with an expected crowd in the thousands and a headlining set by 1970s icons Cheap Trick. So, of course, Appleton is going to be in show-off mode.
There is plenty to show off. Appleton has collected 26 bass guitars over the last 30 years. Some, he keeps at the studio where he practices with his band. A few others are in storage.
The rest are here at home in his office-turned-practice space. A red Italia bass Appleton uses when he plays outdoor gigs hangs on one wall. It has a stars-and-stripes guitar strap and a “I Aim to Misbehave” sticker. On the other wall is a reproduction of a 1959 Kay Jazz bass. There’s a Guild Starfire 1 with nylon coated strings, a Hofner Violin Bass (the Beatles bass) and a glitter blue G&L ASTAT bass once owned by Tom Hamilton of Aerosmith.
The latest addition to his collection is a 1964 Seafoam green Eastwood Airline Map bass, which gets its name because its body looks a bit like the United States in map form. He’ll get his first chance to play it live this weekend.
Appleton spends as much time tracking down these guitars as he does playing them. He has a network of dealers on the lookout for instruments he might like and he takes his laptop to bed each night to look through online auctions. Mostly, he’s into vintage instruments or ones that come with a story. Appleton calls those the “somebody-had-it-sometime” basses.
Right now, he’s bidding on an bass owned by Stuart Sutcliffe, the guy who left the Beatles to become a painter. Appleton pulls out his phone and scrolls through his photos to show an early picture of Sutcliffe and the Beatles (and the bass).
“I want it,” Appleton says.
From the excitement in his voice, there is no doubt.
Of course, Appleton doesn’t buy every guitar that comes his way. And he doesn’t keep every one, either. He bought and sold a 1978 Rickenbacker. He sold a 1962 Fender Precision bass that would be worth $10,000 if he still owned it.
It’s hard for him to part with the guitars. He still wonders if he should have sold the Rickenbacker. It keeps him up at night, he says in a tone that makes you question whether that might just be true.
“I just wasn’t playing them anymore,” he says.
And Appleton is pretty outright about his playing abilities. He’s never fully recovered from a stroke in 2001 that forced him to learn again to walk and talk (and play bass). Even with the afternoon practice, he’s still not where he once was, he says.
But then he’s never tried to get fancy or been into playing jazz runs. He’s an old-style rock bassist, a “basic thumper,” he says.
That fits perfectly with the ’60s garage rock his band plays.
“I just try to get through the song in one piece.”