It’s Electric! Early History of the Electric Bass Part 1

Posted on September 14, 2010


On September 12th, 2010 just after midnight bassist Jodi Stevens will threaten me consequences so fierce if I don’t put together a timeline of the electric bass.  Actually, it was somewhere between asking nicely and a pistol whipping, but anyway, I’ve looted through tons of books, magazines and websites and put together some of the early history of the electric bass.

The electric bass was built for easier travel, tuning and playability.  So next time you’re running late for a gig and strap a gigbag over your shoulder, pause and thank it’s creator.  You could be still wrestling an upright wider and taller than you!

The man to thank; Paul Tutmarc.  Paul is credited as being the man to build the first electric bass.  Audiovox offered Paul’s Model 736 Bass Fiddle in their 1935 catalog.  It was a short scale instrument and for the first time the bass was played like a guitar.

But no, people weren’t slappin’ and a poppin’ juuuust yet.

It wasn’t until 1951 Leo Fender began to mass produce an electric bass.  Borrowing parts from the Fender Telecaster, the contoured body, single-coiled Precision bass was born.  The perks were any guitarist could easily learn to play the instrument in tune, the portability was still there and my favorite; the instrument could easily be cranked up with less feedback issues!  Monk Montgomery, known for his work with Lionel Hampton is credited as the first bassist to regularly use the Fender P-bass.

What good is a product without competition?  In 1953, Kay built their take on the electric bass.  September of 1953, Gibson released had built their first electric bass, simply called The EB.  Its first model looked similar to a violin and offered the option to be played like an upright (a retractable stand was located on the lower end of the body) or horizontally. In 1956, Hofner released their violin bass which you may know as “The Beatle Bass”.  Paul used a ’61 and a ’63 500/1 for most of the early Beatles.

What surprised me most about the decade: In ’56 Danelectro released a 6-string 24 fret electric bass.  The UB-1 and UB-2 were shortscale electric basses marketed to guitars players to make an easy jump from guitar to bass.

In 1957, Fender built the more traditional Precision bass that we see today.  Some of the upgrades were; the split-coil pickup, a rosewood fretboard as well as the current headstock and pickguard design.  Also that year, Rickenbacker introduced their bass; the 4000.

Bill Black who is known for his work with Elvis and Joe Mauldin known for his work with Buddy Holly became some of the first rock n roll bassists to use the electric bass.

The 50s were huge for the electric bass, but the 60s weren’t too shabby either.  Probably most notable was in 1960, Fender released the Jazz Bass.  Originally named “The Deluxe” as it was a more player friendly version of the Precision.  The biggest changes were the slimmer neck and the 2 pickup design to compete with Rickenbacker’s Rick-O-Sound. The bass quickly became popular amongst jazz bassists.  Also to stay on top of bass pioneering, Fender realeased the Fender VI, a hybrid baritone guitar/bass to compete with Danelectro’s earlier invention.

Bill Wyman later known as The Rolling Stones bassist is given credit for ripping out the frets of his bass all the way back in 1961.  Jaco Pastorius is commonly given credit for this.  Unlike Jaco who ripped his frets out for artistic reasons, Wyman ripped his out of necessity to make his homemade bass playable.  He planned on getting the instrument re-fretted sometime later when he had the money.

1962 a man known as “The Leo Fender of Britain” Jim Burns invented the Burns TR2 model bass which is the first bass to have active electronics.  Alembic often receives most of the credit for active electronics in basses, but they weren’t heard of until the end of the decade.

In 1963, Gibson released the Thunderbird.  It was Gibson’s first attempt at a full scale bass to rival the Fender Precision and Jazz.  The Thunderbird had a set-neck, similar to Rickenbacker’s neck-thru construction.  The majority of Fender instruments have a bolt-on neck with the idea of easier maintenance.

I do not have an exact year but in the early 60s, bassist James Jamerson who is known for playing on 95% of Motown Records’ recordings used his 1962 Fender Precision bass for a majority of those sessions.  Jamerson’s playing and tone from his Fender (dubbed The Funk Machine), La Bella flatwound strings and an Ampeg B-15 amplifier influenced many of the famous bassists of today.

The First 5-string bass was introduced by Fender in 1965, but it did not catch on.  Instead of the more popular low-B string, the Fender V was tuned EADGC.  Bass players did not care for the string spacing.

In the mid 60s Ampeg released the first factory fretless electric bass.

1968 Hagstrom guitars invented the H8.  An 8-string bass tuned in octaves as an answer to the 12-string guitar.  The most note-worthy owner of the H8 was Jimi Hendrix.

The 60s saw the most hype for the electric bass.  Surf, Motown, Blues, Rock ‘n Roll, the electric bass was everywhere!  It went from being a new idea to a standard nearly overnight.  If you look at liner notes of recordings from this era, you may notice a musician being credited with “Fender Bass”.  Fender didn’t invent the instrument, but surely dominated the early market of the electric bass.  Thanks Leo.

There’s a good chunk of info.  Maybe we’ll strap on some roller skates and venture into the 70s and beyond, maybe we’ll highlight early bassists or talk about bass amps?  Who knows.

Currently Listening To: Goo Goo Doll “For The Rest Of Us”

Posted in: Uncategorized