The History Of The Electric Bass part 1: Early Days

October 24, 2011, 05:44 UTC

 

BASS EXPO The early days of bass playing must have been a nightmare! Low resonance plus the need for audible volume meant huge instruments like the Mandobass (mandolin style) and the Regal Bassoguitar, which was a monster cross between an acoustic guitar and an upright bass.

The Dobro Resonator Bass was a little smaller in comparison thankfully but still unwieldy so it's no wonder that the upright bass as we know it remained a constant favourite for the first half of the twentieth century.

The bass revolution really started with the introduction of electronics and amplification and for the earliest examples we have to look at the Vega Electric Bass Viol from the 1930s, the Electrified Double Bass from Regal in 1936 and Rickenbacker with their Electro Bass-Viol from around the same time.

These were essentially the centre part of an upright bass from headstock to end pin so no prizes for guessing where the designs for the skeletal electric uprights of the 1990s came from!

Gibson's Mandobass: unwieldy

Each came with an amplifier but the Rickenbacker was curious as along with featuring their classic styled horseshoe magnetic pickup the endpin included a jack plug and the whole thing slotted into the top of the amp so no leads were needed.

Progress and revolution

Gibson took things a step forward with their Electric Bass Guitar in 1938 which was still an upright instrument with a hollow body in spite of the encouraging name.

It stood about five feet tall and was indeed like an archtop bass guitar with a proper looking magnetic pickup and two controls but it still used an endpin. In fact Wally Kamin used one of these during his time as the bass player in the Les Paul Trio, but very few were actually made.

The true birth of the bass guitar and bass playing as we know it today really started in the 1950s with the birth of the Precision Bass in late 1951. Leo Fender always had an affinity towards bass players who were finding it harder to be heard within the band or ensembles of which they were a part.

Hauling a double bass around was a pain to say the least so Leo's Fender Precision Bass was nothing short of manna from heaven for the players of the time. There had been attempts before but Leo's instrument was the one that defined a look, a scale length and a practicality hitherto unknown.

Regal's Electrified Double Bass: still not the answer

Leo was a fan of country music and hoped the bass would be as well received in that genre as the Esquire/Telecaster were proving to be and indeed the first Precision Bass that arrived in Nashville was snapped up by Joel Price who began using it at the Grand Ole Opry in 1952.

But somewhat surprisingly it was the jazz area that really took the instrument under its wing. In order to promote his invention Leo would call in at concerts and nightclubs to show off his instruments and in New York he encountered Lionel Hampton's band.

Not, it's not a vacuum cleaner, it's the Rickenbacker Electro Bass-Viol

Bassist Roy Johnson tried the Precision and Lionel loved the sound. Leo told them to keep it and the Bassman amplifier as it would be good publicity for Fender. When Roy left to be replaced by Monk Montgomery (brother of guitarist Wes), Monk was asked to play the Precision.

As a well respected upright player Monk was horrified but Hampton was insistent as the bigger bass sound had become a trademark of the band.

Conventional bass players recognised it as a threat and it was referred to as 'the bastard instrument' but Monk got to grips with it and was soon making a name for himself.

Gibson's 1938 Electric Bass Guitar was still an upright

The musical wheels were in motion however and the bastard was not about to go away. Another early endorsee was Shifty Henry, a jump jazz player with Louis Jordan & His Tympany Five.

Perhaps his biggest claim to fame is being featured in a line of Elvis Presley's Jailhouse Rock - "Shifty Henry said to Bugs for heaven's sake" - and for this track Presley's bass player Bill Black also took to the Precision and rock 'n' roll had gained a new voice.

But Fender didn't have it all their own way. Ricky Nelson was on his way up and even Elvis saw him as a potential threat. Ricky's bass player used an upright to record with but on the road he used a Rickenbacker, although that's another story...

 

The History Of The Electric Bass part 2: Beyond Fender

February 23, 2012, 15:35 UTC

In spite of Fender having set a high standard with the Precision, it was not producing vast quantities at any time during the 1950s. When Fender introduced the Stratocaster the bass was given a new contoured body that was considerably more comfortable than the relatively sharp edge of the original body.

This happened around late 1953/54 and became known as the 'Transitional P-Bass'. It helped to continue interest in the instrument but there was no way that other American guitar manufacturers were going to sit back and watch Fender take the monopoly on the bass guitar. Gibson and Rickenbacker were particularly eager to get in on the act and grab some of this new retail action for themselves.

Gibson

Although well established in the archtop electric guitar field Gibson was now producing the Les Paul so although a solid bass with a carved top, the violin shape of the Electric Bass was actually something of a surprise when it was introduced in 1953.

With a shorter scale than the Precision, a glued-in neck and a huge humbucking pickup positioned towards the neck this bass had a fat warm sound that was quite unlike the Fender. It took a little while to settle as some models featured painted f-holes and a coach line to the body edge whist others were left natural, but structurally each had an extendable endpin so it could be played in an upright position.

This was a great design ploy to temp traditional players into gradually making the change. However Gibson made bigger impact in 1958 with its EB-2 bass, a thinline semi-hollow bodied instrument with real f-holes and like the Electric Bass it initially had banjo-style tuners that projected backwards from the headstock. It also had the same humbucking pickup, a single-saddle bridge/tailpiece and a pushbutton tone switch.

Jimmy Page used one when he first joined the Yardbirds as a bass player although his was the later version with regular tuners. The last of the banjo headstocks appeared in 1959 on the EB-0 bass. This was a cheaper bass (hence the 0 in the designation) and caused the more expensive original Electric Bass to be renamed the EB-1 when it was reintroduced in 1969. The EB-0 drew on the success of the Les Paul Junior guitar and featured basic electronics and a slab body with a double cutaway.

Rickenbacker

By now Rickenbacker was also testing the water. Its early electric guitars and basses sported a very distinctive double horseshoe magnet pickup developed way back in the 1930s by Los Angeles steel guitar player George Beauchamp.

It was first used on the prototype 'Frying Pan' guitar devised by him and Harry Watson who had been working in the National guitar factory. His friend Adolph 'Rick' Rickenbacker had the money and the means to put the 'guitar' into production and naturally the pickup was adapted when the first Rickenbacker bass, the 4000, came into being in 1957.

It was a stunning looking instrument and like Fender had a futuristic look about it with a 'cresting wave' shaped solid body. It also made use of neck-through-body construction, which gave the early models a distinctive stripe on the body and the 'jigsaw puzzle' headstock an even more dramatic appearance.

With the single horseshoe magnet pickup and the chrome bridge/tailpiece dominating the body, the scale length was close to the Precision standard and initially the scratchplate was gold plastic although this was soon standardised to white.

One of the first to adopt the 4000 was Ricky Nelson's bass player James Kirkland. Ricky had a deal with Rickenbacker so for James it was the obvious choice. When he first played it on the Grand Ole Opry radio showit caused quite a stir:"I almost blew the sound engineer's ears out, because he wasn't expecting it. They weren't gonna let me play it at all."

Fortunately they did because the bass guitar had arrived and was here to stay. The 4001 was introduced in 1961 and this had the benefit of a second smaller pickup with a 'toaster' top. The rosewood fingerboard now sported snazzy pearloid triangular position markers rather than the simple dots of the 4000 and the whole instrument was neatly bound.

It looked a million dollars but more importantly it produced that characteristic Rickenbacker bass growl that would be explored to great effect later on in the sixties. But in America yet another bass sound was also being heard.

Danelectro

In 1954 Nat Daniel's Danelectro Company began producing cheaper electric guitars for the Sears Roebuck chain of stores, many under the name of Silvertone. In 1956 Danelectro ventured into the bass marketplace with the first ever 6-string bass!

The U2 was a single cutaway, semi-hollow design that was essentially a guitar with heavier strings and tuned down. It featured on many recordings at the time including tracks by the Everly Brothers and Duane Eddy.

In 1958 Danelectro produced the Longhorn 4423, a 4-string bass with a 33.5-inch scale that was even more unusual than the rest of the ange. It employed the same Masonite and hollow frame construction method as their guitars but it was the symmetrical and extended twin cutaway design that caught the eye.

With a pair of the infamous Lipstick pickups and dual concentric controls it looked like something from Greek mythology and it had a killer sound. Both Jack Bruce and John Entwistle used Longhorns during the sixties in Cream and The Who.

Extra Precision

With so much going on in the guitar and bass market during this remarkable decade Fender decided to take a third look at their Precision bass and came up with what has become the definitive version. The headstock was enlarged for sonic reasons (the upsized Telecaster shape left a dead spot on the upper string) and mimicked the Stratocaster, the cover plates changed shape, the controls and jack socket were mounted on the scratchplate but most importantly the bass was now equipped with an impressive split-coil pickup.

This offset design cleverly presented seperate coils for the bottom two strings and for the upper two strings and each string vibrated between a pair of pole pieces. The result was a much fatter sound than the earlier versions and clarity of sound that appealed to all. This is the P-Bass sound as we know and love it and the one that has appeared on countless thousands of recordings right up to the present day!

So within this remarkable short period of time America had introduced some of the most enduring and copied guitar and bass designs. However things were also happening in Europe during these fabulous fifties..

 

 

The History Of The Electric Bass part 3: A UK perspective

February 28, 2012, 15:07 UTC

Back in the 1950s walking into a musical instrument shop was a very different experience than it is today. Many of the instruments would be secondhand and there would be a rather limited choice.

Most guitars would be acoustic bodied, some with pickups and a few solids but rarely a bass in sight. No walls of Fender or Gibson guitars, in fact no American guitars at all, as the trade embargo between America and Britain was still very much in place following the end of World War II so buying American instruments in the UK was next to impossible.

That's why Hank Marvin's Stratocaster, brought in by a military friend of Cliff Richard, was such a revelation to the emerging rock culture of players over here. With the country still in the grip of economic restrictions most of the available guitars and basses came from Europe and two names stood out from the crowd, Hofner and Framus.

As both companies had been making instruments for many years their quality of build was good. The popular bass models at the time were the Framus Star Bass (pictured above right) and the Hofner 500/1 or Violin Bass as it is more commonly known, with both being introduced in 1956.

Jet Harris used the Framus with The Drifters and The Shadows, Licorice Locking with The Wildcats, Heinz Burt, who worked for producer Joe Meek and then with The Tornadoes, John Gustafson with the Big Three and Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman.

 

Early Star Basses had a chromed metal pickguard and Licorice Locking tried to avoid touching it when the guitar was plugged in. "Just in case," he says! The Hofners were very popular with several Liverpool bands and the 500/1 was soon joined by a range of hollowbody models.

Of course Paul McCartney is famous for using the Violin Bass but in the early Beatles Stu Sutcliffe was using a single cutaway Hofner 333 bass and this was also used by McCartney when he took over the bass playing duties before getting his own instrument. With relatively few basses in circulation bass strings were rather expensive so Sutcliffe took to using piano strings to replace broken ones.

Egmond instruments were also heavily imported by Rosetti Distribution and badged under the Rosetti name but although their Lucky 7 and Solid 7 guitars were popular in Britain the twin pickup Bass 7 didn't achieve anything like the same success.

Burns

Britain however was not without its own champions and in 1959 the legendary Jim Burns teamed up with Henry Weill to produce guitars and basses under the Burns-Weill name. Jim produced the bodies and necks whilst Henry took care of the electronics.

It was a short lived association that lasted about a year but during that time three different models of guitars and relevant basses became available, the Fenton, the Streamline and the Super Streamline and each bass model had a 29.5-inch scale length.

By 1960 Jim Burns was making guitars and basses under his own name and Henry continued production as Fenton Weill incorporating the name of that first guitar model. He revamped the Streamline and called it the Contrabass. Jim produced many different guitar models and most had a bass version too.

First up was the Artist Bass which borrowed ideas from the Fender basses that had now become available but were way too expensive for the amateur and semi-pro market. The Artist sported a twin cutaway body, a new 31.5-inch scale length and a pair of Tri-Sonic Bass pickups.

The shorter scaled and much smaller Sonic Bass followed then a whole succession of classic models were produced as the sixties progressed in spite of continued American competition. The Black Bison Bass and the Vista Sonic appeared in 1962, The hollowbody TR2 bass with innovative preamp circuitry in '63, the Jazz Bass, the Shadows Bass, the Nu-Sonic Bass in '64, and the Vibraslim Bass around 1965.

The problem was Jim Burns just couldn't stop inventing so whilst Fender was essentially consolidating its Precision and Jazz models because they worked, Jim just couldn't seem to stop and that costs money.

Backline

Almost as difficult as finding a bass guitar was finding amplification and dedicated bass models were rare indeed. In the mid 1950s, electronic wiz Charlie Watkins was producing amplifiers and by 1956 three models were available, The Clubman, the Dominator and the Westminster.

Although crude by today's standards they were well made and relatively well priced but sadly not much use with bass. Also very popular in Britain at this time were Selmer amps which they sold in their prestigious shop in London's Charing Cross Road.

Initially the company had imported amplifiers from America made by the Operadio Company but in 1935 they began making their own. In 1947 Selmer bought out RSA amplification to expand the business and in the mid fifties began producing the Truvoice combo.

Hank and Bruce of the Drifters/Shadows were using these whilst Jet had a Pepe Rush purpose built bass amp and cabinet until the introduction of Vox Amplification, designed by Dick Denney and made by Jennings Musical Industries.

The band commenced using the Vox AC15 for both guitar and bass but when they needed more power to overcome the volume of screaming fans the Vox AC30 was developed and a British legend was born. The AC30 also had a bass version with a slightly modified circuit and more powerful speakers.

For the average bass player in the street however these amplifiers were still expensive so no wonder that during the fifties Skiffle era, bass players were forced into making the tea-chest bass. Licorice Locking used one of these when he was with The Vagabonds but it was Jim Rodford (Later of Argent and The Kinks fame) who was the real crack hand on the tea-chest bass but in most instances all you got was a dull tuneless thud but it still added to the overall sound.

The bass guitar led to players like Mo Foster resorting to some home construction with the help of Practical Wireless magazine but for many of us an easier route was to use the general purpose Linear Conchord Amplifier and a homemade speaker cabinet.

As the 1960s progressed and pop music was embraced by one and all, American equipment dominated the bass market and although higher priced than the European and home grown equivalents they had the looks, the feel and the sound that held the most appeal.

But this was a very interesting time for gear in the UK and much of these early guitars, basses and amplifiers have become very collectable and in cases like the Hofner Violin Bass and even the curious Vox Phantom Bass, are still very much in demand.

 

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