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Bass Out Of Time

Bass Slate

The life history of the bass guitar.

Tony Bacon takes a four string trip down memory lane.

1951 Leo Fender invents and produces the world's first electric bass guitar, the Fender Precision, price $195.50. It was based on Fender's already successful Telecaster six-string, though we'd recognise the modified 1957 version with its split pickup and sculpted-like-a-Strat body as today's Precision. The Precision was well-named: it was intended to give bassists a portable, loud and precise instrument. The original had an ash body, maple neck, single pickup and two controls (volume and tone). Some of the earliest famous-ish players to use the brand new Precision regularly were jazzy bassist Roy Johnson of the Lionel Hampton Band, r'n'b mainman Duck Dunn of Booker T And The MGs, and a stetsunful of country and western bassists. The Precision's still everywhere, of course — in influence if not always in name. Steve Harris swears by them. "You bloody lovely 1971 blue sparkle finish Fender Precision," he said, for example, of his favourite.

1953 Gibson's first electric bass goes on sale, generally referred to as the EBI though it wasn't officially called that until just before it was dropped in 1958. It was of the now-famous 'violin bass' shape (though it was Hofner who actually popularised the style; see 1956). We are assured the Gibson sounds pretty dreadful by modern bass standards, but we've never played one.

1956 Hofner's copy of the Gibson Violin Bass is released, made hugely successful in the early 1960s when some bloke called Paul McCartney starts using it in his group, The Beatles (daft name, huh!).

1957 Rickenbacker launch their first electric bass, the 4000 Series. The best-known Ricky bass, the 4001, followed in the 1960s: a visually, er, distinctive mass of plastic and chrome, sounding much like an amplified drainpipe (well, how would you describe it!). Most famous player was Chris Squire of pompous 1970s art-rockers Yes.

1958 Futurama's upright electric bass is the first of its kind to go on sale in the UK. Think of a double bass, take away nearly all the wood, make it look a bit, you know, futuristic, put on a pickup, and there you have it. Other European makers have subsequently shown some interest in the upright electric, including Framus (as used by Sting on-stage with the Police).

1960 Fender's second bass guitar, the Jazz Bass, is launched. Bass players who came across it said, "Blimey, it's got two pickups, and the neck goes really narrow at the nut. "A couple of years later, they said, "Blimey, it's got three controls; a volume per pickup and an overall tone." Many, many years later, around 1986, they said, "Blimey, it's really good for slapping. Let's revive its popularity."

1961 Gibson launch their EBO single-pickup and EB3 twin-pickup basses, styled on the successful SG six-string shape and set-up (an earlier version was more Les Paul-ish). Gibson enjoyed their only moment of bass fame slightly later in the decade when Cream's Jack Bruce and Free's Andy Fraser use the instruments. Otherwise, it's polite to change the subject to six-strings if discussion of Gibson basses arises.

1962 Fender VI, the first six-string bass, introduced to a largely sceptical marketplace. It's tuned an octave below a normal six-string guitar.

1963 First active bass produced by supreme British guitar maker Burns, the TR2 Bass (TR=Transistorised). The on-board 9V battery powered an active volume, bass and treble circuit for the semi-solid bass. Alembic (see 1977) did much in the 1970s to develop the electronics, but it took the mass-producers some time to cotton on to the advantages of active basses: Fender, for example, didn't respond until 1980 (the Precision Special), while Aria's first active was the SB 1000, also launched in 1980.

1965 Fender five-string bass launched, with an extra high C-string above the normal EADG set-up. Small body, too. Well weird.

1965 The first production fretless bass made by Ampeg, the AUB1. It has a semi-solid body, with literal f-holes (ie f-shaped holes right through the Fenderesque body), and what Ampeg called the Mystery Pickup, a bridge-mounted transducer which meant no visible magnetic devices (an idea picked up in 1985 by one of the Bass Maniac models). Fender waited until 1970 to market their first official Precision fretless, but none of this stopped Jaco Pastorius heaving the frets out of his Jazz Bass to make his first fretless. And look where it got him.

1968 Fender's third bass is launched, the Telecaster Bass. A humbucker was added in 72, and the assistant editor notes that his "is a pretty shitty sounding instrument".

1972 The Music Man company is formed by ex-employees of Fender (including, interestingly enough, a certain Leo Fender), and soon after launch their Stingray Bass, a single pickup active with volume, bass and treble, and a distinctive round scratchplate. Its sound and quality are still popular (especially with slappers); the best-known user is fretless Pino Palladino.

1977 First graphite neck produced for a bass guitar by luthier Rick Turner and designer Geoff Gould of Alembic, a company formed in the late 1960s as a workshop to provide technical support for the Grateful Dead's bizarre equipment requirements, and later producing expensive, upmarket, custom guitars (mostly basses). Gould left Alembic a year later to form Modulus Graphite, producing graphite necks and other parts. Turner went on to his own Turner Guitars (these days he writes the odd review for 'Guitar Player'). Best-known Alembic players have been John Entwistle and Stanley Clarke (and you can't get much more different than that).

1980 Mark King goes shopping with his share of Level 42's advance money, looking for a Wal bass. He ends up with a Jaydee, made in Birmingham by John Diggins, which eventually becomes the Jaydee Mark King two-pickup active model (not entirely unlike an Alembic).

1982 World's first commercially-available headless bass guitar, the Steinberger Bass, is launched. Not only that, the bass was entirely made from plastic (OK, a few bits of metal too). More precisely, since you ask, the Steinberger is fashioned from a thermoset epoxy resin reinforced with glass-fibres and carbon-fibres, compression moulded in fibreglass dies. A two-octave phenolic fibre fingerboard is added separately to the resulting thing. Oh yeah — it sounds brilliant. But it costs a packet (the first UK ones a mere £950 a go). Suddenly (or rather a year or so later, which counts as 'suddenly' in the musical instrument biz), everyone and his luthier started making headless basses.

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Making Music - Copyright: Track Record Publishing Ltd, Nexus Media Ltd.


Making Music - Feb 1987

Feature by Tony Bacon

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