An original Audio-Vox electric bass. Photo courtesy of Peter
Blecha. This copyrighted image is used with permission.
It certainly wouldn’t be hyperbole to call the
electric bass guitar “ubiquitous.” Bass guitars
are found at virtually all points of the globe,
and are used in almost all forms of music.
So how did we get here?
The question we are concerned with is how
we got to the first electric bass guitar—the
“Spanish-style” instrument that’s played on
its side, across the body, rather than upright.
The bass guitar is a major leap in evolution
from the upright bass. Without the bass guitar,
there would be no McCartney, Entwistle,
Flea, or Claypool. In last month’s column,
we looked at the 1930s and the earliest
attempts to electrify the bass. The instruments
we looked at were all modeled on the
upright bass viol—the doghouse.
Who was the first guy to say, “A bass, electrified,
doesn’t really need a resonant body.
We could make a bass out of a solid plank
of wood and string it up with a fretted guitar
neck”? The common answer to that question
would be Leo Fender. The Precision
bass, a fretted, solidbody instrument, was
introduced in 1951 and is perhaps one of
Fender’s greatest gifts to music. He perfected
this new instrument.
Notice I say perfected
. Leo Fender was not a
great inventor, but he was a great innovator,
meaning he took existing items and made
changes to them that enhanced their performance.
There’s a sizable cabal of writers, collectors,
and historians who devote their time
to finding specific origins of “where Leo got
But enough pontification. Do you want to
know who invented the electric bass guitar?
(All three words must be present to win.)
Here’s the answer: Paul Tutmarc.
And here’s the story: In the 1930s, Seattle
had a thriving music scene made up of mostly
amateur players interested in the latest
styles of jazz, country, Hawaiian, and gospel
music. This scene coincided with the advent
of electric instruments. Peter Blecha, former
curator of the Experience Music Project,
also located in Seattle, has spent decades
chronicling the people, the music, and the
businesses involved in this scene. In the early
’80s, Peter began sharing his historical findings
and memorabilia with the public. At an
exhibit he was approached by a gentleman
by the name of Tutmarc, who said his father
invented the electric guitar.
As it turns out, the man was Bud Tutmarc,
the son of Paul Tutmarc, who had been a
musician in Seattle in the 1930s. Bud had a
stack of photos showing his family playing
early electric instruments. In one of the photos,
Bud’s mother was playing an odd four-stringed
Blecha had heard rumors of an electric
instrument maker from Seattle in the 1930s,
but here was proof. Over the next few years,
he kept in touch with Bud Tutmarc and
kept his eyes and ears open for examples
of these phantom instruments. In 1990, he
came across an example of one of the lap
steels—it bore the Audio-Vox brand and said
“Seattle” on it. Connecting the dots, Blecha
realized Bud Tutmarc had been telling the
truth. Now with something real to look for,
Blecha began scouring Pacific Northwest
shops, eventually finding more Audio-Vox
instruments. Over the years he accumulated
a nice little stash.
One day in 1997, Blecha got a call from the
owner of a junk shop he frequently bought
from. The owner said he had another Audio-
Vox, but an odd one—one with only four
strings. Light bulbs went off in Blecha’s
head and he ran to the shop. It was the first
Audio-Vox bass to have surfaced, and the
earliest known example of the electric solidbody
Dating from 1936, the Audio-Vox bass is
made out of black walnut. Technically, it
is a neck-through construction with wings
glued onto the body. The pickup is a dual-coil
horseshoe, wired for hum canceling
(that’s right—a humbucker). The bass has a
30 5/16" scale with a fretted fingerboard.
Fretted, solid, Spanish-style, electric. What
more do you want?
Blecha says the bass plays and sounds like
an electric bass, just as you would imagine.
Today, the bass has its home at the
Experience Music Project. You can hear
it for yourself at empsfm.org
Wallace Marx Jr.
Wallace Marx Jr. is the author of Gibson Amplifiers,
1933–2008: 75 Years of the Gold Tone
. He is a lifelong
musician and has worked in all corners of the music
industry. He is currently working on a history of the Valco
Company. He is a children’s tour guide at the Museum of
Making Music, a struggling surfer, and he once hung out
with Joe Strummer.