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Revisiting the ’60s: Precision or Jazz?

At the 2010 Orlando Guitar Show, a reader named Thom asked me this question: What is a better bass, a 1960s Precision or a 1960s Jazz bass? To me that is akin to asking, “Who would you rather date, Marisa Tomei or Julia Roberts?” I told Thom either is a great choice, and the next thing I knew, I was having a roundtable discussion on the differences between the two basses.

To understand the differences, we need to consider the following:

1. What are the differences within each model?
2. What are the similarities between the two models?
3. What are the differences between the two models?
4. What are the objectives of use for each model?

This information is based upon my 35+ years of experience with these instruments. Your individual style may yield a different result. This discussion will center around 1960 through 1967 model years, though we won’t be discussing all the minor nuances.

Differences Within the Models
Like automobile makers of the era, Fender always seemed to make slight changes, and the occasional large change, between the model years. In my opinion, the tone of a great bass begins at the neck, with many little nuances adding up to a major change in tone. The Precision bass, in particular, always seemed to have tweaks made to the neck dimensions. From 1960 to the middle of 1962, you had the slightly rounded, mid-sized neck profile. From later 1962 to mid 1963, the neck seemed to gain some girth. In later 1963 through mid 1964, you had the “wide and flat” profile, which is my personal favorite. The standard round C neck followed in 1965, and remained through the early ’70s. The Jazz bass experienced some structural changes through these years, but the neck dimensions remained somewhat static until the block marker introduction in 1966.

With all Fender models, the early ’60s brought the “slab board” fretboard, as opposed to the “veneer board,” which was introduced in mid 1962. The slab board was a thick piece of rosewood that joined the neck on a flat plane; the veneer board was thinner and joined the neck on a curved plane. Clay fretboard dots were standard until the middle of 1964, when pearl dots arrived. Fret wire also grew in size through the years.

One of the other sizable changes, in my opinion, came with the switch from black to gray bobbin pickups. The black bobbin pickups seemed to have a warmer “Jamerson” type of tone, where the gray bobbins seemed more middy and focused. Some of the best pickups ever made were the hot and middy 1966 pickups. The combination of pickups and neck profiles seem to really define the personality of each individual bass, whether it is a P or a J.

Lastly, the one other big change for both models was the switch away from a nitro-based finished to a poly-based finish. This started as early as 1966, and again, in my opinion, makes a huge difference in tone.

Differences Between the Models
The biggest differences between Precision and Jazz basses are the neck profile and the pickup configuration. No one will ever mistake one neck for the other. The Jazz bass neck measures roughly 1 9/16" at the nut. The profile is slim and gradually tapers outward as you go down the neck. This neck is fast and comfortable without being Vox-like skinny. The Precision neck is roughly 1 3/4" at the nut and has a somewhat fast neck, but in a different way—think of a Porsche 911 versus a Chevelle SS.

When it comes to the pickup configuration, the Precision takes the ease-of-use trophy. It has two bobbins working together as one pickup, and features Master Volume and Tone controls. The Jazz bass has two pickups, two Volumes, and a Tone control. By changing the volume of one pickup on a Jazz bass, you will dramatically change the tone of the bass. Lastly, on an aesthetic point, the Jazz bass body has an “offset waist,” and quite frankly, may be the best-looking electric bass ever made.

Similarities Between the Models
Both the P and J basses share a lot of construction similarities and mutual hardware. The tuners, neck plate, bridge, and pots are the same across models. The body wood is usually ash or alder, although I have on rare occasions seen mahogany or other mystery woods. The neck is maple with a glued-on rosewood fretboard, and the neck is joined to the body with four screws and a neck plate embossed with the serial number.

The Objectives of Use
The bottom line is that these are both “Swiss Army” basses—either bass can get down low or be played funky. If you are looking for a ’60s Fender bass, there is no wrong answer. For me, I’m a rockin’ pocket player, and 99 percent of the time I’m using a Precision bass. I love the low end and ballsy tone that only a good old beat up P bass can give. Ben, my business partner, is a dyed-in- the-wool Jazz bass player. He goes out of the pocket and does a lot of funk and groove work. In reality, the biggest difference between the two basses is the neck profile. Some folks just can’t get around on a Precision, while others find the Jazz neck too skinny, and that’s usually the decision maker.

Both of these basses can offer you a lifetime of enjoyment. In my opinion, for great straight tone and ease of use, nothing beats a ’60s Precision. For a little bit more pizzazz and tonal versatility (with a touch less low end), go for the Jazz. When faced with a ’63 Precision and a ’63 Jazz in Olympic White, I’m robbing a bank to buy them both.

Kevin Borden

Kevin Borden has been a bass player since 1975 and is currently the principle and co-owner, with “Dr.” Ben Sopranzetti, of Kebo’s Bass Works: He can be reached at: Feel free to call him KeBo.