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Escape From the Dog House: Fender's Bass Revolution

August 19, 2009

Leo Fender in 1973 with a ‘58 Precision Bass. Photo © Robb Lawrence, 2009.

This story is excerpted and adapted from How the Fender Bass Changed the World. Hal leonard publications are available at bookstores nationwide or at musicdispatch.com
When Leo Fender invented the instrument he called a Precision Bass, he had modest goals. As he later told music journalist Tom Wheeler, “We needed to free the bass player from the big doghouse, the acoustic bass. That thing was usually confined to the back of the band, and the bass player couldn’t get up to the mic to sing. And … guitar players would have an advantage if they could have an instrument with frets that would make doubling on bass easier for them.”

Although there were some predecessors, including electric upright “stick” basses that first appeared in the 1920s, Leo Fender invented the first commercially successful electric bass guitar. It was introduced in 1951, but its acceptance was by no means a sure thing. The history of music is littered with new instruments that were either ignored or played for only a short time before being discarded.

Leo Fender was not a musician, but he always listened closely to the musicians who were his customers and friends. After hearing guitarists complain that they could not double on stand-up bass—the instrument required very different technique—he began to ponder a solution. Leo had already built and marketed the Broadcaster guitar, later known as the Telecaster. So he decided that all he had to do was take the idea of a solidbody electric guitar and make it bigger.


A very early Precision Bass (Serial Number 0837). Photo courtesy of Rick Gould.
Fender Unleashes the Precision Bass
The original Precision Bass was somewhat like a big Telecaster (although the Telecaster Bass, a throwback to Leo’s 1951 design, didn’t come along until 1968). It had a square-sided ash body and a bolt-on maple neck. Figuring out how long to make the neck was one of the more challenging problems. There are varying stories, but however Leo did it, 34” was anuncannily good choice. It has proven to be the most common scale length for four-string electric basses ever since.

Leo chose the name “Precision Bass” largely because the instrument was fretted and therefore had more precise intonation than an upright with its fretless fingerboard. Fender historian Richard R. Smith says the name also refers to the “precise” (focused) tone of the instrument and the accuracy of the Fender factory’s machines.

The prototype had tuning machines adapted from an upright and steel-wrapped gut strings. (For the production instruments, Fender ordered flatwound steel strings from the V.C. Squier Company.) Because the body was so large, Leo gave it double cutaways for better balance, creating a shape that foreshadowed his 1953 design for the Stratocaster guitar.

The pickup was a simple single-coil design, with one polepiece directly below each string. There were two knurled control knobs: volume and tone. Anticipating that musicians would pluck the strings with their thumb, Leo mounted a finger rest below the strings on the large black plastic pickguard. The bridge had two saddles made of pressed fiber. Chrome covers concealed both the pickup and the bridge. These were not merely decorative: the pickup cover provided electronic shielding, and the bridge cover contained a rubber string mute. The mute deadened the sound to produce short, thumping notes that mimicked the sound of an upright.

The second part of the equation was the amplifier. Leo quickly determined that his guitar amps could not handle the low frequencies his new bass generated. So he set to work creating a new amp, which became the original Fender Bassman. “Especially designed for bass reproduction” (as the advertisements said), the original Bassman had a single Jensen 15” speaker and a 26-watt tube amp that could produce a reasonable bass sound at low to medium volumes.

The P-Bass Makes a Run For It
Leo Fender hoped that his new bass would be used by guitarists in country-western music (his favorite style), but few country musicians showed any interest in it. One exception was Joel Price, who reportedly bought the first Precision Bass sent to Nashville and played it at the Grand Ole Opry in 1952. Oddly, one of the first musicians to adopt the Fender bass was jazz vibraphonist and bandleader Lionel Hampton. In early 1952, Hampton got a Precision Bass from Leo and told his bassist, Roy Johnson, to play it. A few other jazz, jump, and R&B bassists tried it, but the instrument remained something of a curiosity.

That began to change in 1957, when Elvis Presley’s bassist, Bill Black, played a Precision Bass on “Jailhouse Rock,” which rose to No. 3 on the Billboard Pop chart and was probably the first major hit with an electric bass. Three years later, Nokie Edwards gave the punchy sound of the P-Bass a big boost onthe Ventures’ hit instrumental “Walk—Don’t Run.” (Edwards, originally the group’s bassist, later switched to lead guitar.) The tune was highly influential among 1960s California surf bands, many of which were equipped top to bottom with matching Fender instruments. In a 1997 Vintage Guitar article, Peter Stuart Kohman wrote: “You can’t really imagine surf music without a Fender bass—this is not true of any earlier rock & roll style. During this era, the bass guitar went from optional to essential equipment and set up the electric bass for its dominant role in the British Invasion, folk-rock, and all that followed.”

The Fender bass was also making inroads in the recording studio—especially in the hands of two converted guitarists, Carol Kaye and Joe Osborn. Kaye had picked up a Precision Bass in 1963 when the contracted bassist didn’t show up for a Capitol Records session in Los Angeles. She soon realized that a guitarist who doubled on Fender bass could get more work, just as Leo Fender had hoped.

Kaye’s skill as a sightreader, combined with the tape-friendly sound she got by playing with a pick, soon made her much in demand as a session bassist. Her early work included pop hits like “Spanish Eyes” by Al Martino and “Whipped Cream” by Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. By 1965, she was the first-call bassist in L.A. Her strong playing was featured on dozens of tracks made by famed producers Phil Spector and Quincy Jones, and her studio log includes the Beach Boys, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, Simon & Garfunkel, and a bevy of Motown groups.

Joe Osborn also became a bass player out of necessity. He explained it this way to music journalist Chris Jisi: “Roy Buchanan and I were playing guitar in Bob Luhman’s band at the Showboat Hotel in Las Vegas in 1959. While we were there, we borrowed an electric bass and Roy started playing it, since Bob liked the way I played his country licks. Later, Bob added a female vocalist who sang a lot of pop standards; I didn’t know all the chords, so I told Roy he’d have to come back to guitar. I went down to the local music store and bought a Precision Bass. The next night, I was the bass player—same amp, same settings, same pick and technique. I played it just like I played the guitar.”

Osborn’s approach gave him a distinct advantage over other bassists. “Eventually, I realized that my bass, played with a pick, had its own frequency space. Instead of competing with the kick drum at the very bottom, there was more of a blend. Plus it held up on any kind of record.… There was an attitude about it, a certain tone that you couldn’t lose.”




1966 Jazz Bass. Photo courtesy of Rick Gould.
The Jazz Bass Joins the Pack
Joe was hired to play in Rick Nelson’s band, where he was introduced to a new Fender model. “We were going on an Australian tour with Ricky in 1960, and Fender wanted us to take their equipment,” Osborn recalled. “I asked for a Concert, which was their biggest amp, and a bass, thinking they made only the Precision. When they sent the Jazz Bass instead, I was pretty annoyed—but I fell in love with it because the thinner neck was perfect for my short fingers.”

Leo Fender had decided to keep the Precision as his only bass during the 1950s, preferring to improve it rather than introduce anothermodel. (A ’57 Precision Bass was different in many important ways from its ’51 predecessor, yet it carried the same name.) Leo finally changed his mind, probably with some prodding from the company’s sales office.

The Fender Jazz Bass was developed in 1959 and introduced the following year. Its name was intended to send the message that this new instrument was a “high-end” model for advanced players (or at least ones who liked to play fast), because it had a slim neck that was narrow at the nut: only 1 7/16” compared to 1 3/4” on a Precision. Of course, most jazz bassists played the upright—which has a much bigger neck than the P-Bass. The Jazz Bass also had a more elaborate two-pickup configuration and a sleek, offset body shape. As it turned out, it would not be used by a notable jazz player for quite a few years—when a guy named Jaco came along—but it was adopted by many rock and R&B bassists.

Armed with his Jazz Bass, Osborn built a reputation as an innovative player who always got a great sound on tape. By 1963 he was a top L.A. session man, and he would contribute his distinctive tone and creative fills to a long string of hit songs by the Mamas & the Papas, the Carpenters, Johnny Rivers, Glen Campbell, and many others.

While Carol Kaye, Joe Osborn, and the surf bands were sending their low-end messages from California, the range of expression made possible by the Fender bass was also being explored by a bassist working anonymously in a small studio in Detroit: James Jamerson. Unlike Kaye and Osborn, he was not a converted guitarist. After dabbling with the piano as a child, Jamerson studied acoustic bass in high school. He was a quick learner, and before long he was playing jazz and trying to emulate such heroes as Paul Chambers and Ray Brown. Jamerson’s ability as a club musician came to the attention of several local producers, including Motown’s Berry Gordy, and he began to get calls for session work.


James Jamerson. Photo from the Phil Chen Archives.
Jamerson Teaches the Old Dog New Tricks
Jamerson started to work for Motown in 1959. At first he played upright, but even on the “big doghouse” his approach was dramatically different from that of other bassists. Allan “Dr. Licks” Slutsky, the author of the authoritative Jamerson biography, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, described his early style: “Gone were the stagnant two-beat, root-fifth patterns and post-‘Under the Boardwalk’ clichéd bass lines that occupied the bottom end of most R&B releases. Jamerson had modified them or replaced them with chromatic passing tones, Ray Brownstyle walking bass lines, and syncopated eighth-note figures—all of which previously had been unheard-of in popular music in the late ’50s and early ’60s.”

Sometime in 1961, Jamerson began to play a Precision Bass after a fellow bassist, Horace “Chili” Ruth, urged him to try it.Resistant at first, James eventually decided he liked the Fender well enough to use it in the studio. You can hear Jamerson’s unique style begin to emerge on Marvin Gaye’s “Pride and Joy,” which was released in April 1963. Although most of his part is based on a standard blues pattern, it builds and develops throughout, as if the song were a two-minute bass concerto (and the singer isn’t bad, either).

Jamerson’s style continued to evolve, and Motown’s producers gave him increasing freedom to shape his parts. He took full advantage of the opportunity. As Slutsky explained it: “Through 1965, James probably had the funkiest and most melodic eighth-note bass style in the universe, but for some reason toward the end of the year, he exploded in a completely new direction. Sixteenth-notes, quarter-note triplets, open-string techniques, dissonant non-harmonic pitches, and syncopations off the 16th seemed to enter into his style almost overnight... Out of nowhere, James started playing almost as if he was the featured soloist.”

Because it was heard on so many hit records, Jamerson’s playing reached the ears (and feet) of millions. It helped to break down the barrier that supposedly separated Pop (white) music from R&B (black) music and changed the course of popular music. There were many reasons for Motown’s success, but much credit must go to James Jamerson and his ’62 Precision Bass, known as “The Funk Machine.”


Paul McCartney at the United Center, Chicago, IL (Oct. 18, 2005). Photo by Dan Locke, Frank White Photo Agency.
Britain’s New Breed
As Jamerson was developing his virtuosic style, Paul McCartney was listening closely— although being an innovative bassist wasn’t what he had in mind when the Beatles were formed. In 1961, they were a quintet with Stu Sutcliffe on bass. “None of us wanted to be the bass player,” Paul later admitted to interviewer Tony Bacon. “In our minds, it was the fat guy in the group who nearly always played the bass, and he stood at the back.” But after Sutcliffe quit the band, Paul was drafted to play bass— mostly because his guitar was broken.

He was left-handed, which was a problem. Southpaw production basses were rare in the early ’60s, and most righthanded models looked and felt odd when flipped over. McCartney found the solution in an inexpensive German-made bass, the Hofner 500/1 with its symmetrical violin-shaped body. It quickly became his signature instrument.

McCartney’s early bass work was solid if unremarkable, but by early 1964 the influence of James Jamerson began to show in lines that were becoming more melodic and rhythmically adventurous. Another important influence was Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. “The band might be playing in C, but [Wilson’s] bass might stay on the G just to hold it all back,” Paul explained. “I started to realize the power the bass player had within the band.”

It all came together for him during the Beatles’ great creative outburst of 1965 to 1967—when they recorded Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. McCartney was given a lefthanded Rickenbacker 4001S in 1965, and when Sgt. Pepper was recorded, the Rick had become his primary bass. By then, his playing had progressed to the point where he felt confident enough to try some radical experiments. “I was thinking maybe I could even run a little tune through the chords that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Maybe I can have an independent melody? Sgt. Pepper ended up being my strongest thing on bass— the independent melodies. On ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,’ for example, you could easily have had root notes, whereas I was running an independent melody through it and that became my thing. It’s really only a way of getting from C to F or whatever, but you get there in an interesting way.”

Paul’s great playing on Sgt. Pepper was highlighted by production that put the sound of his instrument front and center. As Abbey Road engineer Geoff Emerick explained to Howard Massey, the bass on Sgt. Pepper was isolated on its own track and recorded by miking the amp rather than using a direct input (DI) or a mix of amp plus DI. “With the studio empty, you could actually hear a little bit of the room ambiance around the bass, which seemed to help,” said Emerick. “The other thing I used to do when I was mixing—and [previous Beatles’ engineer] Norman Smith taught me this—was that the last instrument you bring in is the bass. So, at least through Pepper, everything was mixed without hearing the bass. I used to bring everything to –2 on the VU meter and then bring the bass in and make it go to 0, so it meant the bass was 2dB louder than anything [else]; it was way out in front, the loudest thing on the record.”

Paul McCartney’s musical brilliance, highlighted by sympathetic production, gave his bass the dominant role on what was probably the most important rock recording of the 1960s. Sixteen years after Leo Fender had decided he wanted to free bass players from “the big doghouse,” his new instrument had transformed popular music and opened up a world of creative expression for the musicians who would follow.


How The Fender Bass Changed The World  By Jim Roberts
(HL#330737, $27.95)
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