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
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.
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.”