The early days of electric bass are explored
This metal-bodied Rickenbacker (c. 1935) and wood-bodied Vega (late ’30s) improved playability and provided the ability to transmit sound electrically, but still struggled to compete with the big-band sounds of the day due to inadequate amplification systems. Photos courtesy Lynn Wheelwright, Origins Collection
Watching We Jam Econo, a great documentary on punk pioneers the Minutemen, it got me thinking about bass. Mike Watt, the band’s bassist, played some seriously mean riffs on his 4-string, but according to the movie, the first time he saw a Fender Precision in the store, the thickness of the strings, the length of the neck, and the imposing mass of the whole instrument scared the snot out of him.
We don’t talk about bass much around here—it is, after all, called Premier Guitar for a reason. But it’s a solid fact that a lot of our gigs would be a lot less groovy without the thumping low end of the guitar’s 4-string brethren. As anyone who reads this column knows, I like to get the story straight, especially when it comes to history. Knowing that a lot of guitarists—and even bassists—out there think that electric bass goes back about as far as Leo Fender’s workbench in 1951, I thought we’d take a couple of columns to see just what life was like before Leo made it “easy” to pump out the low end.
Throughout the years between the turn of the 20th century and World War II, American music evolved from basically European-rooted dance music to being very simplified, downbeat-centric, and influenced by colloquial and provincial styles. That’s a massive oversimplification, but we’re getting somewhere with it. The two main American musical forms, jazz and blues, both cropped up during this period as well, and each relied heavily on syncopated rhythms driven by percussion, low-register brass, or stringed instruments. By the late 1920s, a jazz band could have either a tuba or a bass viol pumping out rhythm, sometimes both. The tuba began to drop in popularity to the bass viol in the early 1930s. The growing country music genre in particular eschewed the brass-band feel of the tuba for the down-home thump of the bass viol. Musicians in the jazz world also began to migrate to the viol for its playability in comparison to the brass behemoth.
Almost as soon as this migration took place, the limitations of the bass viol in a modern band setting became apparent. The foremost issue was volume, but the second issue was playability. Even if it was easier to thump walking lines on a viol, the size of the neck and strings made it a specialty instrument that only a small portion of the playing population could handle. Then, as now, most guitar players wouldn’t touch the thing. Beyond that, string basses don’t crank out the volume. Even in comparison to an unamplified archtop guitar, the viol is but a whisper. Put it next to a drum kit or a banjo and it’s lost. Builders and inventors immediately set out to find a way to make the string bass louder and more accessible to a wider range of players.
In the 1930s, electric amplification was a new thing. Seeing the success of electrically amplified guitars, violins, and banjos, builders looked at ways to do the same thing for bass. To address playability, a number of builders attempted to make bass instruments that utilized a standard, fretted neck and fretboard. Gibson, among others, experimented with oversized tenor guitars and mandolins. These instruments were somewhat easier to play, but lacked volume, and their tone didn’t impress either.
On the flip side, other builders stayed with the traditional bass viol neck and fingerboard, but looked at ways of improving volume. Displayed here are two very early examples of the electric upright bass, courtesy of Lynn Wheelwright, who is the owner and curator of the Origins Collection of early electric instruments. Both feature a streamlined body, traditional-size bass viol neck, and early electro-magnetic pickups. The metal bass is a Rickenbacker circa 1935. The wood bass is from Vega and was available in the very late 1930s.
“The Rick uses gut strings with a ferrousmetal wire wrapped around the string where it passes through the horseshoe magnets,” explains Wheelwright, an expert on early pickup technology. “The Vega can use any strings as it takes the vibration from the plate the bridge sets on. The plate floats on rubber grommets at each corner. Attached to the underside of the bridge plate in the center is a slim rectangular ferrous-metal rod. This rod passes through a round coil that is surrounded by horseshoeshaped, ferrous-metal pole pieces. The metal rod acts like a string as it vibrates within the coil energized by the pole pieces; a larger horseshoe magnet magnetically charges the pole pieces. The entire assembly housed under the bridge plate is adjustable so the best signal can be obtained. There were a number of variations on this theme, beginning with the Stromberg Electro—the first electrified guitar back in 1927.”
“These basses played similar to a standard upright bass, with the advantage of the streamlined body,” says Wheelwright. “Although still modeled after the viol, they were at least a known evil. The major limitation was in the amplifiers themselves.”
Clear bass tone, even today, requires enough wattage to provide clean headroom in volume before ranging into overdriven territories. In the 1930s, few musical amplifiers ventured above 15 watts. Larger amplifiers were available, but they were generally reserved for theaters and public address systems, and large enough to fill a good-sized closet.
Throughout the 1930s, playability and volume remained the challenges in finding a true electric bass solution. Next month, we’ll see glimmers of the future as guitar, bass, and amp begin to come together.
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.
Kick off the holiday season by shopping for the guitar player in your life at Guitar Center! Now through December 24th 2022, save on exclusive instruments, accessories, apparel, and more with hundreds of items at their lowest prices of the year.
We’ve compiled this year’s best deals in the 2022 Holiday Gift Guide presented by Guitar Center.
Looking for a compact, “noiseless” way to plug in and play guitar? Check out the brand-new Gibson Digital Amp, available only in the Gibson App.
The new Gibson App simplifies the learning process and brings guitar playing to life for the current and next generation of guitarists in a modern, comprehensive, and intuitive way. The Gibson App is the place to take your guitar playing to the next level. New to the Gibson App is the Gibson Digital Amp, the ultimate starting amplifier for beginners and a flexible amp on-the-go for intermediate players and pros to get their sound anywhere. The Gibson Digital Amp is an accessible amplifier for both acoustic and electric guitars, and is currently available for Apple/iOS users--an Android version will debut next year.
Use the Gibson Digital Amp’s jamming guide to get started and transform your sound with built-in effects and pedals, jam to backing tracks, or use it in lessons and songs. The Gibson Digital Amp only requires your phone, and wired headphones for the best playing experience, no cables are needed. The amp features 3 acoustic mic presets, 4 electric amp presets, and 6 effects pedals.
The Gibson Digital Amp is the ultimate starting amplifier for beginners and a flexible amp on-the-go for intermediates and pros.
The Gibson App uses a unique two-way, interactive platform to teach guitar students how to do everything from playing their first note to shredding loads of songs. The Gibson App features interactive lessons with thousands of lessons and songs. Learn the songs step-by-step with video tutorials from superstar artists and pro guitarists in the “Gibson App Guide.” The Gibson App also includes the new Digital Amp, a built-in tuner, a metronome, Gibson TV, and new songs are added every week. New Gibson App Guides are added regularly and include Tommy “Spaceman” Thayer’s favorite iconic KISS guitar solos, Richie Faulkner’s (Judas Priest) “Guide to Metal,” Jared James Nichols’ “Guide to Blues,” CELISSE’s “Guide to Songwriting,” and more.
The Gibson App uses “audio augmented reality” to provide dynamic feedback to students as they learn and play. As you pluck a note or strum a chord, the Gibson App listens to your guitar and gives you real-time feedback on your playing. It also gives students a more contextual learning experience: Instead of learning chords and scales in a vacuum, you’re able to practice on a scrolling tablature that lets you hear how you sound with the backing of a virtual band. That means you can load up “Hurt” by Johnny Cash, “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, “American Girl" by Tom Petty, “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica, “Where is My Mind" by Pixies, “Country Roads” by John Denver, “I Hate Myself For Loving You" by Joan Jett, “Heaven” by Kane Brown, “Shape Of You” by Ed Sheeran, “Killer Queen” by Queen,“ Sweet Child O’ Mine,” by Guns ‘N Roses, “Run to the Hills” by Iron Maiden, “Roxanne” by The Police, and “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “The Man Who Sold the World” by Nirvana, “Are You Gonna Go My Way” by Lenny Kravitz, and “Don't Look Back In Anger” by Oasis and hundreds more songs in a wide range of genres, to see how your play matches up with such seminal tracks.
As you’re playing, the Gibson App gives you feedback on timing and tone, ensuring that students are getting active input on how their play is developing. The Gibson App appeals to players of all levels, it’s not just for beginners looking to learn a few chords; the app can assist seasoned guitarists who are working their way through difficult riffs, want to learn their favorite songs, or polish their advanced techniques.
Players can also challenge themselves by speeding up or slowing the tabs. Like having a full-time guitar teacher, the Gibson App keeps track of all your progress and adjusts lesson plans accordingly. The Gibson App released a “backing track mode” which supports both lesson and song playback without headphones, so users can self-select what works best for their current environment. And that’s not all: the Gibson App also packs in a fully-featured digital tuner for guitar first-timers, there’s even a detailed lesson on how to tune your instrument, a multi-function metronome, players can connect to free one-on-one consultations with Gibson’s Virtual Guitar Tech team, and to direct links to the Gibson, Epiphone, and Kramer online stores for easy shopping for guitars, gear, apparel, and accessories.
Learn Guitar With The Gibson App
The Gibson App is more than a pocket-sized guitar teacher, it’s loaded with an archive of exclusive content and original programming from its premium and accessible award-winning online network, Gibson TV, featuring music icons telling their best guitar stories, with more episodes and installments added regularly. Users can watch Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi share insights and tales from his decades-long career on the series “Icons,” dive into Joe Bonamassa’s assortment of legendary Les Paul guitars on “The Collection,” or see how Gibson’s iconic instruments are made in their Nashville factory from body to binding on “The Process.” There’s even a series called “The Scene” that focuses on backstage stories from hallowed music venues from coast to coast like The Troubadour and Grand Ole Opry.
The Gibson App free version features a few lessons a day; the premium version of the Gibson App offers full access and a 14-day free trial, then costs $19.99/£16.49 monthly or $119.99/£98.99 yearly.
For more information, please visit gibson.com.
This pickup captures the clear, bell-like single-coil chime of a classic P-90 when played clean and retains the tight mids and articulate low-end vintage growl and smooth sustain saturation when pushed into overdrive.
Belltone Guitars, as part of their Custom-Select System curated offering of pickups, has partnered McNelly pickups to create a one-of-a-kind retro-vibe P-90 pickup in the standard Filtertron size format. This pickup captures the clear, bell-like single-coil chime of a classic P-90 when played clean and retains the tight mids and articulate low-end vintage growl, and smooth sustain saturation when pushed into overdrive.
The McNelly P-90 Foil-Coil comes housed in a ‘raw’ nickel outer casing with a dull nickel foil face with metal mount screw gromets to complete the ‘new-vintage’ aesthetic, making it a perfect choice for your signature Belltone custom build. Available exclusively through Belltone Guitars.
Check out the Custom-Select System belltoneguitars.com to preview the McNelly P-90 Foil-Trons and all our standard and selectable components available to create your own signature Belltone. Then visit the Dream Lab on our website and select either model B-Classic ONE with its top binding or B-Classic TWO with its arm and body contours select your body color from our wide range of offerings, select your neck profile of either standard ‘C’ or thicker ’59 Round Back and either Maple or Rosewood fingerboard followed by your tuners, pickguard, and strings. Finally, review our curated custom-designed, and unique pickup selection to locate the McNelly P-90 Foil-Trons to complete your signature build.
Builds start at just over $2,300.00 with a custom case and shipping included.
For more information, please visit belltoneguitars.com.
McNelly P 90 Foil Tron video Sep27
Belltone P-90 Foil-Tron Pickup
DiMarzio, Inc. announces the Relentless P (DP299), the Relentless J Bridge (DP301), Relentless J Neck (DP300), and the Relentless J Pair (DP302) for 4 string basses.
DiMarzio, Inc. announces the release of the Relentless P (DP299), the Relentless J Bridge (DP301), Relentless J Neck (DP300), and the Relentless J Pair (DP302) for 4 string basses. The new Relentless P and Relentless J series pickups feature the Relentless cover designed in collaboration with Billy Sheehan.
As with the Relentless pickups, we removed all the hard edges from the standard P Bass and standard J Basspickups, and added an arch to the top of the pickups to bring the sensing coils and pole pieces closer to the strings. These improvements increase the dynamic range and make active circuitry unnecessary.
The Relentless P and Relentless J pickups incorporate Neodymium magnets and produce 70 percent more output than traditional passive pickups, and they’re dead quiet due to the incorporation of metal covers and foil-shielded cables. To dial in (or fine-tune) the individual string output, the Relentless P and Relentless J include eight adjustable pole pieces. These pickups also have a broad magnetic field so you can even bend notes without volume dropout.
DiMarzio’s extra shielding makes the Relentless P and Relentless J better for both recording and stage performances. We’ve mounted them onto robust .09375” thick circuit board base plates to eliminate the annoying protruding mounting screws — ultimately creating a more comfortable and consistent foundation to rest your fingers on.
The new Relentless P steps beyond the traditional P-Bass sound and can only be described as massive. It has more of everything: more volume, beefier lows, a growling midrange, and crispy highs with better individual string definition.
The Relentless J incorporates a new invention, (patent pending) parallelogram-shaped coils, offering an expanded mid-range punch, snappy highs, precise lows, and a new dimension to the sound of the Relentless series pickups.
Relentless P and Relentless J pickups will breathe new life into any bass, increase playability, and work well for any style of music from Motown to metal.
DiMarzio’s Relentless P, Relentless J Bridge, Relentless J Neck, and Relentless J pair are made in the U.S.A. and may now be ordered for immediate delivery.
Suggested List Price for the Relentless P is $169.00 (MAP $119.99).
Suggested List Price for the Relentless J Bridge and Relentless J neck is $155.00 (MAP $109.99).
Suggested List Price for the Relentless J Pair is $296.00 (MAP 209.99).
For more information, please visit our website at dimarzio.com.