’50s Fenders of a Feather
This pair—a Precision bass and Stratocaster from 1959—have much in common besides their iconic status.
If any of you have delved into the history of Fender—and how can you play guitar and ignore it?—you probably know that Leo Fenderintroduced the Precision bass in late 1951, following the success of his radical electric 6-string solidbody, the Telecaster. The P bass proved to be even more groundbreaking. The new-fangled guitar-sized instrument was widely embraced by bassists and guit-pickers alike, following its early appearance in the band of jazz vibist Lionel Hampton and, in rock, in the hands of Bill Black, who used one while supporting Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock.
In 1954, the Stratocaster was developed with input from players dissatisfied with the Telecaster. Their suggestions—which included a more comfortable body shape, an adjustable bridge allowing intonation for each individual string, and a vibrato system—were incorporated. As we all know, the Strat also added a third pickup and a second tone dial, providing it with more sonic options. The model also was the first Fender with a vibrato bridge. (For a wild example of early Strat vibrato, check out the Ike Turner instrumental “Prancin’.”)
These instruments were among the last of the 1-piece-maple-neck versions. By the middle of the year, a separate rosewood fretboard would be added to most Fenders.
The lines of the P bass more closely resembled those of the Strat than the Tele. In 1968, Fender would introduce the Telecaster bass, which more directly reflected the look of its original solidbody guitar. By 1957, the P bass’ headstock fattened up a bit, becoming more like the Strat’s, although larger. The P bass also received a new split humbucking pickup to replace the original single-coil.
By 1956, Stratocasters and Precision basses switched from ash to alder bodies and were available in two-color sunburst. By ’58, both models switched to three-color sunbursts. The early 1959 Stratocaster and Precision bass we see this month both have vivid, unfaded red in their finishes. These instruments were among the last of the 1-piece-maple-neck versions. By the middle of the year, a separate rosewood fretboard would be added to most Fenders.
The headstock of the P bass was initially thinner, like that of the Telecaster, but it fattened up to more Strat-like proportions as the model’s first decade went on.
The original price for this 1959 Strat was $274.50. The current value is $40,000. And the original tag for the Precision bass was $219.50, while the current value is $10,000. If you’re wondering, the amp pictured is a 1958 Bassman Model 5F6-A. This is considered to be the classic version of this model amp. It was originally intended for bass, but guitar players also found it to be exceptional. Just ask Brian Setzer. This circuit was so revered that Jim Marshall pattered his early amps—especially the historic JTM45— after it. Two 5881 power tubes push 45 watts of power through four 10" Jensen speakers. The control panel houses two inputs each for bright and normal channels, volume controls for each channel, on/off and standby toggles, and presence, middle, bass, and treble chicken-head knobs. The original price was $339.50, and now it’s valued at $7,500.
Sources for this article include The Fender Stratocaster by A.R. Duchossoir, The Stratocaster Chronicles: Celebrating 50 Years of the Fender Strat by Tom Wheeler, The Fender Bass: An Ilustrated Historyby J.W. Black and Albert Molinaro, and Fender Amps: The First Fifty Years by John Teagle and John Sprung.
What Really Makes an Instrument a Best Friend?
The difference between a good guitar and a great guitar is subjective, but it goes way beyond tone and aesthetics.
I used to hate Stratocasters. Okay, that’s not exactly the full truth, but as much as I admired their straightforward design, signature sound, and robust construction, they never gave me gooseflesh like, say, a blonde dot-neck 335. My happy place was that buttery smooth 24 3/4" feel and the fat, fat, fat, singing sustain of a humbucker-shod, glued-neck guitar. That’s not to say I haven’t owned a slew of Fender products over the years. I treasured the 1950s maple-necked Strats and Teles that passed through my hands, but I never really bonded with them. I didn’t feel like they were my friends.
Fatal attraction. No doubt about it: Visuals are a powerful thing. Whether it’s walking into a store or browsing online, your eyes are your gear radar. And once locked onto the target, a lot of potential turn-offs can be rationalized into the background. I’m as guilty as the next person of being seduced by a lovely shape. I’ve owned at least three of the same-model electric 12-string just because they were so fetching visually. Inevitably, their narrow and crowded necks rendered them almost unplayable to me, so each time I quickly gave up on them.
If the shoe fits. A comfortable neck is a great selling point that has lured many a guitarist into playing certain instruments. Easy is good, right? One of the reasons I didn’t get on with Stratocasters was that everything seemed harder to play on them. I interpreted the long-scale stiffness as an impediment, and quickly lost interest no matter how good they sounded. Once, however, I found myself in a situation where for a couple months my only guitar at home was a Strat. After being held hostage for a few weeks, I realized that a little fight was good for me, and the skirmish became the point. Once I acknowledged this, wringing the neck into submission became a joy instead of a struggle. I also became aware that easy can be lazy, and the Strat pushed me to do better. Amazingly, it also made playing more comfortable guitars better, too.
The quest for tone. At the heart of most guitar safaris is the belief that if we had the right tone, we’d be inspired to play more—and better. This is where things get a little misguided. Some guitarists talk about searching for a sound they hear in their heads, which might not be as useful as finding the sounds already buried in the guitars they own. When you examine the breadth of tones that different artists get from the exact same guitar, you realize that sometimes it’s the archer, not the arrow.
The argument for exploration. When I was first starting out, I didn’t know how to mine for gold in any given guitar. But being broke and relegated to a cheap beginner’s instrument, I was forced to explore what it could do. Luckily, I was so fascinated with the damn thing that I tried all sorts of stuff. I experimented with where I picked the strings and noted how that position sounded on all the notes up and down the neck—and how it changed with the different pickups. I turned the controls constantly in conjunction with the amp settings and made mental notes of what happened. I played too loud, and then softly. I leaned the headstock against the speaker and banged on the body. Everything was fair game, and I built up a catalog of knowledge. I’m not a great player, but I know a lot about what guitars can do and why. Along the way, I’ve discovered that building a friendship over time is sometimes better than a first impression might imply.
Quality time. What makes an instrument become a soul mate? First impressions are important, but sometimes misleading. We all have stories about guitars that catch our eye from across the room. Their beauty beckons us closer and invites our touch, but living with them becomes a letdown. Then there are the sleepers that just make you feel at home. I think that sometimes it comes down to spending quality time with each other. My favorite guitars are the ones that push me to try a little harder and reward me when I do. I don’t feel judged if I try something a little beyond my reach, and they don’t complain if I tell the same old story for the hundredth time. Your guitar should bring out your best, and catch you when you fall without judgment. Sometimes that trust just takes a while.