Mr. Bass Man, you set the music thumpin’ So the song goes – but it wasn’t until Leo Fender invented the Fender electric bass that the really serious thumpin’ began… The Most Famous Bass Guitar. The Fender Precision.
Up until the early fifties if you played bass you didn’t sing and you owned a large vehicle because bass meant double bass, bull fiddle, doghouse bass. Whatever you chose to call it, the double bass was a very large violin shaped instrument that you stood behind and beside and put your arms around, plucking the strings with your right hand and stopping the (unfretted) notes with your left. Think Charlie Mingus, Ray Brown, Bill Black in the early Elvis era.
The advent of electric bass.
In 1950 Leo Fender had a miraculous inspiration and invented an instrument that has, amazingly, remained in constant production to this day. Make no mistake, the Fender Precision electric bass guitar was a truly momentous stroke of genius. It was also the first guitar ever made with a cutaway, in this case a double cutaway with the top horn being extended to improve the balance of the instrument, both aesthetically and practically. It was called the Precision bass because of the fretted fingerboard which meant that bass players were now consistently in tune as opposed to double bass players whose intonation relies on their ear rather than fixed and infallible frets. It also freed the bass player up to sing. Just imagine if Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Phil Lynott et al had to play the upright bass, we’d have been robbed of their wonderful voices.
Actually a company called Audiovox from Seattle had made an electric bass 15 years earlier but it wasn’t as well designed or marketed, or perhaps the musical times weren’t quite ready for it. The Fender Precision became the bass guitar of choice for Bill Black, bass player with Elvis Presley. During the making of the film Jailhouse Rock he made the switch from the stand up double bass he’s earlier pictured playing, and the Fender Precision bass got an unprecedented lift in exposure. Light bulbs went off above the heads of many double bass players as they could easily see the advantages of the electric bass.
Why was the Fender Precision such a success?
Much gratitude can be heaped on the previously mentioned Bill Black but there are other factors that played a part.
- It was a truly great and innovative design
- It fulfilled a need for portability and precision
- It freed bass players up to move around as easily as guitar players
- It was easier to get a good live and recorded bass sound with the electric bass
- It had more sex appeal than a standup bass
How did the Fender bass change music?
Because the sound of a Fender electric bass was more clearly articulated it was no longer relegated to mainly rhythmic duties as has been the case until now in jazz, rockabilly, bluegrass and country music. This meant that the best players (eg James Jamerson the legendary Motown bassist, and Paul McCartney of The Beatles) became central to the music. The Motown sound would not have been possible were it not for Jamerson’s driving rhythms and searing bass melodies. Listen to Paul McCartney’s bass guitar on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or the intricate bass melodies Brian Wilson orchestrated for Carol Kaye on the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds album. This would simply not have been possible using a double bass no matter how seriously you thumped.