The history of the electric bass part two: beyond Fender
26th Feb 2014 | 00:00
The second installment of our five-part mini series dedicated to exploring the history of the electric bass.
BASS EXPO 2014: In spite of Fender having set a high standard with the Precision, it was not producing vast quantities at any time during the 1950s. When Fender introduced the Stratocaster the bass was given a new contoured body that was considerably more comfortable than the relatively sharp edge of the original body.
This happened around late 1953/54 and became known as the 'Transitional P-Bass'. It helped to continue interest in the instrument but there was no way that other American guitar manufacturers were going to sit back and watch Fender take the monopoly on the bass guitar. Gibson and Rickenbacker were particularly eager to get in on the act and grab some of this new retail action for themselves.
Although well established in the archtop electric guitar field Gibson was now producing the Les Paul so although a solid bass with a carved top, the violin shape of the Electric Bass was actually something of a surprise when it was introduced in 1953.
With a shorter scale than the Precision, a glued-in neck and a huge humbucking pickup positioned towards the neck this bass had a fat warm sound that was quite unlike the Fender. It took a little while to settle as some models featured painted f-holes and a coach line to the body edge whist others were left natural, but structurally each had an extendable endpin so it could be played in an upright position.
This was a great design ploy to temp traditional players into gradually making the change. However Gibson made bigger impact in 1958 with its EB-2 bass, a thinline semi-hollow bodied instrument with real f-holes and like the Electric Bass it initially had banjo-style tuners that projected backwards from the headstock. It also had the same humbucking pickup, a single-saddle bridge/tailpiece and a pushbutton tone switch.
Jimmy Page used one when he first joined the Yardbirds as a bass player although his was the later version with regular tuners. The last of the banjo headstocks appeared in 1959 on the EB-0 bass. This was a cheaper bass (hence the 0 in the designation) and caused the more expensive original Electric Bass to be renamed the EB-1 when it was reintroduced in 1969. The EB-0 drew on the success of the Les Paul Junior guitar and featured basic electronics and a slab body with a double cutaway.
By now Rickenbacker was also testing the water. Its early electric guitars and basses sported a very distinctive double horseshoe magnet pickup developed way back in the 1930s by Los Angeles steel guitar player George Beauchamp.
It was first used on the prototype 'Frying Pan' guitar devised by him and Harry Watson who had been working in the National guitar factory. His friend Adolph 'Rick' Rickenbacker had the money and the means to put the 'guitar' into production and naturally the pickup was adapted when the first Rickenbacker bass, the 4000, came into being in 1957.
It was a stunning looking instrument and like Fender had a futuristic look about it with a 'cresting wave' shaped solid body. It also made use of neck-through-body construction, which gave the early models a distinctive stripe on the body and the 'jigsaw puzzle' headstock an even more dramatic appearance.
With the single horseshoe magnet pickup and the chrome bridge/tailpiece dominating the body, the scale length was close to the Precision standard and initially the scratchplate was gold plastic although this was soon standardised to white.
One of the first to adopt the 4000 was Ricky Nelson's bass player James Kirkland. Ricky had a deal with Rickenbacker so for James it was the obvious choice. When he first played it on the Grand Ole Opry radio showit caused quite a stir:"I almost blew the sound engineer's ears out, because he wasn't expecting it. They weren't gonna let me play it at all."
Fortunately they did because the bass guitar had arrived and was here to stay. The 4001 was introduced in 1961 and this had the benefit of a second smaller pickup with a 'toaster' top. The rosewood fingerboard now sported snazzy pearloid triangular position markers rather than the simple dots of the 4000 and the whole instrument was neatly bound.
It looked a million dollars but more importantly it produced that characteristic Rickenbacker bass growl that would be explored to great effect later on in the sixties. But in America yet another bass sound was also being heard.
In 1954 Nat Daniel's Danelectro Company began producing cheaper electric guitars for the Sears Roebuck chain of stores, many under the name of Silvertone. In 1956 Danelectro ventured into the bass marketplace with the first ever 6-string bass!
The U2 was a single cutaway, semi-hollow design that was essentially a guitar with heavier strings and tuned down. It featured on many recordings at the time including tracks by the Everly Brothers and Duane Eddy.
In 1958 Danelectro produced the Longhorn 4423, a 4-string bass with a 33.5-inch scale that was even more unusual than the rest of the ange. It employed the same Masonite and hollow frame construction method as their guitars but it was the symmetrical and extended twin cutaway design that caught the eye.
With a pair of the infamous Lipstick pickups and dual concentric controls it looked like something from Greek mythology and it had a killer sound. Both Jack Bruce and John Entwistle used Longhorns during the sixties in Cream and The Who.
With so much going on in the guitar and bass market during this remarkable decade Fender decided to take a third look at their Precision bass and came up with what has become the definitive version. The headstock was enlarged for sonic reasons (the upsized Telecaster shape left a dead spot on the upper string) and mimicked the Stratocaster, the cover plates changed shape, the controls and jack socket were mounted on the scratchplate but most importantly the bass was now equipped with an impressive split-coil pickup.
This offset design cleverly presented seperate coils for the bottom two strings and for the upper two strings and each string vibrated between a pair of pole pieces. The result was a much fatter sound than the earlier versions and clarity of sound that appealed to all. This is the P-Bass sound as we know and love it and the one that has appeared on countless thousands of recordings right up to the present day!
So within this remarkable short period of time America had introduced some of the most enduring and copied guitar and bass designs. However things were also happening in Europe during these fabulous fifties..