Jim Roberts explores how builders and players have worked together to make better basses.
The history of the bass guitar is a story of partnerships. For more than a half-century, instrument makers have been working closely with bass players as they conceived and built basses, searching for the best combinations of playability, flexibility, and good sound. In this column series, I’ll be looking at those partnerships and showing how builders and bassists have collaborated over the years to get us to where we are now, with an amazing variety of basses available in different configurations with different capabilities.
As I chronicled in my book How the Fender Bass Changed the World [Backbeat/Hal Leonard], there were a number of early attempts to build an electric bass that could overcome the limitations of the acoustic bass, including such instruments as the Rickenbacker Electro Bass-Viol and the Gibson Electric Bass Guitar, both of which were played upright. The most significant development was Paul Tutmarc’s Audiovox Model 376, introduced in 1935, an electric bass guitar played in the horizontal position. It was the right idea but had little impact; only about 100 were made, and it was not used on any significant recordings.
The instrument that changed everything, of course, was the Fender Precision Bass, introduced in late 1951. Where did the idea come from? As Leo Fender told Tom Wheeler in an interview published in Tom’s book American Guitars[Harper Perennial], he wanted to “free the bass player from the big doghouse, the acoustic bass. That thing was usually confined to the back of the band, and the bass player couldn’t get up to the mike to sing. And … guitar players would have an advantage if they could have an instrument with frets that would make doubling on bass easier for them.”
I recently asked Richard R. Smith, the renowned Fender expert and author of Fender: The Sound Heard ’round the World[Garfish], if he knew of any musicians who helped Leo develop the concept behind the P-Bass. “Leo had this group of guys who were hanging around the factory in Fullerton,” he told me. “They would talk to him about what they saw as the answer to their problem — and the answer to their problem was getting work.” It’s impossible to say whether one of those players was the crucial influence behind Leo’s idea for a bass guitar, but what he told Tom Wheeler clearly indicates that somebody had talked to him about the problem of getting work.
Many of the “group of guys” that Leo knew played in Western swing bands, and seeing those bands undoubtedly influenced Leo’s thinking. One of the Western swing bass players that Smith is aware of was Jack Kelleher, who played in bands led by Spade Cooley and Jimmy Wakely and knew Leo’s friend and collaborator Bill Carson. While Kelleher may have been one important influence, Smith says he tends to think it was “multiple players” who inspired Leo’s invention. In any case, Smith says, “as soon as the instrument came out and people started playing it, it kind of shook up the group.”
Another early influence on Leo’s thinking was Oscar Moore, the guitarist in the Nat King Cole Trio. According to Smith’s book, Moore tried out a P-Bass prototype — an account, he confirms, that came directly from Leo Fender himself. Other jazz players also played early P-Basses, including Roy Johnson with Lionel Hampton’s band, as was famously reported by Leonard Feather in a July 1952 article in Down Beat. There were some inroads in country music as well; Nashville bassist Joel Price is credited with being the first electric bass player at the Grand Ole Opry in 1952. In his recent book The Bass Space[Schiffer], veteran music journalist Willie Moseley mentions a photo showing a bassist holding a P-Bass onstage with Hank Williams in 1952. The photo appears in the book Snapshots from the Lost Highwayby Colin Escott [Da Capo]; the image is fuzzy, but it could be Price. There are many other photos and film clips of bass players using P-Basses in the early ’50s, including ones backing Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard.
Unfortunately, Leo Fender died in 1991, so we can’t ask him how much feedback he got from players as he developed and improved the Precision Bass. It’s clear, though, that his thinking continued to evolve, because he made significant changes to the instrument throughout the ’50s. Player input must have been a factor. It’s also important to remember, as Richard Smith points out, that “in those days, when people talked about the Fender bass, they were referring to both the bass and the amplifier that went with it.” Leo certainly saw it that way, and he worked hard for many years to improve both the instrument and the amp in his attempt to find the best alternative to “the doghouse.”
In future columns, I will chronicle other stories about how builders and players have worked together to make better basses. Do you have one? If you’re a player who has worked with a luthier to create or modify a bass to suit your playing style, I want to hear from you. Send me your story — with photos, video, or other supporting material: [email]. While I can’t guarantee coverage, I will try to cover as many of these “partnership” stories as I can.
Jim Roberts was the founding editor of Bass Playerand also served as the magazine’s publisher and group publisher. He is the author of How the Fender Bass Changed the Worldand American Basses: An Illustrated History & Player’s Guide(both published by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard).