The Fender Bass
(by Marc Gonzales)

I confess- I have had a long standing love affair with the Fender Bass!

Leo Fender did not invent the electric bass nor was he the first to manufacture one.  What Leo did do was produce a fine quality new instrument that more than any other single instrument was responsible for ushering in and fostering a new age of music.  He was at the right place at the right time! The early '50s was the beginning of a new optimism and economic boom in the US.  The war was over, servicemen were home, and dance halls and night clubs around the U.S. were filled with dancers and revelers.  In order to fill these venues owners had to hire larger bands and orchestras.  Soon club owners and musicians discovered that with the use of the new drum kits and electric instruments, especially the bass, they could fill the dance halls using smaller groups.  A four piece band with electric instruments could produce as full of a sound as a 20 piece band.  The 1951 Fender Precision Bass would make this possible.  This picture is of the 1951 Precision Bass (reissue) without the bridge and pickup covers.

 

Leo Fender originally hoped that his new electric bass would appeal to Country and Western musicians. However some of the first to use the new bass were Jazz musicians.  Rock and Roll was just beginning to emerge and soon many of the early Rock & Roll groups were also using the new electric bass.

The first Fender basses were slab bodies with one single coil pickup.  These basses were not the most comfortable and since Leo continually visited clubs and talked to musicians he responded to feedback.  In 1954, he began to contour the bass to be more comfortable and offered it with different colors.   In this photo you can see the contours on a 1954 Pbass.

          

Sting uses one of the early Pbasses today.  The reason Fender named the bass Precision was frets would allow for more “precise” intonation, as opposed to the upright basses which had no frets.  In addition he hoped that the small electric instrument would appeal to guitar players and free bass players from having to carry such huge instruments.  They could now be more up front and more prominent within the ensembles.  Over the next 20 years this certainly took place.  The electric bass played a much larger role in music compositions, and a new breed of virtuosos came to life. 

In 1957, Fender made a number of changes to the Precision Bass.  This basic design is the one still used today. 

In addition to making a more sleek contoured body, he added a gold aluminum anodized pick guard and changed the headstock to the one most familiar to people today.  He also changed the bridge assembly and pickup.  Previously there were only two saddles in the bridge with two strings on each saddle. The saddles are the tube shaped pieces that hold the strings on the bridge.  Since different string sizes required different lengths, he now made an individual saddle for each string allowing a more accurate adjustment and tuning.  The pickup was also changed to a dual split coil humbucker which helped with the hum these basses were notorious for.  Notice how he placed a finger rest below the strings.  Leo erroneously thought that the bass would be played with the thumb so one would place the fingers on the rest and pull down on the strings.  Many bass players including myself moved this rest to above the strings to use as a thumbrest and pluck the strings with the pointer and index fingers.  Later on Fender did move the rest to this area on some basses, but most rests were below the strings.

This photo illustrates the pickup and bridge saddles on a '57 Pbass.

 

In 1960, Fender introduced a new model in addition to the Precision bass called the Jazz Bass. It had two single coil pickups and a thinner neck at the nut.  The typical Precision Bass had a nut width of 1 3/4” which is called a C width neck.  The new Jazz Basses had an A width neck of 1 ˝”, much narrower.  Pbasses are also known with B width neck of 1 5/8".  If you have a Fender instrument made during the '60s, you will see printing on the heel of the neck designating the type of instrument, the month and year of production, and the width style. Here is an example:

Heel Stamp - 7 (indicating Jazz Bass) Oct 64 (indicating manufactured in Oct. 1964) and A for neck width (1 ˝”).   Don’t confuse the C width neck with the C shaped neck.  The shapes of the necks were labeled C, V and D shape which refers to the radius rather than the nut width.  The D shape are like a baseball bat, thick.  The V shape are less round coming to point resembling a V.  The C shape are smaller than D and rounded.  For more information on Fender instruments see http://www.jimshine.com/ or http://www.guitarhq.com/fenddiff/   or http://home.provide.net/~cfh/fender.html . 

The new JBass caught on and sold well, although the original Pbass was still very popular, especially with studio musicians.

                                   

This photo shows the body portion of a reissue 1960 Jazz bass with two stacked knobs and without the chrome pickup covers.  Each pickup has a tone control and volume control in one knob.  By 1962 three knobs were used, a volume knob for each pickup and one overall tone control.  This is still the normal configuration today. Around 1966-7 the Jazz Bass necks were changed to include large block inlays and a white edging around the neck (binding).  Disco was just around the corner in the early 70’s and the Fender Jazz Bass was the instrument of choice for both Disco and Funk.  The sound of the Jazz Bass is very bright due primarily to the pickup close to the bridge, the neck pickup adds the fullness.  Both pickups were single coil, which tended to hum.  This is still an issue today and is the reason humbucking pickups (dual coil) were created to countermand the hum, however some musicians prefer the sound of single coil.

Leo sold Fender to CBS in 1965, at which point production was stepped up and short cuts began to be taken.  In 1985 the company was purchased by it’s employees.  Over the years quality has varied, the pre CBS basses are the most sought after and very expensive as ones in good condition are desired by collectors.  As a result forgeries have appeared, where newer basses are made to appear old with the addition of some vintage parts.  So when buying an older instrument all aspects should be checked including the body markings, neck date or number, pots, control knobs, bridge and pick guard. 

Fender has introduced many other basses over the years including 5 and 6 string basses.   The Bass V, a 5 string model, was brought out in 1965 just about the time CBS was taking over Fender.  It had a tuning of  E,A,D,G,C and was meant to appeal to guitar players.  It was not popular and disappeared after only 5 years.  James Jamerson, the noted Motown studio musician, was known to use this bass. The first 5 string basses to be brought out with a lower B string appeared in the mid 70s.  Anthony Jackson is credited with being the first to use a bass with the low B in 1975 custom made for him by Luthier Carl Thompson.  He also used a six string bass with the low B and a high C.  Fender did not release a five string with low B until the 1980s.   In 1956 Danelectro introduced a 6 string bass which was tuned an octave below the guitar.  A number of studio musicians used this bass with a pick to give definition to the bass sound on recordings of the '50s and 60s.  In 1961, Fender introduced it’s Bass VI, also tuned an octave below a guitar and patterned after the Fender Jaguar and Jazzmaster guitars.  The spacing between the strings was narrow, so it was mostly played with a pick. This bass was discontinued in the mid 70s but reissued in 2006.  Jack Bruce used this bass in his early career.  Cream’s first album Fresh Cream was recorded with Jack using this instrument.  He later switched to the Gibson EB-3, but now plays a Warwick.

 

Other popular Fender bass models are the Jaguar bass, and a number of signature basses designed by notable players such as Victor Bailey, Noel Redding, Jaco Pastorius, Mark Hoppus, Geddy Lee and others.  In addition models are made with active electronics.  This is the addition of an internal power source, a 9 volt battery to power a preamp.  This allows for a stronger signal.  Fender’s main bass models are manufactured in the USA at the original Fullerton factory, as well as in Japan and recently in Mexico.  The smaller student, or Squire series are produced in countries in Asia.  The U.S. models are considered the best quality, although basses produced in Japan during the '80s are thought by some to be equal to or better than the ones made in the U.S. at that time.  The basses made in Mexico are the least expensive and perhaps not as good a quality.  Also, due to the popularity of the older basses Fender began to manufacture new versions of old models, the vintage series or reissues.  In addition some models are manufactured as “road worn”, meaning they are beat up to make them appear to have been used for years on the road with dings, scratches and the paint worn.  Not sure why someone would want such a bass, but it is the same concept as designer jeans that are worn out with holes in the knees. 

My first professional bass was a Gibson EB-0 played in 1968-71.                  

(That’s my cousin Nick next to me playing a Gibson Custom fretless wonder. We are not in drag, it was Halloween 1970).  This bass resembles the Gibson SG guitar with one fat humbucker pickup and is a short scale.  The sound is full, deep, fat and lacking the overtones of the Fender Jazz Bass.  Sometime in 1971 this bass was riding in the back of a pickup truck on the highway returning from a gig and fell out, breaking into pieces.  Sooo, in 1971 I bought a brand new Fender Jazz Bass with a black body.

All the early Fender basses were made with chrome covers over the pickups and bridge sometimes referred to as “ash trays.”  In the next picture you can see the bridge cover, although I had already removed the cover over the neck pickup.  Also in this picture you can see the block inlays and three control knobs. 

 

Most players would remove these covers at some point to give access to the full length of the string from the bridge to the neck as thumbing, thumping, plucking or picking in different areas of the string produced very different tones and sound.  Removing the covers did tend to aggravate the hum issue as one of their primary purposes was to create a shield to minimize the hum. In this photo you can see all the covers on my bass are gone.  

                              

Click here to hear the sound of the Jazz bass used with a pick.  I would use a pick about 30% of the time, primarily to obtain a more staccato sound which was better for recording and also more appropriate for certain styles of music. 

In 1974, I wanted to get a deeper heavier sound and decided to add the humbucker pickup from my broken Gibson to my Jazz bass.  I had a luthier install the Gibson pickup along with an additional volume knob and three dip switches on my bass.  I could now use any combination of the pickups which added a new dimension to this bass.  This picture shows my bass stripped of it’s black color, the added pickup and a black pickguard instead of white.

             

**I sold this bass in the late '70s and would dearly love to have it back.  If anyone sees this bass or knows it’s whereabouts. please contact me.**  Click here to hear this bass.   During the '70s many bass players would experiment with modifying their Fender basses.  Today these basses are devalued due to the modifications as collectors and musicians looking for vintage instruments prefer original parts and configurations.

About the time I started playing with Larry Baird in East Broadway Rundown, I was looking for a new sound and decided to trade my Jazz bass for a '75 fretless Precision bass.  I no longer have that bass but do own a '72 fretless PBass which is nearly identical to my '75, pictured below.  The neck is solid maple with no fret lines.  Fender fretless basses made today usually have fret lines.

 

The sound of this bass was very different from fretted bases.  Fender first released a fretless version of the Pbass in 1970.  Click here for an example.  Not many bass players were using a fretless back then.  Fender did not make a fretless Jazz Bass until many years later, however the premier fretless player who used a Jazz bass at that time and possibly the best bass player ever, was Jaco Pastorius.  He removed the frets from a '60s Jazz bass and created his own fretless!

After leaving EBR and joining Tom Slick I brought my fretless bass and an upright Englehardt bass along on the road.  Tom (Lenny Maday) didn’t like the sound of my fretless.  It didn’t have the punch and feel necessary for '50s music so during our first gig in Lafayette, Louisiana, I bought an early seventies sunburst Jazz Bass at a pawn shop.  This bass was the best I could do with limited funds and was a wreck.  The neck was severely bowed (probably due to the humidity in Louisiana).  I did my best to straighten it, but it didn’t compare to my beloved '71 Jazz Bass (that I should have never let go!)  In this photo you can see this bass with sunburst color and large block inlays on the neck. 

                    

The minute I got back to Denver and left Tom Slick I got rid of this bass.  I also sold my '75 Fretless (another big mistake) and bought a '72 Precision.  I still have this bass pictured below.  

The Pbass has only one split coil humbucking pickup and a slightly wider neck than the JBass.  During the '70s, many Precision basses had their pickups replaced by Dimarzios, which were quickly becoming popular and considered better than the stock Fender pickups.  My bass had the replacement DiMarzios when I bought it, and also the dual sound switching option, S-1 switch.  This is a toggle which changed the pickups from serial to parallel wiring.  The effect for me was I could play at one volume and with the flip of the switch change to a louder higher output signal for solo.  The DiMarzio pickups can be recognized by their cream color, whereas the stock Fender pickup covers were black.  This Pbass has a wonderful clean sound, listen here.

                               

I am now using a Jbass again.  This one is a 1962 reissue bass made in Japan in 1989.  It has the stacked knobs which were only available in 1960-61.  With the high popularity and demand for the older Fender basses, the factory now produces various “reissues” of original designs and specs.  I welcome any comments or questions about my favorite subject (Fender Basses) through the webmaster:  leswebmail at comcast dot net.  ROCK ON!  

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