The electric bass guitar is a staple of modern music- but where did it the bass begin?
The electric bass guitar is an instrument as ubiquitous as the electric guitar in modern popular music. Regardless of genre, it seems, there will always be a player wielding a bass, and providing the musical foundations. It’s hard to believe that there was ever a time where a bass guitar didn’t supply the ‘low-end’ within musical performances, but up until the 1950s, the upright double bass was still the instrument of choice.
How has the bass used in popular music evolved, then, from a huge, upright orchestral instrument, to the guitar-sized funk machine we know today?
Lloyd Loar, and Paul Tutmarc Jr.
In the early 1900s, the upright or double bass was still the instrument used to supply the bass parts in musical performances. However, as anyone who has ever had to carry one to a gig will tell you, these huge instruments are not the most practical. In addition, musical styles were changing, as were venues and musical performances. There was a need for a bass that could be amplified.
In the 1920s, legendary Gibson luthier, Lloyd Loar, was working on a prototype to fit this new need. This was based around a semi-solid upright bass, with electrostatic pickups. Gibson did not see fit to put this into production, however. The pickup was susceptible to pops and crackles, and amplification of this era was not capable of reproducing low bass frequencies. Whilst innovative, this was some way from the modern electric bass guitar.
Several other electric basses appeared in the 1930s, courtesy of Gibson, Rickenbacker and others, but all were upright designs. In the 1940s, however, Paul Tutmarc Jr designed what is considered by many to be the first electric bass guitar. It was known as the Serenader Bass, was a compact instrument, and designed to be played horizontally. Crucially, it was fretted.
According to written sources, it was designed to overcome two main issues: Firstly, the bass being lost in the loud roar of brass sections in big jazz bands. Secondly, the need for bassists to travel alone due to the size of the bass, increasing the chances of them getting lost on the way to the gig (honestly- I’m not making this up…)
Leo Fender and the Precision Bass
Despite its innovative design, Tutmarc’s design was not a success. It was not until Leo Fender applied his magic touch in 1951 that the electric bass guitar was truly brought to the mass market. His pioneering design was the Fender Precision Bass, a model that is still available today, in a form largely unchanged from the original.
The P-bass was constructed with a slab body, without contours, with a 20-fret bolt-on maple neck. Scale length was set at 34”, and a single magnetic single coil pickup provided the bass with a voice. Crucially, Fender was designing a bass amp capable of delivering low, bass frequencies- the Fender Bassman.
The Fender P-Bass provided the template for the modern electric bass guitar, and every modern bass has the P-Bass as it’s earliest ancestor. The P-bass remains, aside from slight tweaks and updates, largely the same as the 51 original; yet another of Leo Fender’s timeless designs.
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Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.