Fender Bass History
Since Fender's humble beginnings producing instruments in the 1950s, they have many times been at the forefront of musical innovation. While many people know the company for its iconic guitar models, less are aware that Leo Fender essentially created a whole new instrument – the electric bass.
Before Fender came out with the electric bass, the bass had been lagging behind. When guitars became electrified, music in general began increasing in volume and intensity—perhaps not coincidentally. The upright bass was now getting lost behind the electric guitar, as well as the drums, horns, and pianos. Not to mention the size of the instrument made it a particular pain to transport and play. And as Leo Fender noted, bassists couldn't get up to the mic and sing either. Fender's idea was to make the instrument easier to transport and more mobile on stage. Concurrently, he also envisioned affording guitar players the option to cross-over to playing the bass with relative ease.
Produced in 1951, the Fender Precision Bass not only led the way for other electric basses to follow, but its double cutaway body was the design inspiration for the Stratocaster a few years later. The original Precision bass featured a one-piece maple neck with 20-frets, a single covered pickup, Kluson tuners, a finger rest, and a string-through bridge with cover. It also borrowed aesthetically from the previously released Tele, showcasing a slab body and blonde finish. Additionally, it mimicked the Tele's headstock shape, neck plate, and domed control knobs.
Perhaps most important was the meticulously considered scale length. After all, without the correct scale length the intonation of the instrument would be compromised and immediately undermine its success. Nonetheless, Leo Fender hit the nail on the head, ultimately deciding on 34 inches after much deliberation. To this day, the standard scale length for four-string electric basses remains 34".
The Precision Bass, or P-Bass as it became known, remained the only bass in Fender's lineup throughout the '50s – though it did undergo three design modifications during that initial decade.
[If you want a more in-depth understanding of the P-Bass and the history that surrounded its early years, check out: The Fender Precision Bass: The Low End That Shook the World].
Then, in 1960, Fender introduced its second electric bass — the Jazz Bass, rounding out a duo which would become as legendary as their Strat and Tele cousins. Though it took some time to establish itself as a viable option next to the already well known P-bass, the Jazz Bass took on a persona of its own and carved its way into music history.
The Jazz Bass differed from the P-Bass in a number of ways. At first glance, it's clear the offset waist design gave it a bit more of an avant-garde vibe. This was actually more functional than stylistic, as it made playing the Jazz Bass while seated much more comfortable. For additional playability it had a notably narrower neck design at the nut – cutting down from 1 3/4" to 1 7/16", and an overall thinner design from front to back. Thus, guitarists could much more easily pick up a Jazz Bass and be proficient than a P-Bass.
As for its sound, the original Jazz Bass had two narrow, eight-pole-piece pickups, one at the bridge and one at the neck (closer to the middle really). The first model also had dual-stacked volume/tone knobs which allowed you to blend your sound intricately in a way that hadn't been done before. Additionally, it had more body mass, which gave it a distinctive tone.
With the advent of the Jazz Bass, Fender had two separate and excellent options for bassists to choose between. They eventually added a few other models to their bass offerings, including the Jaguar Bass and Mustang Bass. Relying on relatively simplistic, highly accessible designs, coupled with the endorsement of countless great artists, the Fender electric bass models have been staples of the music world in a way other basses can't quite compete with. Considering that, it's no stretch to say that from the 1950s onward, Fender has ruled the bass world in the same manner its ruled guitars.
Popular Fender Electric Bass Models
Precision Bass: The electric bass that started it all. The P-Bass has remained mostly unchanged since the late '50s, being always reliable in form and function. Most models sport a single split-coil P-Bass pickup. The American Ultra, American Performer, Deluxe Active, and a few other models also have a Jazz Bass bridge pickup. All P-Basses have 20 frets (excluding, of course, fretless artist models), regardless of fretboard wood, as well as a 4-saddle vintage style bridge and vintage-style paddle key tuners.
Jazz Bass: The classy and smooth Jazz Bass diverges from the P-Bass just enough to give players another unique option. The Jazz Bass features an offset body design and dual Jazz Bass pickups with eight pole pieces, coupled with two volume controls and a master tone control. Jazz Basses also feature a 4-saddle bridge. Across series, the features remain quite consistent, save the American Ultra Jazz Bass which boasts Ultra Noiseless pickups, 22 frets, a pickup pan knob, and 3-band active EQ with on/off switch.
Mustang Bass: A bit rarer, but equally as awesome, the Mustang Bass sports a very distinguishing style. It's smaller, offset body is part and parcel of its 30" scale length. The size makes it a lot of fun and encourages a different style of playing. The Mustang Bass showcases either a split single-coil pickup or a split single with a Jazz Bass bridge pickup. The newest Mustang in the American Performer series sports dual volumes and a Greasebucket tone circuit, but more traditionally the Mustang has a single master volume and master tone knob. Mustang Basses also have the retro-looking Mustang 4-saddle bridge and vintage-paddle key tuners with tapered shafts.
Jaguar Bass: The Jaguar Bass follows its guitar counterpart, sporting an offset body which looks cool and is great for playing seated. It boasts a 34" scale length neck and 4-saddle standard bridge. The pickguard is similar to that of a Jazz Bass with a metallic bottom corner. The Jaguar generally has a split single-coil middle pickup and a Jazz Bass bridge pickup combo, affording a nice sonic range.
Bass VI: The original hybrid animal, the Bass VI is a six-string instrument tuned an octave lower than a guitar. It can handle bass or guitar parts, but always brings an incomparable tone. This rare beast can be seen with a 6-saddle vintage, non-locking, floating vibrato, and three pickups with Mustang style switching.
Signature Artists and Their Fender Basses
Phil Lynott: Phil Lynott was a poetic singer/songwriter, who always had a bass in his hands. The Irishman who fronted the legendary Thin Lizzy up until his untimely death, created perfect swinging bass lines to accompany his lyrics. There are countless awesome photos of him from the '70s, seen wearing aviator sun glasses and rocking his P-bass — which was customized with a mirrored pickguard.
Flea: Flea's bass playing is an integral part of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their blend of funk, soul, and rock is dependent on the healthily versatile, indelibly funky bass lines Flea rolls into every song. With the flexibility needed for his playing, it's no wonder he's been enamored with the Jazz Bass.
Pino Palladino: Pino Palladino is a bassist's bassist. He's played with some of the biggest artists in the world, including Jeff Beck, The Who, Eric Clapton, Simon & Garfunkel, and John Mayer. Most of the time, you'll catch him with a P-Bass in hand.
Mike Dirnt: Being a punk band at heart, Green Day has always needed to maintain a solid 4-string presence. Mike Dirnt's P-Bass has faithfully taken care of that from the beginning. Whether old school true punk tracks, or later more intricate Green Day compositions, Mike Dirnt's playing has been immortalized in rock bass history.
Jaco Pastorious: Jaco was one of the most innovative bassist to ever walk the earth. His work with Weather Report, Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell, and his solo albums, was inspirational in its dynamic individuality. Jaco knew his way around a Jazz Bass like no other—and even made his Jazz Bass fretless by cutting the frets out with a knife.
Geddy Lee: In the way that many classic rockers shined light on what their instruments could do, Geddy Lee picked up the bass and made it his own. His unique style, which was enveloped in his very distinct voice and special songwriting capability, showed early on what the Jazz Bass could really do.
Why a Fender Bass?
You could point to Fender being the creators of the electric bass, when talking about their incredible competence in crafting them. You can also look at their longevity, their commitment to quality, and the versatility of their offerings. Or perhaps you'd focus on the fact that many of the greatest electric bassists to ever exist have held a Fender Bass in their hands. Whichever of these aspects compels you the most, the bottom line is, you choose a Fender Bass because in all its forms, they're as good as it gets.
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