The 20th century was the century of progress. Anyone old enough to read this will not be old enough to remember the dark ages (no, not referring to the 70s again). The 19th century was pre-smartphone (or any phone), TV, radio, airplane, automobile, practical electricity, computer/internet, and not a single copy of Mad Magazine. The Arts always take the “back seat” in comparison to how tech changes our living conveniences. In the modern landscape, everyone will ride in a car and talk or “surf’ on a phone, but not everyone will be as personally affected by the wide and wonderful American musical styles the 20th century also gave us. From contemporary orchestral music, Blues, Country, Rock, R&B and Rap; all American musical art forms born in the last 100 years.
The Castro convertible and the Convertible Mustang do wonders for comfort and style, but they often take for granted that musical arts nourish the soul.
The century of progress took regional and folk style music to the masses thanks to harnessed electrical power: the radio. When technical advancements collide with the arts in a more useable way than “The Theremin” big things happen. The 20th Century delivered the modern sax, mandolin, electric guitar, synthesizer, and even the amazing plastic trombone.
The most important innovations are nearly always taken for granted; their importance can be overlooked partially because of how seamlessly they meld with modern life and culture. In this case the innovation is a musical instrument. It instantly fits in with all forms and styles of the century of progress’s music; where the sax, mandolin, 5-string banjo, electric guitar, or synth, may not. What is this all powerful, genre bridging magical instrument? The Fender Electric Bass, or more precisely: The Fender Precision Bass.
The electric bass was inevitable, one would think. Before the electric bass, a musician, band or composer had few choices with which to “hold down the bottom”. A standup double bass (bass fiddle), or the left hands of a piano player, were the “go to” method. It took Leo Fender’s simple but absolutely brilliant solution when he made a bass version of the electric guitar. It performed the same task, in the same register as the centuries old standup bass, but is incalculably more efficient and practical. The “P” bass didn’t vanquish the standup bass, but did replace the need for one in nearly every application. The horizontally played electric Fender P- Bass rendered the traditional bowed bass a “special application”, or “orchestral only” instrument. The P bass can’t be played with a bow, and a Rockabilly bass player won’t have much luck trying to stand on it, but in every other way, it shines. Hell, you could even paint flames on it if you miss your Kay standup mammoth really bad.
The P-Bass aka The “Fender bass”
The reason the Fender bass makes such an excellent replacement is simple: It excels in every category. A freted neck allow for a precisely intonated playing (hence the name), and nimble playability. This is excellent for “walking” bass lines or even soloing. It can easily be amplified to be heard far better and clearer than a standup bass, especially next to a drum set. The cutaway provides upper register access with ease previously unthinkable. Going from a standup bass to a Fender bass, feels like going from a rickety old walk-up, to an escalator, as far as ease of play is concerned. The P-Bass simply define the low end with a foundation more solid than ever before. Called the Precision Bass, but in truth, the first P bass didn’t even need a name, because nobody else had anything like it. The “Precision” hit stores in the winter of 1951, to the great relief of bass players traveling through southern California, and soon the world over: Fenders, debut electric bass is likely the most played, heard, and copied bass on Earth. Not bad, for a first try. Other companies followed up quickly with bass models of their own, but the Fender set the pace and the benchmark. In fact, for decades, any non-standup bass was often referred to as a “Fender Bass”. The P-Bass, like the Telecaster guitar were firsts and never gone out of production, to date. Similar in construction, the P-Bass arrives in basic non-countered slab body configuration, with an outline that foreshadows the Stratocaster’s offset cutaways. The color was translucent blonde; over its ash body. The neck was a solid stock of maple, with a headstock shape much like its 6 stringed counterpart “Telecaster”. The bass has features that became Fender hallmarks right out of the gate. Classic 50’s flat pole single coil pickup, lacquer coated black ‘guard and a silver cover hide the bridge, saddles, and volume/tone control cavity. These appointments are the closest thing this utility minded bass has of ornamentation. It is beautiful and eye catching in spite of its simple clothing. The P-Bass was instantly embraced across all styles and genres, from western swing players and country, to rhythm and blues, electric blues, Jazz, and very soon after, it helped usher in Rock and Roll. The Fender P-Bass will dominate the electric bass market forever, but in the 50s very little competition even existed. Gibson introduced its electric bass in 1953, Hofner (Germany) in 1955, and budget model Kay introduced a bass version of the “Jimmy Reed” Thin Twin in 1955. Not even the mighty and forward thinking Rickenbacker got serious about basses until the 1960s. Fender’s P-Bass caught everyone asleep at the wheel.
P-bass evolution pre-CBS years
The never idle Fender musical instrument company (especially the explosive Leo Fender years) could not keep from tinkering with existing models. Consequently, the P-bass has seen some changes from little tweaks, to major surgery. The 1951 model remained virtually unchanged until 1954. Along with the introduction of this new thing called a Stratocaster, came the now beloved “Two Color” sunburst. The new sunburst immediately was applied to the P-Bass, along with a white single play ‘guard. Also added were the now classic body contours. A belly contour and right elbow chamfer made the already easy going P-Bass that much more comfortable to play. The P-Bass now looks like a direct cross between a Strat and a Tele. It might appear that well enough is left to be, but not at the Fender company. 1957 marked more changes in the P-Bass’s journey to relative completion. The P-Bass now has the defining P-bass pickup: the split single coil* was seen for the first time, along with an anodized guard (in part to shield electronics), that is decidedly more Strat style, along with the headstock. The P-Bass looks less and less like the Tele, and more and more like a Strat. 1957 was also the last full year of the two color sunburst. By early 1958, all sunbursts, on all instruments got the new three tone sunburst. For the Fender P-Bass, the 1950s are over in June of 59. Standard maple ‘boards are replaced with the rosewood slab boards, and anodized guards are replaced with shielded trippy looking faux tortoise ‘guards. The 1960s will bring more competition for the now venerable P-Bass, but its popularity never wanes. Oddly, the stiffest competition comes from Fender itself, when the flashy by comparison Jazz Bass is unveiled.
The Jazz Bass and the P-Bass are without question, the two most vaunted electric basses in the world. The sleek and sexy Jazz bass sports Fenders “offset waist body” has two narrow single coil pickups, a thinner 1.5 inch nut width, and three knobs set up (introduced with two concentric knobs).
The Jazz bass is talked about in such detail in this essay of the P-bass, in part because the two basses have become inseparable, and help define each other. The J bass has a bright punch, sonic diversity, and a thinner neck width. The P-Bass is thunder to the Jazz Bass’s lighting.
The P-Bass stayed in the Fender catalog even during the Japan era, between CBS and today’s Fender Company. It has always retained its 4 bolt neck set up, when all else from Fender converted to the micro tilt 3 bolt set up. Why this is, I cannot say for sure, except my instinct that the P-Bass stayed true to its utility, pickup truck like sensibility: Get the job done, tough and ready no frills, no fuss.
Ready? It’s a bassment builder. Time out!
Yea, I know what a horrific pun that was. I will remain unapologetic, because it’s true. Time in!
The P-Bass and J-Bass are like two cats from the same litter. The pet parent knows the handy work of one or the other, even if the event is not witnessed, while a non-pet loving neighbor can’t tell them apart. Taking a step a bit deeper into esoterica, you can say that some genetic mutations exist, called the PJ-Bass. The PJ bass can be a Precision neck, on a Jazz body (or the other way around). It can also be a swapped or combined pickup array. This will give a player his or her best of both worlds combination of traits. The direct lineage from the first P-Bass is currently the Fender American Performer P-Bass. 45 different models appeared in Fender’s catalog, all with the name P bass. Reissues, signature models, deluxe and plus models, and all with optional colors or fingerboard choices. You can quadruple that number at the very least, when adding custom creations, one offs, and non-cataloged limited edition special runs. This list does not count one very curious offering made in 1968; from thin air came the 1951 appointed original design P-Bass, renamed the Telecaster bass.. Slab, no contoured body, Tele headstock and all. In a way it was a reissue, with a new name. It was re-modeled with a humbucker in 1973, and discontinued in 1979. Guitars and basses are full of exceptions to hard and fast rules. The Tele bass is a page torn from the book of exceptions.
The big warm, bold and deep sound of the P-Bass was loved and desired from its date of birth. It’s been played by just about anyone who ever played the bass, from the novice to the worlds most respected and well loved players. Players with Signature models Include Roger Waters (Money, from Dark side of the moon opens with the sound of a cash register, and a P-Bass), Adam Clayton from U2, Mike Dirnt, Tony Franklyn, Sting, Pino Paldino, and many more. Some artists that famously played the P-Bass also include legendary Motown bass master James Jamerson, The Clash’s “foundation” Paul Simonon, Duck Dunn, Stu Hamm, Tal Wilkenfeld (Beck’s 16 year old prodigy), even Sid Vicious had the sense to choose (or stole) the world’s toughest boldest beast of a bass. Next time you play, or hear a person playing the P-Bass, try to imagine a world without it.
*The spit coil is a hum canceling single coil, and will be seen next, many years later on Leo’s G&L Comanche guitar.