Let’s talk a little bass. A lot of people are aware of the bass part in bands now that it has been emphasized and publicized in recent years. After all what is it that you hear when you are cruising down the street and a vehicle nears you and its equipped with multiple massive sub-woofers and thousands of watts of amplifier power driving them? You don’t hear the vocals or the guitars or keyboards. It’s the bass (including the bass (“kick”) drum. Early recordings were weak on the bass part of the sound spectrum and the reproduction equipment most people had was a small “record player” that just could not make the bass heard. The bass part of a song really holds the song together and drives it along. The bass along with the drums provide the tempo and rhythm and the bass adds some melody to the rhythm. The bass part can be simple, such as many early Country and Western songs were examples of, or the bass can be complex and intricate. Early Country and Western and a lot of early blues, plus most jazz and lounge music had bass provided by an upright acoustic bass, also known as a double bass. It is the big brother of the violin, viola and cello. The first electric bass was invented in the 1930’s by Paul Tutmarc in Seattle, Washington. About 100 of them were produced. Then in 1951 Leo Fender began mass production of the Fender Precision Bass and it was a hit. The popularity came from the facts that it was strung and tuned like a guitar so that anyone who knew how to play guitar could also play the electric bass; plus it had frets, making it much easier to hit the notes precisely (thus the name Precision Bass); possibly the biggest factor in its success was that it was easy to take on tour due to being much smaller than a double bass and its ruggedness. It was made of a solid slab of wood and had a steel-reinforced neck. The double bass is a hollow bodied instrument with thin delicate wood forming the body and had to be handled with care.
By 1953 Gibson was producing a small violin-shaped electric bass with a short scale neck. Rock and Roll was gathering steam and the market was booming for electric basses. Kay and Dalelectro also started producing electric basses during the 1950’s. In 1956 Hofner of Germany began production of the violin shape hollow body Hofner 500/1, renowned for it use and endorsement by Paul McCartney of the Beatles. It is often referred to as the Beatle Bass. In 1957 Rickenbacker began production of the model 4000 bass. Paul McCartney also used a Rickenbacker during the “Magical Mystery Tour” period.
In the 1970’s Music Man, another Leo Fender company, introduced the Sting Ray bass, the first mass-produced bass to utilize active pickups, which had a built-in pre-amplifier to extend frequency response and lower output impedance, providing better bass response and power. More and more, the electric bass was being modified, redesigned and updated.
During the 60’s – 70’s garage band era, the popularity of a particular brand or style of bass among garage band bass players pretty much followed the popularity of the top big name bands and what style of music the garage band was playing. Most pure rock and pop bands bass players often used a Fender, or Fender-style bass. The British invasion brought the Beatles and some garage band bass players managed to obtain a Hofner or other violin shaped hollow body bass. For the most part these were expensive and difficult to find. With the advent of harder rock and psychedelic music came groups such as Cream, whose bass player, Jack Bruce, preferred the Gibson EB-3. Suddenly everyone was scrounging for a Gibson solid-body EB-3. The coolness factor was almost more important than the sound of the bass. Bass was not in the forefront just yet and a lot of amplifiers for bass produced a dull thump without much mid or upper range response. A lot of garage bands had to settle for what they could get and many a garage band bassman was stuck using a guitar amp anyway.
In my own experience, I started with a Hagstrom II bass that looked a lot like a Fender. If we ever had a gig I would have to rent an amp from the local music store. Their rental unit was an Alamo and wasn’t much of a bass amp. Eventually we had paid enough rental that we paid for a Fender Bassman amp. It was a beauty. Not a lot of power, I think about 40 watts, but it was a tube amp and could get pretty loud. It had a two 12 Jensen speaker cabinet and sounded really good. Over time I got a real Fender Jazz bass and a Kustom charcoal gray tuck-and-roll upholstered 100 Watt solid state amp with one 15 inch JBL DB140F and dual chrome bass reflex ports. That was a very nice bass rig and I loved the way it played and sounded. I really didn’t get to use it much though because by that time I got my draft notice and my next gig was 4 years in the U. S. Navy. After that I picked up a used Gibson EB-3 because a buddy of mine who played professionally was using the Fender Jazz. I later moved to Atlanta and got a used highly modified 1966 Fender Precision. I joined a band and played that P’bass for a long, long time. I have restored it to original configuration. Right now it is a fretless and has black nylon-wound strings on it. It sounds like a big ole double bass. I am toying with the idea of putting frets and flat-wound steel strings back on it and playing it live again.
While in school in Johnson City, Tennessee, I was in a band that played blues. We played at a show that had several bands and I was watching one group that was very interesting. I talked to the bass player during a break and he showed me his bass. It was a beautiful Guild, hollow-body with f-holes. I had never seen anything like it before, but one thing I will never forget is that he had a very wide strap on it, which I thought was very cool, but to attach it to the bass he had screwed some huge screw-eyes into the bass! One at the neck into the heel where the neck attaches to the body and one into the end of the body. I couldn’t believe he did that to such a fine instrument. I don’t even have an idea how much that bass must have cost. He was a very nice guy and even let me sit in on one song and use his bass. It was a memorable day.
That music store where I rented the Alamo bass amp back during college days one day surprised me with a poster of Frank Zappa in the store window. Frank was holding up a fiendish-looking instrument, sighting down the length of the neck and body. It was a Hagstrom, so I was curious and went inside and there it was – an 8-string Hagstrom bass. Man, that was an impressive instrument! It was strung similar to a 12-string guitar, with an octave higher string paired with each standard bass string. I was stunned. I couldn’t pay for a new set of 4 strings for my bass and I wondered how much the 8 string set must cost. I have a vague recollection that the cost of that 8-string bass was about $800 but I may just be totally wrong about that. Whatever it was put it out of range. It was impractical, but I was just enough of a rogue to have a real wish for such a wicked bass.
I am sure there are a lot of bass guitar stories out there and we would love to hear them. Comments invited and welcomed. Maybe we will talk about Bass Amps next!