The Electric Bass Guitar has been a crucial instrument in contemporary music since it replaced the double bass in rock 'n' roll in the 50s. It's widely believed that Leo Fender was its inventor, but this is actually not the case - the first incarnation of the bass guitar was produced by the American manufacturer Paul Tutmarc in the early 30s. Called an 'electronic bass fiddle', it was a solid bodied 4-stringed fretted instrument with a 30½ inch scale, and was designed to be played horizontally in a similar fashion to the guitar. This instrument didn't catch on at the time, which is why it's more commonly credited to Leo in 1951. Fender's first instrument was the 'Precision Bass' which is still hugely popular today (often referred to simply as the P-Bass). Its invention brought about a sea-change in popular music, enabling bassists to learn the instrument and play in tune more easily, and with a greater degree of comfort and portability. Crucially, it was simple to amplify and not prone to feedback. The rest, as they say, is history!
1952 Precision Bass
1964 Fender Jazz Bass
The original Precision Bass had a 'split' single-coil pickup, 21 frets, and a bolt-on neck. The ash body and rosewood fingerboard gave the bass a weighty sound that recorded easily, and its playability and lightweight construction made it considerably easier for young musicians to take up the bass. Some say that the Motown sound would never have been possible without the Fender Precision, and of course, legendary bassist James Jamerson, more of whom later...Leo Fender continued to develop his range of basses, adding the 'Fender Jazz' or 'Deluxe' bass in 1960. The Jazz (or 'J') bass differed slightly from the Precision in that it had 2 single-coil pickups, with stacked controls per pickup for volume and tone. This gave the instrument much more emphasis in the mid-range and allowed it to cut through the mix a little more. It also had a slightly smaller nut width, making the instrument a little easier to get around. Leo's original intention was that the Jazz Bass would encourage upright bass players to make the switch to electric, but like the P-Bass, most were sold to players of popular music of one genre or another.
The Fender Jazz went through some minor changes is the 60s, most notably the move from dual concentric volume/tone pots, to the single tone and dual volume controls we see today. The instrument is almost certainly the most copied bass guitar in history, with countless manufacturers offering 'boutique' models, sporting 'boutique' price tags!
Gibson EB-1 Bass
Later in the 60s, Fender also released the Mustang Bass (1966), and the Telecaster Bass (1967). The Mustang had a shorter scale for more diminutive players, while the Telecaster had a slightly more contoured body shape.Gibson threw their hat into the ring in 1951 with the violin-shaped EB1 bass, and soon afterwards, the EB0 in 1959. The EB0 was based on their 'SG' model guitar and looked a little more like the basses we are familiar with today. As rock music seemed to take over the world in the 60s, many companies started to make their own versions of the electric bass, including Rickenbaker and Danelectro. Leo Fender left the Fender company in 1970 to set up Musicman, where he developed the 'Stingray', the first mass-produced bass with active circuitry. This paved the way for high-end basses from makers such as Alembic, which featured exotic woods and onboard pre-amplifiers.
Let's move on now to take a look at the key areas to consider when choosing a bass guitar: