History of the Bass Guitar

Kevin Ott
Man playing bass guitar

The bass guitar, though often overlooked in the audio mix of songs and in the development of modern music, is one of the biggest game changers in modern music history. Like its electric six-string cousin, the bass guitar has a fascinating development that bloomed rapidly in the twentieth century.

Early Roots

Although the ancestor of the bass guitar dates centuries back, it's not until the early twentieth century when the need and designs for the modern bass guitar begin to take shape.

  • Early 1600s: The "fingernail bass" or guitarron, an early Spanish acoustic precursor to the bass guitar, is used in musical performances in Europe. Bass instruments in general, whether double basses in orchestra or the guitarron, are large and bulky. This does not change for centuries.
  • 1920s: Jazz musicians who play bass begin to see the need for a smaller version of the unwieldy stand-up double bass that most play. Meanwhile, vaudeville musician George Beauchamp searches for a guitar that has a louder volume that can compete with large ensembles. His partnership with John Dopyera marks the beginning of what is the famous Rickenbacker guitar and bass company.
  • 1924: Lloyd Loar makes an experimental prototype electric bass for Gibson, but neither the management nor the public accepts it. Lloyd resigns from Gibson the same year.
  • 1931: Rickenbacher and Beauchamp become partners and form the company that is eventually called Rickenbacker, which is not only named after one of the founders, Adolf Rickenbacker, but is meant to suggest a connection to Adolf's distant relative Eddie Rickenbacker, a famous American pilot ace from World War I who is well known to the public. Rickenbacker later makes one of the most famous electric bass guitars.

The First Models Are Released

A number of competing instrument companies begin to release the first bass guitar models, which are rudimentary but promise a revolution for musicians and the music industry.

  • 1935: One of the first modern electric bass guitars--perhaps the first one (if you don't count Lloyd Loar's rejected prototype)--is produced in Seattle, Washington by the Audiovox Manufacturing Company. Created by Paul Tutmarc, the electric upright solid body bass, much smaller than the acoustic version, is marketed as the "Electric Bass Fiddle." Released in 1935, the device is two feet shorter than the usual stand-up bass and easier to carry.
  • Circa 1935-1936: Rickenbacker releases its metal bass, which uses a horseshoe pickup.
  • 1936: In the late 1930s, Regal releases the Bassoguitar, which is an electric bass that essentially crosses a flat-top acoustic guitar with a stand-up double-bass. It is another step toward modeling the bass instrument after the smaller, more portable flat-top guitar.
  • Circa late 1930s: Vega releases the Electric Bass Viol, another one of the first electrified wooden bass instruments.
  • 1938: Gibson releases its first electric bass guitar, which is similar to Regal's Bassoguitar. It looks like an arch-top guitar with Gibson-style knobs and a pickup, but it still uses an endpin that a stand-up bass would use.
  • 1940s: Paul Tutmarc's son Bud begins making bass guitars as well, and he designs a model called the Serenader bass.
  • 1949: Bands are playing louder, and stand-up bass musicians complain to Leo Fender that their bulky, too quiet stand-ups can't compete in the new environment. Fender responds by beginning work on a new instrument for bassists that transforms modern music.
  • November 1951: Leo Fender releases the Fender Precision Bass, the first compact, easily portable modern day electric bass guitar that can be played like an electric six-string guitar, and it is paired with a new Fender amp designed for the bass. The bass has a single coil pickup, and it is basic compared to later models, but its tiny size is a revolution for bass players.
  • 1953: Another instrument maker, Gibson, capitalizes on Fender's success and releases a version of an electric bass in 1953 called the EB-1. The design is based around an extended pin that allows the bass to be played either upright or horizontal like an electric guitar.
  • 1958: Gibson releases the EB-2, which puts Gibson on the map as a serious bass guitar maker in addition to its electric guitar legacy. It features an innovative baritone button, which allows bassists to press a button to switch between a deep rumble and a less bassy, more midrange bass tone.

Popular Culture Embraces the Bass Guitar

The late 1950s and 1960s become the most significant eras for the bass guitar as the instrument sweeps into popular culture and transforms the sound and look of modern music.

  • July 1957: Monk Montgomery, an accomplished African-American jazz bassist, becomes the first musician to record with an electric bass and one of the first to perform with one.
  • 1957: Rickenbacker releases its first electric bass guitar, the 4000 series, the predecessor to the internationally famous 4001 model that would come a few years later.
  • 1960: Fender releases the Fender Jazz Bass, which becomes popular with jazz bassists. This model has two single coil pick-ups and a narrower nut. After the invention of the Fender Jazz Bass, bass lingo has developed to refer to the pickups on the precision bass as "P" pickups and the pickups on the jazz bass as "J" pickups.
  • 1961: Rickenbacker releases its 4001 model of electric bass guitar, which is made famous when it becomes the bass of choice for Paul McCartney of The Beatles. Besides making the instrument a household name in popular culture, McCartney's use of it leads other artists to use Rickenbacker's instruments.

The Bass Guitar Continues to Evolve

As modern music exploded into a dizzying number of subgenres from the late 1960s to the present, the bass guitar kept up with the rapid changes, and it found itself in the spotlight of every genre.

  • Late 1960s: James Brown and other artists like Sly and the Family Stone and George Clinton introduce funk music to the popular consciousness, which forever changes the role of the bass guitar, making it the centerpiece and leading to the development of slap bass and the bass-driven genres, such as disco, techno, hip-hop, rap, and today's EDM.
  • 1970s: Further tweaks are made to the bass guitar in the 1970s. This period saw the creation of high-end bass guitars by Alembic. Custom made and using premium materials, their guitars are made for the professional. They also come in four-string and five-string versions, as well as a low-tuned, six-string version.
  • 1974: In the 1970s, Tom Walker, Forrest White, and Leo Fender come together in Music Man Instruments. The ensemble creates basses that use powered electronics to produce a lower dependence on the circuit system and more variations in style among players.
  • 1980s: Flashy bass guitar designs, such as the Gibson Thunderbird used by Motley Crue, become popular in the eighties metal era.
  • 1990s: Gibson becomes a prominent brand name for bassists in the alternative rock era when Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic uses Gibson RD bass guitars for the landmark album Nevermind.

The Future of the Bass

While the traditional design of wood-based electric bass guitars are still extremely popular, new designs of the future are beginning to make waves.

  • Stash - The Stainless Steel Bass: Stash offers the first 100 percent stainless steel, non-wood bass guitar with a tubular neck for less strain on the hand, which means the "fretboard" is rounded, not flat. Besides being indestructible, this futuristic looking bass guitar is designed to never have thermal expansion, which means it never goes out of tune in different temperatures.
  • L-Bow Bass from Bass Lab: This truly unique bass design, a hollow bow that extends from the body like a weapon prop from a Thor movie, uses its carefully engineered design to produce a stunning low end, an excellent example of futuristic acoustic research leading to never-seen-before designs.

One thing is certain: as technology advances, you will likely be seeing some very unusual bass guitars appearing on stage in concerts in the coming years.

The Bass Guitar: An Innovation All Its Own

The bass guitar had a profound effect on modern music history when it enabled musicians from many genres, from jazz bassists to The Beatles, to play music with greater volume and portability. Without the modern bass guitar, these genres of popular music would never had blossomed like it did.

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History of the Bass Guitar