History of the Bass Guitar

It’s all About That Bass:  the Bass Guitar

The bass guitar as we know it, is the long necked four to six stringed instrument creating pitches one octave lower than the guitar’s first four strings. They’re the lower pitches of A, E, D  and G. It was invented to mimic the sound of the large double bass.  As a guitar, its form was much easier to carry. Since its invention in the 1930’s by Seattle Washington’s Paul Tutmarc, it slowly took its place in the music world.  Very few were made and sold until the 1950’s when Leo Fender made the first mass produced electric bass guitar.

Fender began the revolution, but Gibson was quick to follow suit in 1953.  Fender was first to develop the “humbucking effect”, electrically cancelling the AC hum.  Gibson featured the humbucking pickups directly against the neck pocket, while Fender placed these mounts between the base of the neck and the bridge’s top.  After Gibson began producing dual-humbucking pickups, other domestic guitar manufacturers such as Kay and Danelectro began entering the marketplace.  In the 1950’s the Germans, Hofner and Rickenbacker also began offering bass guitars.

In the 1960’s Fender produced the Fender Jazz Bass.  That was the beginning of many more manufacturers making the bass guitars.  High-end bass guitars using custom tailoring became popular and were used by artists like Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead, Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane and Stanley Clarke.  Anthony Jackson, a Grammy nominated bassist commissioned a six-string bass tuned to B0, E1, A1, D2, G2 and C3.  This made a session bassist’s job less complicated.  Tasks like hitting a “drop D” no longer required re-tuning and more notes could be played.

Monk Montgomery, who toured with Lionel Hampton’s band in 1953, was the first bass guitarist to tour playing the new instrument.  Since then, many bassists have left their mark in history.  One of them, Ashton Barrett of the Wailer’s, Bob Marley’s band used his Fender jazz bass to create melodic hooks and subatomic grooves.  He helped Reggae establish itself as one of this time period’s iconic music genres.  Listen to “Stir it Up” and “No Woman, No Cry” for a taste of his grooves.

Prince could work those strings too. Listen to him playing Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House” and his own “The Ultimate Blues Collection”, you can clearly see his genius.  Let’s not forget Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone fame.  His contribution to the genre can be epitomized in the song “Thank You” along with the group’s many other hits.

John Paul Jones playing his Fender Jazz Bass (that’s the second great to use this instrument) helped put “The Lemon Song” on the hit list for Led Zeppelin.  Jaco Pastorius is the only electric bassist to be inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame.  He started with an upright bass and later traded it for a Fender Jazz Bass.  He started working as a backup musician.   In 1976, he released “Jaco Pastorius”, his first solo album. It was considered a breakthrough album, perhaps the best bass album ever produced.  Cliff Burton was another great, but he died at 24, depriving us of decades of exposure to his deeply pitched melodies. Cliff was Metallica’s bassist until his death in 1986.

These were a few of the great artists who we’ve been blessed to hear.  They were all masters at playing an instrument, the bass guitar.  Like all musical instruments, it’s still evolving.  Just as the bass guitar was developed out of a need, as music progresses more changes will come and we look forward to those changes.