Here’s a piece that Barry Moorhouse and I wrote about some of things we got up to when we were putting together the first edition of The Bass Book. It gives an idea of the flavour and scope of that original work, which we’ve since refined and developed a couple of times to improve and bring it up to date.
“Guitar players appear to be inherently more conservative than bass players when it comes to equipment.” So says Rick Turner, co-founder of Alembic, in one of dozens of interviews we conducted for The Bass Book. One glance at the startling array of bass designs that litter the pages of this new book, and you can see what he means. Which makes it all the more baffling why no one has written the history of the bass before. It seems incredible, but this is the first.
So many bass people went out of their way to help us, that it was as if they agreed it was time this book was written. In Los Angeles, Van Halen’s Michael Anthony allowed us to search at length through his collection. We cornered Alembic’s very first bass in San Francisco, while Sting (plus Ibanez bass) was tracked down to New Jersey. We talked to Paul McCartney, who filled in the background to his spectacular use of the instrument in the 60s. And there was a magical date with Stanley Clarke to photograph his Alembics – and, as it turned out, to fuse all the lights in his house.
But let’s fill in some detail. Most people have heard that Leo Fender ‘invented’ the electric bass guitar in the early 50s and that, as the years went by, other companies brought out more sophisticated variations as fashion changed and players’ demands altered. This all culminated in what we might call the 80s cult of the bass, so that we sit here today [reader, please note this was written in 1995] surrounded by the modern options of extra strings, fretless boards, clever electronics, and all the rest. But how did we get here?
In the beginning, Leo Fender listened to the guitarists who came into his Fullerton works and heard they were increasingly working in smaller bands where the ability to double on an additional instrument was an obvious way to beat other musicians looking for work. Fender must have figured that an instrument that allowed guitarists to play bass might become a good seller. Don Randall, manager of Fender’s distribution at the time, told us that the Precision Bass wasn’t just aimed at guitarists. “The guitar players picked it up, of course,” he said, “and many of them played bass and guitar, but most of the guys in the travelling bands were playing the big bass. They had to have a moving van to take everything where they were going! The Fender was a godsend to them. It wasn’t so cumbersome as the big acoustic bass.”
Writers still blithely turn out reports of the bass being “an instant hit” but we found that simply wasn’t the case. Witnesses confirmed that it was only during the very late 50s – seven or eight years after the introduction of the Precision – that the electric bass guitar even began to secure a foothold, and that it was not until the early 60s that it really took off.
Other companies were hesitant in joining Fender in this new market; indeed, few could even discern a market back then. Among the first was Kay, who brought out a bass guitar in 1952, and then Gibson the following year, but neither met with much success. More significant at first was Danelectro’s six-string bass, issued in 1956 and basically a guitar tuned down an octave. Some American studios started recording it in tandem with an upright double-bass for what was called click bass or, in Nashville, tic-tac bass. Notably, ten years of Precision production went by before Fender felt that the market could support a second model. Compare that with the proliferation of Fender’s guitar range, which in 1960 included six distinct electric guitar models and no fewer than 13 different amplifier heads and combos.
Pop music exploded as the 60s got under way, and nobody did more to make the world aware of the bass guitar’s role in this new music than Paul McCartney in The Beatles. Meeting Paul at his studio in Sussex for a chat about his days at the bottom end of the mop-tops was a high spot for us in the book’s research, and also we photographed Paul’s trusty Hofner violin bass and his more rarely seen Rickenbacker 4001S for inclusion in the book.
Paul, originally one of three guitarists in the group, told us how he replaced the existing bassist, Stu Sutcliffe, in 1961. Stu had happened on that role simply because he had a bass guitar. “None of us wanted to be the bass player,” McCartney recalled. “It wasn’t the number one job. In our minds, it was the fat guy in the group nearly always played the bass, and he stood at the back. we wanted to be up front, singing, looking good, to pull the birds.”
Then Stu left. “It was like, uh-oh, we haven’t got a bass player. And everyone turned round and looked at me. I was a bit lumbered with it, really. It was like, well, it’d better be you, then. I don’t think you would have caught John doing it – he would have said no, you’re kidding, I’ve got a nice new Rickenbacker. I didn’t have a guitar at the time – it had been smashed up and I was playing piano on stage, then – so I couldn’t really say that I wanted to be a guitarist. Eventually, I found a little shop in the centre of Hamburg, and I saw this violin-shaped bass guitar in the window, the Hofner.”
McCartney spearheaded the so-called British Invasion in the early 60s, while in the States itself it was Motown’s James Jamerson who gave a strong and characterful voice to the emerging bass instrument. As the decade progressed and pop became rock, there ever more inventive expressions of bass musicianship: in the UK, it was John Entwistle in The Who and Jack Bruce in Cream who pricked the ears of fellow players, while in the USA it was the mighty west-coast team of Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead) and Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane), two players who helped to put a small company called Alembic on the bass map.
Alembic is one of those companies, along with Ampeg, who never seem to get the plaudits they deserve. They’ve been painted as minor players in the already overlooked area of bass making, but their fascinating stories warranted attention in The Bass Book. We spoke at length to Rick Turner and Ron Wickersham, who at Alembic in the early 70s did much to change the face of the bass guitar, and we found a pretty wild story behind the company’s creation.
Alembic’s founder was a chap called Augustus Stanley Owsley, a Frisco contemporary of The Grateful Dead and, incidentally, the manufacturer of the strongest LSD to be found in the civilised world (check out Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test for that story). Owsley started Alembic as a sort of electronics workshop to service the Dead’s increasingly bizarre gear and recording requirements, although rather quickly it became a guitar-making operation, at first customising existing instruments but soon producing original designs.
In fact, Alembic made only a handful of guitars, and the vast majority of its work was aimed at bassists, since, as Turner observed, it found the new low-end players more open to new approaches. Alembic came up with a hugely influential combination of design elements: high-quality multi-laminate neck-through construction; attractive, exotic woods; heavy tone-enhancing brass hardware; and complex active-electronics systems with external power supplies.
The next important landmark in the history of the bass was Steinberger’s plastic, headless instrument of 1979, and we photographed a prototype for the book. Ned Steinbrger told us: “A key reason why we were able to succeed with this strange headless design made out of plastic was that, although on first glance it seemed very strange to a musician, on a second glance it starts to make sense, right on the surface. There was a certain logic in the instrument that is visible, that is understandable, that is communicable to players.”
To find out about the development of five and six-string basses, we spoke to US session bassist Anthony Jackson, who first came up with the idea of an extended-tuning six-string bass. This was not the old guitar-down-an-octave like the early Danelectro efforts or baritone guitars such as the Fender VI, but an E-A-D-G bass with extra low B and high C strings. Makers Carl Thompson, Ken Smith, and Vinnie Fodera turned Jackson’s ideas into real instruments, and James Taylor’s bassist Jimmy Johnson ordered a custom bass from Alembic in 1975 that was the first five-string electric bass to use a low B.
“There were many instances when I just wanted to go lower down,” Jackson told us. “I would detune my Fender bass to get the lower notes when I wanted them, but it was always awkward to do and it resulted in lower string-tension, which meant I had to raise the bridge or maybe modify the nut. There had to be an easier way to do that. I felt that I ought to be able to go down another fourth, to B. And I knew I was going to call it a contrabass guitar, because the range was below a bass guitar – enough to warrant a new name.”
As well as investigating the obvious legends of the bass world, we stumbled upon stories that we just couldn’t leave out of The Bass Book: the Hawaiian guitarist from Washington who designed an electric bass guitar years before Leo Fender; the saga of the graphite neck and the aerospace industry; the birth of Leo Fender’s other great bass, the Music Man StingRay; the revolutionary playing style of Jaco Pastorius; the appearance of air inside basses as everyone went unplugged in the early 80s; the search for an accurate link between bass and synthesizer.
Picture wise, we drew on a similarly large range of sources to bring to The Bass Book the last bass that Leo worked on, the very first Alembic, custom-colour Fenders, eight-string Hagstroms, see-through Dan Armstrongs, triple-neck Wals, Jack Bruce’s Warwick, Mark King’s Jaydee … the hardest job, in fact, was to decide what to leave out.
But the curious thing was that, after all the research and interviews and photography and writing was over, our impression remained that the electric bass is going forward and backward at the same time. How’s that? Well, it seems that numerous makers are re-combining existing technologies and pushing into new areas, with anything from fretless six-strings to electronic MIDI basses. And yet, if there’s one overwhelming tend, it’s that many bass players are returning to the most basic designs of the 50s and 60s in order to produce today’s music. It’s a fascinating tale – and one that deserves to be heard.
This piece first appeared in The Guitar Magazine in May 1995