Did Leo Fender Really Invent the Electric Bass?

Leo Fender. Photo by Bob Perine.

Sixty years ago, Fender introduced its second electric bass guitar. The Jazz Bass, which started production in March 1960, was a slightly more upscale model that sat above the earlier Precision Bass in the company's line. "This is Fender's newest addition to the field of electric basses and represents the standards by which others will be compared," boasted the press release, noting among the Jazz Bass's features list a "new" type of control layout: "Tandem tone and volume controls for each pickup permit mixing for wide bass tone selection."

Fender Catalog, 1961

It's one example of how Fender in those days regularly took ideas that already existed and adapted them for its own use. The "tandem controls" of those early Jazz Basses—today we'd probably call them stack knobs—had already appeared on, for example, several Danelectro models since at least the mid-'50s. Dano called them "television type" controls, and it was on TVs and radios of the period that they'd originated.

An amplified bass was not a new idea in 1951, when Fender introduced its first bass—the Precision—to the market. Thirty years earlier, in the '20s, Lloyd Loar, an engineer at Gibson, had experimented with a slimmed-down electric upright bass.

In the following decade, Rickenbacker offered a stick-shaped electric upright bass ("held upright or in playing position by our new folding adjustable stand"), as did Regal ("fine for all fretted groups as well as orchestras") and Vega ("bass players have been looking for an Electric Bass to enhance their own position and to give the orchestra greater bass foundation").

None of these efforts were commercially successful, and they weren't helped by the quality of amplification at the time. It seemed as if makers knew that bass players wanted a louder, tonally pleasing instrument—but they couldn't find the right way to help.

Everett Hull, a working bassist in New York City, approached the problem from a practical angle. He figured you could take the existing upright bass and amplify that. In the late '40s, Hull produced an amplification system for the acoustic upright with a microphone inside the bass's pointed peg, or base spike. This "amplified peg" gave the company its name, and Ampeg enjoyed moderate success with its scheme for adapting upright basses to amplified sound (and rather more with its amplifiers).

Gibson Catalog, 1927

The idea of a fretted bass wasn't new, either. Multi-string fretted bass instruments such as the bass lute and theorbo dated back to the 1600s or so. But at the beginning of the 20th century, Gibson came up with the Mando-bass, a four-string fretted instrument that continued as the largest item in its mandolin line for 20 years or so from the early 1910s.

A '20s Gibson catalogue showed one Eleanor Camp seated and playing the acoustic Mando-bass with a pick. She held the instrument angled guitar-style across her body thanks to the support of an "adjustable extension floor rest," a metal rod that protruded from the lower side of the instrument and rested on the floor.

Gibson described the fretted Mando-bass as "unusually easy to play." What they didn't say was that this $150 instrument did little to project its sound through the band and into the audience. It was not a great success during its surprisingly long life—Leo Fender knew about a local band who used a Mando-bass in the '40s.

There was even an electric bass guitar that predated Fender's Precision. Paul Tutmarc, a Hawaiian guitar player and teacher based in Seattle, started a company called Audiovox in the '30s to manufacture electric instruments, including an electric bass guitar.

Paul Tutmarc

His Model 736 Bass Fiddle was first offered for sale in 1936. It had a simplified guitar-shape walnut body, a single pickup and control knob on a pearloid pickguard, a neck with 16 frets, and a cable emerging from a jack on the upper side of the body. It was a remarkably early electric bass guitar design, and Paul Tutmarc should be remembered as a man with admirable foresight, if little commercial luck.

Tutmarc's son, Bud, later marketed a similar electric bass guitar, the Serenader, through the L.D. Heater music distribution company of Portland, Oregon. Heater's undated flyer—Bud claimed the instrument was launched in 1948—described the $139.50 Serenader as "designed to eliminate the bulkiness of a regular size [upright bass]."

None of this detracts from the significance and importance of Fender's introduction of the solidbody electric Precision Bass guitar in 1951. The Bass Fiddle and Serenader basses, even though they were first, made no impact on the market or on music. By contrast, Fender's electric bass guitars would become industry standards.

Back at the close of the '50s, however, players were only slowly becoming aware of the potential for bass guitars, and most guitar companies still regarded the instruments with caution, despite tentative steps by Kay, Gibson, Danelectro, and Rickenbacker. A big maker like Harmony, never usually slow at identifying and exploiting market opportunities, did not offer a bass guitar model until 1962. Similarly, Fender did not feel that the market would support a second model in its bass line until 1960 and the introduction of the Jazz Bass.

There are other examples from early Fender history of the company's tendency to look around itself, absorb what was going on, and adapt what it found into its own products. Fender's original solidbody guitar designs, the Tele and the Strat, lifted a few ideas from a one-off boutique guitar that Paul Bigsby made for Merle Travis a few years earlier.

According to Travis, Leo borrowed that guitar, returning it a week later and asking Travis to try one "almost like it" that Leo had made. "I told him I thought it was great," Travis recalled replying. Fender's marketing boss Don Randall wrote about Travis in a 1950 letter, saying: "He is playing the granddaddy of our Spanish guitar, built by Paul Bigsby—the one Leo copied."

Dale Hyatt, who ran Leo's radio store for a while and soon became an important part of Fender's sales force, described Leo as a real thinker. "His belief," Hyatt recalled, "was that he could take anything anybody else made and make it better—and make money doing it. He really felt that. No matter what it was, Leo thought anything he had in his store at the time, if he set out to do it, he could do a better job."

It wasn't just the guitars and basses that revealed outside influences. When Leo and Ray Massie developed the first K&F and Fender amps, they looked up the circuits in manuals that RCA produced to promote its tubes—just as almost every other early amp maker did in the United States. And when Fender produced its first self-contained Reverb Unit in 1961, the device was adapted from Hammond's established spring reverb system.

George Fullerton and Leo Fender

In fact, Leo Fender and his colleagues were like any other team of product developers past or present—probably wondering if it's impossible to make something completely original and new. Anything supposedly "new" usually draws upon what has gone before, however inconspicuous or subtle the influence might be.

These are considerations that face every creative person. The French artist Eugène Delacroix put it well around 200 years ago: "What moves people of genius, or rather what inspires their work, is not new ideas," he wrote in his journal, "but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough."

About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. He is a co-founder of Backbeat UK and Jawbone Press. His books include 60 Years Of Fender, The Bass Book, and The Ultimate Guitar Book. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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