Danelectro's UB-2 and the Early Days of 6-String Basses

During the '50s, the bass guitar was a new invention still finding its role among musicians. There were a handful of precedents, but it was Fender that defined the instrument as a commercially viable product with its remarkable Precision Bass, launched in 1951. In the years that followed, the key question at first was who would actually play this new kind of guitar? Was it aimed at players of upright string-basses who wanted something more portable, or players of regular guitars who sensed the potential for extra work?

One answer came with an instrument launched just a few years after Fender's bass went on sale. Nathan "Nat" Daniel had started out back in the '30s making amplifiers, including models for Epiphone's early Electar brand. He set up on his own as Danelectro in New Jersey in 1946, supplying amps to mail-order firms. In '54, he began making guitars, at first with cloth- or vinyl-covered bodies, and a little later he introduced the U series.

The new $75 single-pickup U-1 and $100 two-pickup U-2 models were built unconventionally, following Nat's emphasis on cheap materials and simple production methods, using a pine frame topped and backed with a shaped sheet of Masonite (a brand of fiberboard) and edged with vinyl. The instruments had clear plastic pickguards, distinctive headstocks, "split-shell" pickup cases made from lipstick tubes, and—on the two-pickup guitars—"television-type" stacked controls offering a volume and tone per pickup.

Also on offer from '56 was an unusual companion to the two regular models, the UB-2 six-string bass.

1958 Danelectro UB-2. Photos from Retrofret Vintage Guitars

The UB-2 had a scale length around 30 inches, placing it almost exactly midway between Fender's 34-inch P-Bass scale and 25 1/2-inch Telecaster scale. Danelectro figured that with Fender's bass facing some uncertainty about its purpose and intended market, a hybrid six-string bass could potentially appeal to both camps of players who might be interested. This was the first Dan'o bass, and for now the firm offered no regular four-string variety.

1956 Danelectro Catalog

A contemporary catalogue boldly described the UB-2: "A brand new instrument that combines the best qualities of Spanish guitar and big string bass." The $135 UB-2 was "a six-string guitar with extra-long neck and extra-long strings," it continued. "Twenty-four frets, two full octaves on each string, total range of four octaves. Neck joins body at 17th fret. Tuning is the same as on a regular guitar, but one octave lower."

Nat Daniel told me later about his thinking behind the UB-2. "People started making bass guitars, and it was no big deal for us to switch from guitars to basses," he said. "We simply made the neck a bit longer. We started with a six-string bass, because it's hardly any more trouble than a four-string and it gave the player something more for the same money. It took time for that to catch on, but if the player was capable, he had more stuff to play with."

Explanations were evidently necessary in this new and unfamiliar world of low-tuned guitars, and the '50s Dan'o catalogue went on to spell out some possible applications for the innovative UB-2 to assist any musicians still wondering how they might use the Danelectro innovation.

"Since the bottom four strings are tuned exactly the same as a big string bass, this instrument makes a perfect bass, except for bowing. Total range is much greater than that of a conventional bass, so that the playing of melody, chords, and riffs can be accomplished as on regular guitar. This instrument is terrific for rhythm and melody, and simply cannot be beat for combining both." There was a final thought, too, to tempt the still unconvinced: "With it you will stand out from the crowd."

1959 Long Horn 4623. Photos by Guitars for Vets

Danelectro replaced the UB-2 in 1958 with a model in each of two new lines. The $150 Long Horn 4623 six-string bass had a remarkable design, the body retaining the pine-frame and fiberboard construction of the U models but now boasting a striking look thanks to a pair of extremely deep cutaways. It came on like some sort of modern electric lyre.

1964 Short Horn 3612. Photos by Retrofret Vintage Guitars

The other new model was the $85 Short Horn 3612 six-string bass, a stubby little fellow with just 15 frets. (At the time, a Fender Precision listed at $219.50.) Also, there were now regular Dan'o four-string basses alongside these new six-strings. A few other companies began to make six-string basses, including in 1959 Gibson with its hollowbody EB-6 and, notably, in 1961 Fender with its solidbody VI.

Players were gradually discovering the benefits of the new electric bass guitars, primarily the four-string variety, and often this was a Fender Precision. The first US No. 1 single to feature the instrument may have been "Jailhouse Rock," topping the chart for Elvis in late 1957, with Bill Black's P-Bass evident. Among others, Joe Maudlin switched from upright bass to a Precision for Buddy Holly's tours in '58, and Jet Harris played his on stage and in the studio with The Shadows, including his work on their 1960 UK No. 1 "Apache."

1961 Danelectro Catalog

Danelectro's six-string basses seemed to prove more of a draw for guitarists than bassists, and one of the most prominent was Duane Eddy. In 1959, he walked into a guitar store in Hollywood and saw a Long Horn 4623 six-string bass. Intrigued, the king of twang bought it on the spot.

"I thought, Hey, maybe somebody who likes my sound has made a whole guitar based around it," Duane told me with a smile. "I did practically the whole next album on that guitar, The Twang's The Thang, things like 'Blueberry Hill,' 'Night Train To Memphis'—I think there's only one or two, like 'Trambone,' that I used my regular Gretsch 6120 on. And then the next year I did one of the biggest singles I ever had, 'Because They're Young,' with the Danelectro. By that time, I had also bought a black UB-2, which looked a little better."

Another Duane hit, "Rebel Rouser," recorded in early '58, featured two bass players, with Jimmy Simmons on upright bass, providing depth and tone to the bassline, and Buddy Wheeler playing the same notes on electric bass, adding a percussive, attacking edge. Duane's producer, Lee Hazlewood, called this click bass.

The technique, often with a Dan'o six, turned up on other records made around the time, notably in Nashville where it was called tic-tac bass. There was Elvis's "Stuck On You" (Bob Moore on upright, Hank Garland on six-string bass), Patsy Cline's "I Fall To Pieces" (Bob Moore on upright, Harold Bradley on Danelectro six-string bass), and quite a few others.

Today, Danelectro's original idea for the six-string bass has settled into the instrument we know as the baritone guitar, available now from makers such as ESP, Gretsch, Ibanez, Reverend, Schecter, and more, including the revived Danelectro brand (and, until 2011, the Jerry Jones Dan'o-inspired baritones). They have scale lengths between about 26 and 30 inches and are often tuned B-to-B or A-to-A (with typical string sets around .014–.068) but also as "traditional" E-to-E six-string bass (string sets around .020–.090).

Meanwhile, the modern six-string bass, developed in the '80s, is a completely different animal. It takes the regular four-string bass and extends it either side, with (usually) a lower B-string and a higher C-string, all on a necessarily much wider neck—and the modern five-string bass usually just adds the low B. But that's all another bunch of stories for another day.


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 The Bass Book; Guitars: The Illustrated Encyclopedia; and Paul McCartney: Bassmaster. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

comments powered by Disqus