The Electric Bass Guitar: A History (1950s onwards)

Fender, Alembic, Hӧfner, Warwick, Rickenbacker, Yamaha…we’ve discussed many great bass guitars here, along with some outstanding bass guitar players to boot.  Whether you’re a music lover, bassist, collector, or all three, we all have our favourite anecdotes and stories about those special bass models and our best loved artists. However, you may not be as familiar with the origins of the electric bass guitar and how it came to be such an important part of a bands’ DNA – and music in general.

So, where did it all begin?  The first electric bass guitar was created by Leo Fender in 1950’s America.  This initial model – called the Precision bass – was a fairly simple design featuring a flat ‘slab’ body and a single coil pick up.  A later version of the Precision bass was produced in 1957 and closely resembled the Fender Stratocaster model, featuring fresh contoured edges and a split coil pick up. Designed to replicate the low pitch which had historically been created by the hefty double bass (which was a nightmare for bands to transport when on the road) the electric bass guitar provided a broader tone than the traditional upright bass.   It also enabled bassists to create a sound which could compete with – and complement – the electric guitar, which had been growing in popularity throughout the 1950s.   A jazz artist called Monk Montgomery was one of the first people to perform with an electric bass guitar, however it wasn’t until 1961 – when The Beatles’ Paul McCartney started playing the newly released Rickenbacker 4001 – that there was a noticeable shift, and bands started swapping their upright basses for electric bass guitars.  This change was part of a much wider electric revolution taking place across all music genres at that time; and the development of the bass guitar was instrumental in powering this change.

This new, exciting and versatile bass instrument was able to blend perfectly with all styles of modern 1970s, 80s and 90s music.  Not only did it provide a deep and interesting new sound, but its introduction also changed the way that bands performed on stage.  Unlike the upright double bass, which was rooted in one spot, the electric bass player was often positioned at the front of the stage and was able to move around, meaning they were free to perform their stunning bass solos in a more interactive way with their audience.   Similarly, this also influenced the direction of new music being released at this time, with strong rhythmic bass lines and bass solos becoming massively popular, helping to elevate songs such as Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust and The Who’s My Generation to anthemic status.

The rise of the electric bass not only led to an increase of bass solos in new records, but it also sometimes altered where a band’s energy came from.  Many would agree that the traditional upright bass helped maintain rhythm along with the drummer in a jazz band scenario, but the electric bass, with its versatility and ability to amplify and tweak its tone, enabled bass guitarists to drive the song forward with an energy that the upright had never been able to do. (No offence to any double bass players out there – there’s room for everyone – but we’re all about the bass here…)  A couple of stellar examples which illustrate this are John Entwistle from The Who and Geddy Lee from Rush. Although they clearly had contrasting performance styles and presence, their skilled playing was the source of the power in their respective groups, which kept everyone in time and pushed the songs forward, without compromising or obstructing the drummer.

As electric bass guitars became more established in the 1950s and 60s, musicians started to experiment with how they were played – not just from a rhythmic perspective or playing around with pick-ups, but as a way to complement, and sometimes even challenge, the electric guitar.  Jack Bruce (Cream) was a pioneer in this area and became famous for the way he played his bass in a more melodic way – inspiring the likes of Geddy Lee, who also played in a similar style.  Later, in the 1970s and 80s, Motorhead’s Lemmy also deviated from the norm; playing his famous bass like an electric guitar instead of a bass guitar – often leaving the band’s drummer and guitarist to worry about the rhythm, while he went off and did this own thing for the crowd.

As we’ve seen, the electric bass guitar is an essential part of music and bands today, and musicians continue to be inspired by the bassist pioneers of the latter half of the twentieth century, whilst also experimenting and finding their own path with the electric bass.  And for us, that’s the joy of the electric bass guitar.  The versatility and scope enable the creation of such a broad spectrum of sound across all types of music styles, that the possibilities seem endless.  Electric bass guitars are certainly here to stay – and with so many different brands and styles, there is a bass for everyone.