The modern bass guitar is a young invention.
But it has undergone a barrage of quantum leaps in it short history.
In fact, it has evolved more in under 100 years than its predecessor did in in over 500 years of existence.
In short, the history of the bass guitar is brief, but eventful.
And as always, it has been shaped by innovative players who push the envelope of what their instruments can do.
Let’s dive into the fascinating history behind the modern bass and see how it all began, and how it arrived at the instrument we all know and love today.
Table of Contents
- 1 When Was The Bass Guitar Invented?
- 2 Bass Guitar History: Final Thoughts
When Was The Bass Guitar Invented?
The first bass “guitar” was invented in the early 1930s by a Seattle inventor called Paul Tutmarc. Marketed as a “Bass Fiddle”, it was modeled after the double bass that was commonly used throughout the classical era.
Leo Fender, the founder of the iconic Fender brand, is credited for inventing the first electric bass instrument. He designed his world-famous P-Bass in the ’50s, and it is still remarkably popular to this day.
Over the decades, electric bass guitar designs gradually adopted elements of electric guitars, featuring extra strings of varying thickness, setups that could accommodate a broader range of pedal effects and aesthetic elements that bring the two worlds closer together.
And it has been a huge success. The bass guitar has been a staple in the music world for almost a century. It is known for its super-low pitches, heavy strings, and the capability to form a bridge between the rhythm and lead sections,
In this article, I’ll dive into the roots of the bass guitar, take you through a journey of its electrification, and give you insight into what the landscape of bass guitars looks like today. Let’s start from the top.
Double Bass Origins
Some would argue that bass guitars of today don’t resemble the bulky upright basses people used to play in big bands and throughout the classical era. I somewhat agree.
Upright, or double, basses weren’t exactly guitars since they were too heavy to wear over the shoulders. Their strings were also significantly thicker, and even the sounds they produced were on a different level than the modern bass.
However, both bass guitars and double basses play the same role in the rhythm section, and their pitches exist in the same tonal spectrum.
It’s difficult to say what inspired Paul Tutmarc to design a bass that you could play like a regular guitar, but I’d argue that he wanted to build an instrument that was as percussive as the upright bass, but graced with the convenience and comfort of a regular guitar.
Fun Fact: Leo Fender invented a “hybrid” electric bass in the shape of a violin in 1953 called EB-1. It had an extendable pin that enabled you to use it as a double bass or a regular bass, but it was almost completely overshadowed by the popularity of the Precision Bass launched two years earlier.
The First Electric Bass – Audiovox Bass Fiddle
Tutmarc’s Bass Fiddle can be compared to today’s uke basses or the petite Traveler bass guitars. It looks so small and compact compared to standard basses, which is precisely what led me to think that he was looking to upgrade the design of upright basses with something more practical.
The design of the 736 Audiovox bass guitar laid the foundation for future bass designs and possibly inspired Leo to take the evolution one step further.
This bass has the same “bare bones” setup you can see in contemporary basses: 4 strings, 4 machine heads, one pot, and one impromptu single-coil pickup. Its body is small, its scale length ultra-short, and the fretboard tiny, but all the elements are there.
The P-Bass Quantum Leap
Leo Fender pushed the envelope in the bass industry when he created the first Precision Bass in existence. Aptly named “P Bass”, Leo officially launched the production of this instrument in 1951.
Aesthetically, the P Bass was nothing like the Audiovox Bass Fiddle. It had the wings of an electric guitar, a set of much thicker strings, a refined fretboard with even fret spacing and a stabler nut, two pots, a proprietary Fender single-coil pickup, and a pickguard.
The biggest difference between the P Bass and everything the world had seen before was in the tone. Handpicked prime quality tonewoods cut to perfection and installed with surgical precision, not to mention coupled with state-of-the-art electronics, enabled the Precision Bass to have an authentic, defined sound and tone, giving it a new potential role.
Electric Bass Boom & Yamaha’s Flying Samurais
Fender’s P Bass was so warmly received that it completely overtook the market. Everyone wanted to play it, and it wasn’t as expensive back then. Yamaha, one of Fender’s most successful competitors, followed up with its own take on the Precision Bass: the famous Flying Samurai SB-7.
This healthy competition paved the way for a myriad of unique designs from both high-end and lesser-known brands, which ultimately resulted in an upsurge of big bands helmed by the likes of Monk Montgomery, Shifty Henry, Bill Black, and arguably the most popular bassist on the planet, Paul McCartney.
Rock & Roll Revolution & Bass Guitar Adjustments
The Beatles inspired scores of rock bands. Eventually, there were hundreds of groups with brilliant ideas, but with a more or less similar sound. More importantly, the majority of bassists faced constant feedback issues due to the innate humming of single-coil pickups.
Even though humbuckers were already invented in the early ‘30s, a more popular way of countering this unwanted interference was to use a pair of single coils with opposing poles to cancel each other’s hum.
That’s the reason many ’60s Precision Basses featured two SC magnets instead of one humbucking pickup.
A variety of other adjustments were made to contemporary bass guitars, with the most prominent being the introduction of the Mustang, which had a slightly shorter scale length. This inspired numerous future designs that revolved around the same scale length values (30-31 inches), such as the EB-3.
Modern-day Bass Guitars & Their Uncanny Semblance To Electric Guitars
Over time, bassists realized that they could do more than just follow the rhythm with single notes and default tones. Musicians and tinkerers gradually tweaked their basses to be louder, produced a better sustain, and intentionally introduced distortion to their tones before brands like Boss, MXR, and Electro-Harmonix started rolling out dedicated bass guitar pedal effects.
To match this wave of innovation, bass guitar makers decided to follow the trend of multi-string guitars by adding extra strings to their own bass guitars. At first, flagship models were repurposed with slightly different fretboards to accommodate the extra string (e.g. my Ibanez Gio has the same specs in 4-string and 5-string variants).
Eventually, bass guitar makers branched out and began creating baritone basses with extra-large scale lengths, ukulele basses with lighter bodies, semi-acoustic basses with extra flexibility, and more.
Bass guitar designs and versatility keep improving at a steady pace, largely thanks to innovative bass players who keep pushing the envelope and creating the need for more advanced instruments.
Bass Guitar History: Final Thoughts
The double bass has been in existence for over 500 years. But I wouldn’t exactly call that a bass guitar, though it filled a similar role. The modern bass guitar as we know it today is much younger.
The history of the bass guitar we know today traces back to the 1930s. That makes it a relatively new instrument, but it has seen many changes in that short time. And it has solidified itself as a vital component of modern music. Every band needs the bass guitar and drums as a foundation.