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THE FENDER ELECTRIC BASS GUITAR
It is imperative to understand that prior to 1951 the electric bass guitar did not exist. It would also not be hyperbole to say its invention by Leo Fender would forever change popular music.
As the growth in the size of music venues and audiences in the 20th century drove the need for amplification of guitars, progress in solving the sonic deficiency of the string bass was dismally addressed. Performing bands might incorporate double bass players, but at the best of times they could barely be heard. Prior to World War II, numerous permutations of an electrified string bass were attempted. A poor design by Gibson’s Lloyd Loar was attempted in the 1920s to be followed by only slightly more successful attempts by Rickenbacker, Regal and Vega in the 1930s. The one thing they all had in common was that with each attempt they worked within the restrictive confines of a double string bass. Their failure lay in not completely rethinking the design of an electric bass instrument, addressing what performers really needed, and considering how it would be used on stage. Leo Fender would not fall into that trap.
Fender approached the problem from a guitar platform. It was an idea that came from the many professional guitarists Leo interacted with. His would be a fretted instrument tuned like a guitar but one octave lower. He would experiment with many string lengths and with the help of a borrowed physics textbook he settled on the 34-inch scale length. The length would prove to offer the most mellifluous resonance for a vibrating bass string and would be easy to fret for the player. Like his Esquire and Broadcaster electrics the solid-body would be of ash with a cutaway. But here Leo added a second cutaway on the bass side of the body forming a horn off the upper bout. This was not to assist access to higher octaves on the neck but to lighten the weight of the two-inch-thick body. One only has to step back, squint your eyes and imagine six strings rather than four and we quickly see where the body design for the Stratocaster would come from three years later.
On its release in 1951 Leo Fender would call this new instrument the Precision Bass, and precise it proved to be. Fender’s electric bass guitar was first seen in the hands of Lionel Hampton’s bassist Roy Johnson who waxed on its ease of playing and transporting as well as its tonal presence on stage. When other jazz players quickly followed suit, Fender would grow a dominant presence in the Midwest and East Coast markets. With the Fender Precision Bass, the bass player now became a dominate addition to a pop musical performance. When players executed the melodic abilities of the bass with the guitarist and formed a supporting collaboration with the drummer the results could be a powerhouse rhythm section. It is no small wonder that at the root of every great rock band lies the power trio of guitar, bass and drums.