Fender Precision Bass guitar

Fender Precision Bass - blueprint for the classic bass guitar

Image credit: Dreamstime

Why the Fender Precision bass guitar was a classic.

By the 1940s, so-called big bands were becoming loud to the point where the traditional upright bass that had been borrowed from the classical orchestra could no longer be heard. Wildly disproportionate in size to its output volume, it was also becoming too big for touring bands to pack into their buses. Something had to be done.

American guitar designer, Leo Fender, who had been working on an electric version of the Spanish six-string guitar (which would later become the legendary Telecaster), applied the knowledge he had gained in electrifying the higher-range instrument to its lower-range four-string counterpart.

When the Precision Bass hit the market in 1951, it was one of those genuine moments of surprise, because no one had seen anything like it before. While the Spanish guitar had been evolving for centuries, the double bass hadn’t changed significantly since the 1600s. It didn’t need to as it was rarely used for anything more creative than the addition of sonic ballast, with the player rarely doing more than bowing the dominant and tonic notes of the scale.

Leo Fender literally revolutionised the design. He revolved the neck by 90 degrees so that any standard guitar player could recognise the format and adapt quickly to it.

The advantage for the guitarist is that the bass viol is the only member of the violin family to be tuned to perfect fourths (causing purists to doubt whether it is a violin at all), which is similar to the bottom four strings of the Spanish guitar (only an octave lower).

The second design innovation was to make the fingerboard flat and fretted in order to give the player more precision (hence the name) when it came to intonation (while making the use of a bow no longer an option).

The last change was to have a direct output from the on-board electronics to the amplifier, meaning that the bass finally competed with the rapidly growing drum-kits of the era.

Traditional upright players didn’t like Fender’s latest idea, thinking that it was a fad that wouldn’t catch on. Yet after a few years of ‘acceptance reluctance’, the precision gained more widespread recognition, particularly when Elvis Presley’s bass man Bill Black was seen playing one in the movie ‘Jailhouse Rock’.

After a sticky start, so dominant was the impact of the Fender Precision bass guitar that by the mid-1950s, exponents became known as ‘Fender players’ regardless of the actual make of instrument they used.

Despite the fact that a classic was born and had forever changed the role of the bass player in the boiler house, the early Precision bass was a rudimentary affair, requiring serious redesigns in the late 1950s and 1960s.

Fender’s genius in the three principal aspects of translating the double bass for the modern world hadn’t quite stretched to making a particularly high-quality instrument. His idea of reducing the scale length to 34in (86cm) didn’t do much to make it easier to play than the double bass (his later Mustang bass would be much shorter at 30in, or 76cm), and anyone who’s ever played one will know that while they don’t exactly weigh a ton, they can certainly feel as though they do. (The Fender company, incidentally, doesn’t put the weight of its guitars on its spec sheets.)

Yet the Precision bass has spent well over half a century at the heart of nearly every form of modern music, is one of the best-selling electric bass guitars and with its twin cutaway body and classic Fender headstock, has become a cultural icon.

Fender Precision Bass

Facts and figures

Date: 1951.

Designer: Leo Fender.

Unit cost: Expect to pay at least £1,200 for a USA-made new one.

Famous players include Roger Waters, John Paul Jones and Sting.

First mass-produced electric bass guitar.

Original model had ash body and maple neck.

Complete redesign in 1957 introduced split humbucking pickup.

First made popular in the movie Jailhouse Rock.

Originally available only in blond colour.

Now universally known as the P-Bass.

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