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The Precision Bass in the 1950s

Written by on June 14, 2011
1952 ad for the then-new Precision Bass (and Bassman amp).

1952 ad for the then-new Precision Bass (and Bassman amp).

It’s certainly true that the innovative electric guitars introduced by Fender throughout the 1950s—the Telecaster (1951) and the Stratocaster (1954), plus the Jazzmaster (1958) and some student models—changed the way music was created and experienced. So too with the great Fender amps of the decade.

Guitars, however, had already existed for centuries by the time Leo Fender turned his attention to them in the mid-1940s. They’d already been electrified, too, since the 1920s. So while Leo Fender and the staff of his fledgling Southern California company contributed a great deal to guitar design in the mid-20th century, guitar design itself was an already long-established field with a wealth of history and tradition.

That’s why the Precision Bass (1951) is such a special instrument. Because if Clarence Leo Fender were to be remembered for nothing else, surely it would be the Precision—an instrument—indeed a whole new kind of instrument—that simply didn’t exist before he invented it, that would forever ensure his place in history. For while all the other great Fender products of the decade certainly affected music, the Precision Bass profoundly affected music.

Context is important here because it’s tempting to suppose that something considered so fundamental and essential by today’s musicians must have just been there all along. Not so, however—while even modern guitar design goes back at least a few hundred years and can be attributed to the sum efforts of scores of influential contributors, the commercially successful solid-body electric bass guitar only goes back six decades and was invented by one person. Color television, computers and supersonic air travel are all older than the bass guitar, which Leo Fender invented largely by himself.

To fully understand the role of the Precision Bass in the decade of its arrival, it’s important to understand the times and circumstances into which it was introduced. Its predecessor was the age-old upright bass, a large, bulky instrument that took up a lot of space in the touring bus and had become increasingly difficult to hear as bands grew louder. Given the brash horn sections that provided the main voice of many dance bands, the inherent loudness of drum kits and the advent of better electrified guitars with better amplification, something needed to be done for bass.

The original look of the early-1950s Precision Bass was closely replicated in the modern-era Reissue ’51 Precision.

The original look of the early-1950s Precision Bass was closely replicated in the modern-era Reissue ’51 Precision.

And by 1949, bands certainly were getting louder and smaller. These were exactly the circumstances that resulted in the genesis of the Precision. Several guitarists in downsizing Western swing and dance bands of the era complained to Leo Fender that they were losing work because they couldn’t double on the ungainly stand-up bass, an instrument that required a completely different playing technique that they didn’t have time to learn.

At the time, Leo Fender was immersed in the development of his first electric Spanish guitar, the Telecaster, the design of which contributed to his response to those troubled musicians. He promptly conceived of a new kind of instrument in the same family as the Telecaster; a solid-body electric “bass guitar” with a fretted neck that could be played like a guitar and through an amp. Guitarists would easily be able to play it. Certainly, its size versus that of an upright would allow far more convenient transport and handling. And it would be louder—much louder—than its large, hollow and barely heard predecessor.

Once the newly named (or re-named, as it were) Telecaster was introduced in February 1951, Leo turned his attention to the bass guitar more fully, and development proceeded through summer of that year. He called it the Precision Bass, so named for the precise intonation enabled by its fretted neck.

The first commercial unit of the Precision Bass was produced in October 1951. It had a “slab” (non-contoured) ash body with two “horns” (as opposed to the Telecaster’s one; this provided greater balance and was subsequently adapted for the Stratocaster), a one-piece 20-fret maple neck fixed to the body by four screws (despite use of the technically incorrect term “bolt-on”), a single pickup, black pickguard, Kluson tuners, treble-side thumb rest, a string-through-body bridge with a cover (with a mute), and two pressed fiber bridge saddles. It borrowed several features from the Telecaster, including its headstock shape, neck plate, truss rod nut, potentiometers, two domed chrome control knobs, output jack ferrule and strap buttons. It was available only in a blonde finish.

One of the most important features of the Precision Bass was its scale length, which Leo Fender, after careful consideration and lengthy experimentation, set at 34”. Fender also contracted one of the nation’s largest string manufacturers, the V.C. Squier Company of Battle Creek, Mich., to make strings for the new instrument (these were flat-wound; the brighter-sounding round-wound bass strings prevalent today were still well more than a decade away).

Further, since an amplifier built specifically for the bass was still in development and not quite ready at year’s end, the Precision debuted in stores in November 1951 paired with Fender Pro guitar amps. The 1×15” Bassman amp model 5B6, designed specifically for use with the Precision Bass, appeared a few months later in 1952.

An early 1950s catalog page touting the Precision; this one featuring bandleader Lionel Hampton, an early proponent of the instrument.

An early 1950s catalog page touting the Precision; this one featuring bandleader Lionel Hampton, an early proponent of the instrument.

Once the Precision was introduced, Fender’s sales arm wasted no time in getting the unusual new instrument into as many influential hands as possible. Fender promotional literature of the early 1950s also featured bassist John “Shifty” Henry (“Shifte Henri”) and Bob Manners, bassist on Liberace’s popular TV show. One early champion was bandleader Lionel Hampton, who was featured in 1952 promotional materials for the instrument; both his bass players in the 1950s, William “Monk” Montgomery and Roy Johnson, used the instrument extensively. In Fender: The Sound Heard ’Round the World, author Richard Smith describes Down Beat magazine music critic Leonard Feather’s first initially puzzling encounter with the new instrument at a Hampton performance in New York in spring 1952:

When the music started at this gig, something seemed amiss: Feather heard a bass but saw no bass player. Almost inaudible in a loud band, a bass player at least was easy to see. Feather wrote, “On second glance we noticed something even odder. There were two guitars—but we only heard one.”

Smith continues:

Feather had stepped into the future, not the Twilight Zone. And in a few moments what he saw and heard made sense. One of the guitars had a longer, fretted neck, a peculiar-looking body, electric controls and a cord running to a speaker. After the first set, the critic asked Hampton to explain. “Sure, man,” Hampton was quoted as saying in Down Beat, “that’s our electric bass. We’ve had it for months.”

Smith further relates how Johnson, Hampton’s bassist at the time, told Feather, “It’s no trouble at all. I learned to play it right away. In fact, I used it on the job the same day I got it. Tunes the same as a regular bass.”

Thus began the Precision Bass’s steady ascent toward indispensability. Upright basses were still often seen in many groups by the middle of the 1950s, when rock ‘n’ roll was starting to make its first raucous waves, but it was also clear by then that Fender’s Precision Bass guitar was well on the way to supplanting it in the small, loud groups that seemed to be popping up everywhere by mid-decade.

In The Girl Cant Help It (1956), bassist James Johnson plays a Precision with the Treniers during “Rocking is Our Business.”

In The Girl Cant Help It (1956), bassist James Johnson plays a Precision with the Treniers during “Rocking is Our Business.”

Perhaps nowhere is this better evident than in what is widely regarded as the greatest rock ‘n’ roll film ever made, 1956 romp The Girl Can’t Help It, which boasts one of the earliest cinematic appearances—if not the earliest cinematic appearance—of the Precision Bass. Although there are a few upright basses to be seen, the Precision is seen being played by Gene Baker with Johnny Olenn and the Jokers (“My Idea of Love” and “I Ain’t Gonna Cry No More”) and later in the film by James Johnson with the Treniers (“Rocking is Our Business”).

The middle of the 1950s also illustrated an interesting facet of the Precision Bass’s existence in the decade of its introduction—it remained Fender’s only bass guitar for the duration. Whereas the company introduced several innovative electric guitars throughout the 1950s, Fender elected to stick solely with the Precision Bass—modified three times, albeit—rather than introduce an entirely new bass guitar model.

The first of these revisions appeared with the 1954/1955 model year, in which the Precision borrowed body and forearm contours from the Stratocaster that made it much more comfortable to play. Also new were a smaller single-ply white pickguard, steel bridge saddles in place of pressed fiber saddles, serial numbers on the bridge instead of the neck plate, and a handsome two-color sunburst finish (like the Stratocaster).

The substantial design revisions of the 1957 Precision Bass are mirrored in this modern-era reissue model.

The substantial design revisions of the 1957 Precision Bass are mirrored in this modern-era reissue model.

The second and most substantial revision was implemented in 1957 and resulted in the Precision Bass design that endures today basically unchanged. That year, the instrument was given its now-familiar split-coil pickup, headstock shape based on the Stratocaster® guitar, and one-piece pickguard assembly to which the electronics were fixed (the pickguard itself was gold anodized aluminum with a cutout for the new pickup). This revision also featured bridge-mounted rather than through-body strings, individual threaded bridge saddles for better intonation and height adjustment, a two-screw plastic thumb rest replacing the single-screw wooden one, knurled metal knobs with flat rather than rounded tops, and redesigned pickup and bridge covers.

1957 was also a significant year for the Precision Bass because that’s when Bill Black is generally acknowledged to have started playing one. Black had backed up Elvis Presley since 1954 on upright, but switched to a Precision to record September 1957 Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller-penned hit single “Jailhouse Rock.” Black played a Precision on several other Presley songs from the same period—most notably Leiber/Stoller’s “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” which was one of the few songs of the 1950s, if not the only song, to feature the pure original sound of the Precision Bass heard all by itself (during the intro and fadeout).

Back in Southern California, Fender still couldn’t resist tinkering with and improving the Precision as the decade drew to a close. Red was added to the sunburst finish in 1958, thus making the two-color sunburst finish a three-color sunburst finish. Several custom color finishes also became available that year, by which time the Precision Bass had become notably more ubiquitous in studios and on stages nationwide.

The third of the Precision’s three major design revisions took place in 1959, when rosewood fingerboards replaced one-piece maple necks and tortoiseshell pickguards replaced gold anodized aluminum pickguards. By this time, after the Precision had ruled most of the decade by itself, Fender had a second bass guitar model in development; a new deluxe design for a new decade.

Clues to just how important this new decade would be for the Precision Bass, however, could be found on both sides of the Atlantic as the 1950s waned.

In Memphis, Tenn., in 1958, 16-year-old bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn bought his first Precision. In June of that same year, in Hawthorne, Calif., musically gifted youth Brian Wilson received a tape recorder for his 16th birthday. At Detroit studio Hitsville U.S.A. in 1959, 23-year-old upright bassist James Jamerson started doing steady session work for new pop label Tamla Records; Motown Records would be incorporated there on April 14, 1960, with Jamerson established as the studio’s top house bassist. In 1959 London, 20-year-old Terence “Jet” Harris—so nicknamed for his sprinting prowess at secondary school—had just joined Cliff Richard’s backing group, the Drifters (soon to be renamed the Shadows), when his Framus bass guitar was accidentally destroyed; an importer then gave him one of England’s first Precision basses. In the same city that year, 14-year-old John Entwistle, undaunted by the scarcity of good bass guitars in the U.K., built his own crude homemade instrument based on photos of Precisions (“I wanted a Fender, but they just weren’t available,” Entwistle told Guitar Player magazine in 1974. “I think Jet Harris was the only person who had one then.”).

The stage was set. The Precision Bass arrived in the 1950s and proceeded to revolutionize popular music. Now a whole new decade loomed, and as the curtain rose on 1960, Fender and its game-changing Precision Bass were looking at a very exciting future and doing business that was, in every good sense of the word, booming …