The era of the modern electric bass guitar began in 1951 when a former radio repairman named Leo Fender gave the world the Fender Precision. The first Precisions had 20 frets on a full-scale 34-inch maple neck that was bolted to the guitar’s ash body—the frets, presumably, were the "precision" points that differentiated Fender’s bass from traditional fretless uprights. Chromed covers hid the bridge and the instrument’s single pickup from view, while two knobs on the bass’s body allowed the player to adjust volume and tone.

Fender did not reach far for the instrument’s design. That same year he had released the Telecaster, a six-string solid-body guitar, and the Precision was essentially a four-stringed version of that. Like a Telecaster, the sides of the Precision bass were squared off so that the body was a uniformly thick slab. As for its headstock, it, too, echoed the look of the Telecaster. Both of these details changed in 1954, when Fender released the Stratocaster, with its contour body (the Strat’s cutaway made it comfortable for players to hold the guitar against their bodies for extended periods of time) and more sculptural headstock. The Precision copied both of these features, note for note.

Naturally, Fender had imitators, first a company called Kay, whose short-necked K-162 from 1952 faded away almost as soon as it appeared. In 1953, Gibson followed with the EB-1, a radically scaled-down version of an upright bass, complete with a fake F-hole. That model was dropped in 1958, but in 1955, German instrument maker Höfner made a go of the traditional look when it introduced its famous 500/1 bass, known variously as the "violin bass" for its shape and the "Beatle bass" for its most famous player, Paul McCartney.

Two other basses from the 1950s are of interest to vintage bass collectors. Danelectro introduced its six-string UB2 in 1956, prompting Gibson and Fender to issue their own low-octave six-strings in 1959 and 1961 respectively. Rickenbacker’s 4000 came along in 1957. It was the first electric bass built with through-neck construction, and it featured fancier electronics than its competitors—its Rick-O-Sound feature allowed a player to simulate stereo by directing the output of each of the guitar’s pickups into a separate amplifier.

In 1960, Fender followed up on the Precision with the Jazz Bass, which aped the look of the Fender Jazzmaster guitar released in 1958. After a false start with the EB-1, Gibson finally got into the bass game in 1961 with the EB-3, a short-scale-neck bass with "horns" on its body and a deep, muddy sound that caught the attention of players such as Jack Bruce of Cream. Not to be outdone when it came to horns, Danelectro launched the Long Horn in 1961. Although they were made of cheap materials like Masonite instead of fancy hardwoods, players liked Danelectro basses for their distinctive look and punchy sound.

Gibson followed up on the EB-3 in 1963 with a bass version of its fabulous Firebird called the Thunderbird—John Entwistle of The Who played a Thunderbird bass almost exclusively from 1972 until 1976. As the 1960s continued, other traditional electric guitar companies began to offer their customers electric basses, too. In particular, the hollow-body Guild Starfire was the bass of choice for the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and the Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady, both of whom eventually turned to an engineer named Ron Wickersham to have their instruments customized with low-impedance pickups developed by Rick Turner.

The connection between bass players like Lesh and Casady and technicians like Wickersham and Turner led to a renaissance in bass guitars that would arguably prove to have an even...

For instrument collectors, especially those who are fans of the bass guitar, Alembic holds a hallowed place. Its instruments deliver natural tones that are rich, sophisticated, and nuanced, not just deep and boomy, although they can also do plenty of that. And the physical appearance of an Alembic bass is as stunning as its sound. For example, Alembic’s first bass, number 72-01 created for Casady, had a pointy bottom so that a musician would never be tempted to rest their precious instrument on anything but a cradling stand.

As legendary as their hardware and physical appearance were the details that graced each instrument, especially ones created for a who’s who of rock and jazz elite. Casady’s bass married multiple types of exotic woods with painstakingly precise inlay. Greg Lake of prog-rockers Emerson Lake and Palmer had an eight-string Alembic bass with signs of the zodiac in mother-of-pearl crawling up the fingerboard. Stanley Clarke played an Alembic tenor bass. The list goes on and on.

In recent years, collectible basses include five- and six-stringed instruments, as well as the otherworldly graphite axes made by Ned Steinberger. His instruments frequently have no headstock at all, while Steinberger bodies resemble small, rectangular notebook PCs. They look weird, but players from Sting to Geddy Lee of Rush to Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones have become fans of their sonic properties.

Another graphite bass maker, and perhaps the heir apparent to Alembic in terms of pushing technology, is Modulus, whose graphite basses are favorites of Phil Lesh, Mike Gordon of Phish, Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam, and Oteil Burbridge, to name but a very few.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Vintage Guitars Info

Vintage Guitars Info

This great reference site features detailed sections on vintage guitar makers, including Gibson, Fender, Martin, Gr… [read review or visit site]

Vintage Guitar and Bass

Vintage Guitar and Bass

Want to see all the old brochures and ads for your favorite vintage axe? Check out this great site, which showcases… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Rickenbacker Fireglo 4003 Electric 4-string Right-handed Bass GuitarFender Roscoe Beck Signature Jazz Bass 5-stringVintage 1977 Fender Mustang Bass Guitar With Original Hardshell CaseVintage Ovation Magnum 1 Stereo Electric Bass Guitar 1976 U.s.a Free Hard CaseVintage 1964 Selmer Treble And Bass 50 Watt Tube Powered Guitar Amplifier HeadAlembic Bass Guitar Series 1 30" ScaleVintge Ampeg V-4 Vt-22 Amplifier Tube Head Bass / Guitar W/ ReverbUnivox U-1246 Tube Bass Guitar HeadVintage 1961 Danelectro Shorthorn Bass Guitar2006 Fender American Deluxe Precision Bass 5-string - Rare CherryburstFender Jazz Bass Made In Usa Vintage 1975 With Ohsc No Reserve=1960s Vox Cougar Vintage Electric Hollow Body Bass Guitar "project" =Alembic Essence Four String Bass 1991Mjt Official Custom Vintage Aged Nitro Bass Guitar Body By Mark Jenny Vtj Vintage Travis Bean Tb-2000 Electric Bass GuitarMusicman Stingray Bass Usa Looks Plays Sounds Great No Reserve Auction .99 StarFender Mustang Bass Cij 1994/19951980 Rick Turner Model 1 Bass "rare"2005 Ibanez Sr505 5 String Bass Mik/cort-era Wenge Neck, New Nordstrand Preamp!Fender Squier Vintage Modified Jazz V, 5 String BassEpiphone Allen Woody Limited Edition Bass Wine RedRight Handed Solid Carvin Lb75 5 - String Active Pickups Bass; With Carvin CaseFender Standard Precision Bass Guitar Made In MexicoTech 21 Sansamp Bass Driver Di Distortion Guitar Effect PedalMartin Bc-40e Acoustic 4-string BassVintage Squire Bullet Bass Guitar By Fender Made In Japan 4 StringDigitech Trio Band Creator Bass Drum Guitar Effects Pedal W/ Power SupplyEsp 5 String Vintage Style Jazz Bass! Great Mods, Tremendous Bass! Look!!El Degas Electric Bass GuitarModulus Bass Guitar Neck GraphiteNew Schecter C-4 Deluxe 4-string Bass Guitar Crimson Red Burst $683Carvin B5 Ash Five String Electric Bass Guitar Natural SatinSquire By Fender Precision Bass Guitar (lot 12508)1996 Left Handed American Fender Precision Bass Lefty UsaEbow Plus Electronic Bow For Guitar And Bass1994 Ibanez Iceman Bass - Japan - 4 String - Fair Condition2014 Gibson Thunderbird Iv Bass With Original Gibson Case New And BeautifulEsp 400 Series Bass Guitar #56213#120/280.1980 Rick Turner Model 1 BassVintage Hondo Alien Aluminum Neck Electric Bass Kramer Duke & Case RmWarwick 4 String Fretless Corvette Standard Bubinga Pro Series2011 Gibson Thunderbird Short Scale Bass Guitar Peavey Cirrus 5 String Electric Bass Guitar W/hardshell Case No ReserveUsa Made 5 String BassPeavy T-40 Cream 4 String Bass Guitar- Usa- Sn 000486491Bass Fretless 4 String Curly Walnut Peanut Wishbass Gfs Mm Pickup Oil FinishTech 21 Sansamp Bass Driver Di Distortion Guitar Effect Pedal Start From $0.99!!G&l Asat Custom Bass - Edsel Belair Blue - Tele BodySquier Musicmaster Bass Vista Series Olympic WhiteFender Artist Marcus Miller Jazz Electric Bass GuitarMjt Official Custom Vintage Aged Nitro Bass Guitar Body By Mark Jenny Pbt 54Epiphone Viola Bass Guitar - Vintage Sunburst - (beatles) With Original HscSchecter Omen-8 String Bass W / Active Eq 2008 Model! Clean! No Reserve!!!!!!!!!Ebow Plus Electronic Guitar/bass Sustaining Bow Handheld Effect - Brand NewFender Deluxe Active Jazz Bass GuitarFender Standard Precision Bass Body, Loaded, Candy Apple RedBass Guitar Pedal LotIbanez Ergodyne Edc 700 W/ Wood Hard Shell Case And ExtrasRoscoe Skb3006 Fretless 6 String BassFender Jazz Bass Geddy Lee Edition With Two Faceplates