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 greater impact than Leo Fender’s Precision. It was the dawn of Alembic.
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.
Interviews & Articles
I started playing guitar when I was pretty young and bought my first guitar when I was 10 or 11. Like a lot of people of my genera… [more]
I grew up in upstate New York in Rochester, and started playing guitar when I was about 10 years old. We had this place in Rochest… [more]
I started out primarily as a collector and the business aspect of it evolved over time, almost by accident. I didn’t start out wit… [more]
I first started coming across Howe-Orme instruments when I was an apprentice guitar repairman in Boston in 1963. Their guitars hav… [more]