Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Music Online. © Oxford University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Music Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Electric bass guitar [bass guitar].free

  • Tony Bacon
  •  and Arian Sheets

Electric guitar, usually with four heavy strings tuned E′–A′–DG. Early forms of the electric bass guitar were brought to market by Vivi-Tone of Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the early 1930s, Rickenbacker (or Ro-Pat-In) of Los Angeles in 1935, Audiovox of Seattle in 1936, Vega of Boston in 1939, and Regal of Chicago in 1939. Gibson also made several electric basses prior to World War II, but did not formally market them. Early electric basses employed a variety string types and pickups, but most had longer scales and were fretless, designed to be played in a manner similar to conventional acoustic upright basses. Audiovox, with its short-scale, fretted version, was a notable exception.

The modern full-scale fretted solid-body electric bass guitar was introduced by Leo Fender and was first marketed as the Fender Precision Bass in late 1951. The instrument was introduced to meet the needs of musicians playing the bass part in small dance bands in the USA: they wanted not only a more easily portable instrument than the double bass, but one that could match the volume of the increasingly popular solid-body electric guitar, and could be played with greater precision than their large, fretless, acoustic instruments. Fender’s electric bass guitar answered all these requirements. It was based on his already successful Broadcaster (later named Telecaster) six-string electric guitar, with a similar solid body of ash and neck of maple. The four strings were tuned to the same notes as the double bass (an octave below the bottom four of the six-string electric guitar), and a single pickup fed controls for volume and tone; the fretted fingerboard offered players the precision they wanted.

As with the electric guitar, Fender’s earliest customers for the Precision Bass were country-and-western players, but the electric bass, which was quickly adopted by many makers of electric guitars, began to populate other popular genres and has been widely used in pop, rock, jazz, rhythm and blues, reggae, and rock and roll. Players usually use the first two fingers of the right hand to pluck the strings, though some musicians, especially those who have a background in playing six-string electric guitars, use a plectrum. Chords are possible, but are rarely played, the emphasis being on a single supportive bass line with runs. A method of playing that has developed among some jazz and funk bass players involves striking the lower strings with the edge of the thumb, while flicking higher strings with the fingers, producing a very percussive and almost anti-melodic style; known as ‘slapping’, it was apparently first used by Larry Graham, the bass player with Sly and the Family Stone in the late 1960s.

The name ‘Fender’ became almost synonymous with the electric bass guitar for a time, and a number of new models were introduced, including the Jazz Bass (1960), and a six-string electric bass (1962), originated by Danelectro in 1956, tuned an octave below the normal electric guitar. Fender models remain very popular in the 21st century. Electric bass guitars were eventually produced by every major manufacturer of electric fretted instruments. Like the electric guitar, it has been produced with a variety of body shapes and scaling, in solid-, semi-solid-, and hollow-body styles. Passive, active, and piezo pickups have been employed in combination with a variety of tone circuits to greatly expand its sound capabilities. Other American and East Asian manufacturers have taken a large part of the market, but electric basses are also made in Europe and elsewhere.

The original Fender design remains practically unchallenged, though features such as the number of pickups and the winding of the strings vary. Since the late 1970s some electric bass guitars have made use of ‘active electronics’ to enhance their sound. This system uses a pre-amplifier, built into the instrument, to boost the volume and widen the frequency range available from the instrument’s tone controls; it was popularized by the Alembic company of California who began in the 1970s to produce superlative electric basses, as used by the virtuoso Stanley Clarke.

The fretless bass guitar is a normal electric bass except that it lacks frets. The singing tone it produces is quite unlike that of its fretted counterpart, and was made popular by Jaco Pastorius of the jazz-rock group Weather Report in the late 1970s and early 1980s. One attempt to change the design of the electric bass came in the 1980s from the American maker Ned Steinberger. The Steinberger Bass was constructed entirely from injection-moulded plastics, lacked the conventional peghead at the upper end of the neck, and had a tiny body, barely wide enough to carry the pickups, control knobs, and machine heads. Five-string and six-string ‘extended’ bass guitars began to appear during the 1980s, the latter pioneered by session bassist Anthony Jackson. Hybrid ‘electro-acoustic’ bass guitars with acoustic guitar-like bodies and built-in pickups have also gained a certain currency since the late 1980s. See G. Gruhn and W. Carter: Electric Guitars and Basses (Milwaukee, WI, 2010).

Electric bass guitar, Pro II model. (Edinburgh University Collection of Historic Musical Instruments (4612))

View large