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How The Fender Bass Changed The World

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Leo Fender was the one of the un-hippest looking white men to ever walk the face of the earth, and he wasn’t even a musician, but somehow, in short order, in the early 1950s, he invented two instruments that would eventually be used to create, and then dominate a brand new genre of music in that very same decade: rock and roll.

Those instruments? The electric solidbody guitar and the electric bass guitar. And while the former has always gotten the lion’s share of attention, the Fender Bass is long overdue for a retrospective of its role in music. As implied by the title of Jim Roberts’ authoritative book, How The Fender Bass Changed The World the Fender Bass was a revolutionary new instrument, one that could easily be played by an electric guitarist, could be easily transported to a gig, and could be amplified to just about any volume without feeding back. By the 1960s, thanks to such musicians as James Jamerson, Paul McCartney, John Entwistle and Carol Kaye, the electric bass simply left the stand-up, acoustic “dog house” bass in the dust. As Marcus Miller notes in his introduction, because the Fender Bass was a new instrument, new playing styles had to be developed to show what the instrument was capable of.

As recording technology improved in the 1960s, listeners began to hear the sophisticated technique of Jamerson on dozens of Motown hits, the melodic style of McCartney during the Beatles’ most creative period (Rubber Soul through Sgt. Pepper), Entwistle’s radical innovations in technique and tone, and Kaye’s omnipresence and superior chops in the LA studio scene.

During the 1970s, the bass exploded in popularity and sophistication, especially in a genre that would be unthinkable without the invention of the Fender Bass: Funk. As Miller notes,

In 1971, the bass guitar was the coolest instrument in music. All the cool cats played one. Larry Graham played on with Sly and the Family Stone, and Jermaine Jackson played one with the Jackson 5…One popular band even named themselves after their bass player. What was his name? “Kool”, of course!

Roberts does an excellent job of cataloging each of the key players of the Fender Bass in popular music: he devotes individual chapters to Jamerson, McCartney, Jack Bruce, and to Jaco Pastorius, who brought the electric bass full circle, by yanking all of its frets out, finishing de-fretted fretboard with polyurethane boat sealer, and thereby simultaneously creating the fretless bass and becoming its most famous player. He has separate chapters for early hard rock “lead bass” players (Entwistle, Chris Squire of Yes, and John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin) and to the “thumb-slappers”: funk players who rose to prominence in the 1970s, such as those that Miller mentioned in his introduction, and the great jazz bassist Stanley Clarke. He also spends a reasonable amount of time discussing those instruments which built on the inovations of the Fender Bass, such as those made by Alembic, Rickenbacker, Steinberger, Music Man, and even one-off custom instruments.

While the book was written as a spin off from Bass Player Magazine magazine (Roberts was its founding editor), it’s easily read by the layman who wants to learn more about the tools of pop music. You won’t find a lot of complicated music theory here (for better or worse): just lots of information and photos about the most important players of the Fender Bass, their instruments and the music they created with them.

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About Ed Driscoll

  • Great review! I think i’ll make this my next read (after all I play one of these bad boys) Excellent

  • Corwin Moore

    Although viewed by some as “a lower but lazy guitar,” the bass guitar has taken on a unique role in both contemporary music AND in the classical repertoire. Conventionally tuned as a standard “dog house bass,” it is well suited for much of the conventional string bass liturgy, with the caveat that the common flat-bridged version cannot be bowed. (Well, it CAN be “e-bowed” with some pick-ups, but that’s a quite different experience from conventional bowing. And a quite different sound!)

    From the classical perspective, the electric bass guitar also fits surprisingly well as a substitute or supplement for traditional ensembles, emulating “an electric bass lute,” for example. I play a cheapo eletro-acoustic bass guitar in recorder ensembles and in early-music-oriented (bowed) string ensembles with success (and some guffaws from the purists, at least until they hear its actual performance and its amazingly sonorous capabilities).

    And it beats “hands down” the multi-stringed (bass) lute (whose players spend half their time tuning, the other half playing out of tune) in some ensemble settings. Also a real winner playing classical “continuo” parts.

    I envy (and wish I could afford) the 6- and 7-string bass guitars, whose additional range (typically adding one string down, one or two above the conventional E-A-D-G tuning) bring an expanded coverage to make this a truly serious instrument for classical music.

    So we’re all now players in search of a serious repertoire trying to shake the problem of “I don’t get no respect.”

    – Corwin Moore (Ann Arbor, MI; conservatory trained)

  • yohan

    i like fenders

  • poopmaster3000


  • tommyd

    Fender Bass rules. Period. 4-strings ONLY. Love it or leave it.

  • The world would be sad and very incomplete without my original 51 P-Bass and Ampeg SVT’s.


  • You guys are stupid this site sucks ass find a knew job @$%$%^*%^*%*

  • Dude febders rock I own a 1971 fender music master bass and it plays like a dream

  • duh

    You idiots can’t spell! “knew job”? You mean NEW fool!

    Fenders are OK .. not the best bass made. Nothing special.

    tommyd; 5 string basses rule! You can’t handle them I guess.

    SVTs suck ass. Muddy fuzzy crap.

  • John Farley

    “in the early 1950s, he invented two instruments… The electric solidbody guitar and the electric bass guitar.”

    les paul invented the solid body electric guitar in 1946.

  • One Bassman

    Some mythbusting:
    1. Fender neither invented the electric guitar nor the bass guitar, not even the electric bass nor whatever the “electric bass guitar” is meant to signify. Paul Tutmarc Studio’s Audiovox brand had solid body electric guitar and electric bass models advertised from 1935.
    2. According to Fender’s catalogues and price lists from the 50’s through to recent years the Fender company produced electric guitars and electric basses (no bass guitars). Some models, especially the Precision Bass and Jazz Bass became industry standard.

  • NewHampshireBoy

    I would rather have my sweet P Bass than 10 Alembics!