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.