January 2024 – A Brief History of the Bass Guitar


WELCOME FAIR MUSIC‑MINDED PATRONS to the first CRAVE Guitars’ monthly article of the New Year. While we may be less than a full month into the year Two Thousand and Twenty Four of the Common Era, one hopes it is off to a good start despite global uncertainty (and insanity). Let us hope that those intent on geopolitical conflict come to their senses, unlikely as it may seem, rather than escalate tensions further. I don’t know about you but I don’t want to be part of the doomsday generation. Scary.

Bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all)” – Thomas Hobbes (1588‑1679)

Getting back to the musical point, ask pretty much anyone with a slight interest in modern music culture, the question, “Who invented the first bass guitar?” and I’m sure a lot of people would say, “Leo Fender, of course”. Well yes… and no. In the world of vintage guitars, things are rarely quite as straightforward as one may at first think.

With the recent addition of CRAVE Basses to the CRAVE Guitars, Amps and Effects family, this month seems perfectly apt to take a quick look at how the electric bass guitar as we know it came into being and how it has become such an integral component of contemporary music.

Primarily as a guitarist, my dalliances with bass guitars up to now have, I admit, been spawned out of curiosity and exploration, rather than a serious preoccupation. Those dalliances, though, span well over four decades, so the bass encounter isn’t a single, short or recent ‘event’.

We do not start the story, as many might imagine in the 1950s. We’ll come back to that in a little while. Before we get there, though, we should go back quite a few years. Many, many years in fact, starting with the classical orchestral double bass, originating from the 15th Century or thereabouts. Then we’ll explore the modern‑day innovations starting in the 1920s and 1930s before the ‘big bang’ that really exploded in the 1950s and 1960s. Finally we’ll come up‑to‑date, with a look at the instruments, equipment, artists and sounds that have helped to shape the modern musical landscape. Finally, we’ll take a wee peak into the near future of bass instruments.

The fretless acoustic double bass

Before the solid body fretted electric bass guitar, popular music relied almost totally on the acoustic upright double bass for low frequency impact. The instrument’s origins date approximately to the 15th‑16th Century in Venice, Italy. Venetian musician, Silvestro Ganassi developed a ‘bass viola da gamba’ in 1542, widely regarded as the forerunner of today’s double bass. It wasn’t until around 1700, though, that the double bass became part of the opera orchestra. The double bass as we now know it is the largest and lowest‑pitched chordophone in the classical music orchestra.

As a quick recap, defined by the Hornbostel‑Sachs system of musical instrument classification, a chordophone is a musical instrument that makes sound from vibrating one or more taught strings by bowing, plucking or striking the strings. Examples of chordophone types include violins, guitars, and pianos respectively. The word chordophone stems from the Greek words for string (chordē) and sound (phonē).

For more on the historical origins of musical instrument classification (to provide a context for the development of the guitar), see CRAVE Guitars’ March 2018 article.

A Potted History of the Guitar Part I (The ancient world up to the early Renaissance):
March 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part I (craveguitars.co.uk)

The traditional 4‑string double bass is usually played in one of two ways, either by rubbing the strings with a bow (arco) or by plucking the strings with fingers (pizzicato). Some modern double bass players, for instance in rock & roll and rockabilly, also use a distinctive ‘slap’ technique. This percussive sound derived from the ‘Bartók pizzicato’ (‘snap’ pizzicato) named after the Hungarian composer and pianist Béla Bartók.

Double Bass (courtesy of Roxanne Minnish)

Depending on the style of music, the double bass is also known by a number of other names, all of which refer to the same instrument. Some of these alternative monikers include bass, upright bass, string bass, acoustic bass, acoustic string bass, contrabass, contrabass viol, bass viol, bass violin, stand‑up bass, bull fiddle, doghouse bass and bass fiddle.

The traditional double bass is a large acoustic fretless instrument of the violin family that is played upright. The deep, resonant, woody tone of the double bass endows it with a very different sound when compared to the modern solid body fretted electric bass guitar. The tuning of the double bass is different from other members of the orchestral sting instruments, in that it is tuned in fourths (E‑A‑D‑G) rather than a violin’s fifths (G‑D‑A‑E). The double bass, then, is tuned the same as a modern bass guitar, an octave below the bottom four strings of a 6‑string guitar in standard tuning. This particular characteristic aided the bass’s transition from classical to modern day musical styles.

Originally, double basses were more likely to have three strings until four strings became commonplace by the 19th Century, by which time the standard format and construction of the double bass had become established. There are, however, 5 and 6 (or more) string variants and there are also various alternative tunings.

The double bass has been the mainstay of orchestral string sections and chamber music for several centuries in one form or another. It was predictable that, with the emergence and evolution of the major modern popular music genres, such as jazz, blues and country & western that the double bass would become the go‑to bass instrument, at least up until the 1960s when the solid body fretted electric bass guitar became predominant. However, the double bass hasn’t disappeared from contemporary music completely. Plenty of present‑day artists still use or revert back to the double bass for authenticity and/or effect.

The main drawback experienced by many players is that the double bass is a substantial piece of equipment. The full‑size double bass is almost 75 inches (190cm) tall, weighing in at c.20‑25lbs (9‑11½kg), without its hefty case. The scale length is set at around 42” (107cm), much longer than most modern bass guitars. Given these dimensions, the double bass is sizeable, cumbersome, unwieldy and plain heavy, making it far from the easiest of instruments to move around or play. There are smaller double basses including ¾, ½ and ¼ size, mainly aimed at younger players. Even so, the double bass not for the faint hearted, as the smallest ¼ size instrument is still over 61” (156cm) tall.

Another drawback is the double bass’s acoustic construction. Like the acoustic guitar, in the first half of the 20th Century, the acoustic double bass’s lack of volume made it hard to be heard in a jazz‑era big band mix unless there was some form of electrification through either a magnetic pickup or a microphone connected to an amplifier and, even then, acoustic instruments can be prone to feedback in high sound pressure level environments.

Traditional double basses are not only large but, because of their construction, they are also quite expensive, making them a major investment and therefore difficult for novices or younger players to access and learn.

Even so, despite its limitations, during the 20th Century the double bass became widely used in a diverse range of modern music genres, including jazz, blues, swing, rock & roll, rockabilly, country & western, bluegrass, folk, funk, reggae, metal, rock, pop, tango and visual media soundtracks.

Trivia: Believe it or not, there is an even larger bass, first built c.1850 by the French luthier Jean‑Baptiste Vuillaume (1798‑1875) in Paris. The octobass, as it is called, has three strings and is basically a larger version of the double bass tuned a further octave down. The octobass is a truly gargantuan beast, approximately 137” high (348cm).

The electric upright bass

To enable modern players to experience the spirit of the acoustic double bass in a more convenient and amplified form, there is the modern Electric Upright Bass (EUB), which is also played, as its name suggests, upright, like a traditional double bass.

EUBs allow for greater portability while retaining the playing style and general sound of its forebear. As the EUB doesn’t require the substantial acoustic resonating chamber of a double bass, they often feature a ‘skeleton’ body, making it much smaller, lighter and cheaper to produce. The minimal structure may have either a solid body or a small acoustic body.

A magnetic, piezo or condenser bass pickup provides the means to route the signal via a bass amplifier to loudspeakers. Like a double bass, the EUB’s strings can be bowed or plucked, although that is dependent on fingerboard and bridge radius. While evoking its acoustic origins, the structural and electric characteristics of the EUB endow it with a unique sound all of its own.

As the EUB’s construction isn’t bound by convention like its orchestral sibling, the flexible format allows for a range of scale lengths to be employed from around 30” (76cm), through 34” (86cm) like a long scale bass guitar to the full 42” (107cm) of a double bass, making it much more accessible to a range of players. Almost all EUB necks allow for a full two‑octave range and most but not all are fretless. Compared to the double bass or the electric bass guitar, the electric upright bass tends to be a modern, notable but relatively niche instrument. There are EUB models at all price points, making it easier for novices and experienced players alike.

The first production electric upright basses were developed independently in the mid‑1930s by Regal (Electrified Double Bass), Vega (Electric Bass Viol), Rickenbacker (Electro Bass‑Viol) and Audiovox (bull fiddle – see below). Gibson introduced their special order Electric Bass Guitar in 1938, which was still an upright fretless instrument with a hollow body and a magnetic pickup.

Manufacturers of electric upright basses include Framus, Ampeg, Warwick, Ibanez, Yamaha, Palatino, NS Design (Ned Steinberger), and Harley Benton.

Electric Upright Bass

The first solid‑body fretted electric bass guitar

As hinted at above, while Leo Fender was the major innovator associated with the solid‑body fretted electric bass guitar, he wasn’t the first. He was beaten to the starting post by at least some 15 years. Hardly a photo finish!

The first indication of the possible future of a bass guitar was in 1924 when the legendary Gibson designer, Lloyd Loar came up with a prototype electric bass. The Loar concept focused on the body, pickup and strings but with little additional detail. Loar’s radical design was rejected by Gibson management at the time. Loar left Gibson shortly thereafter in 1924, so his visionary ideas for an electric bass guitar went no further.

Nearly a decade later, around 1933, American musician and inventor Paul H. ‘Bud’ Tutmarc (1896‑1972), based in Seattle, Washington, began experimenting with reducing the size of the double bass to a more manageable instrument. Tutmarc originally devised an electrified fretless double bass‑style instrument described as an electric 4‑string upright ‘bull fiddle’, slightly smaller than a cello.

It’s worth a quick diversion to go back in time to take in an original report from the ‘Seattle Post‑Intelligencer’ newspaper, which published the story on 17 February 1935. The headline read, “Pity Him No More – New Type Bull Fiddle Devised.”

The article went on to state that, “People have always pitied the poor bass-fiddler… who has to lug his big bull-fiddle home through the dark streets after the theatre closes. But he doesn’t have to do it anymore. Because Paul Tutmarc, Seattle music teacher and KOMO radio artist, has invented an electric bull-fiddle. One you can carry under your arm. And it doesn’t even need a bow, either. You pluck a string – and out of the electric amplifier comes a rich, deep tone, sustained as if five or six bass violinists were bowing five or six bass‑violins with masterly artistry. The tone is sustained as long as you want it, too, without a bow.” The instrument described in the article was a cello‑like upright fretless instrument with an electromagnetic pickup.

Tutmarc was, however, about to do something far more radical. By 1935-1936, Tutmarc, had changed direction and developed the first solid body fretted electric bass guitar, pretty much recognisable in its modern form. It was this version of Tutmarc’s bass that was intended to be played horizontally, rather than upright, in a similar way to the modern bass guitar. The 1935 sales catalogue for Tutmarc’s company Audiovox featured his ‘Model 736 Bass Fiddle’, a solid‑bodied electric bass guitar with four strings, a fretted neck, with a 30½” (775mm) scale length, an ebony (or purpleheart) fingerboard with 16 frets, a black walnut body, a hidden single Tutmarc‑Stimpson horseshoe pickup below a mirror-steel faceplate, and a single volume control.

Tutmarc AudioVox Model 736

In addition, as an electric bass guitar would be pretty much useless without the means to amplify the sound, Audiovox also sold an accompanying ‘Model 936’ bass amplifier with 18 watts of power and a 12” Jensen Concert speaker.

Around 100 of the Model 736 Audiovox bass guitars were made in the mid‑1930s. However, there are only thought to be three Model 736 Tutmarc bass guitars still in existence today, making them remarkably rare. One belongs to the Experience Music Project (EMP), now known as The Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP), a non‑profit enterprise founded by Microsoft co‑founder Paul Allen in 2000 and based in Seattle, Washington state, USA. In 2018, a 1936 Audiovox Model 736 bass guitar was reportedly sold by Tutmarc’s grandson on eBay for $23,850.

Sadly, for Tutmarc, the Audiovox 736 was not a commercial success. The price tag was high for the mid‑1930s, in a country still severely affected by The Great Depression (1929‑1939). The 736 bass fiddle originally cost $65 and the matching 936 bass amplifier cost $75, placing it well out of reach for many musicians. The high price and the radical concept didn’t attract enough musicians at the time and it wasn’t long before it was discontinued and was subsequently forlornly forgotten to history. Tutmarc’s company, Audiovox folded in 1950.

It can well be argued that Tutmarc was ahead of his time. Perhaps it is a case of supply looking for a demand that consumers didn’t know they needed. Maybe it was bad timing and/or bad luck. The Model 736 also arrived shortly before the outbreak of World War II when the guitar manufacturing industry was deemed ‘non‑essential’ and resources were diverted to the American war effort. Furthermore, a bass guitar didn’t seem to fit seamlessly into any of the prevailing musical styles at that time.

It is surprising, though, that such a significant innovation in guitar history isn’t more widely known about. Perhaps it is time, nay overdue, for Tutmarc’s milestone achievements to be deservedly recognised.

One company, Luthiery Laboratories, makes modern‑day replicas of the Audiovox 736, keeping the spirit of the original instrument alive.

Audiovox 736 Bass (1/4) ~ Luthiery Laboratories (luthierylabs.com)

The first commercially successful mass produced solid body fretted electric bass guitar

And so it was that the scene was set for someone else to step in and make the bass guitar ‘a thing’. That someone else was Clarence Leonidas Fender (1909‑1991). Unlike poor old Paul H. Tutmarc, you may just have heard of him.

“I wonder if I could make an electric bass” – Leo Fender (1909‑1991)

For more on the history and development of Fender guitars and musical equipment, see CRAVE Guitars’ August 2018 article for the context behind Fender solid body electric guitars.

A Potted History of the Guitar Part VI (1950s and 1960s):
August 2018 – A Potted History of the Guitar Part VI (craveguitars.co.uk)

Once the proverbial ball started rolling, the bass guitar had a phenomenal, transformative and relatively rapid impact on modern music that cannot be underestimated or understated. It is also very easy to take the electric bass guitar’s presence on stages, in studios and bedrooms all around the world for granted. Back in 1950, though, no‑one other than a select few in Fullerton, California had any idea of what was to come.

So… what are we actually talking about? The answer, after the lengthy preamble (apologies for keeping you on tenterhooks for so long), is the mighty Fender Precision Bass. Three little words. Game changing, era defining and well‑deserving of all the hyperbole attached to it over the past seven‑plus decades. So much has been written about the Precision that there is little need to dredge up the detail again, so what follows is a brief overview.

Leo Fender was working on a prototype back in 1950, bringing the world’s first commercially successful mass‑produced electric bass guitar to market in 1951. Fender designed the Precision Bass (often shortened these days to P‑Bass) to overcome the many drawbacks of the acoustic double bass alluded to earlier in this article. Even the name, Precision, referred to the fretted neck to enable musicians to play in tune far more precisely than on the double bass’s fretless neck. Conservative double bass players may well have looked at the Precision Bass in the same way that conservative guitarists looked at the Fender Telecaster, which had been introduced a year earlier in 1950. Consternation and indignation were probably natural initial reactions from the ‘old‑school’.

At its most basic, the Fender Precision Bass is a solid body, 4‑string bass guitar equipped with a single pickup and a one‑piece 20‑fret maple neck with rosewood or maple fingerboard. It all sounds so very straightforward and unremarkable nowadays doesn’t it?

The Precision Bass didn’t, however, appear fully formed. The original design of the Precision borrowed several design features from the Telecaster guitar, other than the double cutaway body. Initial models carried one single coil pickup, a slab body, large scratchplate and a Tele‑like headstock.

After Fender introduced the Stratocaster guitar in 1954, some of its design features were brought over to the Precision including a contoured body and a Strat‑like headstock. The original pickup was replaced with a single split coil hum cancelling staggered design and a sleeker redesigned scratchplate. It is this version of the Precision from 1957 that has stayed in production largely unchanged to the current day. There have been many, many variants with numerous changes in specification over the years, including a fretless version (ironically, given the origin and intention of the Precision’s name). 5‑string versions, 22‑fret necks, active electronics, multiple pickups, etc. followed.

The original pre‑1957 Precision design has been re-issued by Fender at times over the years, often called the Telecaster Bass to differentiate it from the post‑1957 Precision specification.

The popularity of the Fender Precision Bass grew significantly throughout the 1950s especially with rock & roll and country fraternities, as well as with session musicians. During the 1960s the solid body fretted electric bass guitar became dominant in most modern musical genres. During the early days, there wasn’t a great deal of choice in terms of alternatives to the Precision but that was to change later on.

1977 Fender Precision Fretless Bass

Fender capitalised on their supremacy by introducing the solid body fretted electric Fender Jazz Bass in 1960 (originally called the ‘Deluxe Model’). The svelte Fender Jazz Bass (often now shortened to J‑Bass) was designed to appeal to a different customer base. Like the offset bodied Fender Jazzmaster guitar, it was aimed squarely at the dyed‑in‑the‑wool jazz community. However, like the Jazzmaster, the Jazz Bass’s appeal spread far wider than jazz musicians. Like the Precision, the Jazz Bass has rightly become an iconic industry standard solid body electric bass guitar.

Throughout the years, both the Precision and Jazz Bass have featured sizeable chrome covers over the pickup and the bridge, despite these items limiting playing techniques such as palm muting the strings. As the covers are purely aesthetic, rather than functional components, it is fair to say that the vast majority of musicians removed these covers permanently.

Without doubt, the Fender Precision Bass and its younger sibling the Jazz Bass are icons of contemporary music and remain hugely popular today. Consumers can purchase genuine P‑Bass and J‑Bass models from the budget Fender‑owned offshore‑produced Squier brand, through Mexican and American‑made Fender models, to the high‑end Fender Custom Shop versions. Throughout the decades, the Precision and Jazz Bass models have oft been imitated and/or blatantly copied by other manufacturers, eager to cash in on Fender’s industry‑dominant status.

Understandably, over the years, the Precision and Jazz Bass have become highly collectable, especially the earliest models. The highest vintage market prices undoubtedly belong to the models from 1951 (Precision) and 1960 (Jazz Bass) to 1965, when Leo Fender sold his company to industry giant CBS. Fender equipment from this period is known as ‘pre‑CBS’.

For more information on the Fender Precision and Jazz Bass, just complete any Internet browser search and, alongside a great deal of drivel, there is a massive volume of fact and opinion available, often described in forensic detail.

1989 Fender Jazz Bass American Standard Longhorn

Evolution of the electric bass guitar

It is probably fair to say that, since 1951 and the introduction of the Fender Precision Bass, other brands were in the position of having to play catch up. In particular, Fender’s biggest competitor, Gibson, was wrong‑footed and they have never been able to compete on a level playing field. In 1953, Gibson released the EB‑1, which was a violin‑shaped solid mahogany body bass with a set neck. The EB‑1 didn’t catch on and was replaced by the semi‑acoustic ES‑335‑shaped EB‑2 in 1958, the SG‑shaped Gibson EB‑0 in 1959 and the EB‑3 (made famous by Jack Bruce of Cream) in 1961. While the semi‑acoustic EB‑2 proved popular, its Epiphone‑branded counterpart, the Epiphone Rivoli proved more successful. All these early Gibson basses used a shorter 30½” scale. In 1959, Gibson also released a hollow body EB‑6 6‑string bass.

Possibly Gibson’s best contender for an iconic bass guitar is the Gibson Thunderbird, originally introduced in 1963. The Thunderbird was based on Gibson’s Firebird guitar, designed by legendary American car designer Raymond Dietrich (1894‑1980). The Thunderbird was the first Gibson solid body bass to use the 34” scale made popular by Fender. Like the Firebird, the Thunderbird was redesigned in a simpler ‘non‑reverse’ form for 1966 and the original ‘reverse’ shape wasn’t reissued until the mid‑1970s. During the 1970s, Gibson also released the Ripper and Grabber basses but neither really captured bass players’ imaginations (or their precious dollars!). Later additions like the Gibson Triumph, Victory and RD basses didn’t fare much better as viable competition for Fender’s stalwarts. Epiphone have Thunderbird and EB basses in their line‑up alongside Epiphone‑specific basses such as the Newport and the Embassy.

Over at Danelectro in Neptune, New Jersey, Nathan Daniel launched the world’s first 6‑string bass, the UB‑2 in 1956 comprising a single cutaway semi‑hollow bass with a 30” scale, 24 frets and dual single coil pickups, earning its nickname the ‘Tic Tac bass’. In 1958, Danelectro replaced the UB‑2 with two new 6‑string bass models. The first was the Long Horn 4623 bass with a radical new lyre‑like design 24 frets, and a short 25” scale. The other was the Short Horn 3612 with stubby double cutaways, 29½”scale and only 15 frets. All Danelectro models substantially undercut the retail prices of both Fender and Gibson’s basses. The 6‑string models seemed to attract guitarists rather than bass players to their designs, providing a novel bridge between guitar and bass camps.

It should be noted at this point that older 6‑string basses are generally tuned an octave below a guitar in standard tuning, to E-E, while the baritone guitars that were appearing at the time were tuned either to B‑B or A‑A. On the other hand, modern 5‑string basses simply add a lower B string while modern 6‑string basses tend to add lower B and higher C strings compared to an equivalent 4‑string bass. Confused?

Meanwhile, back in the 1960s, Fender weren’t resting on their laurels. Following the popularity of the ‘student’ Mustang guitar, Fender introduced the short scale Mustang Bass in 1966. The Mustang Bass spawned two later variants, the Bronco Bass (introduced in 1967) and the Musicmaster Bass (introduced in 1971). Fender also released two esoteric ‘bass’ guitars, the Fender Bass V (introduced in 1965), which was the world’s first 5‑string bass guitar and the 6‑string Bass VI (introduced in 1961). The latter was strongly influenced by the Fender Jaguar guitar design. The Bass VI was Fender’s upmarket response to the Danelectro 6‑string bass introduced 5 years earlier. The Bass VI is unique in having 3 pickups, 6 lighter gauge strings, a short 30” scale, a floating bridge and a mechanical vibrato as used on the Jazzmaster/Jaguar guitars, as well as a removable string mute. To compete with the Gibson EB‑2 and Epiphone Rivoli thinline semi‑acoustic basses, Fender introduced the hollow Coronado Bass in 1966.

In addition, the ‘other’ Californian company, Rickenbacker, run by F.C. Hall at the time, also wasn’t going to be left on the side‑lines in the bass department. Rickenbacker had hired Roger Rossmeisl (1927‑1979) who designed the brand’s key guitars and the 4000 series basses. The Rickenbacker 4000 bass with its distinctive cresting wave body outline and thru‑neck construction was launched in 1957. Subsequent models were named 4001, 4002, 4003, 4004, all being variants of the same basic instrument. There isn’t enough space to go into the specification differences here.

Rickenbacker 4001

A decade after Leo Fender left the company that still carries his name today, Music Man was formed in California and released Leo Fender’s vision for the next evolution of his era defining bass guitars. The Music Man Stingray Bass was released in 1976 with a single large bridge humbucker, distinctive 3+1 headstock, innovative on‑board active electronics and an integral string mute. While Music Man’s guitars never caught on at the time, the Stingray Bass has joined Fender and Rickenbacker as an iconic design for many bass musicians. The Stingray Bass was especially popular for funk slap‑style bass technique for the likes of Louis Johnson of the Brothers Johnson.

1978 Music Man Stingray Bass

There are a few other notable basses, such as the German Höfner ‘violin bass’, the 500/1, made famous by Paul McCartney of The Beatles. This model, introduced in 1955, with its carved solid spruce top and humbucking pickups, is often nicknamed the ‘Beatle Bass’. Beyond the Beatles connection, though, the 500/1 remains a relatively minor entry in the bass stakes, while the company’s only other notable entry being the Höfner Club and Verythin basses.

Another oddity to mention at this point is the Swedish Hagström H8, unique for being the world’s first mass‑produced 8‑string bass, with four pairs of strings on a short 30” scale. The H8 was only produced briefly from 1967‑1969.

Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s a plethora of other companies jumped on the bandwagon, eager to make the most of the massive increase in demand as rock, pop and other genres proliferated. Many of the basses produced during this time were flagrant facsimiles of the best‑selling American brand models, often by Japanese companies (now termed ‘lawsuit‑era’ copies). Other companies like Warwick in Germany were making their own headway with their successful original‑design Thumb and Streamer basses.

Today (2024), Fender arguably still rules the roost with basses covering all bases (sic!) from budget to elite models. All other brands stand firmly in Fender’s enviable shadow. While Fender may dominate, there are now plenty of alternative options. There are some incredible bass guitars out there, some of which are listed later in this article for those that want to diverge from the predictable industry standard ‘Fender sound’. There are numerous ways to deviate from the common path, with different brands, string/pickup configurations, electronics, scale lengths, body construction, etc. The quality of budget instruments is vastly superior to anything available in the past and provides a strong basis (again, sic!) for players seeking to learn and develop their skills.

The acoustic bass guitar

While the solid body electric bass guitar finally took the world by storm from the 1950s and 1960s, the acoustic bass guitar has proved to be another modern, notable and niche instrument. The first (largely unsuccessful) attempts at acoustic bass guitars began to appear in the 1950s as a logical extension to its electric counterpart.

Historically, one of the earliest acoustic bass‑like instruments was the Mexican guitarrón, which has its roots in the 16th Century and is widely used in Mexican Mariachi bands. While looking similar to a guitar, these huge instruments were either 6‑string or 12‑string acoustic instruments, tuned in A‑D‑G‑C‑E‑A.

In 1972, Ernie Ball introduced the Earthwood acoustic bass guitar, stating that “…if there were electric bass guitars to go with electric guitars then you ought to have acoustic basses to go with acoustic guitars.” A simple yet ‘blindingly obvious’ observation, given the benefit of hindsight. Ernie Ball took a guitarrón, being the nearest thing to an existing acoustic bass guitar, and created a more practical instrument for guitar‑centric American consumers. The Earthwood was relatively short‑lived but the foundation of the acoustic bass guitar was established. American company Washburn took the concept and created more successful instruments that coincided neatly with MTV’s Unplugged concert series (1989‑1999). Interestingly, despite starting it all, Ernie Ball does not have an acoustic bass guitar available to buy at the time of writing.

Acoustic bass guitar construction is essentially similar to the steel‑strung flat top acoustic folk guitar, with a larger hollow wooden body and a longer scale neck. Most acoustic basses have four strings, tuned in the same way as an electric bass, E‑A‑D‑G, an octave below a standard guitar. The majority of acoustic basses have fretted fingerboards, although some are fretless.

Acoustic Bass Guitar

Like many modern day acoustic guitars, many acoustic bass models have pickups to enable them to be amplified for stage use or DI’d for recording purposes. Some instruments are thinline electric semi‑acoustic basses while others are full‑depth electro‑acoustic basses. These are designed primarily as acoustic basses with an on‑board pickup for additional amplification when needed.

Today, there are any number of acoustic bass guitars on the market for every level of player and every price point from many key manufacturers including, amongst others; Martin, Taylor, Guild, Fender, Takamine, Ovation, Tanglewood, Epiphone, Warwick, Epiphone, Washburn, Godin, ESP, Breedlove, Larivée, Framus, Hohner, Ozark, Dean, D’Angelico, Ibanez, Sigma, Alvarez and Cort.

Bass guitar amplification

In the early days of bass guitars, brands released bass amplifiers to accompany their instruments, often sold as a package (see Tutmarc’s Audiovox above, for example). Other brands like Rickenbacker did the same in the early days. The main difference between guitar amps and bass amps is that the latter are tuned specifically to reproduce bass frequencies accurately. A standard 4‑string bass guitar produces low frequencies in the range 41Hz to 100Hz with overtones extending up to 4‑5kHz (not dissimilar to an acoustic double bass in fact).

In terms of sound pressure levels, bass frequencies need more power to be heard by the human ear/brain at the same volume as higher frequencies, so bass amps tend to have higher power ratings than guitar amps. In the past, speakers for bass also tended to be larger with 12”, 15” or even 18” to shift the amount of air needed at lower frequencies. In contrast, guitar speakers tended to be 10”or 12”. Bass speaker cabinets, especially those with multiple speakers, normally had sealed or ported enclosures to increase volume. For all these reasons bass amplifiers and speaker cabinets tend to be different to their guitar equivalents.

Probably the most famous brand associated specifically for its bass amplification is the American company Ampeg, founded in 1946 and now under the ownership of Japanese giant, Yamaha. Ampeg started out attempting to amplify the acoustic double bass in 1949 by using a microphone/pickup in the instrument’s stand. The ‘Amplified Peg’ as it was called was then shortened to ‘Ampeg’ and the rest, as they say, is history. Their most famous range of amps was the 300W Ampeg SVT from 1969 and their bass combo amps, the B‑15 from 1960, as used by the likes of Motown session bass player James Jamerson.

It was no surprise that Fender, the leader in the world of bass guitars from the 1950s should also produce bass amps/cabs. Perhaps the most famous Fender bass amp was the Bassman from 1952 onwards, first introduced as a combo valve amp with a 15” speaker. The most desirable though, was the Dual Rectifier Bassman valve combo with 4×10” speakers. From 1960. Fender also released a ‘piggy back’ amp head and speaker cabinet design to cope with higher power levels and to provide flexibility. From 2000, Fender released a solid state version of the legendary Bassman amp. The original valve Bassman also became beloved by many guitar players for its tone, for instance by the late blues rock guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughan (SRV).

Student bass players also needed a bass amp. So Fender introduced the Musicmaster Bass amplifier in 1970, as a companion to the Fender Musicmaster Bass guitar. The Musicmaster Bass combo amp was a very simple affair with one channel, 12W of power, volume and tone controls and a single 12″ Fender speaker. Like the Bassman, it has latterly been enjoying a bit of a revival as a budget vintage amp for guitarists. The Musicmaster Bass amp was discontinued in 1982 after the introduction of the Fender Studio Bass combo and Japanese Fender Sidekick Bass 30. Nowadays, the extensive Fender Rumble series has proved very popular with bass players.

Legendary British amplifier company Marshall was not going to be left behind. Marshall’s first 100‑watt bass head was the JTM 45/100 / JTM 45 Super 100 model. Another, also dating from the second half of the 1960s, is the JMP #1992 Super Bass 100 (100W) and JMP #1986 Bass (50W). Like the Fender Bassman, the Marshall Super Bass 100W also proved popular with guitarists. Bass players were also known to use the Marshall #1963 Super PA (50W) and Marshall #1968 Super PA (100W) amps.

Another legendary British amplifier company, VOX produced bass versions of its AC‑15 and AC‑30 combo amps. These were followed in 1963 by the VOX T‑60 and Foundation amps, the latter promoted by Bill Wyman of the Rolling Stones.

German acoustic amp company AER also produce a range of bass amps, particularly well‑suited to amplifying acoustic and electro‑acoustic bass guitars.

Bass guitarists turn out to be a little less conservative than their guitarist counterparts, especially when it comes to amplification and speaker cabinets. For instance there are plenty of modern‑day bass amps that use efficient solid state D‑class amplification (a type of amplifier that uses digital switching technology to amplify audio signals efficiently), with very high power ratings – 500W and 600W or more being not uncommon. Bass amps often also make wide use of sophisticated on‑board EQ. Speaker cabinet configurations also tend to be more versatile with reflex ports, horns, tweeters and combining multiple speaker types being common.

There are many other valve, solid state or hybrid bass amplifier manufacturers not mentioned above, including Trace Elliot, Ashdown Engineering, Mesa/Boogie, Peavey, Music Man, Hiwatt, Laney, Sound City, H/H, WEM, Hartke and Orange.

Bass guitar effects

Things have changed a great deal over the decades since 1951. In the early days of the solid body electric bass guitar, most players plugged straight into their amps without much in the way of tone augmentation.

By the 1970s and 1980s bass players had a paucity of effects specially designed for their instruments, so they generally adopted guitar effects with just a few bass‑specific pedals to choose from. Since the industry started to migrate to digital technology from the 1980s onwards, the major effect companies began to produce pedals designed primarily for use with bass guitars. Now, in the 2020s, there is plenty of choice with most of the big players in the effect industry now making bass‑specific effect pedals, including Electro‑Harmonix, MXR, BOSS, Ibanez, Fender, Laney and Ampeg.

In addition, from around the start of the new millennium, a number of manufacturers turned their ideas for integrated multi‑effect units into practical musicians’ tools that became popular for both guitar and bass, including BOSS, VOX, Zoom, Tech 21, Behringer and Valeton.

In 1998, Line 6 introduced a ground‑breaking innovation called the POD, which put many guitar effects, amps and cabinet emulations into a single portable unit. While the little red kidney shaped POD was initially directed at guitarists, the rack mounted Line 6 POD Pro models came in both guitar and bass versions. Since then, Line 6 and other manufacturers now combine guitar and bass amp/effect/cabinet emulations into a single unit. These units are constantly improving and are gradually replacing stage backlines with direct input (DI) into PAs/monitors, as well as into studio desks/DAWs. Along with the POD, Line 6, also now part of Yamaha, is still in the same business with their extensive Helix range.

Alternatives to the Line 6 POD and Helix units include the Axe-Fx III from Fractal Audio, which is a pro‑level amplification/effects processor suitable for both guitar and bass. Meanwhile, Kemper Amps took a slightly different route with their Profiler, which has all‑in‑one effects, amplifier and speaker cabinet profiles designed for both guitar and bass.

Just to finish off, there are numerous boutique effect pedal manufacturers that produce stomp boxes, often to very high degrees of quality, including brands such as Way Huge, TC Electronic, EarthQuaker Devices, Darkglass, Aguilar, Origin Effects, Free The Tone, Providence, Source Audio, Walrus Audio, ZVEX, Mooer Audio, Sansamp, Digitech, Eventide, Strymon, JHS, Keeley and Empress Effects.

Iconic (and other) bass guitars

The next sentence is likely to be highly provocative and intentionally so. While there are innumerable bass guitar models out there from 1951 to the current day, there are probably only four bass guitar models that can truly be called iconic (i.e. something that is widely considered to epitomize an era, culture, community or place). The four key instruments – none of which are based on guitar equivalents – that stand head and shoulders above the rest are:

Truly iconic bass guitars:
Fender Precision Bass (1951‑date)
Fender Jazz Bass (1960‑date)
Rickenbacker 4000 series (1957‑date)
Music Man Stingray Bass (1976‑date)

In addition, below are listed just a very few of the other great electric bass guitars manufactured from 1951 onwards. This is far from a comprehensive list and is intended only to be broadly indicative of the type.

Fender bass guitars:
Fender Bass V
Fender Bass VI
Fender Coronado Bass
Fender Mustang Bass
Fender Musicmaster Bass
Fender Performer
Fender Telecaster Bass
Squier Bronco Bass

Gibson bass guitars:
Gibson EB series
Gibson Thunderbird
Gibson Explorer Bass
Gibson Melody Maker Bass
Gibson Grabber/Ripper/G3
Gibson RD series
Gibson Triumph
Gibson Victory
Gibson 20/20 Bass

Epiphone bass guitars (not including Epiphone versions of Gibson basses):
Epiphone Embassy
Epiphone Newport
Epiphone Rivoli
Epiphone Viola

Other American brand bass guitars:
Alembic Series 1/2
Ampeg Dan Armstrong Lucite
Ampeg AEB-1
BC Rich Eagle
BC Rich Mockingbird
BC Rich Warlock
Danelectro Longhorn 4623
Danelectro Shorthorn 3612
G&L L1000/L2000
Gretsch 6071/6072
Gretsch G2220 Junior Jet
Gretsch 5440 Electromatic
Guild B-301/B-302
Guild Starfire
Harmony H22
Harmony H27
Jackson JS
Kramer 450-B/650-B
Kramer DMZ
Lakland Skyline
Music Man Sabre
Music Man Sterling
National Val Pro Model 85
Ovation Magnum
Peavey T-40
Peavey Millennium/Milestone
PRS SE Kestrel/Kingfisher
Schecter Omen
Schecter Stilletto
Silvertone 1440 series
Steinberger Spirit XT
Steinberger Synapse
Supro Pocket
Travis Bean TB2000
Washburn Taurus

European bass guitars:
Burns Sonic
Hagström H8
Höfner Club
Höfner HCT-500/1
Höfner President
Hohner B2
Hohner The Jack
VOX Clubman
VOX Cougar
VOX Phantom 4
VOX Sidewinder
VOX VBW Teardrop Bass
Wal Mk1/Mk2
Warwick Thumb/Streamer/Infinity/Corvette
Warwick Rockbass

Japanese bass guitars:
Other than perhaps the Yamaha BB and TRBX series, and the Ibanez SR and TMB series, Japanese bass guitars do not have the same level of brand/model heritage when compared to those produced by American and European companies. There are, however, many Japanese basses produced by companies such as Ibanez, Tokai, Greco, Jedson, Westone, Teisco, ESP/LTD, Fernandes and Aria.

“Without the Fender bass, there’d be no rock n’ roll or no Motown. The electric guitar had been waiting ’round since 1939 for a nice partner to come along. It became an electric rhythm section, and that changed everything.” – Quincy Jones (1933‑)

Famous bass players

Below are listed seventy of the world’s most famous and influential bass players – alive and departed – including upright double bass and electric solid body bass guitar players. There are, of course, many, many more but this is an indicative list for those interested in exploring some of the music created by these diverse musicians (in alphabetical order):

Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett (Bob Marley & The Wailers)
Walter Becker (Steely Dan)
Andy Bell (Oasis)
Bill Black (Elvis Presley)
Jack Bruce (Cream)
Cliff Burton (Metallica)
Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath)
John Cale (Velvet Underground)
Stanley Clarke (Return To Forever, solo)
Adam Clayton (U2)
Bootsy Collins (James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic)
Tim Commerford (Rage Against The Machine/Audioslave)
Billy Cox (Jimi Hendrix)
John Deacon (Queen)
Kim Deal (Pixies, Breeders)
Willie Dixon
Gail Ann Dorsey (David Bowie)
Bernard Edwards (Chic)
John Entwistle (The Who)
Flea (a.k.a. Michael Peter Balzary – Red Hot Chili Peppers)
Bruce Foxton (The Jam)
Simon Gallup (The Cure)
Roger Glover (Deep Purple)
Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth)
Larry Graham (Sly & The Family Stone)
Marshall Grant (Johnny Cash)
Steve Harris (Iron Maiden)
Dusty Hill (ZZ Top)
Peter Hook (Joy Division, New Order, The Light)
Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple)
Jah Wobble (a.k.a. John Joseph Wardle)
James Jamerson (session musician)
Louis Johnson (The Brothers Johnson)
John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin)
Carol Kaye (session musician)
Lemmy Kilmister (Hawkwind, Motörhead)
Mark King (Level 42)
Alan Lancaster (Status Quo)
Geddy Lee (Rush)
Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead)
Tony Levin (Peter Gabriel)
Jenny Lee Lindberg (Warpaint)
Phil Lynott (Thin Lizzy)
Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols)
Paul McCartney (The Beatles, Wings, solo)
Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses)
John McVie (Fleetwood Mac)
Marcus Miller (Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, George Benson)
Charles Mingus
Krist Novoselic (Nirvana)
Pino Palladino (session musician)
Jaco Pastorius (Weather Report)
Guy Pratt (Madonna, David Gilmour)
Suzi Quatro
Dee Dee Ramone (Ramones)
Noel Redding (Jimi Hendrix)
Mike Rutherford (Genesis)
Robbie Shakespeare (Sly & Robbie)
Billy Sheehan (Steve Vai, David Lee Roth)
Gene Simmons (KISS)
Nikki Sixx (a.k.a. Frank Carlton Serafino Feranna Jr. – Mötley Crüe)
Chris Squire (Yes)
Sting (a.k.a. Gordon Sumner – The Police)
Danny Thompson (John Martyn)
Thundercat (a.k.a. Stephen Lee Bruner)
Robert Trujillo (Metallica)
Sid Vicious (a.k.a. Simon John Ritchie – Sex Pistols)
Roger Waters (Pink Floyd)
Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club)
Tal Wilkenfeld (Jeff Beck, Prince)
Bill Wyman (Rolling Stones, Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings)

“The gunk takes the funk” – James Jamerson (1936‑1983)

Bass in the (near) future

It is difficult for, and unfair of, me as a guitarist, to predict any sort of unified future for the bass guitar but I’ll give it a shot.

The traditional conservative brigade will still stick to tried and tested instruments and equipment. Musicians looking for something a bit different will probably want to experiment with the format, for instance number of strings, scale lengths, pickups and electronics. If anything there will be more radical and custom bass guitar designs from up‑market and boutique luthiers that diverge from the traditional archetype set by Fender over 70 years ago. Many additions to the form extend the flexibility of the core instrument, so it may be a case of further evolution, rather than revolution.

Bass amplification will continue to diverge from its simple valve origins and continue to embrace the digital realm, probably dispensing with backline amps/cabs altogether with signals being DI’d into desks/PA/monitors.

While bass players haven’t been particularly well served in the past for bass‑specific effect pedals, I anticipate that bass effects will achieve greater representation, including some out‑there effects not currently available to guitar players.

Bass guitar players have struggled to compete, with synthesisers dominating the world of modern electronica, dance and popular music. At least, for now (thankfully), the bass guitar remains essential to most guitar‑based music in a sort of symbiotic, co‑dependent relationship. As long as guitars keep going, so will bass, and vice versa. Bass players, being ever inventive individuals, will adapt and cultivate new ways to keep the instrument relevant, current and in the limelight for decades to come.

Technique‑wise, there will continue to be the traditional approaches towards walking bass lines, typically using the fundamental root/fifth styles that has been the general mainstay of modern music for decades. In contrast, there will be many more amazing virtuoso bass players who see the versatility and potential of the instrument in its own right.

So, other than tangible incremental progress around the margins, there is probably not a whole lot that will change profoundly in the near future. I may be wrong with that last sentence. In many ways, I hope so!

Interestingly, while the upright double bass continues to appear in modern music from time to time, the solid body fretted electric bass hasn’t really made any headway into the clique of conservative classical orchestral music, which still relies heavily on the traditional, some may say archaic, acoustic upright double bass.


Periodicals dedicated to bass guitar may be the best place to keep up‑to‑date with the technology and equipment associated with the instrument. Publications include Bass Musician Magazine, Bass Player Guitar Magazine, Bass Guitar Magazine, Bass Magazine, Bass Musician and Bass Gear Magazine.

Online resources include Music Radar, TalkBass.com, Basschat and No Treble. There are also many books on bass guitars and bass playing techniques, including the inevitable, ‘Bass Guitar For Dummies’.

As far as purchasing bass guitars, there are the large Internet sites, brick & mortar retailers and the usual online sites, Reverb.com and eBay. For vintage and rare bass guitars, there are outlets purely for basses including (in the UK) Andy Baxter Bass, The Bass Gallery, The Bass Centre, Vintage Bass Room and ClassicandcoolGuitars.

Some final thoughts

I certainly learnt a lot from researching and writing this article. At first sight, there may seem to be quite a bit of relevant information on the Internet. It is only when one starts to dig deeper and attempt to put something together that makes some form of sense that things rapidly become unclear. All of a sudden, much of the available information seems incomplete, contradictory, vague and/or outright erroneous. In the end, it comes down to evidence and corroboration but sorting the wheat from the chaff isn’t always easy. It seems that online information about vintage guitars is far more reliable than that about vintage basses. There are far too many poorly informed people who invent facts and present opinion as truth.

Despite my best attempts to piece things together, I may have fallen foul of the same issues raised above. However, I have tried very hard not to fill in gaps with assumptions and/or fiction. While I endeavour to be thorough and rigorous, my approach isn’t academic and I don’t have the time, funds or energy to provide the last word in scholarly fact. The contents herein should therefore probably not be relied upon too heavily. This article should, for that reason alone, be regarded as my best intention to balance fact with entertainment.

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” – Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama – c.480‑400BCE)

This is just the sort of article that would benefit greatly from images to illustrate and break up the narrative. Sadly as a (broke) not‑for‑profit entity, I cannot afford the costly copyright/royalties charged for the use of relevant images, so I have had to rely on very limited free/public domain resources or my own photographs. I apologise for the thousands of words used to describe what images could do in none. Once again, no AI was used in the research and writing of this tome – only my own hard work.

NB. Apologies to anyone disappointed by the wait for a cheap, clichéd joke at the expense of ‘the bass player’! T’ain’t gonna happen here. Love ‘the bass player’.

CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Album of the Month’

Given that this month’s article focuses on the fascinating history of the bass guitar, it seems only fitting to select an album that demonstrates the virtuoso bass playing of one of the greatest bass guitarists of all time, Jaco Pastorius (1951‑1987) and his famous modified fretless Fender Jazz Bass.

Weather Report – Heavy Weather (1977) – The seventh and most commercially successful studio album by the American jazz fusion band. ‘Heavy Weather’ was the first album with Pastorius on full‑time bass duties. The smooth jazz funk production of the album, which was released at the peak of the punk rock movement in the US and UK, stood in stark contrast to the otherwise brutal sounds of the late 1970s. Given that it sold in huge numbers (and still does) is testament to the composition and musicianship on display. Initial sales were about 500,000 and total sales to‑date are over 1.06 million. Other Weather Report albums may be ‘better’ according to purists but this is the one I heard first and it has stuck with me over the years.

Weather Report – Heavy Weather (1977)

To me, this album hit me right between the eyes about what virtuoso bass playing can be like. There are many, many other artists and albums that could arguably take the acclaim, for instance Stanley Clarke’s successful solo album, ‘School Days’ (1976), but on this occasion, the late, great Jaco (& co.) takes the accolade, such as it is.

“I’m the greatest bass player in the world” – Jaco Pastorius (1951‑1987)


Well, there you go. I think that most of us love a bit of decent low bass in our music. I hope y’all got something out of this fleeting exploration into the defining instruments, artists and music of the lower registers. I think the narrative works well as a complement to the launch of CRAVE Basses at the end of 2023, but that’s just my (obviously biased) opinion.

I hope you feel inclined to come back next month to see what’s currently fermenting in the CRAVE guitars’ secret brewery.

Truth, peace, love, and guitar music be with you always. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars’ ‘Quote of the Month’: “Mundanity is the devourer of lost dreams”

© 2024 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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November 2017 – New In: Underdog Vintage Guitars

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

A couple of articles ago (September 2017 – ‘A Map Leads To Some Hidden Gems’ → click here to read the article), I looked at the unlikely significance and influence of the 1983 Gibson USA Map, which was at the time the newest addition to the CRAVE Guitars fold. The Map was an unusual promotional guitar that Gibson produced in very small numbers for a very short period, for a specific purpose.

1983 Gibson USA Map

→ Click here to read the feature on the 1983 Gibson USA Map

In that article, I explored some of the other ‘forgotten’ Fender and Gibson guitars from the late 1960s through to the early 1980s. I suggested that, despite being minor relatives in the guitar family tree, the ‘lost’ models merited greater exposure and recognition. In order to understand the context within which these ‘forgotten’ guitars appeared and subsequently disappeared, it’s worth looking at what was happening during those 10-15 years.

Up to the late 1970s, two guitars from the same batch could be quite different and others were cobbled together from what was available at the time. This disparity was a problem for manufacturers, dealers and musicians alike. During the 1970s, the unpredictable variation in materials, processes and standards was seen as a bad thing from a quality assurance point of view. The big corporations that owned both Fender and Gibson at the time (CBS and Norlin respectively) partly tackled the issue by increasing mechanisation and automation, as well as exploring the use of alternative materials. They also sought to experiment and innovate in an attempt to overcome some of the perceived problems in supply and distribution chains, which resulted in a swathe of new models at all price points. By the mid‑1980s, Fender and Gibson had moved mass production of their budget brands off-shore (as Squier and Epiphone respectively) and American manufacturing had become more ‘industrialised’. The benefits of industrialisation included greater construction consistency, as well as improved economy and productivity. Management didn’t understand that the unintended downside for many musicians was that the changes removed some of the quainter charms of experimentation, problem‑solving and hands-on guitar building that players actually valued. I believe that these inherent tensions are integral to current‑day criticism of many American guitars from that period.

Due to public demand since that time, the rise of big‑brand custom shops, independent luthiers and computer controlled tooling made it easier to diversify and differentiate, thereby enabling greater innovation, customisation and modification. My current vintage cut-off is actually the end of the 1980s. Don’t get me wrong, many fine instruments have been produced since, and many of them are much ‘better’ made than many of the guitars that I showcase. It’s just that the fascinating manufacturing quirks and parts‑bin machinations became less… well… random!

I mentioned at the end of that September 2017 article that the research done to bring some of the ‘forgotten’ guitars to prominence stimulated my interest in some of these marvellous (?!) overlooked, creative ‘mutants’. So, not having really laid my hands on some of these ‘generation-x’ guitars, I put my money where my mouth is and decided to track one down (or, as it happens, three!). So this month also has some ‘new ins’ at CRAVE Guitars that hopefully prove that I am not a vintage guitar snob.

Two ‘Forgotten Fenders’

While the age distribution is fairly even across the CRAVE ‘family’, I am well aware of the numerical imbalance between Fender and Gibson models, so my attention was initially drawn in the direction of the big ‘F’.

After a couple of bidding battles on eBay (loathe it), CRAVE Guitars has now adopted two fine new baby Fenders, although sadly not quite the bargains thy might have been…

1981 Fender Bullet

1981 Fender Lead

It’s the first time I’ve owned either of these two models. I have to say that I am not disappointed by either acquisition. Getting both at the same time makes for some interesting (at least for me) comparisons and observations. The two instruments not only look different, they feel and sound very different. Good! That, after all, was one of the points I was making in my previous article, i.e. you can’t easily pigeonhole or generalise about these instruments, let alone disregard them simply because of their ephemeral existence. Another advantage of these ‘lesser’ guitars is that they often haven’t had the hard life of being on‑the‑road like some more workmanlike ‘professional’ models. In addition, many of the ‘forgotten’ vintage guitars don’t sell for big bucks so they can be picked up for a relatively reasonable sum (at the moment). I have to accept that, while they are now attracting moderate collector interest, they will never turn a decent profit should I deem to sell them on at some point. C’est la vie; at least I can enjoy playing them in the meantime.

The series 1 Fender Bullet is definitely a low-cost entry‑level model, clearly made to a budget during its short production period (1981‑1982). The Bullet was the brainchild of legendary designer, John Page (Fender R&D, then co‑founder and head honcho of the Fender Custom Shop). Page was tasked by the then new management team at Fender (including Dan Smith who was brought in to rejuvenate the brand) with making a guitar that cost only $65 to manufacture (the retail price was $199). He got it down to $66 through some ingenious engineering, e.g. ‘that’ toy-like bent steel tailpiece extension to the scratchplate, which Fender patented.

There seems to be confusion about the source of materials used, with suggestions that some parts were imported from Korea and assembled in the States. Even John Page can’t recall the details with any certainty, so there’s little hope for the rest of us. Strict American trade laws stipulated that it had to have enough genuine American content and added‑value to warrant the all‑important ‘Made in U.S.A.’ decal on the headstock. That’s good enough for me – I am not that much of a vintage guitar elitist to split hairs. I have to say that, of the two acquisitions, the Bullet feels more ‘manufactured’ rather than hand‑crafted but, let’s be honest, that’s not really surprising given its age, target audience and price point. The series 1 Bullet’s body looks to me to be slightly out of proportion compared to its forerunner, the formidable Telecaster. The unusual aesthetic, however, gives it a distinctive indie look which you’ll either love or hate. Its quaintness is all part of the appeal to me – kinda like lusting after the plain redhead girl‑next‑door rather than the pretty blonde prom queen. In fact – confession time – I like the Bullet so much, I think I might try to find an equivalent series 2 Strat‑a‑like version with a maple neck to keep this one company. Watch this space.

1981 Fender Bullet

The Fender Lead I on the other hand is quite a different animal. When is a Strat not a Strat? Well, the Lead kind of fits that bill, taking inspiration from both the Strat and the Tele. Like the Bullet, it had a short production period (1979-1982) and, because it has never been reissued, numbers on the vintage market are limited. The Lead was targeted at professional guitarists on a budget, comprising solid wood, a vintage‑inspired Stratocaster neck, natty electronics, etc. If anything, it suffered from being squeezed into a niche between Fender’s budget ‘student’ guitars and the pro‑level ‘classics’. The Fender Lead also seemed to have a bit of an identity crisis, unsure of what need it was trying to fulfil. The Lead I and III had clever Seth Lover‑designed split coil hot humbucking pickup(s), making the guitar pretty unique in Fender heritage. The inspiration for the single pickup Lead I seems to stem from the trend for early ‘superstrats’ around the 1980 period (cheers Mr Halen & co.). The dual‑humbucker Lead III was only made in 1982 and sometimes appears in a nice Sienna Burst finish. Seemingly in contradiction, the Lead II had 2 single coil pickups like a cut-down Stratocaster. In fact the Lead II’s X-1 single coil pickups went on to appear in the Stratocaster. For me, the Lead I is a great single pickup axe and sufficiently different from both the Lead II/III and other Fenders of the time. The Lead therefore has a bit of that cool & rare interest that keeps CRAVE Guitars growing.

Once Fender Japan was established, the company played with the original American Bullet and Lead designs to the extent that they lost the essential ingredients that made them American in the first place. The guitar lines were rationalised by Squier and subsequent models basically became a Far Eastern Stratocaster copy.

1981 Fender Lead I

One thing is for sure, while I was researching these models both before and after buying them, I was struck that both guitars have a very strong cult following among people who have actually owned and used them. I was prepared to be lemming-like and agree with many vintage commentators that these aren’t serious American Fender guitars but, thankfully, I decided to take the plunge anyway and experience them for myself. I’m glad I kept an open and curious mind. Are they great guitars? To be honest, no, they aren’t up there with the classics that inspired them. Personally, I still have a preference for Fender’s offset ‘student’ guitars like the Mustang but then again, that’s what I grew up using, so I guess it’s not surprising. However, neither are they rubbish (as many might claim) and they acquit themselves well enough to sustain interest as part of the CRAVE Guitars ‘family’.

Commercially, neither of these models really caught the public’s imagination on release, which is why they aren’t commonplace now and why Fender hasn’t reissued them. I quite like that they exist under the radar and remain unfamiliar to most players. All of these factors encouraged me to take up the cause on behalf of these cool, underrated, humble and modest ‘forgotten Fenders’. So that’s Fender covered; now what about Gibson?

One ‘Forgotten Gibson’

It isn’t only Fender that had some ‘lost’ guitars during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Also in my September 2017 article, I took a look at some equivalent ‘forgotten Gibsons’. The early 1980s was a period of intense R&D activity for Gibson. It amazed me that, while I have a number of Gibson oddities from the period, I have relatively few of the ones that I highlighted. Like with the Fender models above, I started a quest for an all‑original, good condition Gibson to start filling the gaps in the jigsaw puzzle.

I decided to start with one of the most unloved models and went in search of what many commentators describe as the lowliest of the low in Gibson’s canon. After yet another bidding battle on eBay (grrr), I secured a lovely example of a much-berated instrument:

1981 Gibson Sonex-180 Deluxe

While I can appreciate why there is universal criticism of the poor old Sonex-180, it doesn’t mean that I totally agree with it. Now that I’ve played it and reflected on its position in history, I think the mass hysteria about how awful it is, is overstated and unfair. Yes, Gibson were trying to cut corners and reduce manufacturing costs and they even had to bypass their own dealer network (hence ‘The Gibson Company U.S.A.’ on the headstock). However, the approach they took with the Sonex-180 attempted to tackle head‑on a number of other issues facing the guitar industry at the time, such as variable quality and quantity of tone woods (and an eye to future timber sustainability), known drawbacks of wood under extreme stage conditions (humidity and temperature), durability (Gibson’s Achilles heel with neck breaks), and manufacturing inefficiencies in production/finishing processes. The innovation and forward looking creativity backfired big time and the instrument was soon consigned to history as a misfire, as did several other models created during the experimental late ‘70s and early ‘80s, each suffering varying degrees of hostility. In my view, at least they tried to break the mould and we should be thankful for that.

If the Sonex-180 had been produced by anyone other than Gibson, it might have had a different reception. When compared with guitars coming from Japan at the time, both Fender and Gibson’s eccentric models could not compete with high quality/low price and mainstream appeal of many far eastern products (often blatant copies of US designs at the time). This polarisation of a competitive market tended to result in exaggerating the consumer’s already negative perceptions of American brand quality.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to put the Sonex‑180 (et al) on a par with the Gibson classics. However, when viewed in isolation and with hindsight, the Sonex‑180 is certainly unique and, despite its reputation, is historically noteworthy within the broader context. I believe that there is a lot to commend this carefully selected Gibson Sonex-180.

To lambast the Sonex‑180’s use of composite materials is a touch unfair. Alternative materials have been used in guitar bodies for many decades. Res-o-Glas (fibreglass) used by National, Airline and Supro, Masonite (hardboard) used by Danelectro, acrylic polymer (Plexiglas/Lucite) used by Ampeg/Dan Armstrong, plastic (Lyrachord) used by Ovation, carbon glass/resin used by Parker, as well as laminate (plywood) used by Gibson, Fender, Gretsch, Martin and many others. James Trussart has popularised the use of metal in guitar bodies while carbon fibre and plastics (e.g. by 3D printing) are now also being used extensively by luthiers.

In addition, many high end Gibsons and Martins now use Richlite, a combination of paper and resin for its fingerboards now that rosewood is a restricted wood and ebony is likely to follow soon (Google CITES – Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – for further information). Within this context, I suggest that the degree of animosity directed specifically towards the Sonex‑180 is a bit over‑the‑top. For many, though, ‘resonwood’ was seen as a desperate attempt of a failing organisation unable to compete on price or quality.

Furthermore, bolt on maple necks never hurt Fender’s reputation, so why criticise Gibson for using them on the Sonex‑180? Gibson had already used bolt‑on necks on other models including the Sonex‑180s predecessors, the S-1 and Marauder, as well as the Corvus and Ripper/Grabber basses.

1981 Gibson Sonex-180 Deluxe

The case for the prosecution (and rebuttals by the defence)

When undertaking the research for this and previous articles, I recently came across an article by an esteemed guitar magazine that looked at ‘guitars Gibson should never have made’ (including the Sonex‑180 and several other CRAVE-owned models!). In the spirit or hindsight, Gibson’s business strategy may have been imprudent but to claim that they should never have been made is to miss the point completely. The world would be a very boring place if companies only made things that someone thinks they should have made. It also seems poor populist journalism to malign the industry in such a negative way simply because of hindsight. This headline was just one of many misjudged rants out there.


I also dipped my toe in the unsanitary toilet bowl of Internet forums. As anyone who attempts to uncover any sort of definitive truth on the Internet will know, forum diatribes are a minefield of everything from helpful assistance and utter hogwash. Facts are frequently frustratingly incomplete and/or often aggravatingly blatantly incorrect. Only through rigorous corroboration and an intuitive nose for plagiarism and BS can one hope to get anything resembling fact. As if the ‘horse’s mouth’ of credible web sites (including Fender and Gibson’s own) wasn’t bad enough, many of the forums are extensively riddled with what I can only describe as illiterate hokum, ignorant opinion and inaccurate assertions. Amongst the tripe, there is, however, valuable material to be had. I don’t claim to be scientifically diligent but I do my homework and aim to be objective with a smidgeon of common sense. This doesn’t mean that I am right, as I freely acknowledge how little I actually know.

As far as the guitars in question are concerned, I can just hear the Internet rife with mutters of, “there’s a very good reason why these guitars should be forgotten’. I think that’s also a bit harsh and I don’t agree with censoring history, as each one is important in its own right. Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder and there are offbeat pleasures to be had. It’s a bit like that slightly chubby barmaid you’ve secretly fancied for ages and never had the nerve to ask out. While none of the three guitars I’ve covered here are likely to become my favourite go‑to guitars, they are very playable and they are now part of the diverse CRAVE Guitars’ family for a good reason. It is much easier to slag something off without justification than it is to explain in rational terms the positives. There are many supporters of these guitars but their enthusiasm is generally outweighed by the vociferous minority.

You may also well ask, “Why on Earth did you waste all that good money on three pedestrian guitars when you could have got one much better one?” Well, that kind of misses the point of preserving the diversity of guitar heritage, not just the best. Let’s face it, someone has to. History is (or should be) as much about the proletariat as it is about the aristocracy. A viable society needs the peasants as much, if not more so than, the royalty. Had I overlooked the vernacular, I would have missed out on three very interesting and underrated guitars that few other people will have even noticed, let alone considered playing or owning. In any case, I have a few (!) other guitars that fit the ‘better’ bill, so it’s about being able to experience a wider gamut of what’s out there and sharing it with others. Moreover, these new additions certainly fit the criteria for CRAVE Guitars that I covered in last month’s article, ‘What Qualifies As A CRAVE Guitar?’ (October 2017 → Click here to read the article)

The Fender Bullet, Fender Lead and Gibson Sonex-180 featured here and on the CRAVE Guitars web site are in my opinion, unsung, underdog guitars resulting from well-intentioned corporate miscalculation. Fender and Gibson may not have grasped the fundamental needs of musicians in a way that the Japanese did in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the results are for us to debate with the benefit of measured hindsight. My hope is that the vintage guitar community will eventually embrace, rather than attempt to eradicate the underdogs. Perhaps, we should be celebrating creative solutions to known problems and applauding innovations to improve the breed, regardless of whether they were commercially successful at the time or not. When considered in context, it is not surprising that there were some unusual evolutionary dead ends along the way. These are esoteric instruments that are very much of their time. As their many fans will attest, give them a go; they are really much better than you might have been led to think.

Yes I am, once again, challenging established conventions. My aim is to recalibrate public appreciation by just a tiny amount and do my bit to bring about a new equilibrium between the recognised classics and these disadvantaged orphans. I’m not going to be pompous (!?!?) and suggest these lost souls are the best things since sliced bread but they are certainly fine for making toast! It seems a thankless task and it feels like I’m trying to swim upstream against a relentless torrent. Acquiring the product of these strange evolutionary offshoots is, for want of a better way of putting it, intentionally sticking two fingers up at the ‘snobbish’ conservatism of the vintage guitar establishment. Ultimately, it will be the free market that determines values and, although my ability to influence the market is infinitesimal, I have at least tried to buck the trend. Someone has to stand up and advocate for the poor underprivileged urchins.

Forgotten Fender & Gibson Guitars


The lessons learnt from acquiring these underdog guitars include:

  1. ‘Lesser’ instruments can still have plenty of character to warrant owning and a real plus is that they look and sound different to what everyone else is using
  2. Overlooked non-collectables can provide plenty of vintage ‘bang for your buck’, especially if you are on a modest budget and as long as you do your homework
  3. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of prejudging a guitar just because everyone else has an opinion. Note: they are not necessarily right!
  4. Some of the ‘forgotten’ guitars are actually pretty cool and rare if you look beyond the superficial contradictory rhetoric. It’s OK to be brave
  5. The mission of an obsessed gearhead in pursuit of vintage guitar treasure is never ending. Next!

The one advantage of auctions on eBay is that, unless there is a crazy bidding frenzy by determined buyers out there (as there was with my Ovation Breadwinner that went for about double what it was worth), the final selling price will generally reflect the prevailing market value. ‘Buy It Now’ prices generally tend to be over‑inflated and ‘offers’ also tend to result in poor value. The days of getting real bargains from ‘no reserve’ auctions are long gone and there are now usually plenty of savvy people who know what they are doing. All three guitars featured this month were won in auctions and probably represent fair prices on the vintage market. This means that there is little likelihood of a high ROI but that’s for those in competitive business rather than the no‑for‑profit regime of CRAVE Guitars.

Perhaps I am fortunate that I am rarely disappointed with a vintage purchase and it is very unusual that I don’t get on with a guitar. Some people seem to have a much harder time connecting with their instruments than I do and, as a result, they seem to have quite a high turnover of guitars that they aren’t happy with. Perhaps I am more diligent and do my homework first, so that there is greater alignment between my expectations and reality. Every instrument has its idiosyncrasies but things that drive other people up the wall don’t tend to get under my skin to the same degree. I tend to tolerate (or even celebrate) a guitar’s unique eccentricities as long as they don’t affect the fundamental purpose of the instrument, which is to translate a guitarist’s intentions into music. I don’t believe it is because I am ultra-selective. I do my research and try to buy all‑original, good condition examples; an approach that usually proves to be worthwhile in the end.

Given the sorry state of the world these days, I am frequently reminded how fortunate I am that I have the opportunity to explore my passion. Owning and playing a wide range of vintage guitars is a privilege that I can’t overstate, even though I’m not in the realms of the exotics. There are, of course, downsides of vintage guitar ownership, including rampant poverty to support the addictive cause. There are always new discoveries to be made.

For me at least, once a guitar becomes part of the CRAVE Guitars ‘family’, I usually don’t want to let it go again – there is too great a risk of that sense of regret one gets from selling ‘the one that got away’. Been there, done that, don’t care for it. Some people treat guitars as disposable items to be bought and sold on a whim with scarcely a further thought. I don’t, and I don’t really understand those that do. That’s probably just me and I’ll mind my own business on that subject.


As usual, I have probably overstated my case to make an unnecessary point. However, in conclusion, don’t underestimate or disregard the ‘forgotten’ Fenders and Gibsons just because some self-appointed guru pronounces that they are “a piece of cr*p” (and that’s a polite quote taken from the forums!), especially if they cannot back up their standpoint with credible evidence and/or rational argument. At the same time, you shouldn’t take my word for it just because I pose a counterpoint to such blinkered doctrine. All I can really ask is that one pauses and thinks before putting finger to keyboard because one might just end up looking foolish. Oops! Too late! Heehee.

Finally, I am proud to plough a different furrow from the masses and have the courage to stand up for the vintage guitar ‘losers’ as much as others do for the widely‑recognised classics. I may be in the minority but I believe that there are valid grounds for doing so. The more the naysayers shout and denigrate these bastard offspring, the more I feel obliged to stand up and defend the runts of the litter. In my view, there is a plenty of space in the collective guitar world for all of them. I, for one, will enjoy the occasional walk on the wild side, rather than conforming to the mundane and uniform.

I can pretty much guarantee that there won’t be any more guitar purchases this year, meaning that there won’t be any more ‘new old’ CRAVE Guitars in 2017. I wonder what 2018 will bring. In the meantime, I will enjoy playing my newly adopted ‘budget’ Cool & Rare American Vintage Electric Guitars. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Quote of the Month’: “I have to fight for the underdog because I am the underdog.”

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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