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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February 2017 – Favourite Guitarists And Why

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

This month, I’m continuing with a list-like feature. This isn’t laziness, it’s just about time I focused back specifically on guitars and guitarists.

Here are some of the guitarists I enjoy listening to and, linking back to my January 2017 article about why we like what we like, artists that I keep coming back to for more. If there was some sort of formula that is common to all of them, it might be expressed as:

Unique talent + quality instrument + great song writing + timing + opportunity = music history.

The first ‘variable’ above is a key ingredient… talent. Most phenomenal guitarists are instantly recognisable by their distinctive sound, which is more about the person than the instrument they play. Simply put, no-one sounds like them. Why? It comes down to individual technique. It’s the same with classical painters, each one highly recognisable for their outputs, even though the inputs are essentially the same (paint, brushes, canvas, etc.). As the late great Stevie Ray Vaughan sagely commented, “Your sound is in your hands as much as anything. It is the way you pick and the way you hold the guitar, more than it is the amp or guitar you use”. In addition to the “it’s in the hands” adage, they also often have a ‘how do they do that?’ factor that differentiates them from the hoi poloi (NB. for trivia fans, from the Greek meaning ‘the many’). For guitarists to shine there needs to be strong song writing – it doesn’t actually matter who wrote any particular track, it’s how it is interpreted that matters.

Most guitarists will own several guitars and use then for certain situations. Many top guitarists may have extensive collections, although they tend to have one instrument or model with which they are uniquely associated. Combine that stylistic talent with, perhaps, a ‘signature’ instrument and the basics are there. By ‘quality’, I simply mean ‘fit for purpose’ within this context. Using a ‘favourite’ guitar is not a prerequisite, however, it is likely that removing a physical impediment to technique (i.e. an inappropriate guitar) has liberated many players to feel, rather than think, about their playing. There is something special in the relationship between player and preferred instrument that adds a ‘secret ingredient’ that no-one else could muster from it.

Another characteristic of accomplished guitarists with longevity is that they usually have a refined sense of song writing, either on their own or as part of a band, often prolifically so. They instinctively know what people tune into, including well-honed sense of harmony, melody, tempo, etc. They also adapt their writing over time to accommodate changing listening tastes. It isn’t just about image or the axe that they wield.

There is something to be said about time period and cultural context and being in the ‘right place at the right time’. If any of these guitarists were struggling to establish a career in today’s Spotify-saturated, X‑Factor sterilised world, would they stand out and have a chance? I would wager not. Many of these greats were also pioneers who broke the mould at their time in some way – they are not generic or homogenous. Musical integrity and coherency have been shattered by our seemingly insatiable appetite for the iTunes attention deficit disorder-oriented society. It is so much harder to be genuinely innovative now, which may explain why there are so few challengers striving to not only usurp the thrones of the exalted ‘old-timers’ but also to stay there. Aspiration and ambition is just the start, achieving longevity and legendary status is another matter altogether.

Some other characteristics spring to mind, these guitarists were as sound at rhythm guitar as they are at lead lines. So many great tunes would flounder without the solid rhythm chops from great guitarists who knew how to groove in their chosen genre.

I would also argue that these guitarists are/were as great at playing live, as they are/were in the studio. On stage, there is nowhere to hide and these artists have to work very, very hard to earn and sustain credibility over many years of continuous touring.

So… to the point… at long last. As my guitarists of choice are diverse in style, genre, time period, success, etc., it was impossible to rank them from 1-20, so they are presented in alphabetical order for fairness and simplicity. I’ve indicated the instrument(s) that they are often associated with, as well as a track that, for me, acted as an entry point into their canon (not necessarily their best or most well-known track), a catalyst if you will for grabbing my aspirational attention.

1. Jeff Beck (1944-) – Where on Earth does one start with a genius like Mr Beck? Invention, reinvention, experimentation and continually challenging the boundaries of what can be done with 6 strings on a Strat. No-one comes close to decades of innovation. As soon as you think you’ve nailed his rut, he surprises by a change of direction with consummate musicianship in whatever he does. Listen: ‘Brush With The Blues’ (1999). Guitars: Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Les Paul Standard, Fender Telecaster

2. Ritchie Blackmore (1945-) – Ignoring well-documented character traits, Blackmore’s Deep Purple/Rainbow rock era featured some of the most incendiary, flamboyant and flashy lead lines, all seemingly delivered with minimal effort. Extraordinary. Credit for following his passion in traditional guitar, rather than selling out/cashing in by endlessly regurgitating ‘Smoke On The Water’ for decades. Listen: ‘Child In Time’ (1972). Guitar: Fender Stratocaster

3. Dimebag Darrell (1966-2004, 38) – Sadly, the late ‘Dimebag’ Darrell Lance Abbott was taken too young. Metal guitarists are often easily categorised without really appreciating their innate talent and abilities. Darrell was a terrific guitarist with soul and technical skill that is hugely under-appreciated both for storming southern-tinged riffs and searing lead lines with Pantera. Listen: ‘Cemetery Gates’ (1990). Guitar: Dean ML

4. Rory Gallagher (1948-1995, 47) – A unique talent not sufficiently acknowledged while he was alive, his contribution and reputation has rocketed since his demise. The modest and unassuming Gallagher had a tremendous ear for fusing blues tropes with an astounding melodic sensibility evoking his Irish roots. A great slide player too. Live, he was astounding, consumed with energy and passion that few could match. Listen: ‘Calling Card’ (1976). Guitar: Fender Stratocaster

5. Billy Gibbons (1945-) – With his roots deep in Texan blues, ‘the greatest beard in rock’ can make his axe sing with great feeling, as evidenced by early material. As part of ZZ Top, he pushed R&B boogie into the limelight with mega commercial success, thereby adding more flavours to his not inconsiderable palette. Listen: ‘Blue Jeans Blues’ (1975). Guitars: Gibson Les Paul Standard, Gretsch Billy Bo

6. Kirk Hammett (1962-) – Another metal guitarist who knows how to use a guitar in anger as a member of Metallica. Listen to his playing and there is much more than flashy thrash metal guitar work. His legacy will forever be integrated with the riff from ‘Enter Sandman’. Look beyond those few familiar notes and be rewarded. Listen: ‘Seek & Destroy’ (1983). Guitar: ESP

7. Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970, 27) – Predictable. To attempt to explain in a few words what James Marshall Hendrix unleashed on rock music during his short career would be inadequate. He was a true revolutionary and showman, imbued with massive talent and skills honed through passion, dedication and commitment. Contemporary music owes a massive debt to a true pioneer and just think what he could have achieved. Listen: ‘All Along The Watchtower’ (1968). Guitars: Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Flying V

8. Steve Hillage (1951-) – Easily overlooked because of his relatively obscure ‘hippie’ career (Gong, System 7), Hillage is a talented and individual guitarist with a very recognisable tone and style. Even in later years, which focus heavily on electronic dance grooves, guitar remains an important stylistic element. His contribution is much undervalued. Listen: ‘Hurdy Gurdy Glissando’ (1976). Guitars: Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Les Paul Standard

9. John Lee Hooker (1917-2001, 83) – Hooker was a true individualist who always played by his own rules. He is one of the most expressive and soulful bluesmen, his emotions emanating through his guitar and gravelly vocals. Yes BB may be the King but JLH was a blues Hooker at one with his delta roots. At his best just him and his guitar, rather than the sanitised reverential collaborations. Listen: ‘Crawlin’ Kingsnake’ (1991). Guitars: Epiphone Sheraton, Gibson ES-335

10. Tony Iommi (1948-) – Where would rock be without Black Sabbath. Another guitarist who ploughed a furrow that hadn’t previously been ploughed and as the ‘godfather of metal’, his influence has justly pervaded the landscape of modern hard rock and metal for decades. How much of his individual style resulted from his infamous industrial accident, we can never know. Listen: ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ (1973). Guitars: Jaydee Custom S.G. ‘Old Boy’, Gibson SG

11. John Martyn (1948-2009, 60) – Martyn started off in traditional English folk music and then something happened and he became a true experimenter using delay and other effects to create something completely new and adventurous, mostly on acoustic guitar. In addition to innovating, he also retained the heartfelt lyrical nature of his music, using guitar to complement his unique voice. Listen: ‘I’d Rather Be The Devil’ (1973).  Guitar: Martin D‑28

12. J. Mascis (1965-) – Often described as an alternative maverick, born of the New York punk era, Mascis is a genuine one-off and enduring front man of Dinosaur Jr. A bit like Neil Young on steroids. As a guitarist, he doesn’t stun with millions of notes and sterile technical ability but, boy, does he put some energy and power into his searing, laser-guided lead lines that have impressed consistently over the years. Always on the fringe. Listen: ‘Out There’ (1993). Guitar: Fender Jazzmaster

13. Brian May (1947-) – Dr. May’s melodic and harmonic brilliance will forever be remembered for his Mercury-period Queen. However, like his distinctive home‑made guitar, the astrophysicist created a unique and recognisable guitar style that pervades western culture. His MTV pop sensibilities are as strong as his earlier rock riffs. Listen: ‘Seven Seas Of Rhye’ (1974). Guitar: Brian May Red Special

14. John McLaughlin (1942-) – In terms of phenomenal ability, dexterity and skill, McLaughlin is near, if not at, the top of the tree. Not only is his speed and proficiency astounding, his genre-spanning flexibility is formidable. Describing his playing can only be achieved through hyperbole. An extraordinary guitar superman. Listen: ‘Vital Transformation’ (1971). Guitar: PRS

15. Gary Moore (1952-2011, 58) – In later years before his untimely death, Moore concentrated on the blues, joining the ranks of the few white, non-American blues legends. Go back earlier in his career and his abilities at rock and fusion show just what a great and adaptable guitarist he was. Listen: ‘Stormy Monday’ (2001). Guitars: Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Les Paul Standard

16. Tom Morello (1964-) – Probably the youngest of the guitarists to make the list. Go back to RATM’s debut album and reflect on the pounding riffs and genuinely innovative lead playing and recognise that Morello is one of those guitarists who could take the mainstream and adapt it into something no-one had heard before. Listen: ‘Bombtrack’ (1992). Guitar: ‘Arm The Homeless’ custom

17. Carlos Santana (1947-) – Renowned for his ability to sustain notes, Carlos was also a very fluid player and highly acclaimed for his feel. From his appearance at the end of the 1960s to today, he can produce an inimitable and remarkable guitar tone. He could play blindingly fast and he could also turn out achingly emotive lead lines. Listen: ‘Samba Pa Ti’ (1970). Guitar: PRS Santana

18. Jimmy Page (1944-) – Like Blackmoore, Iommi and Hammett, Page is another guitarist whose legacy may be forever associated with a single track in the consciousness of the music listening public (Stairway To Heaven). However, Zeppelin-era Page is a multi-talented guitarist. It is a shame that he hasn’t been able to shine to the same extent in his post-Zep solo career. Listen: ‘Kashmir’ (1975). Guitar: Gibson Les Paul Standard, Danelectro 3021

19. Stevie Ray Vaughan (1954-1990, 35) – SRV is another guitar phenomenon taken from us way too young. Unapologetically Texas blues to his core, he shared Hendrix’s immense ability to introduce many other styles into his playing, including jazzy influences. Another whose formidable combination of talent and relentless hard work set him apart from the crowd. Listen: ‘Tin Pan Alley’ (1999). Guitar: Fender Stratocaster

20. Neil Young (1945-) – Quite often referred to as the master of the one-note guitar solo, this underrates his ability to wring considerable emotional content from just a few well-chosen, emotionally driven and sparingly targeted tones. One thing is for sure, his distinctive tone and style has sustained his well-deserved reputation over many decades. Listen: ‘Southern Man’ (1970). Guitar: Gibson Les Paul Standard

Most of these guitarists will, perhaps, be obvious entries. However, there may be a few unexpected curve balls thrown in for good measure. Of course (don’t you just hate it when people say that!), there is a very long list of superb guitarists that didn’t make the 20 above, including the likes of George Benson, Joe Bonamassa, Eric Clapton, Robben Ford, John Frusciante, Peter Green, Steve Hackett, Allan Holdsworth, BB King, Paul Kossoff, Robby Krieger, Randy Rhoads, Mick Ronson, Joe Satriani, Slash, Steve Vai, Van Halen, Jack White, Johnny Winter, Zakk Wylde, Angus Young, Frank Zappa, etc., etc., etc. It’s virtually impossible to name them all. While I recognise their massive influence, this is my list of guitarists, not a regurgitation of anyone else’s list or a contrived list of ‘stature derived through perceived wisdom’.

There are also guitarists who aren’t listed above and who perhaps aren’t considered ‘great’ guitarists stylistically but are still notable for the instrument being an integral part of their music, e.g. Marc Bolan, Robert Smith, Thurston Moore, etc.

I also haven’t strayed into bass guitar but that’s an easy one for me, evidenced by the mercurial virtuoso skills of the incomparable, and sadly late, great Jaco Pastorius. Danny Thompson and Tal Wilkenfeld also deserve honourable mentions in this category for me.

Interestingly, 7 of the above guitarists (35%) are sadly no longer with us. Thankfully, at least 13 (65%) of them still are. I have been fortunate enough to see just over half of them play live and, of the ones I have seen, I can attest to their consummate skills. One thing I noticed when researching this article is how many of these guitarists regularly wear/wore hats when playing live (around a quarter of them). Head apparel seems a quintessential part of a guitarist’s touring equipment for many.

In terms of a ‘golden era’, many of these artists had their zenith between the late 1960s and the early 1980s. After a 10-year hiatus in the proverbial doldrums of the post-punk electronic era, there was a gradual resurgence of interest in guitar music from the 1990s that thankfully reignited a passion for the art into the 21st century. Thankfully that interest continues to flourish and diversify today, which will hopefully incentivise whole new generations of exciting new guitar heroes (genuine ones, not the ‘game’) to carve an identity for themselves.

One thing that does bother me is that there are no female guitarists on the list. This is more a reflection of historical exposure that male guitarists have had compared to female guitarists. It is not a misogynistic trait, just circumstance. There are great guitarists out there, e.g. Carrie Brownstein, Eva Cassidy, Lita Ford, Charlotte Hatherley, Kaki King, Orianthi Panagaris, Bonnie Raitt, Nancy Wilson, etc., they are just not my most listened to guitarists. There are also many girl bands, like Warpaint, Haim, Dum Dum Girls, Sleater Kinney, Smoke Fairies, etc., which is positive. Those who are familiar with my rants on the subject will know that I believe ‘girls with guitars are cool’. My view is that, as in any other streak of life, gender should not pose a barrier to success and there are some very accomplished female guitarists out there. Personally, I would dearly like to see equality and inclusion. Having said that, I don’t believe girls are actively excluded, it’s just that the prevailing environment isn’t conducive to girls seeking guitar playing as a job in the same way as there is, for instance, in orchestral classical music.

Also, as mentioned at the start, there essentially are no modern-era guitarists on the list. The most recent on the list above are from the 1990s, rather than the noughties and teenies; this is still around a quarter of a century ago now. There are many, many very talented modern-day guitarists out there but, again, they just didn’t make my list. I look forward to emerging guitarists taking up the reins. One wonders who we might admire in the future, in addition to the current greats.

What, though, really separates the greats from the very talented also-rans who also work very hard at their craft? If we all knew that, it wouldn’t be a question. Is it serendipity, happenstance, luck, contacts, situation? Perhaps the old adage that ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’, plays its part.

I only wish I had a minute fraction of the ability demonstrated by the guitarists mentioned here. Sadly, I don’t have that kind of talent (despite the hard work), so I have to end up writing about them!

One thing we might learn from them is that we shouldn’t try to imitate them. By all means emulate and pay homage to them but only if you can actually do what they do better than them – try that particular strategy and see how far you get! Perhaps another lesson for stalwart gear heads is that the guitars don’t make the guitarist, mostly anyone can own a Fender Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul but not everyone can be a SRV or Jimmy Page – guitars are simply the professional tools of the expert craftsman. However, put the two together and something very special can happen. Modern music would not be the same without the skilled practitioner and their axes of choice, creating magic for us mere plebs to wonder at and aspire to.

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “If music is the result of passion, passion is the music of life.”

© 2017 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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July 2016 – Personal Top 20 Most Influential Guitar Albums

posted in: Observations, Opinion | 0

In previous articles, I’ve touched on various personal aspects of guitars and guitar playing, including:

  • ‘why’ – the reason I picked up and played guitar
  • ‘how’ – the way that my relationship with the guitar developed from first contact to the current day
  • ‘what’ – the actual bits of wood, metal and plastic that keep me enthralled and passionate about the electric guitar as a musical instrument

This month, it’s a bit about more about the ‘who’ – no, not the band but the artists that made albums which have in some way motivated me to keep playing guitar over the years and perhaps most influenced the type of music I still listen to regularly

Just think of the great guitars, many of them now vintage, that were used by talented musicians to create the music in the first place. It is worth saying that these recordings probably wouldn’t have perpetuated as well as they have without these artists also working incredibly hard to play live music in front of ticket-paying audiences. The point is that it is really important to keep music live.

So… here is CRAVE Guitars’ Top 20 Guitar Albums that have been most influential to me. They aren’t necessarily ones you might think of as great guitar albums and many don’t have guitars as the focal point, so the impact has been subtle but profound. Flashy, flamboyant fretwork may be impressive but it is not enough on its own to make the grade.I have never been artist obsessed; I just don’t have guitar idols or role models so there is no celebrity reverence involved in the choices. Unlike many people, my tastes are also not fixed to one particular period of time or genre of music.

It was very hard to compile the list, knowing that it would not be representative of the wealth of great guitar music over the last 60+ years. The eventual ones that made it haven’t been ranked, so are presented in date order – just too difficult. Does the list represent the pinnacle of guitar playing? No, it doesn’t and it isn’t intended to; it’s a very personal list. Is the whole album great? No, there are no ‘perfect’ albums but they are, in my opinion, particularly notable – that’s all. What about the ones missed out? Too many to mention, including many that are ‘better’ for so many reasons, just not to me as part of this exercise. In addition, there are many, many great albums that don’t feature guitars at all, which naturally excludes them from this list.

What is it about these albums that makes them stand out above the average and, perhaps more tellingly, why they usurped other, perhaps more traditionally fashionable ‘great guitar albums’. The criteria (the first is a killer!) included:

  1. There could only be one album from any artist
  2. They could come from any period of modern music
  3. They must feature guitar playing, not necessarily front-and-centre but somewhere in the mix
  4. Live albums are included, hoever ‘best of’ collections and compilations are not
  5. They had to be ones I own and listen to, not just ones with a strong reputation
  6. They had a major ‘wow’ factor on first listen and, importantly, they have stood the test of time
  7. There is an emotional connection with the music, not just band credibility
  8. They transcend mood and can actually change one’s attitude
  9. Enrich one’s existence to some degree and make life worth experiencing

Here are the albums presented in chronological order, each with a short explanation as to why each is here:

  1. Santana – Abraxas (1970) – amongst the many classic Latin-tinged songs is the sublime leisurely instrumental ‘Samba Pa Ti’, which stood out for Carlos’ exquisite and nuanced guitar phrasing and tone
  2. Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath (1970) – nothing else like it before or, frankly, since; the album that started metal, especially with the archetypal doom-laden opening title track
  3. The Doors – L.A. Woman (1971) – such great song writing including, amongst others, the insistently driving title track and the massively moody laid-back ‘Riders On The Storm’
  4. T. Rex – Electric Warrior (1971) – Marc Bolan’s shift of style signalled the birth of glam rock. Who could have seen this coming or imagined the legacy it would leave. Familiar chart hits include ‘Jeepster’ and ‘Get It On’
  5. Pink Floyd – Meddle (1971) – my very first album purchase after hearing it premiered on John Peel’s radio show. It transfixed from start to end. Just amazing at the time, especially ‘One Of These Days’ and the epic ‘Echoes’
  6. David Bowie – Aladdin Sane (1972) – less pop-like than other obvious alternatives. Some striking musical innovation and some astounding avant garde moments. The chart hits included the title track and ‘The Jean Genie’
  7. John Martyn – Solid Air (1973) – Martyn had been experimenting with processed guitar and was pushing the boundaries of what it could do, resulting in this very special landmark album including the achingly cool title track and the desperately melancholic ‘May You Never’
  8. Lynyrd Skynyrd – Second Helping (1974) – no ‘Freebird’ here, but the album that brought the Florida wild boys to the UK’s attention. A really solid sophomore album that is so much more than the now clichéd ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, for instance the simple but effective riff on ‘Working For MCA’
  9. Bob Marley & The Wailers – Live! At The Lyceum (1975) – sometimes, a live album captures the essence of an artist’s best work in a single time and place, this is one, topped by the passionate and evocative ‘No Woman No Cry’
  10. Led Zeppelin – Physical Graffiti (1975) – not any of the first 5 iconic LPs but the double album that came out when I went to see them play live in London as a teenager. The colossal ‘Kashmir’ instantly blew me away, ‘nuff said
  11. Rory Gallagher – Against The Grain (1975) – another artist who came across better live than in the studio. Rory released this around the time that I saw him play in Brighton, so it beat ‘Irish Tour ‘74’ to the list
  12. Steve Hillage – L (1976) – a highly underrated guitarist and a post-Gong solo album that epitomised the alternative trippy-hippy, effect-laden space rock of the era. No chart material here but lovely guitar, clearly ‘in the zone’
  13. The Clash – London Calling (1979) – the title track nails the social context of the immediate post-punk period, articulating deep social unrest, the country’s polarised economic divisions and a generation’s frustrations with pre‑Thatcherite politics. Both timeless and very much of its time
  14. Talking Heads – Remain In Light (1980) – it starts with David Byrne’s complex, overlaid upbeat grooves and distinctive vocals, then descends into deep dark interwoven ambient territory. Go beyond the familiar hits and explore the brooding and intense ‘Listening Wind’ and ‘The Overload’. Scary
  15. ZZ Top – Eliminator (1983) – Texas boogie-blues morphs into mega-pop extravaganza with the now overplayed massive chart hits and much more, like ‘TV Dinners’ and ‘Bad Girl’. Ignore the sexist whinging and just enjoy the hot‑rodded road trip
  16. Stevie Ray Vaughan – Couldn’t Stand The Weather (1984) – kicks off with the frenzied instrumental ‘Scuttle Buttin’’, homages and almost upstages Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Chile’ and then caps it with the knock-out slow blues of ‘Tin Pan Alley’. Pure blues genius
  17. Dire Straits – Brothers In Arms (1985) – consistently great song writing with some natty guitar work too, including the classic riffing of ‘Money for Nothing’ and closing with the poignant title track. Personally significant as this was my very last vinyl purchase, so ushering in the digital age
  18. The Cure – Disintegration (1989) – my all-time favourite album (so far) and as close as Robert Smith came to a coherently perfect recording. Contrast the heartfelt warmth of ‘Love Song’, with creepy ‘Lullaby’ and the deeply dark and sinister ‘Fascination Street’. Understated guitar work, compelling and hard to beat over a quarter of a century later
  19. Metallica – Metallica (1991) – migrating from thrash genre roots to full-on heavy metal rock stardom, the shift of tone resulted in massive commercial success. Now regarded as an all-time classic, which belies its original achievement, including the ubiquitous guitar-shop riff, ‘Enter Sandman’. Go beyond and admire
  20. Rage Against The Machine – Rage Against The Machine (1992) – the genre‑busting aural assault fused highly politicised rap lyrics and Tom Morello’s stunning guitar work to create something genuinely ground‑breaking. Never bettered, the eponymous debut album includes the storming ‘Killing In The Name’ and ‘Bullet In The Head’. Still edgy today

Nothing really from before 1970 you say? Well, only because it was a bit before my time and many of the gems from that era were discovered later, Hendrix, Cream, Velvet Underground, etc. Nothing newer than 1992 you ask? It is disappointing that the most recent album is now 24 years old, begging the question, “Where are the great guitar albums of the 21st century?” This is lamentable, especially as there are so many excellent guitarists out there. Clearly, it is time to do something about it guys and gals.

If that list is too exclusive, here are some close runners up (also in date order):

  • Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland (1968)
  • King Crimson – In The Court Of The Crimson King (1969)
  • Neil Young – After The Goldrush (1970)
  • The Rolling Stones – Sticky Fingers (1971)
  • Genesis – Nursery Cryme (1971)
  • Deep Purple – Made In Japan (1972)
  • Thin Lizzy – Jailbreak (1975)
  • 801 – 801 Live (1976)
  • Burning Spear – Garvey’s Ghost (1976)
  • Fleetwood Mac – Rumours (1977)
  • Nirvana – Never Mind (1991)
  • Beck – Odelay (1996)
  • Kasabian – Kasabian (2004)
  • The Kills – Blood Pressures (2011)
  • Richard Hawley – Standing at the Sky’s Edge (2012)

So, there you have it – my personal top 20 guitar albums… so far. These are not recommendations and it doesn’t prescribe essential listening. It is just one individual’s biased choice. I Have to say that it was more difficult than I thought to justify my limited selection. What inspires you is, of course, for you to decide for yourself. I hope there’s something in my list that provides a refreshing change, while also acknowledging the recognised greats. Doing this has made me review my longer ‘Top 100’ list on the CRAVE Guitars web site, take a look (click here to see the long list…).

What next? I am always looking to the future and curious about what’s yet to come. I hope that future great guitar albums can match the excellence of the past. Here’s anticipating. Until next time…

CRAVE Guitars ‘Music Quote of the Month’: “Over think music and it becomes sterile. Under think music and you have probably been sterilised”

© 2016 CRAVE Guitars – Love Vintage Guitars.

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