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History of the Electric Bass Guitar

bass clef image

Bass Roots

The modern electric bass guitar...

...gets it's roots from the early double bass, and other bass instruments. Among the first known bass instruments are the "Viola da Gamba" from the late 15th century which was over 8 feet tall, had 6 or 7 strings, and tuned similar to the modern double bass. (E A D G, etc). A bow was used to play it, but it had a fretted neck, which were removed around 1800. The shape of a violin, or the shape of a viol was used almost exclusively. From that point, the overall evolution of the double bass' size, shape, or tone didn't change much, although the number of strings found on these early basses could range from 3 to 4 to 5, and even 6 and 7 strings for hundreds of years.

Renown Luthier Ken Smith adds:  "The Bass battled between 3 and 4 strings for about 300 years throughout Europe. Germany and Austria used Basses between 4 and 5 string from the 19th century while Italy, France and England used mainly the 3-string Bass until about 1870 when the 4-string became the main Bass." - Thanks Mr. Smith!!

This century, the double bass has played a very integral role in many musical genres such as Jazz, Blues and early Rock. First as a rhythm instrument, and later as a solo instrument thanks to the efforts of greats such as Jazz bassist Jimmy Blanton and Charles Mingus.  Both of which began playing more melodic lines with the double bass.

Yet around the same time, there was another massive shift... 

Leo Fender forever changed the way the world would hear bass

...by creating and marketing the first commercially viable electric bass guitar, the Fender Precision Electric Bass.  Versions of amplified bass guitars had been around since the early 1930's, and since these instruments were shaped like a solid body guitar, they could be played much easier than the traditional upright double bass.  But, even though there were several different attempts at "getting it right" from different individuals, none were so massively successful as Leo Fender's 1951 "P-Bass."

Since that time, versions of the instrument (fretted or not)

...have been produced by bass enterprises and bass Luthiers with great success.  The electric bass and electric/acoustic basses are being played worldwide as well as electric upright basses large and small.  With the advent of electric guitars and basses, pickups have also evolved throughout the years. Aside from the old "single-coil" pickups, newer technology has presented humbuckers, hybrid pickups, and other passive and active pickups which are capable of producing a wide range of tones from the grittiest dirt to a completely pure signal.

Where technology, innovation, and imagination take us next with bass guitars, we'll just have to wait and see....

More Bass History Pages! Bass History Timeline | Influential Players

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