The electric bass guitar is a descandent of the upright double bass, which dates back to the 17th century and became part of the orchestra at the turn of the 18th century. The origins of the double bass can be traced back to the viola de gamba, a bowed, cello-like instrument with 6 strings invented in 1542 by Silvestro Ganassi in Venice.
The Electric Double Bass
The first versions of an electric bass were being developed as early as the 1920’s when electric amplification was being explored to solve the age-old problem of instrument volume. Often, the bass was drowned out by louder instruments, such as horns and drums. The first electric double bass was invented by Lloyd Loar in the 1920’s, who was working for Gibson. Loar was able to create an electric instrument, but the amplification of bass frequencies remained unknown, so there wasn’t any way to hear it.
In the early 1930’s, Paul Tutmarc designed the body of the double bass to be similar to a cello and attached a simple pickup, but proved to be too heavy. He then redesigned the bass to have a body similar to the size of guitar, making the instrument much more practical.
In the 1930’s, a number of instrument companies, such as Rickenbacker and Gibson, were exploring designs for an electric bass. Some of the earliest electric basses included the Vega Electric Bass Viol, Regal’s Electrified Double Bass (1936), and Rickenbacker’s Electro Bass-Viol (1936). Gibson also released the Mandobass, an awkwardly-shaped bass with an over-sized mandolin body. The electric basses of this era were still played in an upright position and remained unfretted.
The First Electric Bass Guitar
In the 1940’s, Paul Tutmarc invented the first fretted electric bass guitar called the Serenader Bass. Here we start to see a transition from the traditional upright bass to a compact horizontal bass guitar. In this period, the electric bass was an experimental instrument still yet to become commercially successful.
In 1951, Leo Fender introduced the Precision Bass, which many consider as the first true electric bass guitar. The name Precision was due to the instrument’s frets, allowing the player to precisely play notes. The Fender Precision bass is the most popular and recognizable bass guitar in history. In 1960, Fender introduced the Jazz Bass and other major guitar companies followed with their own bass guitars.
In 1959, Danelectro introduced the first 6-string bass, tuned the same way as guitar (E, A, D, G, B, E). Gibson and Fender were quick to follow with their own models, the Gibson EB-6 and the Fender VI. Fender introduced the first 5-string bass guitar, the Fender V, in 1964. In 1968, Hagstroem created the 8-string bass.
Since the introduction of the Precision Bass, the bass guitar became an essential member of the band. Its popularity grew in the 60’s as it became a fundamental instrument in rock n’ roll when paired with the electric guitar. Its influence surged in the 70’s along with the funk and disco craze, as melodic bass lines became “the hook” for many popular tunes. A brief decline was marked by the arrival of synthesized music in the ’80s, but the following decades have shown a revival in interest.