Reflecting back through my years in the guitar industry, much of my time has been spent in product development, prototyping, and the making of specialty guitars. In recent years, quite a bit has been written about the prototypes of instruments that made it to the marketplace. But what about the ones that didn’t, and the people who made them?
Because of the developmental nature of invention, a series of prototypes is usually built. Beginning with the first model, refinements are made, then it is abandoned to build a new model incorporating the changes. Each of these prototypes becomes a betterment of the one before, until everything that was learned, solved and designed is integrated into the final prototype. The better the engineering and marketing synergy, the fewer the prototypes and the shorter the developmental time. If a patent is to be pursued, the patent process must be initiated before the product can be shown publicly. Then, it is test marketed for salability.
Prototypes are rare indeed. Very few escape the possession of the parent company. Many are retained by the owner, founder, inventor, company or the immediate family for historical or personal reasons. A few are given to people who have been loyal and valuable to a company, as a memento of a time that was. Many have been destroyed, their true value not realized at the time they were built. The next time you see a real prototype, think of the moment in time when its creator was optimistic for its success, and when it was the only one of its kind in existence.
A famous prototype is the very first Telecaster, which has been written about extensively and seen at guitar shows around the country. This guitar’s importance lies in the fact that there was a time when it was unique, the one and only Tele on the planet. From a guitarmaking standpoint, I view it as the most valuable of all Teles in existence. Others have been made famous by musicians and events, but this one represents the hands-on product of Leo Fender and George Fullerton’s work. It is also important that a prototype can be authenticated, as George Fullerton has done.
The rarest prototypes are those abandoned after failing test marketing. Their value at the time seemed nil because they never made it into production. They have been put away and forgotten. Fender’s Marauder, Mod and Rocker, Songwriter, and Headless bass are just some examples of their abandoned prototypes.
Since I am in the business of making headless basses, I’ll start with the story of the Fender headless bass, which was developed by Gene Fields in 1975. I got to know Gene during my years in the R&D department.
Gene was with Fender research and development for 23 years! Some of his designs include the P.S. 210K keyless pedal guitar, the Starcaster thinline hollowbody guitar, and the second generation Marauder guitar. He also worked with Leo Fender on the Mustang bass, the Musicmaster bass, the Bronco and others. His last six years with Fender were in the string division. There, he was responsible for the introduction of automatic string winding machinery into the production line, the development of several sets of guitar and bass strings, and was involved with machining and testing of strings.
In 1984, he joined Sierra in Portland, Oregon, designing guitars and basses before moving to M.C.I. Intertech as general manager of the pedal steel guitar division. Two years later, the company was purchased by the Fred Gretsch company, and rather than relocate again, Gene formed GFI Musical Products in Arlington, Texas, building high-quality pedal steel guitars.
A few years ago, I went to the Arlington Fall Nationals guitar show and bumped into Gene. We had not seen each other for 20 years, so we grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down for a talk. As I told Gene about my company and our “Headless” and Key Factor bass guitars, he said he had something interesting to show me. I was amazed when he produced a Fender headless bass prototype. I was surprised because I never knew a project like that was ever developed at Fender. I asked Gene to explain how this instrument came to be. Here is his story.
Historically, the first electric basses were developed as a smaller, lighter, more portable alternative to the upright bass. These early instruments were fitted with strings made with a nylon filament running along the steel core, inside the winding, to purposely eliminate some of the sustain in order to mimic the upright bass sound.
As the years went by and music changed, bass players wanted a brighter sound. String manufacturers responded with roundwound and flatwound strings with as many as three layers of wrap. This produced a new problem. The bright sound created by these new strings, accentuated the “dead spot” found on some basses, on the G string at the fifth or sixth fret.
Gene was asked to research the cause of this problem and eliminate it if possible. He tried many things, including double truss rods, all-maple bodies, uncarved necks to make them stiffer, as well as a multitude of different strings. Finally, he made a solid aluminum neck.
All this research resulted in making the dead spot move to new areas of the neck. The Aluminum neck moved the dead spot up to the seventh fret. This was the clue Gene was looking for, it told him the dead spot was a result of the resonant frequency of the neck. At this point, Gene attached a 11/2-pound C clamp to the head of a stock P-Bass neck as ballast, to dampen neck vibration. This had the effect of moving the dead spot down in frequency and almost disappearing.
Unfortunately, as most key-headed bass guitars are head-heavy to begin with, adding weight to the head was out of the question. An opposite approach was to lighten the head of the neck. Gene took another stock P-Bass neck and removed all strings but the first one. This moved the dead spot up in frequency but did not eliminate it. Then Gene installed the first string in the fourth string position, removed the other three keys and began sawing off the head 1″ at a time. He found that each time additional weight was removed from the head of the neck, the dead spot would move up in frequency. Then, Gene removed the last key, cut all but 1″ of the head off and drilled a hole for the ball end of the string. A clamp was used on the body to tune the string. The dead spot moved to about the 14th fret, to the point of no longer being a problem.
Gene’s research led to his designing a completely new instrument, the first Fender prototype headless bass. The instrument consists of a maple neck-through body with mahogany wings. The neck has a 32″ scale with 23 frets and black position markers. The body is cut to a stylized Jazzmaster shape with a carved top similar to the LTD jazz guitar. The body-mounted tuner is a simple right-angle pull design with tuning knobs in the tailpiece. Individually adjustable bridge sections are used, as well as individually-adjustable mutes. The neck pickup is humbucking, while the bridge pickup is a P-Bass with a special cover. Two switches provide pickup control and phase reversal.
When this instrument was field tested, it got very good results. But marketing thought it was too radical for its time, so it was never produced. Eventually, Fender gave the bass to Gene, and it is still in his possession.
I’d like to thank Gene Fields for sharing his story with us.
Philip Kubicki has been active in the music industry for over 30 years. He began building acoustic guitars at age 15. At 19, he was one of the first employees to be hired by Roger Rossmeisl, of Fender Musical Instrument’s research and development department for acoustic guitars. Nine years later, he moved to Santa Barbara, California, and established his own company, Philip Kubicki Technology, which builds acoustic guitars, custom electric guitars, bodies and necks, and mini-guitars.
The 1975 Fender Headless Bass, prototype.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Feb. ’97 issue.