Audiovox #736

The World's First Electric Bass Guitar!
The World's First Electric Bass Guitar!

While there have been lively debates raging in the rare instrument community for many years about any number of puzzling early guitars – not to mention the perennial issue of just who exactly was responsible for “inventing” the electric guitar – it seems little energetic dialog has surrounded the bass.

Until now it has been accepted common knowledge the electric bass guitar was invented by Leo Fender in Fullerton California around 1951. Indeed, Fender’s Precision bass – a model literally named to emphasize the exacting intonation a player could achieve with its “uniquely” fretted neck – quickly became the industry standard for solidbody basses. However, with the recent discovery of a surviving example of an ultra-rare electric bass guitar dating back to the mid ’30s, this “history” must be reexamined.

Even with new information emerging, one notion certain to remain is that the existence of the electrified bass can be credited with impacting modern music at least as much as its cousin, the electric guitar. Indeed, besides adding a more powerful low-end throb to many forms of music, some knowledgeable folks have gone so far as to proclaim the electric bass was intrinsically responsible for the rise of new genres of music.

For example, it’s difficult to imagine reggae existing at all without the electric bass guitar, and that booming instrument’s role is certainly a defining aspect of funk. Pre-dating those genres, R&B music made its defining leap from the early-’50s jazz fringe due to the sonic boost of the electric bass. And during that same decade, rock and roll advanced with the substitution of solidbody electrics over upright acoustic basses.

But the upright bass is precisely where this story begins, and just as the guitar has a deep history, so too does the big ol’ “double bass.” Essentially, the bass is the largest and lowest-tuned instrument in the violin family – hence one of its common nicknames: the “bull fiddle.” European precursors, such as the bass lute, reportedly trace back to the 1500s and over the following two centuries its use became established in typical symphony orchestras. Larger by far, obviously, than violins or even cellos, basses were never lacking in volume when played in string ensembles. But the roaring ’20s jazz age suddenly found them competing with banjos, brass and reed horn sections, pianos, and drums.

If simply being audible was difficult, lugging around a bass was even more of a challenge. Indeed, it has always been a hassle for bass players to travel because of their instrument’s behemoth size. Even their insider nickname amongst musicians – the “doghouse” bass – suggests the instrument’s bulk. The biggest hassle was that bassists occasionally had to travel solo with their bass filling the rest of their own automobile. It was lonely, expensive, and probably led to weary bassists getting separated from their bandmates on road trips. What was needed was a more compact bass – one that would fit alongside the other instruments in truck/van.

So, by the mid ’30s, several established musical instrument firms – Lyon & Healy, Vega, Dobro, Gibson, Rickenbacker, and Regal – began marketing rather experimental electric basses that were remarkably less bulky than a standard double bass. But they were still all very tall, unfretted, upright instruments held in the standard vertical position. The radical design breakthrough that would impact the world of music was the marketing of an electric bass guitar – a compact, fretted instrument one could hold and play horizontally. And that was apparently achieved first not by the Fender company, but by a musician/instructor/basement tinkerer named Paul H. Tutmarc, a pioneer in electric pickup design who marketed a line of electric lapsteel guitars under the Audiovox brand out of the unlikely town of Seattle.

My interest in tracking down this story began 20-some years ago when I overheard a few stray comments from fellow players flatly declaring that the electric guitar had been “invented” in Seattle.

Oh, really!?

As a student of local history, I was intrigued by the rumors but wrote them off as nothing more than hearsay because nobody seemed to have any facts to support them. For a long time it all seemed just another urban legend – albeit an exciting one. But it didn’t seem feasible something as significant as the electric guitar could have gotten its start in Seattle, or that all that history had (as it seemed) been utterly lost.

And, if the story was true, one of the region’s history or heritage museums would have proudly featured a permanent exhibit. And surely, at least one of the fine guitar history books would have documented the story. You’d think the city’s chamber of commerce would have pushed historic-site bus tours, the parks department would have erected a bronze statue in a park somewhere, the mayor might even have proclaimed a city-wide holiday, and the local music community/industry would throw a major annual guitar festival to mark the event. You’d think…

But there was no festival. No statue. No tour. No holiday. And understandably so, given that there also seemed to be no solid evidence to verify any single thread of this improbably tall tale. Thus for years this was all nothing more than an interesting rumor to me. That is until around ’83, when I lucked into my first specific clue: a musician friend stated that about 15 years prior he owned an old Seattle-made amplifier, but that his mother had tossed it out after he left home. You’re kidding! You mean there was an early local amp company, too? Did he recall any other details – like the brand name? Yes. It was an Audiovox.

This breakthrough offered a place to begin researching in earnest. As it turned out, Audiovox was the fabled Seattle firm that had also made early electric guitars, and my quest over the next dozen years resulted in a collection of Audiovox sales catalogs, promo photos, and over 20 instruments and amps. Along the way, I was also able to piece together the story of Paul Tutmarc and his greatest invention: the world’s first electric bass guitar.

Further research uncovered it was actually the February 17, 1935, issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper that broke the story of the beginnings of Tutmarc’s quest to create a new instrument with an article headlined, “Pity Him No More – New Type Bull Fiddle Devised.” In text accompanying a photograph of Tutmarc and an electrified cello-like instrument, the PI noted 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 any more. 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.”

In the photo, a dapper Tutmarc demonstrates his bass to a young woman. The bass had been hand-carved out of white pine (the PI: “It’s just a block of wood strung with bass-viol strings