Gibson 1938 Electric Bass

Likely The First!
Gibson 1938 Electric Bass

Gibson 1938 Electric Bass

This interesting piece of fretted Americana can be appreciated by any vintage instrument aficionado – particularly bassists – as it was probably the first instrument of its type ever built or marketed by Gibson.

A 1976 letter by Julius Bellson, Gibson’s first company historian, says two examples of an early electric bass were built in the late 1930s. They were intended to be played like an upright bass. One of the late-’30s Gibson uprights was profiled by George Gruhn in the June ’97 issue of Vintage Guitar Classics (below right). Our featured bass is most likely the other (and the earlier of the pair). They apparently weren’t twins, however, as there are noticeable differences.

Bellson’s letter was to Mrs. Theodore Snow, the original owner of the bass featured in the Classics article (hers was purchased in May, 1940). Therein, he stated that the other bass had been made for Wally Kamin, a longtime friend of Les Paul’s (who ultimately became Les’ brother-in-law), and played bass on many of his recordings. Bellson’s letter indicated Kamin and Paul had consulted with Gibson on building the instrument, so logic would dictate this bass was Kamin’s and that it was probably the earlier of the two built.

Our featured bass has a smaller, hollow maple body (bound white/black/white) and different location for its ES-150/”Charlie Christian” pickup. It also has a smaller tailpiece, a volume control on the upper bout, and a tone control on the other. Snow’s bass had both knobs on the treble side of the upper bout.

Its neck conforms to the configuration of a Gibson mandobass (maple with mahogany or walnut center stripe), and it has a bound, lined fretless fingerboard inlaid with celluloid strips and dot markers. Its scale measures 423/8″, standard for an upright.

The bass also apparently had a foot-operated, pulley-type string mute. Its total length (sans endpin) was 541/4″, and it came with a tweed case, which sported a full-length black-and-red stripe. The interior was upholstered with burgundy cloth.

The instrument had reportedly been owned by one individual since 1951. The owner, who bought it used from a store in Grand Rapids, Michigan, played electric tenor guitar in a 13-piece combo specializing in big-band music. However, he didn’t like it, so it remained in storage for decades. It is now owned by the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota.

This bass didn’t herald the advent of electric bass as a viable instrument, as Fender’s Precision Bass would do 14 years later. But it was Gibson’s first attempt at a stringed bass that could be amplified with a pickup. Fretted Americana, indeed!

Instrument courtesy of Stan Werbin/Elderly Instruments.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s Jan. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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