Like any other group of gearheads, bassists love to rap with peers about their stuff.
One classic debate compares five-string electric basses to standard four-string instruments. The bottom line in the “4 vs. 5” confab should be that the four-string electric bass is alive and well, but the five-string – with its extra string usually tuned to low B – has made significant inroads in contemporary music. And if there’s a fan of vintage gear in the group, they might go historic and bring up the original five-string electric bass, the Fender Bass V. Developed in the “pre-CBS” era by Leo Fender and associates, and made from 1965 to ’70, the Bass V was the fourth bass marketed by Fender, following in the footsteps of the groundbreaking Precision Bass in late 1951, the more-engineered Jazz Bass in 1960, and the six-string Bass VI in ’61.
However, the original five-string bass’ extra string was tuned higher rather than lower – C above the standard bass’ G. But the extra string was just the beginning of the Bass V’s unique approach.
The instrument has the classic Fender headstock silhouette, with a string retainer securing the D, G, and C strings. And at only 15 frets in length, the fretboard appears strikingly odd. The notion behind the innovation of a high C string on a bass was that a player could reach higher, guitar-like notes by playing the C string instead of fretting up the neck. This, in theory, rendered the upper-octave frets unnecessary… or so its designers thought at the time.
The scale was still the industry standard 34″, just like the Precision and the Jazz (the Bass VI’s was 30″). However, the noticeable distance between the end of the Bass V’s fretboard and the bridge on the body looked awkward.
Early examples of the Bass V had dot markers inlaid on their rosewood fretboards atop a maple neck. But about one year after its introduction, the V acquired block inlays and a bound neck, as did the Jazz Bass, Bass VI, and Jazzmaster, Electric XII, and Jaguar guitars.
The body of the Bass V had traditional Fender contouring, as well as a slimmer, “stretched” appearance, compared to other Fender basses, perhaps to give it some kind of visual “balance” with the abbreviated neck. The body on this example is alder.
Like all Fender electric guitars and basses, the Bass V was available in standard and custom colors. The one shown here is a rare Candy Apple Red variant with the even more collectible matching headstock.
A multi-laminated pickguard and finger rest were also standard on the Bass V, as were Volume and Tone knobs for the unique, split-oval pickup that is much like the pickups on the Electric XII guitar introduced about the same time as the Bass V. The bass side portion of the Bass V’s pickup handles the E and A strings, while the treble side takes care of the D, G, and C strings. Curiously, the split-oval pickups on the Electric XII were installed in a reverse configuration to the Bass V’s pickup.
Some early photos of the Bass V show it with a handrest covering the pickup, just like the Precision Bass and Jazz Bass. The bridge cover looks like a cross between the bridge covers found on the Precision and Jazz. While it’s shaped more like a P-Bass bridge cover, it still has the “Flying F” logo as seen on the large Jazz Bass bridge cover. Like other Fender basses, a foam mute was installed on the underside.
The bridge has five individual, intonatable saddles. The strings install through the rear of the body, and its holes are reinforced with ferrules that are countersunk (the Precision originally used a similar string-through, but changed to being anchored at the bridge when the P-Bass was revamped in 1957).
The Bass V has the dubious distinction of being the first Fender bass that was discontinued, as it exited the market in 1970. Surplus Bass V bodies were subsequently used to make the Fender Swinger/Musiclander, a single-pickup “floor-sweep” guitar designed to “use up” parts from various production instruments.
In the decades after the demise of the Bass V, Fender reissued several versions of the Precision and Jazz Bass, and examples of the Bass VI have been marketed, as well.
However, just as the unsuccessful uniqueness of the Bass V led to its demise after a half-decade, stringed-instrument enthusiasts aren’t particularly interested in a comeback for the Bass V; i.e., such an oddball status apparently hasn’t generated enough nostalgia or enthusiasm to merit a modern reissue.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug ’07 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.