When discussing the origins of the modern electric bass, most typically think of the Gibson Style J mando-bass of the 1910s and ’20s, the Audiovox electric solidbody of the 1930s, and the two electric hollowbodies that Gibson made in the 1930s.
But those instruments are fretted, guitar-like instruments – the forerunners of the modern electric bass guitar Fender introduced as the Precision model in 1951. If we’re talking about electric basses in all their forms, Rickenbacker’s Electro Bass Viol may well be the most radical, as well as the most advanced, design of any of the electric basses made prior to World War II. (Technically, the company was called Electro, while Rickenbacker was the brand that Electro put on its guitars, but most collectors refer to the company as Rickenbacker.)
When the Electro bass appeared in 1936, the company was only four years old, but from day one it had blown open traditional concepts of instrument design at every opportunity. Its very first model was an electric Hawaiian model A-22 guitar made from cast aluminum and shaped like a long-handled frying pan. The one exception to its non-traditional approach was its standard Spanish-neck model introduced concurrently with the A-22; a conventionally designed guitar, essentially a Rickenbacker pickup mounted on an archtop guitar supplied by the Harmony company. After the A-22 came the Model B, which had small, guitar-shaped body made of another non-traditional material – Bakelite. Offered initially as a lap steel, the Model B was available by mid 1935 in a Spanish version. For all practical purposes it was the first solidbody electric guitar, though nitpickers would argue that the cavities designed for weight relief made it non-solid. In either configuration, the small guitar-shaped body was unique, and so was the Bakelite material.
The electric vision of George Beauchamp, company founder and the driving force behind their development of the modern electric guitar, expanded to the violin family in 1935. The Electro Violin was the company’s most radical design to date. It was basically just an extended violin neck with a fingerboard. The first ones had a Bakelite neck unit, which was then replaced by a tubular aluminum unit. There were no body wings and no headstock, at least not in the normal place. A headstock-like piece extended below the bridge to accommodate the tuners and also to act as a chinrest.
In 1936, on the heels of the violin, Electro introduced an electric upright bass, which is this month’s featured instrument. It follows the same minimalist design path that had begun with the A-22 and continued through the violin. The frame is a piece of cast aluminum. We have seen two examples, one of which has a black-painted body/frame; the other has a lacquer finish that gives it a sage green hue, the same as the finish on the A-22 Frying Pans. Unlike the Electro violin, the Electro bass has a conventional scrolled headstock shape, although it is still part of the one-piece frame. The tuners are standard bass tuners, and there is a metal front cover, similar to the cover that was used on some postwar Hawaiian models. The back of the neck is part of the aluminum frame. Further towards the middle of the instrument, the aluminum frame accommodates a volume knob and also a hinged arm with a curved piece of wood at the end. The player puts this piece on his chest and it holds the neck/fingerboard six or eight inches away from the player’s body, just as it would be on a conventional acoustic bass. Just above the bridge, a huge double-horseshoe wraps around the strings and around a double-bobbin pickup (two strings per bobbin). At the base of the frame, an adjustable rod extends from or retracted into the aluminum frame so that the player can adjust the playing height to that of an acoustic instrument.
The minimalist design was not quite the first of its kind. A photo exists of a similar bass made by Gibson’s legendary designer, Lloyd Loar, in 1924. Loar’s bass had a large circular apparatus, possibly some sort of diaphragm, in the bridge area but was otherwise similar in concept to the Rickenbacker.
The element that distinguished the Electro bass (and all other Rickenbacker/Electro instruments prior to World War II, for that matter) from their competition was the horseshoe pickup. Rickenbacker set the standard in 1932 with the first direct-string pickup – the same basic design that endures today – and no other makers matched that standard in the pre-war years. National was almost a sister company to Rickenbacker, but National’s pickups were weak by comparison. Epiphone introduced height-adjustable polepieces, which was a viable improvement, but on an inherently weak pickup. Gibson’s “Charlie Christian” pickup may be legendary today in jazz guitar circles, but in an A/B test of a Gibson EH-150 and a Rickenbacker A-22/Model B, the horseshoe beats the bar every time for power and tone.
With Rickenbacker’s powerful pickup, the electric bass should have been an instant success – except for two small problems. First, there were no electric bass strings. Low-register piano strings might have worked, but they would have felt foreign to bass players accustomed to gut strings. Rickenbacker came up with the ingenious idea of wrapping the first few inches of a gut string with steel wire, just far enough for the steel wrap to extend over the pickup. It worked well. One of the basses we have seen (the lacquer-finished one) still had two gut strings with the steel wrap over the pickup. Although the opening between the bobbin and the horseshoe appeared to be so tight that the strings might have been hitting the bobbin, it sounded just fine when plugged into an amp.
Not the amp pictured with this bass, however, which brings us to the other obstacle facing this electric bass. There were no bass amps in the 1930s, and even the best guitar amps were barely adequate for a guitar. Until this bass was made, Rickenbacker/Electro had a one-amp-fits-all philosophy. The company did design a larger amp, but it was no larger than the standard guitar amps offered by Gibson in the prewar period. The Rick amp did have one innovation, however, and that was a metal cup on its top surface for the endpin of the bass to rest in.
Two years after introducing the Electro Bass Viol, Rickenbacker/Electro gave it a makeover and built a new version around a tubular body frame, with narrower horseshoe magnets. Still, the design was several generations ahead of its time. And with the added problem of no suitable amplifier to play the instrument through, it’s not surprising that few Electro Bass Viols were made. Had there been a dedicated bass amplifier in 1936 for this instrument, today’s electric bass players might still be playing upright basses rather than bass guitars.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s February 2007 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.