The Gibson EB-3

1962 Gibson EB-3, serial number 78748. Photo: VG Archive. Instrument courtesy of Gil Southworth.

When it came to electric basses, Michigan-based Gibson spent the ’50s playing follow the leader to California’s Fender. So it’s a touch ironic that while Fender made only one model in that decade (the Precision), Gibson introduced three – the violin-shaped solidbody Electric Bass in 1953, the semi-hollow EB-2 in ’58, and the solidbody EB-0, which replaced the Electric Bass in ’59.

Fender’s first two-pickup bass, the Jazz, was introduced in 1960, and to what extent the two-pickup EB-3 (introduced in ’61) was actually a “response” to the Jazz is debatable. The similarities in approach were obvious; the Jazz was perceived as an upgraded/two-pickup version of the Precision. Likewise, some saw the EB-3 as an upgraded/two-pickup EB-0 (which, incidentally, was given a pointed-double-cutaway SG-shaped body in ’61), but the reality was there was much more to both.

Like the EB-0, the EB-3 had a mahogany body and neck, and the 30.5″ scale shared by all Gibson basses at the time. The headstock had a crown inlay, and the rosewood fingerboard joined the body at the 17th fret. Standard finish was Cherry, both had dot inlays and a one-piece bridge/tailpiece with an angled portion for compensation. The EB-3’s hardware also included a handrest and string mute. Early versions had a large, black-plastic-covered humbucking pickup near the neck and a small metal-covered humbucker near the bridge. By ’62, both were metal-covered.

The EB-3’s electronics were versatile. In addition to a Volume and Tone knob for each pickup, an unusual four-way rotary switch offered operation of the neck pickup only (position 1), both pickups (2), bridge pickup only (3), and neck pickup with “choke” (4) that produced a brighter, baritone-like sound; its circuit was similar to the pushbutton “baritone” switch on the EB-2.

Fans of classic rock and its guitarists know that Jack Bruce, bassist with Cream, was the most visible EB-3 player in the ’60s. After learning bass on an upright, he switched to a 30″-scale Fender Bass VI (six strings, tuned an octave below a standard guitar) while playing with the Graham Bond Organization and began playing an EB-3 in the early days of Cream.

“I wanted to play bass like a guitar, and you can’t do that on a regular Fender – you can’t bend the strings,” Bruce told VG in 2002. “But the most important reason was that I didn’t want it to sound like a Fender; I wanted it to sound very personal. The EB-3 fit the bill; I was able to get some great distortion, and it didn’t sound like a Fender at all!”

Bruce’s improvisations were a vital part of Cream’s legendary jams, and music critics of the time did indeed apply the term “guitar-like” to his playing, as they did to that of Free’s Andy Fraser, who also played an EB-3. Other noteworthy EB-3 users in the ’60s included Big Brother & the Holding Company’s Peter Albin, and David Freiberg of Quicksilver Messenger Service.

The 1962 EB-3 shown here doesn’t have the standard finish or fretboard inlay. Instead, it has a factory-original white finish and large-block markers that match the Les Paul Custom of the era. According to Gibson records, it was a special order entered as “EB-3 – white” on September 12, 1962. It was apparently made to match a Les Paul Custom made for members of a band.

In its history, the EB-3 went through several configurations, including having a slotted headstock for a brief time, and long-scale variants. Company records indicate that white became available as a standard finish beginning in 1976 and going through ’79, the year the EB-3 was discontinued.
Like most short-scale basses, the EB-3 may have a sonic disadvantage thanks to its inherently decreased string resonance, but also like most short-scale basses, it’s very comfortable to play. And in the hands of certain players, it has provided many a memorable low-end lick.

This article originally appeared in VG‘s January 2008 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.