The Fender Precision Bass was the first commercially successful solidbody electric bass. Played somewhat like a guitar and sporting a fretted neck, the “P-Bass” won over players in almost every genre who previously had to contend with the cumbersome upright bass.
In its original configuration, the instrument, introduced in 1952, had a maple neck with a Telecaster-like headstock, 34″ scale, non-beveled ash body in a blond/butterscotch finish with a black Bakelite pickguard that covered most of the upper body (including both cutaway horns), a strings-through-the-body bridge, and a single-coil pickup. The Volume and Tone controls were mounted on a small chrome plate (also like the Telecaster) and the jack was on the side of the body.
In ’54, Fender beveled the body of the P-Bass, following in the footsteps of the then-new Stratocaster guitar. The contours – forearm bevel on the front of the body, “belly cut” in the back – accompanied a new yellow-to-dark-brown sunburst finish, and a white pickguard. The bass could still be ordered in blond (a lighter tint than the original from ’52), and Dupont colors became an option two years later.
In mid 1957, Fender gave the Precision a dramatic makeover, turning it into what became the final configuration of the standard model. It debuted with a headstock shape that was more Strat-like, and a smaller pickguard made of gold-anodized aluminum and extended to house the controls knobs along with its new top-mounted input jack. Strings were now routed through the bridge/tailpiece instead of through the body, and the chrome pickup and bridge covers had been restyled. Finally, the pickup became the famed split unit with two polepieces for each string, wired to eliminate hum.
The front cover of Fender’s 1957 catalog displayed the rework with a line drawing rather than a photo, and the instrument shown inside was the transition/1954-’57 variant!
The late ’50s beget other changes to the standard P-Bass; a year after the restyled model debuted, the two-tone sunburst finish became a three-tone with a reddish tint between the yellow and brown. In ’59 it (along with most instruments in the Fender line) was given a thick rosewood (“slab”) fingerboard with pearl-dot fret markers, and the anodized-aluminum pickguard was replaced by one made of plastic tortoiseshell. The 1960 Precision shown here not only exhibits these updates, but was once owned by Bill Black (1926-1965), a Memphis musician who backed Elvis Presley along with guitarist Scotty Moore early in the King’s career. Black’s exuberant, percussive slap style on upright was critical to the advent of rockabilly, but once drummer D.J. Fontana became a member of Presley’s band, Black also began to play a Precision.
Black and Moore left Presley in September of 1957, and the bassist assembled Bill Black’s Combo, in which he used newer-style Precision basses. That band garnered an instrumental hit with “Smokie, Part 2,” had eight tunes in the Top 40 between 1959 and ’62, and served as an opening act on the Beatles’ first tour of the U.S. Black did not participate, however, as he was battling a brain tumor; he died during surgery to remove it.
In the decades since its introduction, the Precision has been through many variants – two-pickup models, active circuitry, signature models, etc. But, improvements in hardware, electronics, and manufacturing techniques aside, today it still looks and sounds much like it did in 1957, and remains a definitive example of an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” instrument.
This article originally appeared in VG December 2011 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.