Six-String Basses from the 1950s and ’60s

The Big Twang!
Six-String Basses from the 1950s and ’60s
The Mysterious “Spiegel Bass” variation, from 1958.

Electric bass, bass guitar, baritone guitar; four, five, or six strings – many varieties of low-tuned instruments are available today. In the 1950s, however, choices were fewer. Bassists played upright or a four-string “Fender bass.” Occasionally, a guitarist would tune down to hit low notes.

The Fender Precision, which first appeared in ’51, set the pattern for the new electric bass – a Spanish-guitar-shaped instrument tuned as a four-string bass. Kay and Gibson responded in the early ’60s, theirs having a shorter (30″) scale and (in the case of the Kay) a semi-hollow body. These were all intended to accommodate traditional bassists and guitarists (with frets and a guitar-like playing position), yet function as the upright had (but amplified).

In 1956, an instrument appeared that bridged this gap – the Danelectro six-string electric bass, created by Nathan Daniel, who challenged that thinking with a true “bass guitar” – a six-string instrument tuned like the guitar-but an octave lower. With a much brighter, twangier tone, the Danelectro put low notes up front, and while it never displaced the four-string bass, it did carve a niche for itself.

Danelectro introduced its first bass instrument, the Model UB-2, in 1956. It looked just like their recently developed electric guitars, but with a 291/2″ scale and heavier strings to sound an octave down. It used the same flat-topped/single cutaway semi-solid Masonite and pine body as the U2 guitar, with two pickups/one switch/concentric controls rig. In a 1983 interview, Daniel said he felt he had given bass players “two extra strings for free” and thought the instrument was a natural for bassists and guitarists. While he may have initially thought it could rival Fender’s Precision, what he really created was a specialty instrument, more appealing to guitarists. The UB-2 shipped with light-gauge “Polished” roundwound strings (rather like today’s “half-rounds”), which offered a much softer feel and thinner, twangier sound than the Fender, which at the time had heavy flat-wound strings muted by a foam pad under the bridge cover.

1956: Danelectro launches the UB-2.

The UB-2 was offered at $135 in three finishes – the familiar bronze or black lacquer with white vinyl sides, and the rare “grained ivory leatherette” covering (an option that disappeared almost immediately). It shipped in a coffin-shaped case covered in tweed fabric. Its catalog introduction was full of enthusiasm; “This instrument makes a perfect bass… playing of melody, chords and riffs can be accomplished as on regular guitar…(it) is terrific for rhythm and melody, and simply cannot be beat for combining both.”

Further, it’s compared to the (unnamed) Fender; “…six strings, having much greater range; double pickup instead of single, three-way switch, softer action.” The pitch goes on, “If you are a professional guitarist… this instrument means more demand for your services… play guitar and double on bass with one instrument.”

Daniel’s bass did not eclipse Leo Fender’s – or the still-popular bass fiddle – but was a hit in recording studios, especially down Nashville way. There, session players developed a style of playing it with a palm-muted pick, dubbed “tic-tac” bass. Used to double and reinforce upright bass and give punch to the track, within a short time, the sound became standard. Well before the Fender Bass was accepted on country records, the Danelectro was the hot new sound. Still, few listeners had any idea what they were hearing, so it did little to spur sales beyond the relatively small world of professional session guitarists.

The UB-2 almost never appeared with an artist in print or on TV, but many twanged away unseen in the late ’50s and ’60s.

The UB received more exposure through Sears, Roebuck & Co. under its Silvertone brand. It was the first (and for a time, only) electric bass they carried. The Silvertone Model 1373L was offered only in black and priced at $109.98. “Play bass or guitar,” suggested the catalog, “…tunes like a guitar, only one octave lower.” If the price seemed high, it could be had for $11 down and $9 monthly (after all, it was $20 more than even the three-pickup guitar from the same line)! Actually, the two-pickup guitar built with most of the same components listed at only $59.98. Sears may have figured this specialty instrument wouldn’t sell in quantity, so it set a higher price. The bass did include the hard case and the special “polished” string set (which cost $3.98 all by itself). This package was offered for less than two years before Sears switched to a four-string bass from Dano – the familiar “dolphin-nose” model 1444.

Whatever the intention, the 1373 today seems as prevalent as its Danelectro-branded sibling, and likely was not considered a big success by the Chicago retailer. There also exists an extremely rare unbranded variant in bronze finish with a pointier headstock, one batch of which was reportedly built for Sears’ catalog competitor, Spiegel, in late 1958.

The Shorthorn VI – 1959 and ’62.

The single-cutaway UB model lasted only a couple of years, but established a market for a six-string/30″-scale bass guitar. After ’58, Danelectro reworked the concept and offered both four- and six-string basses made from interchangeable parts, the only difference being the tuning pegs and bridge, which were (conveniently) also guitar components. This economy-of-scale trick made production of limited-market instruments much more economical – a trick many competitors missed. The Longhorn and Shorthorn bass designs that debuted in 1958/’59 replaced the UB-2 in the Dano line, but never fully in player acceptance. Well into the ’60s, many sessioners preferred the original single-cutaway UB design, which can be seen in studios years after the company phased them out.

The Model 4623 Longhorn six-string bass sold at $150 from 1958 until ’68, though few if any were built after the early ’60s. It had two pickups (controlled by an eccentric system involving flipper controls and pre-set tone caps) and a 24-fret neck. Early Longhorns had both pickups mounted by the neck; by 1960, the second was moved closer to the bridge. The Model 3612 Shorthorn six-string listed at just $85. “Economies effected by using our standard guitar parts brings the price of this bass way, way down,” explained the catalog. With a stumpy-looking 15-fret neck on a longer, mostly hollow copper-colored body with a single pickup, the Shorthorn was less-versatile but very handy. The Shorthorn four-string Model 3412 sold extremely well.

The final SG-styled EB-6. The Hagstrom Coronado/Futurama. Höfner’s 1965 solid sixes.

The six-string bass is comparatively rare, but was cataloged through 1966. The only major alteration the model underwent was the change to a larger pickguard with top-mounted controls in ’61. It’s a pity that Danelectro never offered a doubleneck guitar/six-string bass combination – the lower half of the familiar shorthorn double Dano came only with four strings, though some users made the easy (and perhaps more useful) modification to six-string. Sales of all Dano six-string basses waned in the ’60s, but it had a final design gasp as the Coral Wasp 2B6 in ’67, a sleek two-pickup solidbody with a Fenderesque shape offered at $154. Not long after, Danelectro was purchased by MCA, which closed it down, ending the original line.

Danelectro’s novel UB-2 inspired several competitors, the earliest being Gibson’s EB-6 (VG, May ’14). Gibson was in close contact with Nashville studio players – company reps were quick to note the “tic-tac” fad. In response to the affordable Danelectro, Gibson offered a lavish, expensive instrument.

First shipped in 1960, the EB-6 was a spin-off of the semi-hollow ES-335 and EB-2. With the same thin double-cut body, it landed between them feature-wise, but above both in cost, at $325 – the priciest electric bass in 1960. It was not illustrated in the 1961 or ’62 catalogs, but availability was noted in a small box. While lovely to play, compared to the tone of the Danelectro, it was somewhat hamstrung by having only one pickup (though it was a PAF humbucker!) in the neck position. Only 77 were sold before the design was re-cast as a solidbody. Beginning ’62, the SG-styled EB-6 was initially fitted with a single PAF but soon upgraded to two, losing a pushbutton baritone switch in the process. It also changed from guitar tuners to big Kluson bass pegs, making the headstock heavier and giving the guitar a less-balanced playing feel. The final version was pictured in the ’63 catalog, complete with the mute and handrest common to all SG-styled basses. The price remained the same – raised to $370 by September of ’64. By June, 1965, it was no longer on the price lists. From 1962 to ’65, only 66 were recorded as shipped, a final two stragglers leaving in ’67.

A spin-off of the EB-6 was the Epiphone Newport EBS-6, built on the double-cutaway Epi solidbody. This was first listed in July ’62 at $245, never pictured, and gone by the September ’63 price list. With all of 21 officially shipped between 1962 and ’65, the EBS-6 is one of the rarest Kalamazoo-made instruments.

Fender’s VI, introduced – and improved!

The next entry in the big twang stakes came from California. Leo Fender was aware of (and possibly annoyed by) the success of Danelectro’s starkly utilitarian instruments, and sought to raise the bar dramatically. Fender sales called his new creation a bass, but the headstock decal read “Fender VI – Electric Bass Guitar,” and it felt more like a big guitar than any Fender bass. It was announced in summer ’61 and in production by that fall. Overall, it was well-conceived, offering a range of sounds and features that combined ideas from preceding Fenders. The body looked like an extended Jazzmaster, with the same floating vibrato. The three pickups most resembled Stratocaster units, but with chromed-metal surrounds. One odd design choice was a narrow 11/2″/A-width neck (same as the Jazz Bass) which made the fingering very crowded near the nut. Priced as a luxury rather than a novelty, at $329.50, the Fender VI was very expensive – especially compared to the established Danelectros.

’61 Bass VI in Fiesta Red.

Fender sales promotion was predictably enthusiastic. “Every musician will readily recognize the potential of the new Fender six-string Bass Guitar, inasmuch as it offers an entirely ‘new sound’ to every playing group.” The VI evolved in 1963 more in line with its new little brother the Jaguar; the pickups were changed to match the guitar’s, a fourth “strangle” switch (to filter lows) added to the control panel, and the lever-action Fender mute under the bridge. In 1965/’66, it gained a bound, block-marker fingerboard, but was built in ever smaller numbers.

The Fender VI became popular with studio players, but not so much with otherwise Fender-happy instrumental bands. Perhaps to show off to dealers, Fender sales apparently ordered a larger than average proportion of flashy custom-color examples. At the very least, the Bass VI made for an ultra-flashy showpiece, the epitome of the company’s California hot-rod aesthetic. Over the years, it has proved the most enduring of the ’60s “Big Twangers,” originally listed through 1974 and reissued several times since.

The six-string bass idea did not inspire most other American makers. Gretsch, Guild, Valco, Magnatone, Harmony, and others likely saw a filled niche and stayed away. The budget-conscious Kay took the cheapest approach, offering its Value Leader bass – already just a four-string guitar-scale model – as the K5962 six-string bass. This was priced at $79.95 – $10 above the nearly identical Model K1961 guitar – presumably the cost of the heavier strings! Rickenbacker took the opposite tack and made a few experimental high-end models; the hollowbody 4005/4006 was offered as a catalog option (at a whopping $509.50 in ’66) and built in numbers so small as to hardly qualify as a production item.

The Fender VI turned heads in England, where Danelectros were all but unknown before ’65. In June of ’64, Beat Instrumental rhapsodized, “The very latest model is known as the Fender Bass VI… a six-string guitar which can be used either as an ordinary bass or as a solo instrument. It… gives out a beautiful deep-throated growl. A great asset to any group, it costs 185 pounds.”

The first U.K. response had already come from Burns as the Split Sound Bass, in ’62. This was a three-pickup guitar-scale (241/2″) model that pushed the limits of low string tension! The Split Sound Bass appears nearly identical to the Split Sonic guitar, complete with three pickups and vibrato – the only differences were an open-cradle bridge to accommodate the heavy strings, a bound fingerboard, and a pinned-on “Split Sound Bass” logo on the headstock that sometimes went missing, leaving the owner having no indication it’s actually a bass guitar. It’s also worth noting the Burns Double Six 12-string was originally intended to be tuned as an “octave-under” instrument, with bass strings – the first 12-string bass! This fell by the wayside almost immediately, becoming a standard 12-string guitar.

Hangtags from a Fender VI.

Oddly, the Bass VI concept was practically ignored by the usually creative JMI/Vox team. They built a one-off Phantom six-string bass for Peter Jay And The Jaywalkers, but theirs was the only known example. Some continental companies did catch the bug; Höfner offered a solidbody six-string bass (the model 188) in the early/mid ’60s and built at least a few 500/5 big-bodied archtop six-strings in 1960/’61. The 188 was simply an overgrown model 175 guitar, with a 30″ scale neck, the same three pickups, vibrato, and an optional vinyl-covered body. While Höfner appears to have never cataloged a violin-body six-string bass, Italian competitor Eko’s model 995 Violin bass had a rare six-string variation built in small numbers, at least. In Sweden, Hagstrom offered the solidbody Coronado VI bass, also sold under the Futurama name by Selmer in the U.K. This had six-pole versions of the celebrated Hagstrom Bi-Sonic bass pickups, but no vibrato; it’s extremely rare, but a most impressive beast!

Even as far away as Japan, the big twang made an impact, when Teisco offered a relatively good six-string bass – the TB-64, based on the “monkey grip” solidbody guitar. This was no doubt inspired by the Fender VI, as it mounted three pickups and a vibrato. In the ’60s, instrumental rock was huge in the Far East, and indeed popular all over the world; there were no lyrics to get in the way! Six-string basses were well-adapted to this style, in particular, but have been heard far more in many different musical contexts. Next month, we’ll explore sounds and players from the “Big Twang!”

This article originally appeared in VG August 2014 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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