The Fender Precision Bass, introduced in 1951, was arguably more revolutionary and more influential on popular music than the Telecaster or Stratocaster. As the first commercially successful electric bass, it was a landmark in the evolution of musical instruments. As an electric bass guitar, it was even more important, as an instrument that allowed bassists the same physical freedom as well as the same playing technique enjoyed by electric guitarists.
However, unlike the Tele and Strat, which required only minimal wiring changes to reach their optimal design, the Precision had an evolutionary history more like Gibson’s Les Paul model, not reaching its preferred configuration until it received an upgraded pickup (among other changes) in 1957 and a new finish color in ’58.
When it debuted in November, 1951, the Precision did have a lot in common with the Telecaster and Esquire, which Fender had introduced a little over a year earlier. The solid ash body had squared-off edges and a blond finish. Strings anchored through the body. Two adjustable saddles (made of a pressed fiber material rather than the brass saddles of the Tele) each accommodated a pair of strings. The pickguard was black Bakelite. Hidden under a handrest, the pickup was a single black bobbin without a cover, similar to the Telecaster’s bridge-position pickup. The neck was Fender’s one-piece maple design, with integral fingerboard. The peghead was relatively narrow, with all tuners on the bass side. A round washer functioned as a string tree to give the two highest strings a sharper break-angle over the nut.
The only fundamental design difference between the Precision and the Telecaster was the body shape. The Telecaster’s upper bass bout hinted at a cutaway, angling into the neck on a line that emerged on the treble side about three frets higher up the neck. The Precision had an extended bass horn. Aesthetically, it was of monumental importance, because it transformed the square-ish Tele body into a sleeker, much more modernistic design, and it introduced the basic shape that, after a heavy contouring treatment, would become the legendary Stratocaster body three years later.
Functionally, however, the extended bass horn provided only the illusion of an improvement. While the bass side of the Precision’s body was scooped for a double-cutaway look, it still joined the neck three frets lower on the neck than the treble side, just as on the Tele. And the strap button on the longer horn made the Precision even more unbalanced and body-heavy than was the Tele.
The Precision obviously differed from the Tele in the elements that made it a bass guitar; the 34″ scale required a longer neck, but some of that extra scale length was moved to the body by placing the bridge closer to its end. The body was enlarged only slightly – about half an inch.
The scale length was rather arbitrary in the context of upright basses. A standard 3/4-size Kay bass had a 42″ scale. The smaller “1/2-size” (a.k.a. 1/4-size or junior) was 351/4″. Fender probably settled on 34″ because it was five frets longer than the Telecaster’s 251/2″ scale.
The idea of an electric bass or a guitar-like bass did not originate with Leo Fender. Gibson put frets on a bass mandolin, which could be played upright or in angled guitar position, in 1912. Seattle-based instrument maker Paul Tutmarc offered a fretted, solidbody electric bass guitar under his Audiovox brand in 1935. Still, most of the pre-Fender efforts at electrifying the bass were upright concepts, such as the minimalist bodies of Rickenbacker and Vega in the ’30s, or the Ampeg endpin-mounted pickup developed in 1946.
Fender’s development of an electric solidbody bass guitar in ’51 seems today to be a questionable business decision. Guitarists had been slow in the ’30s to accept the electric guitar because it did not sound like an amplified acoustic guitar. Bassists were no different, and to make matters worse, few upright bassists could be expected to “downgrade” to a guitar in order to gain more volume.
While there were apparent drawbacks to the Precision, it also had some unique attractions. The guitar-based design may have turned off traditional upright bassists, but it opened up an even bigger market for the Precision. Now, guitarists could make an easy transition to bass, and a band in need of a bassist – particularly a rock and roll band – no longer needed to find a trained upright bassist. Any guitarist could cover simple bass parts with virtually no extra training.
The second unique attraction of the Fender Precision was not part of the bass, per se; it was the amp that Fender introduced along with the bass. In the pre-WWII era, amps were barely powerful enough to handle a single-note electric guitar line. Manufacturers beefed up their amps in the post-war years, but until the Precision, there was no demand for a dedicated bass amp. Fender all but sealed the success of the Precision – and the electric solidbody bass in general – with the Bassman amp.
In 1954, Fender introduced a new and improved guitar called the Stratocaster, while leaving the Telecaster design intact. The Precision got some of the Strat’s features – beveled body edges, two-tone sunburst finish and white pickguard – but presumably because it already had the Strat’s general body shape, Fender did not think it necessary to make it a new model.
The Precision received another round of upgrades in ’57 (as seen on the ’58 model shown here), the most important of which was a new, split-coil pickup. A new bridge design featured string anchors as part of the bridgeplate, eliminating the holes through the body. The peghead was widened to more closely resemble that of the Strat. And the pickguard changed shape, no longer covering the upper bass horn (but encompassing the control knobs), and it also changed material to a gold-anodized aluminum.
At that point, the evolution of the Precision was complete. There were more changes, including the three-tone sunburst finish sported by this month’s featured example from 1958. A rosewood fingerboard became standard in late ’59, though the maple neck would return as an option in the late ’60s. At about the same time, the pickguard changed to laminated tortoiseshell celluloid (or white with custom finishes). Through the end of the ’50s, the Precision filled players’ needs to the extent that Fender offered no other bass model.
Finally, in 1960, Fender introduced its second bass. Called the Jazz Bass, it offered two pickups with blending capability, and a neck that tapered to a narrower 11/2″ width at the nut (compared to the Precision’s 13/4″ nut width). The Jazz Bass eventually found its own market with players who preferred its sharp attack, and numerous models today feature the “P-J” configuration, with one pickup from each model. However, for the full, fat sound that established the electric bass as a vital instrument in popular music, the late-’50s Precision remains the standard bearer.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s November 2009 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.