“None of us wanted to be the bass player. In our minds he was the fat guy who always played at the back.” - Paul McCartney
A lot of aspiring musicians want to learn the guitar, the piano, or even the violin. However, significantly fewer people want to learn how to play the bass.
Often, guitarists move to the bass but you don’t play a bassline like you would an electric or acoustic guitar.
According to a survey by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO), many people choose to learn the guitar, the bass guitar was popular amongst boys with 28% interested in playing it.
Girls favoured the flute, recorder, violin, and viola.
Are you interested in the bass guitar?
Let’s have a look at its history.
The Bass, a Young Instrument
Traditional African and Eastern music has deeper instruments with fewer strings that are played horizontally that predate the electric bass guitar.
The Imzad, for example, is played by the Tuareg people in Africa or the Khalam in Senegal. Then there’s the Guembri played by the Gnawa people.
During the 20th century, double bass players were looking for a way to play more loudly. In the 1930s in the United States, swing and jazz reigned supreme. Bands kept playing louder and louder as they travelled from town to town.
Owing to its size, the double bass was difficult to lug around and it couldn’t compete with the volume from the now-amplified electric Les Paul guitar. The electric bass, just like the electric guitar, was invented to make up for this lack of volume when it came to country, rock ‘n’ roll, and blues music. Luthiers were looking for a more powerful instrument that was lighter than a double bass.
In 1910, the Gibson company created the first acoustic bass. It was a prototype without an amplifier but it met the needs of musicians.
That said, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the first electric bass was created. In 1933, the American Paul Tutmarc created the Model 736 Bass Fiddle in limited numbers. It had a short-scale neck, a solid body, and an electromagnetic pickup.
The next model was the same size as guitars, included frets, and could be played horizontally. Adding frets to the four-string model helped musicians play the instrument with greater ease and it was easier to hold than the prototypes. Paul Tutmarc’s instrument wasn’t much of a success in the 1930s and manufacturers Gibson and Rickenbacker preferred to work on what they already had. But the idea wasn’t a complete failure.
20 years later, Tutmarc’s idea would come back: the electric bass was born and music and American culture were about to drastically change. The bass guitar arrived just in time to turn the world upside-down.
The First Bass Guitars in the 20th Century
The electric bass is one of the only instruments to be originally designed with amplification in mind.
When Paul Tutmarc invented his electric bass guitar, it just needed the right conditions and a few changes to make it work. Industrial processes and further innovations made the bass guitar more viable.
Leo Fender (1909-1991) launched the first full-scale electric bass in 1951, the Precision Bass. The frets made it easier to play the right notes and vibrations in the strings were turned into an electrical signal through the pickup. This bass guitar became very popular with Jet Harris (The Shadows), James Jamerson (Motown), and Rocco Prestia. It resulted in a very particular groove.
In 1960, the Jazz Bass was released. There were new sounds available thanks to its two pickups and had a thinner neck than the Precision Bass. The pickup by the bridge offers better middles whereas the pickup closer the neck offers more bass.
Throughout the 60s, plenty of manufacturers started making versions: Gibson, Höfner, Rickenbacker, and Fender all flooded the market. The electric bass, particularly Fender’s Jazz Bass were in every studio and at every concert.
The 1960s marked the age of rock: The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Animals, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Who, The Doors, etc. The post-war boom saw a huge cultural revolution which created a great opportunity for the electric bass to flourish. Preamps started to be included in the 1960s to boost the high and low ends. Great bassists like Marcus Miller and Jaco Pastorius used the Jazz Bass.
In the same year, the following manufacturers were created:
- Music Man
- ESP Guitars
- G&L Instruments
- BC Rich
Bass guitars, which are tuned in fourths (E, A, D, G), slowly started to replace double basses as they were essential in genres like rock ‘n’ roll and pop and later heavy rock and metal.
Discover the best basslines.
Developments to the Bass Guitar in the 1970s
In the 1970s, some bassists went back to fretless basses.
Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987) was known for his fretless bass playing both while accompanying other band members or as a soloist. The fretless bass allows for warmer, rounder tones than with a fretted bass and allows you smoother slides and vibratos up and down the neck.
Experimentation led to the creation of the six-string bass in 1974. The bassist Anthony Jackson asked the luthier Carl Thomson to make him one.
To play even deeper sounds, a fourth below the low E. The professional luthier added a low B string. He nicknamed this instrument the “Contrabass”.
In the 1970s, rock music led to different woods being used for the neck: ebony, maple, spruce, rosewood, ash, etc.
Luthiers started doing it all!
Changes to the Bass Guitar in the 1980s
The digital age emerging in the middle of the 20th century helped create new musical styles thanks to electric instruments like guitars and basses.
5-, 6-, and even 8-string basses were created. There were basses made from carbon, thick necks, flat necks, everything!
Similarly, the 1980s saw new types of pickups, volume and tone dials, and improved nuts.
Manufacturers also looked to broaden their offering to meet demand. Every musician had different tastes and they loved the choice. In the 80s and 90s, composers sought to express themselves further.
This is why so many variations to the bass guitar were made. There were even basses tuned an octave lower than standard tuning. 5- and 6-string basses were used in Latin, jazz, funk, and metal music.
At just under 90 years old, there are now sub-categories of bass guitar:
- Electric bass
- Electro-acoustic bass
- Fretless basses
- Extended range bass (ERB): 5- or 6-string basses.
Nowadays, bassists have the choice of using combo amps, heads, amps with tubes or transistors with their bass guitars.
Beware: Bass amps are different from guitar amps. They can’t handle the same frequencies.
Now you should know more about the history of bass guitars. This should help you when it comes to learning how to play and choosing your first bass guitar.
Find out more about the role bassists play.
If you'd like to learn more, consider getting tutorials from one of the many talented bass tutors on Superprof. They can offer you one of the three main types of bass tutorials.
Face-to-face tutorials are your traditional private tutorials between the student and a tutor. They're great if there's something specific you'd like to learn as the lessons will be tailored to you and your learning style. However, this bespoke service comes at a cost, meaning that this type of tutorial is usually the most costly.
Online tutorials are also just between a single student and their tutor but their tutor won't be there in the room with them. Instead, they'll provide their tutorial over webcam. While this isn't always ideal for hands-on subjects, if you have a decent mic, a talented tutor can teach you how to play bass without even being in the room with you.
Finally, you can also get group tutorials. With several paying students attending the tutorial, this type of tutorial tends to be the cheapest per person per hour. Of course, the tutor's attention is also divided amongst the students and they won't be able to tailor the lessons to a single student. However, in the beginning, this might be a good option as everyone needs to learn the basics and you don't want to spend too much money on a new hobby if you think you mightn't stick at it.
Luckily for you, many of the tutors on Superprof offer the first hour of tuition for free. This is a great way to get to know your potential tutor, ask them about their teaching style, experience, and qualifications, and iron out the finer details of the kind of tuition you'd like.