Five Famous Fender Basses
By Jeff Owens
The guitar world is full of Fender guitars made famous (or infamous, here and there) by the greats who played them—Eric Clapton’s “Blackie” Stratocaster comes to mind, as do Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Number One” Stratocaster, David Gilmour’s “Black Strat,” James Burton’s paisley and flame-finished Telecasters, and many others.
Similarly and no less reverently, you’ll also hear of certain Fender basses made famous (or, again, infamous) by the greats who played them. Here are five examples, all put to such remarkable use—even historic, in some instances—that the basses themselves have become as noteworthy as their owners.
The Funk Machine
Jamerson and his 1962 “Funk Machine” Precision Bass.
The world’s most famous Fender bass is undoubtedly the “Funk Machine”—the Precision Bass played by the great Motown house bassist James Jamerson (1936-1983).
As the label’s top session bassist from 1959 to the early 1970s, Jamerson transformed the role of electric bass and lent his immensely influential skills to more hit records than perhaps any other bass player in history. Largely uncredited during his lifetime for his towering contribution to popular music, the many hits fueled by his propulsive, musically adventurous bass work remain beloved by millions as each generation discovers and re-discovers the magic of Motown.
Jamerson began his Motown career in 1959 playing upright bass, but recorded most of his work on a stock 1962 Precision Bass that he bought after his first Precision, a gift from fellow bassist Horace “Chili” Ruth, was stolen. Jamerson’s new Precision, which was soon nicknamed the Funk Machine, had a three-color sunburst finish, tortoiseshell pickguard, chrome bridge and pickup covers, and La Bella heavy-gauge flat-wound bass strings that he is said to have never changed. Jamerson typically left the volume and tone controls full up, and he sometimes tucked a piece of foam under the bridge cover to lightly mute the strings. He played by plucking the strings using only his right index finger while resting his right middle and ring fingers on the chrome pickup cover, thus earning his right index finger its own nickname, “the Hook.”
Thus, when you hear “You Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes, “I Was Made to Love Her” and “For Once in My Life” by Stevie Wonder, “My Girl” by the Temptations, “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” by Marvin Gaye, “Going to a Go-Go” by the Miracles and so many others, you’re hearing the Funk Machine.
The Funk Machine was reported to have unusually high action. Several players who knew Jamerson remarked that the string height on his bass made the instrument virtually impossible to play, although Jamerson himself is said to have believed it improved the tone and discouraged overplaying.
The instrument was stolen only days before Jamerson’s death at age 47 in August 1983. Its whereabouts remain unknown.
The Bass of Doom
Pastorius onstage with his “Bass of Doom” 1962 Jazz Bass.
Like the Funk Machine, the “Bass of Doom” was also stolen shortly before the untimely death of its most famous owner. Its whereabouts remained unknown to all but the thief for two decades before the instrument resurfaced in New York in 2007, not far from where it vanished one afternoon in 1986.
The Bass of Doom was the fretless 1962 Jazz Bass with which enigmatic virtuoso Jaco Pastorius (1951-1987) soared to untold heights of bass mastery. Pastorius exploded onto the international music scene in 1976 with his eponymous solo debut. Jaco Pastorius is still considered one of the greatest electric bass albums—if not the greatest electric bass album—ever recorded, and his subsequent work with Weather Report and Joni Mitchell, in addition to other solo work and many guest appearances, bequeathed to the world a highly influential bass legacy. Through all of this, the Bass of Doom was the bass with which he re-defined the possibilities of the instrument and the role of the electric bassist.
Allegedly nicknamed by Pastorius himself, the instrument began life as a stock 1962 Jazz Bass, which he bought in Florida in the early 1970s for $90. A 1984 Guitar Player magazine article noted that the frets were already gone from the bass when Pastorius bought it, but Pastorius also claimed to have removed the frets himself with a butter knife, filling the slots and missing chunks with “plastic wood” and covering the fingerboard with several coats of marine epoxy to resist the substantial wear induced by round-wound strings. Thus “customized,” it became the only fretless instrument Pastorius ever recorded with (he also had a fretted early-’60s Jazz).
Pastorius could be volatile as well as virtuoso, however, and he’d all but destroyed the instrument by the mid 1980s. Shortly after luthiers miraculously refurbished the Bass of Doom in 1986 and returned it to a delighted Pastorius, it vanished—stolen when he reportedly left it briefly unattended on a New York park bench one afternoon. Despite offering a hefty reward, Pastorius never saw the instrument again, and the great but troubled bassist himself lost his life less than a year later, in September 1987.
The Bass of Doom remained missing for two decades until it was identified in a small New York music shop in 2007. The shop’s owner reportedly paid $400 for it to the stranger who brought it in. A protracted legal battle then ensued over ownership, and two years passed with little progress made until another famous bassist stepped in. Metallica’s Robert Trujillo, a longtime Jaco Pastorius fan and a friend of the family, basically bought the bass on behalf of the Pastorius family and has since provided for its safekeeping.
Entwistle played his “Frankenstein” Precision Bass when the Who appeared in The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus in 1968 (above); the bass was sold at auction in 2003 (below) after Entwistle’s death in 2002.
Who bassist John Entwistle (1944-2002) played a lot of basses in his career, but few if any of them were as unusual as his infamous “Frankenstein” Precision Bass, which was his main stage and studio instrument from mid 1967 to 1971—a period that encompassed classic Who material including Tommy, Live at Leeds and Who’s Next. So when you hear quintessential Who tracks such as “Pinball Wizard” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” you’re hearing Frankenstein.
Entwistle assembled the monster himself in San Francisco on a day off during the Who’s summer 1967 U.S. tour. Consisting of the remains of several basses, it had a 1965 Precision body in three-color sunburst, a maple neck and pickups/circuitry from two “dead” 1966 “slab” Precisions (special limited-edition versions with no body contours sent to England in 1966), a pickguard from yet another Precision, tuners from two other Precisions, and a chrome pickup cover from a Jazz Bass.
“I used this baby from 1967 onwards through Tommy and all the tours up to Quadrophenia,” Entwistle once said in an interview. “Two hours with a Phillips screwdriver and a soldering iron and I was ranting around my hotel room screaming, “It’s alive, it’s alive!”
Entwistle retired Frankenstein from onstage work in the mid 1970s, at which point he had it refinished from sunburst to the salmon pink hue often referred to in the U.K. as Fiesta Red (although this differed notably from Fender’s U.S. Fiesta Red finish). Nonetheless, he noted in an April 1994 interview, “I have about 35 Precisions, all with different colors and from different eras, but I always go back to Frankenstein.”
Many of Entwistle’s belongings were auctioned off after his death in June 2002, including his voluminous instrument collection. Frankenstein went on the block at Sotheby’s in London in May 2003. Auction estimates ranged from £5,000 to £7,000 (up to $11,300 at the time), but the bass sold for a staggering £62,400 ($100,400)—nearly ten times its expected price—to an anonymous U.S. bidder.
An indelible moment in Precision Bass history came during a concert by the Clash on Sept. 21, 1979, at New York’s Palladium concert hall, when bassist Paul Simonon, angered by staff treatment of the audience, smashed his Precision to pieces onstage. Other than Simonon’s own decorative touches—including a paint-streaked pickguard, lower-bout skull-and-crossbones sticker and upper-horn “Pressure” inscription, there was nothing particularly special about the instrument—it was a fairly standard Precision model and was easily replaced, especially given the Clash’s high-profile status at the time as the “only band that matters.” But it wound up being immortalized.
Simonon and his just-about-to-be-destroyed Precision in “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll photograph of all time” (above); he briefly lent the splintered remains to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio for display in 2009 (below).
Indeed, Simonon’s moment of fury might’ve been quickly forgotten had it not been for U.K. photographer Pennie Smith, who was standing offstage and who happened to catch him in her lens mid frenzy. The resulting photo was later used for the cover of what many consider the Clash’s greatest album, 1979 magnum opus London Calling (with a title track highlighting Simonon playing what is surely one of the most apocalyptic Precision riffs of all time). So famous is the image that, more than 20 years, Q magazine deemed it the greatest rock ‘n’ roll photograph of all time.
That night in New York at the Palladium, Simonon carried on with his backup Precision, but it wasn’t quite the same, as he noted in 2010 when recalling that evening:
“There was a bass I had once before that was really great, and I had a spare one that was sort of much lighter,” he said. “And the good one, unfortunately, I sort of smashed it up—I was sort of annoyed at the bouncers at the Palladium in, I think it was 1979, (because they) wouldn’t let the audience stand up out of their chairs. So that frustrated me to the point that I destroyed this bass guitar. Unfortunately, you always sort of, well, tend to destroy things you love in temper. Anyway, I learned from that lesson and, subsequently, the rest of the tour, I had to play the really light bass, and it just didn’t sound the same.”
To be clear, though, Simonon’s rage was aimed at for the venue staff, not the instrument that bore the brunt of his dissatisfaction. “I wasn’t taking it out on the bass guitar, ’cause there was nothing wrong with it,” he said. “It was a great guitar.”
Simonon kept the splintered Precision, and in fact still has it (he briefly lent the still-wrecked bass to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Ohio for display in 2009). It almost didn’t work out that way, though—the night of the incident, one of his band mates would’ve successfully absconded with one of the fragments had Simonon not caught him red handed.
“In fact, (Joe) Strummer took one of them and was about to walk off with it,” he said. “And I just had to grab it back, (saying) “I think that belongs to me.”
West Ham United F.C.
Harris with his “West Ham” Precision Bass onstage in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2011 (above); the 1987-1997 style West Ham United F.C. crest that appears on the bass’s lower bout (below).
The Brits do love their football, and Iron Maiden founder, bassist and chief songwriter Steve Harris is certainly no exception. Since boyhood, he’s been an avid fan of West Ham United, a top-tier London pro football club; he was even scouted for the team and invited to train before his muse took hold.
Although a serious footballer with professional aspirations during youth, Harris eventually realized that his true calling lay elsewhere.
Around the time he founded Iron Maiden in late 1975, Harris acquired the heavy mid-’70s Precision that would remain with him throughout his prolific career to date.
The bass has changed colors several times. It was white when Harris got it and refinished in matte black by the time Maiden hit London’s Kingsway Studios to record eponymous 1980 debut album Iron Maiden. It thereafter appeared in one of its more recognized guises—a sparkling royal blue finish combined with a chromed mirror metal pickguard (this is the version that Fender issued in 2009 as the Steve Harris Precision Bass).
Since the early 1990s, however, the bass is even more beloved by Harris and by legions of Iron Maiden fans worldwide as the “West Ham” Precision. Around 1991, Harris declared his love for West Ham United football anew and for all to see by having his number-one bass re-finished in elegant pearl white with blue-and-black pinstriping and, most notably, the West Ham United F.C. crest in blue and black on the lower bout. The mirrored metal pickguard remained in place, as it does today.
Harris has played the bass on every Iron Maiden album to date, and on 2012 debut solo album British Lion. And his support for West Ham United F.C. has never wavered. In fact, just as West Ham United fans are fond of the expression “Up the Irons” as a cheer for their team (one of the club’s nicknames is the Irons), Maiden fans have adopted it as a cheer for the band, too.