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“Other” Fender Basses, Part II: 1980s-Early 1990s

 


Early 1980s Bullet Bass manual cover shows both models and the star-logo Telecaster-style headstock.

As detailed in part one, several other Fender bass guitar models joined the venerable Precision and Jazz basses throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these, such as the Mustang and Telecaster basses, achieved some enduring measure of success, while others such as the Bass V and the various Coronado basses are perhaps best described as interesting (and short-lived) experiments.

As the 1980s dawned, Fender continued to experiment with other bass designs even as it chafed under CBS rule. Once free of that yoke in the mid-to-late 1980s and on into the 1990s, a new and resurgent Fender continued such experimentation, with results that were as radically different from the time-honored Precision/Jazz tradition as anything the company came up with in the 1960s and ’70s.

Many of these “other” Fender basses of the 1980s and early 1990s were themselves pretty interesting experiments—many also quite short-lived—as new kinds of bass players emerged and Fender sought modernized designs and concepts that would (hopefully) appeal to them. They ran from variations that didn’t veer far from traditional Fender designs (such as the Bullet basses) to utterly radical departures (such as the Katana and Performer basses) to expensive high-end models with exotic woods and sophisticated features (such as the H.M. Bass Ultra and Prophecy III), encompassing several fine but ultimately obscure instruments that fell victim to the vagaries of player indifference and sheer economic bad timing. They also included the first Squier basses and the very first artist-model Fender basses. Here is a survey of those instruments, which hail from the perhaps most tumultuous but vigorously experimental era in Fender history.


Two of the oddest Fender bass models ever: the Squier Katana (above) and the Fender Performer (below).

Bullet Bass (1982-1986, 1987-1988). Fender introduced its student/budget Bullet bass guitars in 1982 to replace the long-running Mustang and Musicmaster models, which were discontinued in 1981. Both new models, the short-scale Bullet Bass B-30 and long-scale Bullet Bass B-40 (quickly renamed Bullet Bass B-34), had a much more Precision-like body shape than the Mustang and Musicmaster, and both featured a Mustang-style split single-coil pickup and Telecaster headstock shape with a star-graphic logo (the B-34 headstock logo said “Bullet Bass Deluxe”). Bullet basses didn’t say “Fender” on their headstocks for long, however—within a year production was moved to Japan, where Fender had just established its first non-U.S. manufacturing operation. The short-scale model was dropped, and the Japanese-made B-34 model became a Squier instrument in 1984, renamed simply as the Squier Bullet Bass in 1987 and discontinued in 1988.

Katana Bass (1985-1986). Squier’s short-lived Katana Bass was released concurrently with Fender’s equally short-lived Katana guitar of 1985-1986. The genesis of both came with the mid-1980s rise of hair metal, during which Fender jumped on the pointy-guitars bandwagon with perhaps the most extraordinarily non-traditional models the company has ever made. Like the Fender and budget Squier Katana guitar models, the Katana Bass was built in Japan and named for that nation’s traditional samurai sword, with an asymmetrical V-shaped body, arrow-shaped headstock and the additional unusual distinction of a medium (32”) scale length. Although actually quite well built, the Katana instruments were not successful, and it didn’t help that they arrived during one of the most tumultuous periods in Fender history. Katana guitar and bass models lasted barely a year; all were gone by late 1986.

Performer Bass (1986-1987). Distinctively pointy shapes continued in the mid-1980s with the Performer guitar and bass models, which were second only to the Katana models in non-traditional Fender design. 1986’s angular Performer Bass boasted a slim two-octave neck, unusually deep cutaways and dual single-coil pickups. It was available in two versions—the less expensive ($499) Japanese-made Standard Performer Bass, which had a rosewood fingerboard and white pickguard, and the more expensive ($949) U.S.-made Elite Performer Bass, which had an ebony fingerboard and no pickguard. Fender Custom Shop founder John Page, the creator of the Performer instruments, designed a five-string version of the bass in 1987 that never made it past the prototype stage. Although it didn’t catch on with players and it too suffered from Fender’s post-CBS instability of the mid-1980s, the Performer Bass nonetheless had notable strengths and was a well-conceived attempt at a modern direction for Fender basses quite apart from the long-established Precision/Jazz tradition. It was discontinued after only a year. Performer basses are regarded today as a something of a curiosity, albeit interesting and well-built ones, and they command high prices in the infrequent instances when they show up for sale.


Early 1990s ad for Heartfield DR basses (above), and a sleek Fender H.M. Bass V (below), which evolved from an earlier Squier version.

Heartfield DR basses (1989-1993). Fender was eager to participate in the late-’80s “super-Strat” boom typified by makers such as Jackson, Charvel and Ibanez—a large market it hadn’t previously addressed—but was aware that the general public identified the Fender name with more traditional instruments. Thus it created a new series of Japanese-made high-performance guitars and basses dubbed “Heartfield” and “Heartfield by Fender” (although some were simply labeled “Fender”). There were two Heartfield families—the DR series, which came first as the 1980s ended, and the Prophecy family of the early 1990s (see below).

The four-string DR4 and five-string DR5 models of 1989 were alder-body basses with active electronics, additional “low Z output,” hum-cancelling pickups, tri-laminate bolt-on necks (maple/graphite/rosewood) and, for the first time on Fender basses, tuners on both sides of the headstock. They were also offered that year in custom-order neck-through versions, the DR4C and DR5C, which had hardwood bodies, elaborate laminated tops, gold hardware and different finish options. The 1989 lineup also included the custom-order six-string neck-through DR6C (curiously, the six-string bolt-on-neck DR6 didn’t arrive until 1992). All had two-octave necks and a 19.7” fingerboard radius except the DR4, which had 22 frets and a 12” fingerboard radius. The fact that Heartfield DR basses were such expensive instruments is what contributed to their demise in 1993 after only a few years in production. They were discontinued not so much because grunge had by then effectively ended the late-’80s dominance of high-performance “super-Strat” instruments, but because the snowballing value of the Japanese yen at the time simply made them too expensive to continue producing.

H.M. basses (1989-1993). Concurrent with the Heartfield DR basses, Fender and Squier went specifically after metal players with several solid but equally short-lived H.M. basses (three guesses what “H.M.” stands for). The first two were Korean-made Squier models—1989’s H.M. Bass and five-string H.M. Bass V. With a street price around $300, they were affordable basses that appealed to the pointy-headstock set and offered flashy finishes such as “Electric Blue” and “Midnight Wine.” Both basses did reasonably well at the time, which led to the 1991 debut of Japanese-made Fender-branded versions; these had a modified H.M. Stratocaster body shape, three Jazz Bass pickups with five-way switching (the Squier versions were dual-pickup models with no switching), TBX tone controls (treble and bass cut rather than the treble cut-only of a conventional tone control), a more pronounced fingerboard radius (9.5” to the 12” of the Squier models), a graphite nut and a greater selection of finishes.

The Fender H.M. basses were consequently more expensive, reaching their peak with the U.S.-made Fender H.M. Bass Ultra, also from 1991, which boasted a figured maple top and back, a triple-laminated neck (maple/graphite/rosewood, like the Heartfield basses), three Fender Lace Sensor Jazz Bass pickups with five-way switching and active electronics, deluxe Gotoh® tuners and an included hard-shell case. A beautiful instrument, the H.M. Bass Ultra also boasted a $1,350 price tag. 1991 also saw one of the more unusual Fender basses of any era in the lithe form of the acoustic-electric H.M.T. Bass. Despite its slanted tilt-back headstock, Jackson-like triangular fingerboard inlays and decidedly metallic name (“H.M.T.” stood for “Heavy Metal Telecaster”), the Japanese-made bass was neither particularly shredder-suited nor especially Telecaster-like. Its Precision-shaped semi-hollow body had a book-matched figured maple top, with a Fender Lace Sensor Precision Bass middle pickup, piezo bridge pickup, active electronics including pan control and full-range boost, and a rosewood bridge. As good as the H.M. basses were, pointy-headstock Fender and Squier instruments never scored big with players, and all were discontinued in 1993.


A 1990 Kubicki Factor 4 Fretless bass (above), and a JP-90 of the same era (below).

Kubicki basses (1990-1992). Philip Kubicki worked for Fender from 1964 to 1973 and earned considerable acclaim as a designer and builder (he created George Harrison’s famous rosewood Telecaster, among other notable instruments). He turned his attention to electric bass design in the early 1980s, the result of which was the radical Kubicki Factor bass. These distinctive high-end basses gained popularity throughout the mid-1980s to the point at which Kubicki’s own resources couldn’t keep up with demand. This led to a late-decade licensing deal with Fender for manufacture and sale of Factor basses. The union was short-lived—lasting only from 1990 to 1992—but did see four models of the unusual instrument, the Kubicki Factor 4 and Factor 4 Fretless, and the Ex-Factor 4 Extended Bass and Ex-Factor 4 Extended Bass Fretless.

JP-90 (1990-1993). Fender’s JP-90 bass of 1990-1993 had an elongated Jazz Bass body shape with sharper horns and a traditional headstock shape, but its most immediately striking feature was a highly unusual pickguard shape. Small and somewhat fin-shaped, the black single-ply pickguard covered only the middle portion of the instrument top, tightly encompassing the Precision/Jazz pickup configuration, two control knobs (volume, tone), three-position pickup selector toggle switch and input jack. As such, the pickguard imparted an angular kind of new-wave look that seems quite dated today. Nonetheless, the JP-90 was a good-sounding and affordable bass with a comfortably lightweight poplar body. Like several earlier “other” Fender bass models and the concurrent Heartfield and H.M. basses and U.S. Prodigy Bass (below), it is perhaps best defined as a short-lived experiment.

U.S. Prodigy Bass (1991-1993). As seen with the H.M. and Heartfield DR basses, Fender was vigorously seeking a piece of the then-sizable “super-Strat” market in the early 1990s, and 1991’s U.S. Prodigy Bass was yet another affordable bass entrant in that effort. Like the JP-90 bass, it had a lightweight poplar body with a “sharpened” Jazz Bass shape, a traditional Fender headstock shape and a Precision/Jazz Bass pickup configuration. The U.S. Prodigy Bass had a generally leaner look though, with no pickguard and a simplified control layout. That’s not to say, however, that it wasn’t a tonally sophisticated instrument. On the contrary, it boasted active electronics with master volume/pan, treble boost/cut and bass boost/cut controls. Nonetheless, Fender abandoned several of its “super-Strat” guitar and bass experiments in 1993; the U.S. Prodigy Bass among them after only two years in production.


A U.S. Prodigy Bass (above), and a 1992 Prophecy III model (below).

Prophecy basses (1991-1993). The second of the two Heartfield bass series came in 1991 with the introduction of the Prophecy bass models. Built in Japan, they were three distinctively designed, moderately expensive instruments that resembled each other closely in form but varied widely in materials and features. All three had elongated upper horns, tuners on both sides of a double-pointed headstock and a Precision/Jazz pickup configuration with no pickguard. The least expensive ($650) model, the Prophecy I, had a basswood body with a bolt-on maple neck, passive circuitry with three control knobs (pan, master volume and TBX tone) and chrome hardware. The Prophecy II ($750) had an ash body with a bolt-on maple neck, active electronics with four control knobs (pan, master volume, treble boost/cut, bass boost/cut) and gold hardware. The most expensive ($1,150) and elaborate model, the Prophecy III, had a multi-laminated body (zebrawood/walnut/mahogany) and through-body neck (maple/bubinga), active electronics (same circuitry as the Prophecy II) and gold hardware. The Prophecy basses were fine instruments, but they befell the same short-lived fate as their fellow Heartfield DR series basses; all discontinued in 1993 when the skyrocketing value of the Japanese yen made them too expensive to continue producing.

Stu Hamm Urge basses (1993-2010). Virtuoso bassist Stu Hamm was the first musician to receive a signature Fender bass model. And what a creation it was—1993’s U.S.-made Stu Hamm Urge Bass had a special body shape and asymmetrical oval neck profile specified by the man himself, with an unusual combination of a two-octave pao ferro fingerboard and a medium (32”) scale. An expensive ($1,600) instrument of remarkable tonal versatility, it had a triple vintage-style pickup configuration (Jazz/Precision/Jazz) with active/passive electronics (master volume/pan knob, bass/treble knob, four-position rotary EQ/standby switch), three-position mini-toggle pickup selector switch and stereo output jack. It also had a gold string-through-body bridge, white pearloid pickguard, Gotoh tuners and gold hardware. It was joined in 1994 by the more affordable ($600) Mexico-built Stu Hamm Urge Bass Standard, which had a poplar body, rosewood fingerboard, two Jazz Bass pickups, dual concentric control knobs and active/passive electronics (master volume/pan and bass/treble boost/cut), black pickguard, vintage-style bridge, standard tuners and chrome hardware.

The considerably more expensive ($2,285) Stu Hamm Urge II Bass replaced both original basses in 1999. This high-end U.S.-made version featured a select alder body with a slightly revised shape, full scale length (34”), custom Noiseless Jazz Bass neck and bridge pickups and custom Precision Bass middle pickup, four control knobs (master volume/pan, three-band active EQ with treble, bass and mid boost/cut), a three-position mini-toggle pickup selector switch, deluxe top load/string-through-body bridge, Posiflex graphite neck support rods, Fender/Schaller deluxe lightweight tuners and matching painted headstocks on all but the sunburst-finish model. This model in turn was upgraded in 2007 with a drop-D tuner on the E string and new finish options. As such a highly specialized instrument, however, the expensive ($2,740) Urge II sold only in small numbers, and it was discontinued in 2010.

A trio of Stu Hamm Urge II basses from the mid-2000s; these were slightly revised versions of their 1990s-era predecessors.

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