Fender Guitarchive: The Bass VI

The early 2013 arrival of the Pawn Shop series Bass VI (above) marks the revamped return of a classic Fender instrument of the 1960s and early 1970s. Indeed, the Bass VI occupies its own special niche in Fender history, and its story now resumes—after quite a lengthy absence—with the new Pawn Shop version of the instrument. It’s a welcome return.

If the name is new to you, the Bass VI was introduced in 1961 as a six-string bass (the 1961 Fender catalog referred to it simply as the “New six-string Bass Guitar”). It occupied its own special ground somewhere between a guitar and a bass, designed to compete with the New Jersey-based Danelectro company’s UB-2 six-string bass, a popular session instrument since its introduction in 1956. The latter was noted for a punchy but clear low-end sound often used when recording to double acoustic upright bass parts in a technique called “tic-tac” bass.

The Bass VI debuts in the 1961 Fender catalog as the "New six-string Bass Guitar."
The Bass VI debuts in the 1961 Fender catalog as the “New six-string Bass Guitar.”

Fender designed its Bass VI on the heels of its highly successful Jazz Bass guitar (1960) as a more sophisticated and tonally versatile offering than the Danelectro instrument. Baritone guitars were in use by then, notably by artists such as Duane Eddy and the Beach Boys. These were definitely considered guitars, and it wasn’t unusual for them to use a tuning other than standard guitar tuning (EADGBE), such as a perfect fifth lower (ADGCEA), a perfect fourth lower (BEADF#B) or even a major third lower (CFBbEbGC).

The Bass VI, however, was emphatically offered as a bass—tuned EADGBE like a guitar, but an octave lower, and strung with heavy-gauge wound strings.

Truly, though, the Bass VI had a split personality. It is perhaps best described as an elaborate cross between a Jazz Bass and a Jaguar guitar (which debuted a year after the Bass VI), with a guitarist-friendly 30” scale (the standard length for short-scale bass guitars) and a Jazzmaster/Jaguar-like tremolo bridge/tailpiece assembly.

It had a sleek and unmistakably Fender-y offset body, with a narrow 21-fret neck that made for tight string spacing that appealed more to guitarists than bassists. It had three single-coil pickups with smooth chrome mounting rings, with controls resembling that of the subsequent Jaguar guitar: a single volume and single tone control on the chrome input jack plate, and three pickup on/off slider switches on a hexagonal chrome plate on the stubby lower horn (one for each pickup). It came in a three-color-sunburst finish on its 1961 introduction, with custom color finishes available in later years. Interestingly, the headstock logo said “Fender IV” in gold (not “Fender Bass VI,” as might be supposed), with “Electric Bass Guitar” in small black all-caps letters just below.

After the Jaguar guitar appeared in 1962, the Bass VI was modified with some of that guitar’s elements, most notably re-designed pickups with notched chrome rings, and a fourth slider switch that offered a deeper tone (often called the “strangle” switch), and foam rubber string mutes. It received fingerboard binding in late 1965 and block inlays in 1966. A polyester finish replaced nitrocellulose lacquer in 1968, which is also when the headstock logo changed from gold to black.

The Bass VI as it appeared in the 1970 catalog. It acquired a fourth slider switch in 1962 and block inlays in 1966.
The Bass VI as it appeared in the 1970 catalog. It acquired a fourth slider switch in 1962 and block inlays in 1966.

The Bass VI immediately found widespread use as a studio instrument—especially for film and television work—but it appeared relatively infrequently onstage. In hindsight, some attributed this to the notion that its heavy strings but narrow neck spacing made it “too bass” for guitarists and “too guitar” for bassists. It didn’t lend itself to strumming; rather, it worked best for single-note passages.

“I played it with a pick, which I do not normally do,” said Steve Kilbey, longtime bassist/vocalist/songwriter for Australian rock band the Church. “I found I could not play it with my fingers—the strings are so close. But it definitely had a sound of its own. I loved that you could tremolo deep notes, and I loved the precise sound of it. The six was like a sports car or something. It wasn’t for all conditions, but for some things it was magic.”

The relative few who are aware of the Bass VI today often seem to think of it as a short-lived and seldom-seen mid-’60s instrument. Not so.

For starters, it was an early 1960s instrument. Certainly, it did keep a low profile, so to speak, in the shadows of its more conventional brothers, the Precision and Jazz basses and the Telecaster, Stratocaster, Jazzmaster and Jaguar guitars, but it was anything but short lived. It did in fact spend most of the 1960s and half the 1970s in the lineup with those instruments, enjoying a 14-year original run that lasted from 1961 to 1975.

There might be more substance to the “seldom-seen” notion, because despite the Bass VI’s durability, Fender never manufactured it in vast numbers. Nonetheless, the Bass VI has seen plenty of action in each decade of its existence, and it has been found in high-profile hands all along; from Brit rock royalty of the 1960s and hard rock heroes of the ’70s to alt-rockers and iconoclasts of the ’80s and ’90s and garage-indie players of today (see list below).

A reissue model didn’t appear for another 20 years. The Japanese-made Reissue Fender Bass VI of 1995 was a largely accurate recreation of the four-switch model of 1962. It was available through 1998.

Cream's Jack Bruce plays his Bass VI in footage from late 1966.
Cream’s Jack Bruce plays his Bass VI in footage from late 1966.

Another Japanese model, the Jaguar Bass VI Custom, appeared in 2004. A special edition instrument, it had more overtly Jaguar-like features such as two Jaguar-style pickups with on/off slider switches, dual tone circuits and controls (“lead” and “rhythm”), and an Adjusto-Matic bridge with an anchored tailpiece. Even its 28.5” scale length was more guitar-like. The model was discontinued in 2007.

The Fender Custom Shop went all out in 2006 with the most faithful recreation of the original instrument to date, the limited edition ’64 Bass VI. It featured a quartersawn maple neck, a reverse-wound/reverse-polarity middle pickup, and a “bleached” three-color sunburst finish. The model was offered through 2008.

Which brings us to the most recent version of the Bass VI. As part of Fender’s acclaimed Pawn Shop series of imaginatively esoteric instruments that “never were but could have been,” a new version of the instrument appeared in early 2013. While the Pawn Shop Bass VI mirrored its original ancestor closely for the most part, it did feature a few major design updates—a pair of high-output Special Design Hot Jaguar single-coil neck and middle pickups, a powerful JZHB humbucking bridge pickup, and a Stratocaster-style five-way blade pickup switch in place of the barrage of slider switches on the upper bout.

The Bass VI has thus emerged once again from the pages of Fender history to put its distinctive stamp on contemporary music and deliver its unmistakable sound to a new generation of players eager to have authentic sounds at their disposal.

* * * * *

 As noted above, the Bass VI is often perceived as a “short lived and seldom seen” instrument when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It enjoyed remarkable longevity throughout the 1960s and well into the 1970s, and has been used by many notable players in every decade since its 1961 introduction. In roughly chronological order, these include:

  • Jet Harris. The former Shadows bassist used a Bass VI in 1962 on his first two solo singles, “Besame Mucho” and “Main Title Theme” (from The Man With the Golden Arm).
  • Eric Haydock. Original Hollies bassist Haydock often favored a Bass VI; he’s seen playing an early three-switch model in 1963 U.K. film It’s All Over Town as the Hollies perform “Now’s the Time.”
  • Rick Danko. As bassist for Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks from 1960 to 1964, Danko played a Bass VI before switching to conventional bass guitar models. This was of course well before the 1968 formation of The Band.
  • John Entwistle. The Who bassist briefly experimented with the Bass VI around 1964-1965, playing it at several live performances (a photo shows him onstage with a Bass VI at an April 16, 1965, Who set at London’s Goldhawk Social Club).
  • Jack Bruce. Probably the most visible Bass VI player, he played one during a brief mid-’60s stint with Manfred Mann before forming Cream in 1966. He used a Bass VI—which soon received a psychedelic paint job—on much of the band’s 1966 debut album, Fresh Cream.
  • Noel Redding. Redding isn’t known to have used his Bass VI on any recordings by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, but he did have one and he reportedly did use it for several live performances.
  • Luther Perkins. The longtime Johnny Cash sideman reportedly played a Bass VI on “Happy to Be With You” from 1966 Cash album Happiness is You.
  • Glen Campbell. Sources conflict over whether the baritone guitar sound heard on Campbell hits “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston” (1968 and 1969, respectively) is a Bass VI, but Campbell did use a Bass VI in at least one televised performance of the former.
  • George Harrison and John Lennon. Late in the 1960s, both Beatles guitarists sometimes picked up a Bass VI whenever Paul McCartney was busy at the piano, as Harrison did for a filmed performance of “Hey Jude” and as Lennon did during filmed performances of  “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road.” Lennon is also said to have played a Bass VI on “Helter Skelter,” “Back In the U.S.S.R.” and “Rocky Racoon” from The Beatles, and on “Dig It” from Let It Be. Harrison is also said to have played it on “Birthday” and “Honey Pie” from The Beatles, and on “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and “Carry That Weight” from Abbey Road.
  • Peter Green. The U.K. electric blues great and Fleetwood Mac founder often used a Bass VI onstage during Mac performances circa 1969-1970 (i.e., live versions of “The Green Manalishi,” “Tutti Frutti” and others). He also played it on recording sessions for Duster Bennett, Peter Bardens and others.
  • Roy Babbington. Best known as the bassist for U.K. progressive rock/jazz fusion outfit Soft Machine, Babbington played a Bass VI throughout his 1973-1976 tenure with the band.
  • Joe Perry. Perry reportedly wrote and recorded the main riff of swaggering 1976 Aerosmith track “Back in the Saddle” with a Bass VI.
  • Klaus Flouride. Dead Kennedy’s bassist Geoffrey “Klaus Flouride” Lyall sometimes used a blue Bass VI.
  • Steve Kilbey. The longtime Church bassist/vocalist is a longtime Bass VI fan ever since he first saw one (and bought it) in Sydney, Australia, in 1984. He used it on acclaimed 1992 Church album Priest=Aura, and has often played one onstage.
  • Robert Smith, Porl Thompson and Perry Bamonte. Perhaps no band has put the Bass VI to more use in the modern era than the Cure. Third album Faith (1981) was the first album on which Smith used the instrument; he also used it around that time for lengthy instrumental piece “Carnage Visors.” Smith’s Bass VI work appears sporadically on mid-’80s albums such as The Head on the Door and Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, and figures prominently on later albums Disintegration (1989), Wish (1992), Wild Mood Swings (1996), Bloodflowers (2000) and 4:13 Dream (2008). Periodically in-and-out guitarist Thompson also occasionally played it, and Bamonte played a Bass VI extensively during his stint with the Cure from 1990 to 2005.
  • Slash. The Guns N’ Roses guitarist played a Bass VI on “Right Next Door to Hell” from 1991 album Use Your Illusion I.
  • Poison Ivy. Cramps guitarist and vocalist Kristy “Poison Ivy” Wallace “played a little bit of Fender VI” on 1986 album A Date With Elvis.
  • Brian Molko and Stefan Olsdal. Both Placebo musicians got Bass VIs in the mid-to-late 1990s and used them often for stage and studio work, particularly on albums Placebo (1996), Without You I’m Nothing (1998) and Black Market Music (2000). Molko used his on tracks such as “Scared of Girls,” “Narcoleptic” and “Slave to the Wage.” Olsdal used his on track such as “36 Degrees,” “You Don’t Care About Us,” “Pure Morning,” “The Crawl” and “Burger Queen.”
  • Mark Hoppus. Influenced by the Beach Boys and the Cure in the early 2000s, Hoppus used a Bass VI on eponymous 2003 album Blink-182 (on which the Cure’s Robert Smith was a guest vocalist on “All of This”). Subsequently, Hoppus could sometimes be seen playing the customized model (he had a humbucking bridge pickup installed) onstage for the album’s second single, “I Miss You.”
  • Peter Holmstrom. The Dandy Warhols guitarist has a 1962 Bass VI that he puts to use once in a while.
  • John Frusciante and Josh Klinghoffer. Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarists past and present, Frusciante and Klinghoffer both have Bass VIs. Frusciante plays his early-’60s three-switch model on “Dark/Light” and “Central” from 2009 solo album The Empyrean. Klinghoffer plays his on “Happiness Loves Company” from 2011 Chili Peppers album I’m With You.
  • Dan Auerbach. The Black Keys guitarist/vocalist reportedly played a Bass VI on “All You Ever Wanted” from 2008 album Attack & Release.

And one special mention:

  • Nigel Tufnel. In the beloved “guitar collection” scene in 1984 rock “mockumentary” This Is Spinal Tap, Tufnel (Christopher Guest) shows filmmaker Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) several of his most cherished guitars. One of the instruments is so special to Tufnel that he’s never even played it; indeed, it still has the price “tagger” attached to it. Tufnel admonishes DiBergi not to touch it, point at it or even look at it. And while viewers get barely a glimpse of the instrument during the scene, Tufnel’s prized instrument is in fact a Bass VI in a rare Sea Foam Green finish.
Headstock logo detail of a pre-1968 Bass VI.
Headstock logo detail of a pre-1968 Bass VI.

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