Fender®

The Jazz Bass® Guitar: A History and Appreciation

 


1960: The first ad for the new Jazz Bass (above) and page one of Fender’s 1960 catalog (below), with the “newest addition to the field of electric basses” at upper left.

As the end of the 1950s neared, Fender had a quartet of innovative electric instruments with designs that would in time prove massively popular and influential. The Telecaster (1951) and the by-then perfected Stratocaster (1954) were well on their way to indispensability as 1960 loomed; the Jazzmaster (1958) took a longer but eventually successful route to cult stardom.

The other instrument was the Precision Bass (1951). The world’s first commercially successful solid-body electric bass guitar, it too was destined for greatness. The Precision was designed with ingeniously efficient simplicity and utility to deliver three things—ease of use, precise intonation (hence the name) and a loud, booming sound that unwieldy acoustic basses simply weren’t capable of matching.

Throughout most of the 1950s and in contrast to the development of multiple guitar models, Fender stuck with one bass—it opted to redesign the groundbreaking Precision rather than introduce a new bass guitar model. That thinking changed as the decade waned, however, and Leo Fender and his staff turned their attention to a new “deluxe” bass guitar design in 1959.

The reasoning was clear enough—it was simply time for a new Fender bass. And just as the Stratocaster expanded on the Telecaster rather than supplanting it, this new bass would complement the Precision by offering great tonal versatility and a design that went beyond the utilitarian to the realm of the sleekly stylish.

If the Precision was a Chevy, the new deluxe model would be a Ferrari. Leo Fender himself said so. In a Guitar Player magazine interview years later, he said, “Well, it’s like a car, you know—you come out with a standard model, then you have a deluxe model—a Cadillac version.” Once again, Leo built it and, once again, Fender Sales chief Don Randall named it.

That model, the Fender Jazz Bass guitar, was introduced in 1960.

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The first production Jazz Bass was built in March 1960. In Fender’s summer price list that year, it was listed at $279.50 for a sunburst-finish model and $293.47 for a blonde or custom-color finish.

“Jazz Bass” was an interesting name choice given that 1958’s Jazzmaster guitar, with which the new bass shared part of its name, did not win over the “serious” jazz musicians it was intended for. As with the Jazzmaster, the Jazz Bass was released and promptly ignored by jazz musicians—at first. In due time it would find favor with those players; spectacularly so in some cases.

Next to its big brother, though, there was no doubt that the 1960 Jazz Bass really was a deluxe instrument. The most visible and audible evidence of this was that it had two pickups instead of one, giving it a tonal versatility not found in the Precision. The Precision made a great sound, but it made one great sound.

A 1959 Jazz Bass prototype boasted large single-coil soapbar pickups similar to those on the Jazzmaster; a five-polepiece neck pickup and a four-polepiece bridge pickup. These became narrower eight-polepiece (two per string) pickups by the time production started.


Close-up of a 1959 Jazz Bass prototype shows the soon-discarded soapbar pickup.

The Jazz’s neck pickup contributed the sort of warmth and fullness typical of a Precision. Its secret weapon, however, was its bridge pickup, which produced a guttural midrange growl and a clear, trebly high end new at the time to the Fender bass sound.

Since the original Jazz Bass guitars had volume and tone controls for both pickups (in a short-lived dual stacked-knob configuration), the tonal personalities of both pickups could be blended many different ways. You didn’t just get one sound with a Jazz Bass—you got an entire palette of pleasing bass sounds, something new in the still-young electric bass experience.

Certainly a different sound, but also a quite different look. Although it clearly resembled the Precision in basic form, the Jazz Bass looked substantially different in several important ways.

Most apparent was a feature borrowed from the Jazzmaster—an offset waist—that conveyed a sleeker and more curvaceous look to the Jazz Bass. In true Fender fashion, however, this was an innovation rooted not in form but in function—the sexier look was a by-product of the more practical consideration that the offset waist made the instrument more comfortable to play when seated, as most “serious” players of the time often were.
Less obvious was the fact that the offset waist also made the Jazz Bass slightly larger (46 ¼” long, 14” wide) and hence slightly heavier then the Precision (45 ¾” long, 13” wide), so there was slightly more body mass to contribute to the tone.

The other major design departure of the Jazz Bass, and the biggest in terms of its feel, was its neck, which was noticeably more narrow at the nut—a slim 1 7/16” compared to the Precision’s hefty 1 ¾”—and thinner front-to-back. This felt substantially different from the Precision’s great tree trunk of a neck, and guitarists who were converting to bass in increasing numbers during that era found the Jazz Bass’s slender neck especially user-friendly, especially when it came to playing faster, more intricate passages.


The original Jazz Bass bridge with adjustable individual string mutes, replaced in 1963 with a much simpler design.

The 1960 Jazz Bass came in a standard sunburst finish with a tortoiseshell pickguard. It had a rosewood fingerboard with clay dot inlays, a finger rest mounted below the G string, adjustable mutes below each string, a strap button on the back of the headstock, and big chrome covers over the neck pickup and bridge/bridge pickup, the latter stamped with a large Fender “F”.

Fender started revising and improving the Jazz Bass almost immediately. Within a year of its release, it was offered in 14 custom colors, several with matching painted headstocks and most with three-ply white nitrocellulose pickguards.

The biggest early design change came in December 1961, when Fender dispensed with the two stacked control knobs and reverted to the three-control layout of the 1959 prototype (volume-volume-master tone). Stack-knob Jazz basses continued to be produced, however, well into 1962 as parts were used up. Other early design revisions included:

  • 1961: Addition of two more patent numbers to the two originally found below the headstock logo.
  • 1963: Individual below-string mutes replaced by simpler all-string mute glued to the inside of the bridge cover; slab fingerboards replaced by round-laminated fingerboards.
  • 1964: Three-ply white nitrocellulose pickguards replaced by three-ply white vinyl pickguards; clay fingerboard inlays replaced by faux pearl inlays.


Other design changes and options were implemented throughout the remainder of the 1960s and 1970s, although their infrequency might only underline how little the Jazz Bass has changed in 50 years. These other changes included:

  • 1966: White binding added to the neck; pearl block inlays replace dot fingerboard inlays; medium jumbo frets replace previous smaller frets; Fender-produced paddle-shaped keys replace clover-shaped tuning keys; tuning machine gears no long turn backward.
  • 1969: Larger and bolder logo decal replaces traditional headstock logo; headstock strap button removed; paddle tuning keys discontinued; maple fingerboard option with black binding and black block inlays introduced.
  • 1972: Bridge pickup moved 4/10” closer to the bridge; a small move that nonetheless introduces noticeable tonal change (the older spacing returned to the vintage reissue Jazz Bass models of 1982).
  • 1974: Three-bolt neck plate introduced; white binding and block inlay option for maple fingerboards introduced.
  • 1976: Headstock logo again redesigned; serial number moved from neck plate to headstock logo.
  • 1977: Control knobs changed to black plastic with numbers.

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Geddy Lee of Rush. His signature instrument remains one of the most successful Jazz Bass models since its introduction in 1998.
Photo by Ross Halfin

It’s one thing to describe the history of the Jazz Bass in terms of its origin, design features and subsequent design modifications.

But the Jazz Bass is much more than the sum of its parts, and it’s something else entirely to survey its 50-year history in terms of its effect on popular music; to look at what players have done with the instrument. Because in those respects, the Jazz Bass was—and remains—a phenomenal instrument.

The Jazz Bass has been an instrument of choice for some of the most creative minds and talented hands in music, making its sound a ubiquitous presence in popular music for five decades now. Even a short list of players known for the using the instrument is most impressive—Joe Osborn, Jack Casady, Noel Redding, Larry Graham, Herbie Flowers, Greg Lake, Jaco Pastorius, John Paul Jones, Sting, Geddy Lee, Marcus Miller, Flea, Ron Blair, Adam Clayton and Verdine White.

When you’re listening to the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Sly & the Family Stone, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Led Zeppelin, the Police, Rush, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and U2, you are very often listening to a Jazz Bass.

When you hear the breathtaking bass breaks by John Entwistle on the Who’s immortal “My Generation,” by John Paul Jones in Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times Bad Times” and by Geddy Lee in Rush’s “YYZ,” you’re hearing a Jazz Bass.

Jack Casady’s spooky line in Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and his sinuous line winding throughout “Somebody to Love”? A Jazz Bass. The even spookier psychedelic blues parts woven by Jones into Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused” and by U.K. session great Herbie Flowers into David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”? A Jazz Bass. Even great bassists who aren’t widely known as Fender players have used the Jazz Bass at one time or another—Paul McCartney is known to have played a left-handed model on The Beatles (the “White Album”), and Yes-man Chris Squire includes one in his arsenal.

And then there’s funk, soul and disco. An entirely new way of playing a bass guitar—the irresistibly funky and technically sophisticated slap-and-pop bass odyssey pioneered by Larry Graham in the 1960s with Sly & the Family Stone—was launched with a Jazz Bass. Among the great many notable exponents to play the Jazz this way, standouts include William “Bootsy” Collins, who played his with James Brown in the 1960s before making bass history with Parliament-Funkadelic in the 1970s; Verdine White with hit factory Earth, Wind & Fire; and Michael “Flea” Balzary, who often used his 1961 Jazz Bass to bring the style to prominence in modern rock music with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.


Jaco Pastorius, who used the Jazz Bass to define a new role for bass guitar.
Photo courtesy Jaco Pastorius Inc.

And as noted, the Jazz did eventually find favor in the jazz/contemporary R&B world so avidly sought be Fender in the late 1950s and ’60s. As jazz continued to expand and break exciting new ground throughout the 1960s and 1970s, these players grew to prize the Jazz bass for its smooth feel and tonal versatility.

This is readily apparent when considering that today the Jazz Bass easily has the greatest number of signature jazz/R&B artists; more so than any other instrument model in the Fender family—a list that now includes greats such as Marcus Miller, Reggie Hamilton, Victor Bailey, Steve Bailey and Jaco Pastorius.

Pastorius. The very mention of the name seems almost synonymous with the Jazz Bass, with which he will be forever identified, and no discussion of the instrument is complete without him. Widely regarded as one of the greatest electric bassists who ever lived and a musician of incalculable influence, Jaco Pastorius made his mark and redefined the possibilities of the instrument with a battered pair of early-’60s Jazz basses. For many players, including a whole new generation born after his tragic untimely passing in 1987, electric bass starts with him, and hence starts with a Jazz Bass.

In the wake of the development of Fender’s two titans of bass, the Precision and the Jazz, an entire bass industry arose and flourished. Countless builders produced their own bass guitars in models ranging from bare-bones simplicity to elaborate (and expensive) complexity. Whatever the case, it always seems that a disproportionately high number of copycat and near-copycat instruments take their inspiration from the Jazz Bass. Often imitated but never equaled, you might say.

And in a related thought, sometimes you have to leave home to truly appreciate home. It’s not at all uncommon for highly esteemed players to forego the instrument at some point in their careers in favor of forays with other newer or more technically sophisticated instruments—all well and good, of course—only to later rediscover the elegantly simple magic of the Jazz Bass and perhaps wonder why they’d ever strayed in the first place. Geddy Lee and Greg Lake are both fond of recalling how they “came home” to their respective black Jazz basses after years of experimentation with other instruments; delighted to realize that the sound and feel they prize was there all along.

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The limited edition 50th Anniversary Jazz Bass model.

As it now begins the second half of its journey to the century mark, the Fender Jazz Bass currently exists in more than 40 incarnations, from a lean-and-mean Standard series model to the rough-and-ready Road Worn model to the enormous Steve Bailey Jazz Bass VI to the gorgeous limited edition 50th anniversary model.

Can it really be 50? It wears it well. It still looks so modern. It’s still much more than the sum of its parts, even though they’re really cool parts. It still looks and feels so sleek, curvaceous and sexy that it almost doesn’t really compute that the Jazz has reached a full half-century. It seems to lack its revered older brother’s air of rough austerity, but that’s probably a good thing, because it makes the Jazz Bass forever adventurous and forever cool. It means that no matter how long the Jazz continues to rule the realm of bass, it’s forever young.

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