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The Precision Bass in the 1960s

 


James Jamerson in the early 1960s playing his “Funk Machine” Precision Bass. Largely unheralded during his time, he is nonetheless regarded as one of the world’s greatest and most influential bassists.

The 1950s saw the introduction and steady ascent of Fender’s Precision Bass guitar, a revolutionary instrument that profoundly affected the sound of popular music. It spent the decade rising from regional Southern California obscurity to nationwide indispensability as a must-have stage-and-studio instrument, and while other makers followed suit and introduced electric bass guitars of their own, only the Precision (or simply “Fender Bass” as it was often called since the company offered no other model in the 1950s) became synonymous with the term “electric bass.”

The Precision was perfect for the small, loud bands that proliferated nationwide mid-decade in the first great wave of rock ‘n’ roll, which came along only a few short years after Fender introduced the instrument in late 1951. These seminal U.S. rock ‘n’ roll groups and performers were the precursors of the countless pop and rock groups that sprang to life on both sides of the Atlantic in the incredibly musically adventurous decade that followed. And far more often than not in the 1960s, the instrument wielded by the bass players in the majority of those groups and by the top session bassists in the world’s great music centers was the Fender Precision.

The 1960s was the decade in which the Precision, no longer a newcomer, cemented its reputation as the workhorse bass guitar; unrivaled in tone, feel and sheer indispensability. It was a marvelous and elegantly simple combination of stylish form and efficient design that sounded great and played comfortably. On top of all that it was tough and reliable—a Precision Bass could take a beating out on the road and in everyday studio use. Working bassists loved it, and session producers demanded it.

Unlike the 1950s, however, when the Precision reigned as Fender’s only bass guitar, the new decade saw it joined by a second bass guitar model, the Jazz Bass, introduced in spring 1960. And yet the Jazz Bass complemented rather than competed with the Precision; together, both instruments ruled the bass world with seeming impunity throughout the 1960s and well beyond. But whereas the Jazz Bass faced a relatively short uphill climb toward acceptance upon its introduction, the Precision had long since firmly established itself, and the sound of rock and pop in the early 1960s was the sound of the Precision.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Detroit, where Motown Records was incorporated in April 1960. The label promptly started pumping out hit after infectious pop hit, nearly all of it underpinned by the masterfully inventive and irresistibly propulsive bass work of James Jamerson, and the lion’s share of that rendered on a 1962 Precision he dubbed “the Funk Machine.”


In December 1961, the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” became Motown and Jamerson’s first number-one pop hit.

James Jamerson. One could convincingly argue that his amazing body of work by itself constitutes everything you need to know about pop bass playing. No player has influenced more bassists, except perhaps Paul McCartney, who himself often credits Jamerson as his biggest influence, so there you go. The cruel irony is that Jamerson toiled in obscurity throughout the 1960s and well beyond—Motown didn’t credit studio musicians on album sleeves until the early 1970s, and most bassists didn’t know him by name until the 1980s and 1990s, by which time it was too late—Jamerson passed away in 1983 at age 47.

Even a brief survey of the Motown work he did with the Funk Machine is a veritable hit parade: “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” “Going to a Go-Go” and “I Second That Emotion” (the Miracles); “My Girl,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (the Temptations); “Can I Get a Witness,” “Pride & Joy,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” and “What’s Going On” (Marvin Gaye); “Heat Wave,” “Dancing in the Street” and “Jimmy Mack” (Martha and the Vandellas); “Fingertips Part 2,” “Uptight,” “I Was Made to Love Her” and “For Once in My Life” (Stevie Wonder); “Bernadette,” “I Can’t Help Myself” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There” (the Four Tops); “Where Did Our Love Go,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “I Hear a Symphony” and “Stop! In the Name of Love” (the Supremes); and a great many others.

Jamerson acquired the Funk Machine new in 1962 after his first Precision, a gift from fellow bassist Horace “Chili” Ruth, was stolen. The other cruel irony is that the Funk Machine itself was stolen mere days before Jamerson’s untimely passing, and its whereabouts remain unknown to this day.


Brian Wilson on Precision Bass during a 1964 Beach Boys performance of hit “Little Surfer Girl.”

Meanwhile, out west in Los Angeles, Murray Wilson bought a Precision Bass guitar and an amp for his musically gifted teenage son, Brian, in December 1961. The precocious youth taught himself to play it in a matter of days, and Brian Wilson became the bass guitarist in the band he formed with his brothers, Dennis and Carl; his cousin, Mike Love; and family friend Al Jardine.

The group, the Beach Boys, had just scored its first hit single that November, “Surfin’,” and played its first paying gig on New Year’s Eve 1961/’62. Less than a year later, the Beach Boys were signed to Capitol Records and released landmark debut album Surfin’ Safari in October 1962, with eldest Wilson brother and group leader Brian on Precision Bass. A wave of hits followed, with Wilson doing much of the bass guitar work himself before gradually relinquishing studio bass duties to various session pros and retiring from concert appearances by the mid-’60s. Hits with Wilson on Precision Bass included “409,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Surfer Girl,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “In My Room,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “I Get Around” (first U.S. number-one hit, 1964), “Dance, Dance, Dance,” and “Barbara Ann.”

Indeed, some of Wilson’s best-known and most epic compositions—and biggest Beach Boys hits—featured Precision Bass work from ace Los Angeles “Wrecking Crew” studio veterans, such as Larry Knechtel (Bobby Freeman cover “Do Ya Wanna Dance?”), Ray Pohlman (“Help Me, Rhonda”) and, most notably, Carol Kaye (“California Girls,” “Wouldn’t it Be Nice,” “Good Vibrations”).


Carol Kaye, mid-session in the mid-’60s.

Kaye was already a busy L.A. bebop jazz and session guitarist when, in 1963, she first picked up a Precision Bass when the scheduled bassist failed to show up for a recording session at the Capitol Records building. She found that she loved playing bass, and by the end of the year she had joined Pohlman as one of the city’s top first-call session bassists. She played on pop hits, film scores and television themes throughout the 1960s and 1970s far too numerous to list here comprehensively, but a short selection would include, in addition to her work on Brian Wilson’s sessions, songs by Jan & Dean, the Righteous Brothers, Sonny and Cher, Andy Williams, the Monkees, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Joe Cocker and Ray Charles, and music from Mission Impossible, Get Smart, Ironside, M*A*S*H, Kojak, Hawaii Five-O, Airport, In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

The Precision Bass was everywhere during first half of the 1960s, and it remained remarkably unchanged during this period, as opposed to the handful of periodic revisions and redesigns Fender imposed during the 1950s. There were some changes, but nothing that substantially altered the look and feel of the Precision; these included an extra strap button added to the back of the headstock (1960), white three-ply nitrocellulose pickguards in place of tortoiseshell pickguards on most custom color models and patent numbers added to the headstock logo (1961), and “round lam” (radiused and laminated) fretboards in place of slab fretboards (1962-’63). In 1964, the clay dot markers on the fretboard were replaced with faux pearl dots, white three-ply vinyl pickguards replaced tortoiseshell pickguards (which had proven troublesome), pickup bobbins changed from black to gray-green and, most notably, the Precision’s thin ’50s-era “spaghetti” headstock logo was replaced with the darker and heavier “transition” logo.

A notable artistic development of 1965 came when Stax Records house bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn (so nicknamed by his father while the two watched a Donald Duck cartoon) replaced original bassist Lewie Steinberg in Booker T. & the M.G.s. Dunn, who had grown up with M.G.s guitarist Steve Cropper in Memphis, Tenn., took up bass guitar at age 16 in 1958. His first bass guitar was a Kay, but he then got his first Precision later that year.


The Precision’s headstock logo changed from the thin “spaghetti” style to the thicker “transition” style in 1964 (above); bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn joined Booker T. & the M.G.s in 1965 (below).

“When I used to look in the music store windows and see the Fenders hanging there, I was like a kid at Christmas,” Dunn recounts on his website. “The Kay was fine but you knew if you could get your hands on a Fender you would do better. I bought my first Fender in ’58 and I still have it at home. I lost it once and I got it back. It’s a Precision, with a maple neck. I just always took it for granted; never worried about the setting or action. It was a Fender, man, I didn’t care!”

Also during the first half of the 1960s, the Precision made its way across the Atlantic to the U.K. They were few and far between at first; in London, Shadows bassist Terence “Jet” Harris (so nicknamed for his sprinting prowess at secondary school) had received one of the first ones—if not the first Precision Bass in Britain—in 1959. He’d just joined Cliff Richard’s backing group when his Framus bass guitar was accidentally destroyed and a London importer gave him a Precision as a replacement.

The Shadows gained massive popularity throughout the U.K. with and without Richard, and dominated the British pop music scene in the late-’50s and early-’60s period before the Beatles hit big in 1963. Consequently, a great many British kids saw Harris playing a Precision Bass even though the instruments were almost nowhere to be found in London or elsewhere in the U.K. as the 1960s dawned.

But in London of 1959, one resourceful teenager in particular was undaunted by the scarcity of any really good bass guitars in Britain, let alone a Fender Precision. That year, 14-year old John Entwistle simply built his own crude homemade instrument based on photos he collected of Precision basses—Harris’s undoubtedly among them.

“I wanted a Fender, but they just weren’t available,” Entwistle told Guitar Player magazine in 1974. “I think Jet Harris was the only person who had one then.”

Fast forward to mid-1963, when Precision basses were in far greater supply in Britain than four years previously, and Entwistle, 18, finally got his hands on his first “proper” bass guitar—a 1961 Precision. It belonged to Gabby Connolly, the singer in his group, the Detours.

“The Detours had a new singer and he was also a bass guitarist, but he had some HP troubles,” Entwistle told Guitarist magazine in 1974. “He kept the guitar hidden under his girlfriend’s bed. He said I could have it if I paid off his £50 HP debt (“HP” means hire purchase; a type of leasing). It was a Fender Precision.”


The Who’s landmark 1965 debut album, My Generation. It introduced the world to the amazing bass work of John Entwistle (far left), who often played Precision basses. Below, Entwistle plays one of his 1966 U.K.-import “slab-body” Precisions.

It was the first of many Precisions for Entwistle, but this first one, alas, didn’t last very long. He soon sold it at the behest of Detours guitarist Roger Daltrey, who thought it kept blowing up speakers.

Early in 1964, the Detours evolved into what would become one of the world’s greatest rock bands of any era—the Who. As such, Entwistle earned worldwide acclaim as a pioneering bass guitarist as influential in his own right as Jamerson was in his, with a highly distinctive style typified by his lightning fast chops and loud, trebly tone. Further, Entwistle was instrumental (no pun intended) in the development of far brighter-sounding round-wound bass guitar strings, the result being that if the Precision Bass sounded big to start with, it sounded positively volcanic in his nimble hands. He subsequently owned and played many Precision Bass guitars, two models of which are especially noteworthy.

The first was most unusual indeed. In 1966, U.K. Fender distributor Arbiter received a custom run of 20-30 Precision Bass guitars in White Blonde with non-contoured “slab” ash bodies, black pickguards and capped maple fingerboards. The genesis of these extremely rare Precisions is perhaps lost to history; whether and why Fender chose their features or whether Arbiter commissioned them remains unknown, and they never appeared in any Fender catalogs or ads. Entwistle was particularly fond of these instruments and ultimately accounted for three of them.

“I don’t know what they used on them,” Entwistle told Bassist magazine in 1995. “But those basses had a sound of their own—really raunchy, with more of a growl than a regular Precision.”

Entwistle put these slab-body U.K. Precisions through a fair amount of abuse, and ended up cannibalizing parts from these and other “dead” Precision basses to make the second noteworthy model: “Frankenstein.”

On a day of in San Francisco during the Who’s 1967 tour, Entwistle assembled the remains of five destroyed Precision models into one “new” Precision Bass. He took a 1965 Sunburst body and added the maple-capped neck from one slab Precision, the pickup and circuitry from another slab Precision, a white pickguard off a black Precision and a bridge from yet another Precision (plus tuners and a chrome pickup cover from a Jazz Bass). “Two hours with a Phillips screwdriver and a soldering iron,” Entwistle later said, “and I was ranting around my hotel room screaming, “It’s alive, it’s alive!”

Accordingly, Entwistle dubbed his Precision creation “Frankenstein.” It became his main stage and studio bass from 1967 to 1973—an especially fertile period in Who history that encompasses Tommy, Who’s Next, Live at Leeds, the Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus and all the tours in that period. He retired it in the mid-1970s and had it refinished in a salmon pink color.

“I have about 35 Precisions, all with different colors and from different eras,” Entwistle told Bassist magazine in 1994. “But I always go back to Frankenstein.”

When Entwistle’s famous Precision went on the auction block at Sotheby’s in May 2003 after the great bassist’s death in June 2002, its value was estimated at £5,000 to £7,000. It sold for £62,400.

Back at headquarters in Southern California, Fender was hard at work on taking the then-unusual step of creating what was in effect its very first reissue model. Introduced in 1968, the Telecaster Bass had little to do with its elder six-string sibling; rather, it was essentially a faithful recreation of the original 1951 Precision Bass.


1968’s Telecaster Bass makes its first Fender catalog appearance; it is essentially a reissue of the original 1951-style Precision.

Identical features included the slab body, single-coil pickup, pickguard shape, pickup cover, controls and the two-saddle bridge with string-through-body design. Different features included pickguard color (white rather than black), smaller and no-longer-flush-mounted string ferrules, and a capped maple fingerboard, although some basses made later in the year featured a period-correct one-piece maple neck. 1968 Telecaster Bass options included the short-lived psychedelic “Paisley Red” and “Blue Flower” finishes, so named for the color and pattern of the self-adhesive wallpaper (!) used to decorate their tops (each bass had a clear pickguard).

As the 1960s drew to a close, a larger headstock logo replaced the Precision Bass’s previous “transition” logo in 1969, and the extra strap button on the back of the headstock added in 1960 was discontinued. A notable artistic development of that year came with the release of the eponymous debut album by the Meters, which introduced the world to the impeccable Precision Bass chops of master New Orleans funk/soul bassist George Porter Jr.

And so the Precision Bass finished its second decade, more firmly ensconced than ever as the world’s preeminent workhorse bass guitar. Unlike its 1950s reign as Fender’s sole bass guitar, the Precision spent the 1960s joined by its younger brother, the Jazz Bass, yet the two complemented rather than competed with each other. Other makers abounded by the end of the ’60s, but the Precision and the Jazz basses together dominated the world of electric bass with impunity.

Musically, the 1960s were an undeniably wild ride (volatile, even, at times); certainly one of the greatest decades in the history of pop and rock—forms that grew, evolved and mutated with each passing year into ever more artistic directions and subgenres. The Precision Bass underpinned nearly all of it, and now Fender’s most indispensable instrument faced a new decade that would itself prove to be a pretty wild and fascinating ride. The by-now seasoned Precision veterans soldiered on with practiced power and finesse as a new generation of players once again waited in the wings, honing their abilities and taking their first formative musical steps.

Exciting new musical territory awaited discovery, and no electric instrument was better suited to the journey than the Precision Bass, as elegantly simple and powerfully elementary as ever. Bigger bass sounds and greater bass horizons were looming now. The 1970s were at hand …

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