The Precision Bass in the Modern Era: 1980-Present


Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt, one of the most visible exponents of pummeling Precision Bass prowess in the instrument’s modern era.

By 1980, the Precision Bass had amassed three full decades of history and sheer indispensability as the world’s first and foremost electric bass guitar. It had by that year become one of those very few instruments, much like its cousin, the Stratocaster, to achieve rarefied status as an archetypal instrument. It had changed almost not at all in the 23 years since its second significant design revision in 1957, and together with its sleek younger brother, the Jazz Bass, the Precision continued to rule the world of electric bass with something like impunity.

The Precision Bass profoundly changed modern popular music while remaining largely unchanged itself, while modern popular music continued to change around the Precision Bass, as it had with each decade and stylistic movement since its 1951 debut. As the 1980s dawned, there was no indication that any of that would change, and indeed it didn’t—the Precision continued to reign supreme in that decade, as it has right up to the present day.

The modern era of the Precision Bass, which began in the 1980s and continues today, started during an especially fertile period in rock and pop history that just happened to be an especially unsettling period in Fender history. Even as seasoned veterans and new generations of able and adventurous players continued to put the Precision to great use, the quality of Fender instruments in general was seen to gradually decline throughout the 1970s and early 1980s under the ham-fisted rule of media giant CBS.

The Precision Bass perhaps fared somewhat better than other Fender instruments under the cost- and corner-cutting CBS regime, due at least partly to the fact that it was by design something of a blunt instrument from the very start. The Precision was designed to do one thing and do it very well; it made one pure and elemental sound that it made very well. Although capable of great musical subtlety in practiced hands, the Precision was perhaps the least subtle of all Fender instruments; a veritable musical battering ram that was felt as much as heard. In a very real sense, there was far less for CBS to mess up on a Precision than there was on, for example, a Jazz Bass, a Telecaster, a Stratocaster or a Jazzmaster.

It was around the time of the low point of CBS rule, the early 1980s, that word began to circulate among players and a widening network of collectors that if you wanted a really good Fender instrument, you needed an old one, which was to say one built before Fender’s sale to CBS in 1965 (this is when the oft-heard term “pre-CBS” originated). In truth, plenty of fine instruments were built well into the 1970s, but the perception stuck nonetheless.

Two great and very different Precision Bass albums from 1980: Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ Get Happy!!, featuring bassist Bruce Thomas, and Iron Maiden’s eponymous debut, featuring bassist Steve Harris.

Meanwhile, as noted, players continued to put Precisions of all vintages to great use. With the renaissance in post-punk British rock and pop, great U.K. bassists who came to the fore in the late 1970s continued to turn in exemplary Precision work in the 1980s, such as Bruce Thomas with Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Bruce Foxton with the Jam, Sting with the Police, Jean-Jacques Burnel with the Stranglers and Paul Simonon with the Clash.

Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” became a massive international hit in 1980; anchored by an infectious and instantly identifiable Precision Bass riff by the song’s author, bassist John Deacon. That same year, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal was launched in earnest with the release of Iron Maiden’s eponymous debut album, which introduced the world to the melodically galloping Precision Bass prowess of Steve Harris.

Back at Fender headquarters in the United States, the early ’80s was a busy time. The company introduced its first bass model with active electronics, the Precision Bass Special, in 1980, and Fender very soon abandoned the three-bolt neck-mounting system adopted in the early 1970s; returning to the classic four-bolt method for all of its bass guitars.

Most significantly, CBS appointed former Yamaha executive William Schultz as president of Fender in 1981. Passionate about the brand and eager to reverse its ailing fortunes, Schultz immediately recommended modernizing Fender’s U.S. manufacturing facilities, which largely meant halting production while machinery was updated and staff was re-trained. Concurrently, he suggested building Fender instruments in Japan for the large Japanese market. This would keep Fender instruments in production and combat the cheap copies that were voraciously eating away at Fender’s Far East sales.

Accordingly, Fender Japan was established in March 1982 and began building quality Fender instruments while U.S production was reorganized. One of the earliest results was the Vintage Reissue series, a high-quality new family that featured two well-built and largely historically accurate Precision Bass models, the ’57 Precision Bass and the ’62 Precision Bass. These Japanese-built Vintage Series instruments were soon introduced into the European market under the Squier name.

The short-lived Elite Precision Bass appeared in 1983 in several configurations with special electronics and hardware, but the concept lasted barely a year.

A sad note in Precision Bass history came on Aug. 2, 1983, with the death at age 47 of James Jamerson, the great Motown bassist whose largely anonymous genius had graced so many timelessly classic songs of the 1960s and early 1970s. Although he received little individual credit during his lifetime, Jamerson became revered as one of the greatest bass players—if not the greatest bass player—in the history of popular music. Compounding the tragedy of his untimely passing, Jamerson’s infamous 1962 “Funk Machine” Precision Bass—the instrument on which he worked most of his magic—was stolen mere days before his death. It has never been recovered.

The first sign of recovery for Fender itself, on the other hand, came in 1984, when CBS decided to sell off all its non-broadcast-related holdings. Fender was on the block, and Schultz, backed by a group of investors he enlisted, bought the company he’d presided over since 1981 in a sale that was completed in March 1985, ending 20 years of CBS rule.

Ad for 1980’s Precision Bass Special, the first Fender bass with active electronics (above), and a 1982 catalog page for the Japanese-built Vintage Reissue ’57 model (below).

Owning very little in the way of resources—only the name, distribution and some leftover inventory and machinery (no U.S. factory)—Schultz set about rebuilding and revitalizing Fender. While Fender Japan now became the world’s main producer of Fender instruments, Schultz and his staff established headquarters for the newly renamed Fender Musical Instruments Corporation in Brea, Calif., and acquired a 14,000-square-foot factory in Corona, Calif., in October 1985.

It is at this point that the modern-era history of the Precision Bass truly begins.

With that new mid-’80s beginning under Bill Schultz, Fender started by concentrating on quality rather than quantity, beginning with a small number of vintage reissue instruments and redesigned back-to-basics modern guitars and basses dubbed American Standard models. Production began in Corona in 1987 of the first new U.S.-built models, the American Standard Precision and the Precision Bass Plus; the latter of which featured a 22-fret neck (up from the traditional 20), Lace Sensor active pickups with series/parallel switching and an elongated upper horn for improved balance (this last imparted a noticeably odd look to the instrument, but nonetheless remained in place until the model was discontinued in 1993).

Also in 1987, the Fender Custom Shop was established, with one of its very first creations (work order No. 0003) being a 1962 “Mary Kay”-style Precision Bass with an ash body and gold hardware; the instrument was logged in on May 15 of that year and logged out just under a month later, on June 22. From that point onward, the Custom Shop would repeatedly elevate the Precision Bass from workhorse to work of art.

The dawn of the 1990s saw increasing production activity for new Precision Bass models. Several new instruments were introduced in 1990-1991, including the Precision Bass Plus Deluxe, limited edition 40th Anniversary Deluxe Precision Bass, limited edition 1951 reissue Precision and a limited edition James Jamerson Precision; the latter three from the ever-growing Custom Shop.

Fender overhauled its entire U.S. bass line in 1995, introducing new models including a U.S. Deluxe Precision with 22 frets and active electronics and an American Standard Precision that returned to a 20-fret neck and passive electronics. A limited edition Fender 50th anniversary American Standard Precision appeared in 1996.

The U.S. Deluxe Precision became the American Deluxe Precision in 1998, with upgraded features. In 1999, Fender introduced the Hot-Rod Precision and the five-string American Deluxe Five Precision.

The Precision Bass began the 2000s by having the American Standard model transformed into the American Series Precision, upgraded with solid wood construction and parchment pickguards. Five decades of the instrument were celebrated with the 2001 release of the 50th Anniversary Precision Bass, and the Deluxe series was upgraded with new pickups and electronics.

Sting wielded a battered ’50s-style Precision during the massive Police reunion tour of the late 2000s (above); 2011 saw the 60th Anniversary Precision Bass model (below), which combined features from throughout the instrument’s history.

Fender was well re-established as a market leader by this point, and the Precision Bass—still nearly identical in outward appearance to its 1957 ancestor—soldiered on through the 2000s as a fundamentally indispensable bass guitar. Perhaps better than any other Fender instrument, it had weathered the travails of the late 1970s and much of the 1980s and remained the world’s premier bass guitar.

After the turn of the millennium, the Precision positively blossomed in a wealth of instrument series, specialty versions and artist signature models. These included the Sting Precision Bass (2001); Mike Dirnt Precision Bass (2004); Tony Franklin Fretless Precision, Highway One Precision and Fender Custom Shop Pino Palladino Precision basses (2006); Duff McKagan P Bass and Tony Franklin Fretted Precision Bass (2007); redesigned American Standard Precision Bass (2008); Steve Harris Precision and Road Worn ’50s Precision basses (2009); Roger Waters Precision Bass (2010); and the American Special Precision, Blacktop Precision and 60th Anniversary Precision basses (2011).

More so than ever before, there is today a Precision bass model for every kind of bass player. There are budget-level Precisions that sound fantastic, feel great, take a beating and don’t break the bank. There are specialty Precisions with five strings and humbucking pickups. There are boutique-ish high-end Precisions for more discerning players that look as great hanging above the mantelpiece as they do onstage. There are deliberately banged-up Precisions and pristine ones; period-correct vintage models and modern iterations. The Precision truly has all the basses covered, as indeed it will likely continue to do for a very long time to come.


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