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Legendary Lows: The Precision Bass Story
Get the down low on more than six decades of indispensable bass history.
By Jeff Owens
It’s certainly true that the innovative electric guitars introduced by Fender throughout the 1950s—the Telecaster (1951) and the Stratocaster (1954), plus the Jazzmaster (1958) and some student models—changed the way music was created and experienced. So too with the great Fender amps of the decade.
That’s why the Precision Bass, first produced in October 1951, is such a special instrument. Because if Clarence Leo Fender were to be remembered for nothing else, surely it would be the Precision—an instrument — indeed a whole new kind of instrument — that simply didn’t exist before he invented it, that would forever ensure his place in history. For while all the other great Fender products of the decade certainly affected music, the Precision Bass profoundly affected music.
The first commercial unit of the Precision Bass was produced in October 1951. It had a “slab” (non-contoured) ash body with two “horns” (as opposed to the Telecaster’s one; this provided greater balance and was subsequently adapted for the Stratocaster), a one-piece 20-fret maple neck fixed to the body by four screws (despite use of the technically incorrect term “bolt-on”), a single pickup, black pickguard, Kluson tuners, treble-side thumb rest, a string-through-body bridge with a cover (with a mute), and two pressed fiber bridge saddles. It borrowed several features from the Telecaster, including its headstock shape, neck plate, truss rod nut, potentiometers, two domed chrome control knobs, output jack ferrule and strap buttons. One of the most important features of the Precision Bass was its scale length, which Leo Fender, after careful consideration and lengthy experimentation, set at 34”. It was available only in a blonde finish.
Today, there is a Precision bass model for every kind of 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.
- Jet Harris (the Shadows)
- James Jamerson
- Bill Black (Elvis Presley)
- William "Monk" Montgomery and Roy Johnson (Lionel Hampton)
- John "Shifty" Henry
- Brian Wilson (the Beach Boys)
- Carol Kaye (the Wrecking Crew)
- John Entwistle (the Who)
- George Porter Jr.
- Roger Waters (Pink Floyd)
- Donald "Duck" Dunn (Booker T. & the M.G.'s)
- Dee Dee Ramone (the Ramones)
- Sting (the Police)
- Brian Foxton (the Jam)
- Bruce Thomas (Elvis Costello and the Attractions)
- Paul Simonon (the Clash)
- Steve Harris (Iron Maiden)
- Tony Franklin
- Duff McKagan (Guns N' Roses)
- Mike Dirnt (Green Day)
- Nate Mendel (Foo Fighters)
The Full Story
To fully understand the role of the Precision Bass in the decade of its arrival, it’s important to understand the times and circumstances into which it was introduced. Its predecessor was the age-old upright bass, a large, bulky instrument that took up a lot of space in the touring bus and had become increasingly difficult to hear as bands grew louder. Given the brash horn sections that provided the main voice of many dance bands, the inherent loudness of drum kits and the advent of better electrified guitars with better amplification, something needed to be done for bass.
Once the Precision was introduced, Fender’s sales arm wasted no time in getting the unusual new instrument into as many influential hands as possible. Fender promotional literature of the early 1950s also featured bassists John “Shifty” Henry (“Shifte Henri”) and Bob Manners of the then-popular Liberace TV show. One early champion was bandleader Lionel Hampton, who was featured in 1952 promotional materials for the instrument; both his bass players in the 1950s, William “Monk” Montgomery and Roy Johnson, used the instrument extensively. In Fender: The Sound Heard ’Round the World, author Richard Smith describes Down Beat magazine music critic Leonard Feather’s first initially puzzling encounter with the new instrument at a Hampton performance in New York in spring 1952:
"When the music started at this gig, something seemed amiss: Feather heard a bass but saw no bass player. Almost inaudible in a loud band, a bass player at least was easy to see," Feather wrote. “On second glance we noticed something even odder. There were two guitars — but we only heard one.
Smith further relates how Johnson, Hampton’s bassist at the time, told Feather, “It’s no trouble at all. I learned to play it right away. In fact, I used it on the job the same day I got it. Tunes the same as a regular bass.”
Thus began the Precision Bass’s steady ascent toward indispensability. Upright basses were still often seen in many groups by the middle of the 1950s, when rock ‘n’ roll was starting to make its first raucous waves, but it was also clear by then that Fender’s Precision Bass guitar was well on the way to supplanting it in the small, loud groups that seemed to be popping up everywhere by mid-decade.
The middle of the 1950s also illustrated an interesting facet of the Precision Bass’s existence in the decade of its introduction — it remained Fender’s only bass guitar for the duration. Whereas the company introduced several innovative electric guitars throughout the 1950s, Fender elected to stick solely with the Precision Bass — modified three times, albeit — rather than introduce an entirely new bass guitar model.
The first of these revisions appeared with the 1954/55 model year, in which the Precision borrowed body and forearm contours from the Stratocaster that made it much more comfortable to play. Also new were a smaller single-ply white pickguard, steel bridge saddles in place of pressed fiber saddles, serial numbers on the bridge instead of the neck plate, and a handsome two-color sunburst finish (like the Stratocaster).
The second and most substantial revision was implemented in 1957 and resulted in the Precision Bass design that endures today basically unchanged. That year, the instrument was given its now-familiar split-coil pickup, headstock shape based on the Stratocaster® guitar, and one-piece pickguard assembly to which the electronics were fixed (the pickguard itself was gold anodized aluminum with a cutout for the new pickup). This revision also featured bridge-mounted rather than through-body strings, individual threaded bridge saddles for better intonation and height adjustment, a two-screw plastic thumb rest replacing the single-screw wooden one, knurled metal knobs with flat rather than rounded tops, and redesigned pickup and bridge covers.
The 1960s was the decade in which the Precision cemented its reputation as the workhorse bass guitar.
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.”
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
If the Precision achieved newfound status as an indispensable workhorse instrument in the 1960s, it cemented that reputation with seismic force in the 1970s. Although joined at the dawn of the 1960s by Fender’s second bass guitar model, the equally indispensable Jazz Bass, both instruments staked out complementary sonic territory and together ruled the world of electric bass with impunity, as indeed they still do.
Rock music, no longer in its infancy, now faced the turbulence of adolescence in the 1970s and proliferated. The 1970s saw straight rock and roll, hard rock, blues rock, country rock, psychedelic rock, glam rock, progressive rock, album rock, funk rock, jazz rock, folk rock, pop rock, soft rock, garage rock, Latin rock, heavy metal, Southern rock, avant-garde rock, pub rock, punk rock, post punk, punk pop, power pop, new wave, rockabilly, reggae rock, and even more.
The Precision handled it all with ease. It is perhaps highly telling that the same bass that percolated throughout the funky New Orleans R&B of the Meters and provided the kinetic jazz funk of Tower of Power was the same bass that stoked the filth and the fury of the Sex Pistols and the forceful melodic power of latter-’70s U.K. acts such as the Jam and Elvis Costello & the Attractions. Telling that the same bass that so supremely underpinned Pink Floyd’s 1973 psychedelic masterpiece The Dark Side of the Moon was the same bass that also elegantly underpinned the Eagles’ seminal 1973 country rock classic Desperado. Telling that the same bass that snarled so ferociously on King Crimson’s 1974 prog-rock heavyweight Red was the same bass that less than a year later provided the much-imitated jazz-rock hook that kicked off the opening credits of hit ABC sitcom Barney Miller.
In Detroit, 1971 brought a Motown milestone in the form of Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece album, What’s Going On. On the landmark concept album, the label’s previously uncredited house musicians — collectively known as the Funk Brothers — received individual credit for the first time. Finally, resident Motown Precision Bass masters James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt received the individual recognition they so richly deserved.
Taking a cue from the turn-of-the-decade creative revisions to the Telecaster, Fender engineers in 1972 unveiled a new version of 1968’s Telecaster Bass—essentially a reissue of the 1951-style Precision—armed with an enormous humbucking pickup designed by none other than the inventor of the humbucking pickup, Seth Lover, who’d been lured to Fender in 1967. Lover’s large new pickup for the bass necessitated redesigning the pickguard to accommodate it; the model included other new revisions in the form of a three-bolt neck plate and bullet truss rod.
An enduringly endearing Precision Bass recorded moment hit the charts in 1973 with the release of Pink Floyd’s massively successful eighth studio album, The Dark Side of the Moon. Its lead single, “Money” boasted an irresistibly infectious Precision Bass riff by the song’s author, Roger Waters, while simultaneously accomplishing the unusual feat of becoming an enormous international hit that happened to be in an oddball (for rock music, anyway) 7/4 time signature.
Further design modifications were afoot in 1974, when Fender introduced black pickguards as a Precision Bass standard and moved the thumb rest from the treble string side to the bass string side.
In New York in 1976, bassist Douglas Colvin set the tone for much punk bass playing with a visceral, no-frills machine-gun style driven home using an impossibly low-slung Precision Bass. That year, his iconoclastic band released its seminal eponymous debut album, which inspired legions of imitators. The album, Ramones, sent shock waves through the rock world and heralded the large-scale arrival of a reactionary new musical movement that had been brewing since rock was born two decades earlier. And Colvin, under the stage name Dee Dee Ramone, never missed a single pumping sixteenth note.
Meanwhile, an even more incendiary debut was in the works across the Atlantic in London. A year after the Ramones’ debut album, punk’s ruder, spikier U.K. movement was spearheaded by the Sex Pistols, whose debut (and only) album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, appeared in fall 1977 and promptly became the most important punk album ever and an extremely important and influential album in rock history in general.
The 1970s ended, however, with possibly the greatest Precision Bass moment in all of rock history. After the early 1978 implosion of the too-volatile-to-last Sex Pistols, the more serious Clash assumed the mantle of most important U.K. band and was at its creative and popular peak at the turn of the decade. When the “Clash Take the Fifth” U.S. tour rolled into the Palladium in New York City on Sept. 21, 1979, bassist Paul Simonon, angered by staff treatment of the audience, smashed his Precision to pieces onstage.
Simonon’s moment of fury just happened to be caught by U.K. photographer Pennie Smith, and the resulting photo was immortalized as the cover of what many consider the Clash’s greatest album, 1979 magnum opus London Calling (with a title track launched by Simonon playing what is surely one of the most apocalyptic bass riffs of all time, also on a Precision). The photo has subsequently become revered as one of rock’s greatest images (Q Magazine, for example, deemed it the greatest rock photograph of all time in 2002).
The 1980s - Present
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (2006); Duff McKagan P Bass (2007); Steve Harris Precision and Road Worn ’50s Precision basses (2009); Roger Waters Precision Bass (2010); Nate Mendel P Bass (2012); and 2016 saw the release of the both the Flea Bass and the American Professional series, which saw a number of innovative features brought to the classic Precision Bass.