The 10 Most Important Electric Basses in Rock & Roll History

Hello fans of all things strings, I hope you are all playing and learning and most of all enjoying your guitar experiences. The marriage of the electric guitar and electric bass has always been an integral part of the fabric that is rock and roll. I believe that the model and subsequent sound of the bass of choice for a group is actually more important then the guitar and its sound. Case in point could you picture James Jameson playing an Alembic bass, or Chris Squire playing an EB0? Me neither. So lets get into this, and I will give you my opinion on in what I believe to be THE 10 MOST IMPORTANT BASSES IN ROCK & ROLL HISTORY!!!

Joe Cocker at Woodstock (Fender Precision Bass Guitar in background)

Joe Cocker at Woodstock (Fender Precision Bass Guitar in background)

1. Fender Precision Bass
This is the bass that started it all. And all through its many incarnations the P-Bass is, and will always be the industry standard and the safe choice for any application. The bass was so damn popular that you would see ads that read “Band Looking for Fender Bass Player”. It was a distinction that grew out of a way for band leaders to let the bass player know that he could leave his upright at home. It also denoted a preconceived style of music that the bandleader or producer wanted. The “Precision’’ had one pickup and basically one sound, but that sound kicked ass! If you want to hear a few of the P-Basses signature sounds check out James Jamerson’s Motown recordings, and the edgy Precision bass sound on Joe Cocker live at Woodstock’s “With a Little Help from Me Friends.” Even in today’s world of 5, 6 and 7 string basses the P Bass makes a statement when it is produced at a gig or an audition. It says “I understand and respect the roots of bass playing.”If you’re a bass player of any serious stature and you don’t have a Precision Bass, then you better have a Jazz Bass.

1964 Rickenbacker 4001S Bass Guitar

1964 Rickenbacker 4001S Bass Guitar

2. Rickenbacker 4001 Bass
Rickenbacker instruments have been paired with Vox amps over the years, evidenced by the Beatles, Tom Petty (Mike Campbell), and REM to name a few. Interestingly I believe that Ricks are to Fender and Gibson guitars what Vox is to Marshall and Fender amplifiers. Okay point made, now onto the 4001. The first time I saw the Rick 4001 was on the cover of Magical Mystery Tour. There it was, right next to George holding an early rosewood Strat. I listened closely to the record that was included with the cover and could hear a discernable difference in tone from Paul’s previous bass sound. Actually it wasn’t that different because again Paul’s Rick was strung with flatwound bass strings. But unlike the Hofner bass the Rickenbacker’s fate did not lie solely in the hands of the man from Liverpool. Chris Squire armed with a Ricky and some roundwound Rotosounds quickly became the captain of the good ship 4001. His playing on Fragile is mindblowing, and I know it is safe to say that his playing influenced players like Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorious, as well as a generation of checkerboard wielding Rickophiles. Again the bass was equipped with two single coils and a very cool pickup cover over the back pickup reminiscent of the old Rickenbacker “Frying Pan” lap steel. Even the great Lemmy from Motorhead played a 4001, adding another sound to the palette offered by the great bass from Cali.

1977 Fender Jazz Bass Guitar

1977 Fender Jazz Bass Guitar

3. Fender Jazz Bass
Leo sure must have loved jazz and as any of us in the guitar business know, you ain’t gonna make a million dollars selling instruments made for jazz. But, Leo’s second offering in the world of basses was sure a home run. Unlike his Jazzmaster which was as unjazzy an instrument as you can possibly imagine, the Jazz Bass actually sounded great playing jazz. Legendary jazz player Ron carter played a JB with great style and dignity, but it was Jaco Pastorius that brought the Jazz Bass to another level. Jaco utilizing the back pickup on his defretted JB created a lyrical smooth sound that was truly magical. Years later another bass master the great Marcus Miller played the Jazz Bass with great distinction. Rock players as well enjoy the J Bass, like Geddy Lee, Dave Brown (Santana) and John Paul Jones.

Mike Watt with his 1963 Gibson EB3 Bass Guitar

Mike Watt with his 1963 Gibson EB3 Bass Guitar

4. Gibson EB3 Bass
The bass that Jack Bruce played, and played so well, was an also ran in the bass race of the rock and roll era. I personally believe that the EB3 was destined to die a fiery death if not for the great Jack. In reality the EB3 was a victim of the amplifiers of the era. The high output of the massive neck humbuckers over drove the preamp section of most of the era’s Neanderthal bass rigs. It never sounded clean, but it was Jack Bruce that went with it, and played with the back pickup, which is a smaller mini humbuckers design. This growl became Jack’s signature sound. Any of you who want to hear Jack and his EB3 at their best you must go out and get his first solo album after Cream called “Songs for a Tailor”

Jack Casady with his Guild Starfire Bass Guitar

Jack Casady with his Guild Starfire Bass Guitar

5. Guild Starfire Bass
Often copied but never improved upon, the semi-hollow Starfire bass was to my ears the best sounding semi of them all. Guild instruments are and always will be underrated and a best buy for the buck. This bass, made famous by Jack Casady of the Jefferson Airplane had two versions, the first produced from 1965 to 1969 sported a single coil pickup, and the latter featured humbucking pickups. The one Jack used was the single coil version, and it sounded chunky and percussive. I am sure Jack’s technique had something to do with it, but it was an awesome sound. This is one bass that begs for round wound strings, to enhance the bite of the single coils. The Gibson EB1 was a muddy version of the Starfire basses.

Steinberger XL-2 Bass Guitar

Steinberger XL-2 Bass Guitar

6. Steinberger XL-2 Bass
I gotta tell you, when I saw this monstrosity for the first time I thought that’s it the world as we know it has changed, and not for the better. Then one day my bass player Ted Silverstein came to rehearsal with Ned’s evil spawn. I said okay plug that sh*t in, he did and it sounded smooth. It was fat and clean, and when we recorded with it, oh boy it was even better. I had never heard a bass that sounded so good in the mix next to multitracked guitars. It sounded so much like itself and clashed not with any of the other instruments I was converted to the dark side. I said let me try that bass, it felt weird in my hand, and it didn’t sound right, especially when I realized I was playing in A when the tune was in G!

Paul McCartney with his 1963 Hofner Model 500/1 Bass Guitar

Paul McCartney with his 1963 Hofner Model 500/1 Bass Guitar

7. Hofner Model 500/1 Beatle Bass
Paul McCartney, Paul McCartney, Paul McCartney. What the hell was this guy doin’? What was he playing through? What kinda strings was he using? Now I think Paul would have sounded great if he was playing a cigar box strung up with rubber bands played through a transistor radio but that’s my hang up. Paul was the man, and that little bass sounded great in his capable hands. The 500/1 premiered in 1956 and it featured a set of mini humbuckers and a spruce top. That combination would usually spell disaster especially at higher volumes, but it didn’t. And by the way I’ll finish like I started, all you aspiring Paulie Mac’s use flatwounds, use flatwounds, use flatwounds.

1959 Danelectro Longhorn Bass Guitar

1959 Danelectro Longhorn Bass Guitar

8. Danelectro Longhorn Bass
No matter how cheap you think this bass was, it was a killer sounding low frequency machine for sure. Those anemic “lipstick” bass pickups sounded so good, whether coming through an amp (preferably a big one) or through the console in a recording studio. Legend has it that the bass part for “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” was recorded with a Longhorn by 60’s electronic wiz Dan Armstrong. (his son Kent told me). The Danny was light weight, and as sexy looking as Phoebe Cates getting out of the pool in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”. And great news is that the reissue ones sound as good as the originals.

1977 Music Man Stingray Bass Guitar

1977 Music Man Stingray Bass Guitar

9. Music Man Sting Ray Bass
Well Leo you did it again! This bass was the first mass produced active electronic bass. It was made available in the summer of 1976, to rave reviews. The massive pickup produced a sound never heard before, and the pole pieces were the size of a dime. The Sting Ray had a volume control and a bass and treble control as well. This way you could add or cut bass and treble separately, way snappy. You could for the first time get a sound that wasn’t a Fender or Gibson sound. This bass became synonymous with cats like Bernard Edwards of Chic and Tony Levin (of everybody).

1970s Acoustic Black Widow Bass Guitar

1970s Acoustic Black Widow Bass Guitar

10. Acoustic Black Widow Bass
This weird bird was initially made available through dealers who carried the popular Acoustic line of high powered solid state amps. The Black Widow was released in 1969 as a semi-hollowbody with a fretted and fretless version, the fretless IMHO was a slam dunk great bass. The “Widow” was made up of a lot of Mosrite parts, and was reminiscent of a Rickenbacker bass as well. I saw the bass player for Doc Watson play a fretless version on a video of Doc and Merle Watson playing in the 70’s. The early versions had an “Ebonite” fretboard, the same material that bowling balls were made of. The pickups were also very cool single coils with adjustable pole pieces. The BW is still available at a reasonable price.

Comments

  1. says

    I agree with most but… I’d change the 10th place (Black Widow) for an Alembic Series I or II. That was yet another revolution in the world of bass. It made a huge impact on how modern basses are made today and it’s is still a class on its own. Yes, Fender basses are still the thing to go to when you’re looking for a genuine rock sound (I have a Geddy Lee Jazz myself and I love it) but the Wickershams created a truly different (and beautiful) beast for those for those who were looking for new sounds and looks. My favourite of my 3 basses is the Alembic Essence 5 – it’s my main weapon and I intend to keep it forever.

    BTW – I took a liberty to borrow the picture of the Steinberger to put it on my list of Top 10 most significant 80s basses on my blog: http://bass-driver.blogspot.com/2012/11/top-10-ejtisy.html (it’s in Polish – if you want a rough translation I can do that for you). If you have a problem with it let me know – I’ll find something else :-)

  2. Ian Bennett says

    You say “Legend has it that the bass part for “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” was recorded with a Longhorn by 60’s electronic wiz Dan Armstrong.” I think you’ll find it was Herbie Flowers who played (and wrote) that line.

    The list is pretty much OK though.

  3. says

    Your list is pretty much complete.The only thing I would add is my 1987 Jackson Charvel (Japanese made). I’ts the best bass I’ve ever had in 50 years of playing music.I also picked up a “Shredder” bass at a second hand store in Hannibal,Missouri.I believe the manufacture date was 1982.I’ts a three-quarter scale neck,solid white with one volume and one tone control.If you have any info. on this bass,please let me know I tried Gibson,s website,but had no luck.Thanks for your website.BASS PLAYERS RULE!

  4. Lee Barnes says

    The list is a good one, but the Danelectro/Sears single-cutaway “Short Horn” belongs on it, too. In the 1960s and early 1970s, if you couldn’t afford a Fender, a lot of folks opted for cheap Danelectro basses sold as Silvertones by Sears. They sounded better than the Gibsons (and the Kays and the Harmonys and the cheap Japanese basses of the time) and anyone could afford one. With their short necks and flatwound strings, they played ridiculously easy and sounded much better than they should have.

  5. Frankie says

    I think the Ibanez 5-string bass should be on this list, or at-least whatever the first popular 5-string was. In the late ’90s, I thought the 5-string bass was on its way to replacing the standard 4-string, especially in heavy metal. Fieldy of Korn fame not only popularized it (as his bandmates did with 7-strings) but popularized a slapping technique rooted–whether he realized it or not–in Bill Black’s bass playing in Elvis’ early records.

    I’d also hoped to maybe see fretless basses and/or 8-string basses. I believe the later became popular in bands with a bass player, a lead guitarist but no rhythm guitarist, like Mötley Crüe because it can allow the bass to double for a rhythm guitar in certain riffs.

    That’s just me. It’s still a pretty good list.

  6. David says

    Hofner 500/1 ‘ Beatle ” Bass and Danelectro Longhorn should be in the top 5 .

    Hofner 500/1 , Dano Longhorn , Jazz , p-bass and Ric should be in the top 5 .

    The Guild , Steinberger and EB3 had a lot less impact and use than the Hofner and the Dano.

    Check out a list of people that have played Beatle basses. Danos would have been the first bass of a lot of stars and session players .

  7. Don Sweat says

    You nailed most of the influential basses, not quite sure what that Black Widow is doing there. My first and workhorse for most of the 30 plus years I played professionally was the Gibson EBO, which morphed to an EB3, then I added Shaller tuners, had a custom parametric eq preamp installed, replaced the neck pup with a Guild, (even more power), and later replaced the bridge with a Wilkerson. I owned a Fender Precision but my hands never felt comfortable with that neck.
    In 78, I bought the new MusicMan Sabre Bass, and played that for many years,
    only recently regrettably parting with it. Then fulfilled the wish for a Hofner, but, at the last moment of purchase, switched and bought the Hofner Club Bass instead of
    the Beatle Bass, because frankly everybody other than McCartney looks foolish playing it. You might as well slap a cheap Beatle wig on while you’re at it.
    Now, I have my sights set on a new Jazz Bass! Before I fell for the EBO, I had looked at the Rickenbacher, which I love that tone, but, again the neck and weight nixed it.

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