Who was the first electric bass guitar player? It might have been Lorraine Tutmarc…
In the early 1930s, Seattle musician, singer and inventor Paul Tutmarc had developed a pickup and used it to create a solid-body electric lap-steel Hawaiian guitar. This was similar to the ‘frying pan’ guitar developed by George Beauchamp, which was later manufactured by Rickenbacker, but Tutmarc’s design was perhaps more visually pleasing. He’d also been working on an electric double bass for a few years, and like Vega, Regal, Gibson, Rickenbacker and Dobro, Tutmarc’s designs had been focused on reducing the size of the instrument to about the proportions of a ‘cello.
Paul’s son, Bud Tutmarc recalls:
“My dad, being a bandleader and traveling musician, always felt sorry for the string bass player as his instrument was so large that once he put it in his car, there was only enough room left for him to drive. The other band members would travel together in a car and have much enjoyment being together while the bass player was always alone. That is the actual idea that got my father into making an electric bass. The first one he hand-carved out of solid, soft white pine, the size and shape of a cello. This was in 1933.”
The instrument he created was unfretted and designed to be played vertically like a double bass (see photo below).
Tutmarc’s ‘Electric Bass Fiddle’ 1933. Credit: Seattle Post Intelligencer/Bud Tutmarc
The ‘electric bass fiddle’ was not a commercial success, but Tutmarc was determined to develop his ideas further.
He used his ‘Audiovox’ electric Hawaiian guitar design as the template for an electric bass guitar and by 1936 he had built what would be the first solid body bass guitar – a four-string fretted instrument intended to be played horizontally. It had one simple pickup and a single volume control, and the first recipient of this new instrument was his wife, Lorraine, who played in Paul’s Hawaiian music band.
Lorraine Tutmarc (L) playing the #736 Electronic Bass Fiddle. Credit: iFPHC
In early 1937, Tutmarc began to advertise the new instrument which he named the ‘Audiovox #736 Electronic Bass Fiddle’, and was priced at $65, but to play it, you also needed an amplifier, and the Audiovox model #936 amp was another $75.
This made the instrument quite expensive, although he sold a few to bassists in the Seattle area. The instrument was not a major commercial success, and was little known beyond the Pacific North West region. This was perhaps due to the basic pickup design or the inability of the amplifier to replicate the depth of the double bass sound it was attempting to replace, but Tutmarc had made history, and created the first version of what we all recognise as an electric bass guitar.
As time passed, and Hawaiian music became overtaken by other musical trends, Tutmarc’s bass guitar was largely forgotten.
When Leo Fender produced his now-legendary Precision Bass design in 1951, it was widely assumed to be a new idea. Fender’s bass was not radically different to the Audiovox #736, but perhaps the more guitar-like design that was similar to Fender’s already popular guitar designs, and its rapid adoption by rock n roll bass players helped to establish it as the benchmark instrument for the bass guitar.
In more recent years, Paul Tutmarc’s contribution to the world of bass guitars has been re-evaluated, and the few remaining ‘#736 Electronic Bass Fiddles’ have become more valuable.
In March 2018 one of the three known examples was sold at auction for $23,850, perhaps reflecting the importance of Tutmarc’s design to the history of the bass guitar.
After Lorraine and Paul divorced in 1943, she started a real estate company with her son, Bud. She later gave up ownership of the company to him, and she died in 1992, perhaps unaware that she had made history as the first electric bass guitarist.