The History of Active Electronics
Basses with active electronics have been around for years, but which manufacturer got there first? Alembic? Music Man?
Tim Fletcher delves into the history of active electronics and discovers it was a small British company…
Leo Fender’s Precision Bass had first debuted in 1951, and the company’s Jazz Bass came along in 1960. Although Fender instruments were very popular, and dominated the US market, they were very expensive to export to other countries. Small guitar-making companies in Europe began to produce cheaper alternatives to feed the demand for electric guitars and basses created by the popularity of Rock n Roll.
One aspiring British guitar maker was Jim Burns, who had moved to London from the North East of England in 1952 and used his woodworking and engineering expertise to make his first guitar – a Hawaiian model.
By 1958 he had begun to make electric guitars and basses. These were the first commercially available guitars and basses made by a British manufacturer, and they quickly became popular as they were cheaper than US guitars that were subject to punitive import taxes at the time. Well-known users of Burns guitars included Jeff Beck, Hank Marvin and later Elvis Presley.
In 1963 Jim Burns brought out the TR2 (Transistorised 2 pickup) semi-solid guitar and bass models. These included active electronics which were mounted on a circuit board that sat behind the pickguard, and featured treble and bass boost controls. The provided battery gave around six months usage. The guitar version cost £143, which is around £2500 today, so it was not a cheap instrument. Sadly, the price of the instruments, and the complexity of the circuitry (if it went wrong, it couldn’t be repaired easily) meant that the TR2 was a short-lived idea.
Other manufacturers were slow to pick up on the possibilities of active circuitry, and it wasn’t until 1967 that Vox brought out the Hawk, Delta, Apollo and Sidewinder bass models with active electronics. These were more successful than the Burns TR2, and the Vox Sidewinder model was famously used by Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone on their song ‘Dance to the Music’, and by John Entwistle of The Who on ‘Happy Jack’. Vox began to be successful in the USA, and perhaps this helped to bring active electronics to the attention of a new set of forward-thinking musicians and technicians.
In 1970, electronics expert Ron Wickersham joined luthier Rik Turner and recording engineer Bob Matthews to found the Alembic workshop in Novato, California.
They began to develop sophisticated pre-amps and low-impedance pickups, which were initially added them to existing instruments for bass players from the burgeoning psychedelic scene in San Francisco such as Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead, and Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane who both played Guild semi-acoustics which were surprisingly similar to the Burns basses from earlier in the decade. Later, Alembic built their own basses, and these were played by artists like Stanley Clarke and John McVie.
Active electronics began to appear on instruments made by other high-end manufacturers such as Wal in 1973, but the popularity of the Music Man Stingray (1974) was perhaps the catalyst for a wider acceptance of the idea. Almost all major bass manufacturers now offer instruments with active electronics, and we have become used to the tonal flexibility that they offer…although there is still much to be said for the sound of an old Fender Precision!