Moments in Bass History… the Six-String Electric Bass
Today, six-string electric basses are commonplace, with virtuosos like Oteil Burbridge, Steve Bailey and John Myung all-embracing the extra range and tonal possibilities that they allow. But which company took the first steps into this brave new world, and how did players respond to the new instrument?
Six-string guitars have been played since the 1200s, double basses with five strings had been used since the late 1700s, but there was no middle ground between the two until Paul Tutmarc’s early attempts in the 1930s (see part 3 of this series). Leo Fender’s 1951 Precision bass, however, began the widespread acceptance of the bass guitar as the main bass sound in popular music. From this point, the development of the instrument happened very quickly, with manufacturers soon adding more strings and extending the range of the electric bass.
The first development came from Danelectro, a New Jersey company founded in 1946 by Nathan Daniel.
The new company initially built amplifiers, but by 1954 they began to make electric guitars – the single pickup U-1 and the double pickup U-2.
In 1956, Danelectro produced its first electric bass, but this was, surprisingly, a six-string model.
At this point, the Fender Precision hadn’t yet fully established its popularity, and Danelectro aimed to make a bass instrument that was potentially more appealing to guitarists. The UB-2 model had a scale length of 30” (shorter than the Precision’s 34”) and like a guitar, it was tuned EADGBE, but an octave below standard guitar tuning. Advertising copy for the UB-2 emphasized that it was “a brand new instrument that combines the best qualities of the Spanish guitar and the big string bass.”
Nathan Daniel later explained the thinking behind the UB-2:
“We simply made the neck a bit longer [than the guitar]. We started with a six-string bass because it’s hardly any more trouble than a four-string and it gave the player something more for the same money. It took time for that to catch on, but if the player was capable, he had more stuff to play with.”
The sound of the UB-2 was very distinctive, with a more guitar-like twang and punch than the longer scale Precision, and producers found a use for its tone alongside the more traditional double bass.
The technique of doubling the finger-style double bass track with a UB-2 played with a pick was known as ‘Tic-Tac’. It was used on Nashville recordings by artists such as Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, and Roy Orbison, and it had also been used on Duane Eddy’s 1958 album ‘Rebel Rouser’.
By 1959, Danelectro had redesigned their electric models and bought out the Longhorn range, which included their first four-string models, but also a six-string bass guitar. This distinctive instrument caught the attention of Duane Eddy, who found one in a Hollywood music store, and he used it on every song on his next album ‘The Twang’s The Thang’. Despite Duane Eddy’s endorsement, the six-string model didn’t sell well, and Danelectro began to focus more on its guitars and four-string basses.
Gibson produced a rival instrument in 1960, the semi-acoustic EB-6, which looked similar to their 335 guitar model.
This was soon replaced with a solid-body instrument based on the SG guitar, but these instruments were not very popular – Gibson only sold around 130 six-string basses before they ceased manufacture in 1965.
Fender, not wishing to be outdone by their main rival, brought out their Bass VI model in 1961, again tuned to an octave below a standard guitar. It was used by The Beatles on their ‘White Album’ and later by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, but like the Danelectro it found limited popularity outside the studio, perhaps due to the narrow string spacing. Fender discontinued the Bass VI in 1975, but it returned to the catalogue in 2006.
In 1965, Fender produced the Bass V – the first commercially available five-string bass guitar.
It had a standard 34” scale, and the extra string was a high C, rather than the low B of later five-string basses. However, it only had fifteen frets, giving it roughly the same range as a four-string bass. It was another commercial failure, and by 1970 Fender had pulled it from their range.
These early attempts at extending the range of the bass guitar by adding more strings were not very successful, but by the mid-seventies, high-end luthiers were beginning to make multi-string basses as we know them today. Carl Thompson made a six-string (BEADGC) for bass player Anthony Jackson, and Overwater, Alembic, Ken Smith, and Tobias all made one-off five-string instruments. The first commercially available production five-string bass with a low B string is thought to have been the Yamaha BB5000 in 1984, and this was quickly followed by basses by MusicMan, Ibanez, Peavey. Oddly, Fender didn’t produce a commercially available BEADG tuned five-string bass until the late 1980s, but now they are a staple of their catalogue.
It could be argued that Danelectro, Gibson and Fender had produced six-string ‘bass guitars’ (electric guitars that played low notes) rather than six-string electric basses, but this is an argument about semantics rather than instruments.
When Leo Fender brought out his Precision model in 1951, there was no certainty that it would become a successful instrument and was certainly viewed with some skepticism at the time. The attempts to build electric instruments with wider ranges were to some degree experiments, but then, so was the Fender Precision.