How did the BB become so successful? Tim Fletcher looks at the history of a classic bass.
The Yamaha BB Bass – Workhorses That Became Thoroughbreds.
Originally designed as a basic model, the Yamaha BB bass has been championed by many great bass players, from session greats like Abe Laboriel, Pino Palladino and Nathan East; New Wave players such as Tony Kanal (No Doubt), Peter Hook (Joy Division and New Order), Andy Rourke (The Smiths); and rockers such as Jack Gibson (Exodus, Testament), and Michael Anthony (Van Halen, Chickenfoot).
Japanese instrument makers Yamaha were quite late to the world of bass guitars – their first model, the SB-2 came out in April 1966.
This was largely modeled on the Fender’s designs – the body shape was loosely based on the Precision, but it had two single-coil pickups like the Jazz. The main deviation from the Fender shape was a more radical headstock which wouldn’t have looked out of place on the 1980s ‘Superstrat’ guitar. By 1968 the SB series became a more radical design, with an almost ‘tear-drop’ shape to the body, and in the 1970s, further iterations of the SB bass included designs reminiscent of Gibson’s Les Paul and SG shapes. By 1976, the now Fender Jazz-like SB had been joined by the PB, a near-direct copy of the Fender Precision. None of these instruments found success outside of the far east – a new approach was required.
In the mid-seventies, Yamaha spent some time developing what was to become the cornerstone of their bass range.
Yamaha wanted their new bass to appeal to players in the main market – the USA – and encouraged West-Coast session players to try out their prototypes and give feedback on them. The new BB (short for Broad Bass) model first appeared in 1977, alongside a redesigned SB bass, and the PB. There were three BB models – the bolt-on necked BB800 and BB1000, and the through-neck BB1200. All had a single-coil split pick-up like the Fender Precision.
Yamaha basses were well-made, but relatively cheap compared to their competitors, and they appealed to bassists in up-and-coming bands.
One early fan was Peter Hook of Joy Division who used his BB1200 on their classic song ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’.
Although he used other basses onstage, he has continued to use a Yamaha 1200s in the studio. In an interview with GuitarGuitar in 2020, he revealed that “Every single track that I’ve ever recorded, up to the last one I did which was the Gorillaz about a month ago, was on a Yamaha BB1200S! Peter Hook’s loyalty to the BB was recently rewarded with a new signature model based on his BB734A, but including elements of his beloved 1200S.
Yamaha continued to develop their BB designs, which was now the most successful bass in their range.
In 1978, they brought out the BB2000, which had a ‘PJ’ pickup configuration, adding to the tonal range of the instrument. Four years later the BB3000 was debuted, with a deeper lower cutaway and a change to the pickup configuration – the ‘precision’ split coil was reversed. 1984 saw the release of the first commercially available five-string bass, the BB5000, and it became popular with many players looking for an extended range instrument, but didn’t wish to pay for a custom-built instrument. These included Pino Palladino and Nathan East who played them on many session tracks for major artists in the mid-80s.
By 1986 the BB range had been extended, and now included seven models from the basic BB550 to the BB5000.
The old PB and SB instruments were dropped, and the more radical RBX, BX, and MB designs took their place. However, even with more modern looking instruments appearing in the catalogue, the decade-old BB models still attracted younger players. Tony Kanal, who was to gain fame as the bassist in No Doubt remembers how he found his first Yamaha BB: “As luck would have it, Gwen’s [Stefani] father worked for Yamaha at the time and he was able to get me a discount on a brand new bass. That’s this BB1600 [that he still plays today]. I remember looking at a pricing list and going “this one sounds cool!” I really had no idea. It was just the one that I could afford and the natural wood description sounded cool. I borrowed the money from my dad and that was the start of me playing the Yamaha BB series.”
By the mid-1980s, Yamaha was now more known for its basses than its six-string models, and the bass range was further expanded to include the more aspirational TRB series which included the company’s first six-string bass, and the ‘Attitude’ which was co-designed with bass virtuoso Billy Sheehan.
By the end of the decade, Yamaha began to include active circuitry to the BB range, and the 1100, 1200, 3000, and 5000 all had active options.
In 1994, Yamaha brought out the BB-NE model – a departure from the BB shape that was designed in conjunction with session bass legend Nathan East. But by the end of the 1990s, the original BB basses were starting to seem dated, and the range was reduced to three models. By 2000 they disappeared from the catalogue completely, apart from the BB3000 and BB3000MA (Michael Anthony) models, and a custom order version.
Although it seemed that the BB’s days were numbered, Yamaha revived the design in 2002, as it looked like a sister instrument to its phenomenally successful Pacifica guitar series.
The first new models were the bolt-on neck, budget-oriented 404 and 405 instruments, but Yamaha also attached the BB initials to some new designs: the 405, 605, 2004, and 2005 models. These were joined in 2005 by the 414/5 and active 614/5 active versions. A revamp of the range in 2010 included a five-piece neck on the 424/5 versions, and a through stringing option on the 1024/5 and 2024/5 models. A further facelift in 2011 brought in pickguard options.
In 2017, on the 40th anniversary of its introduction, the BB series received a major restyling.
Yamaha hired award-winning designer Piotr Stolarski to create a new design for this now-classic bass. The body was re-shaped to include a more comfortable contour design that also shaved some weight from the body, and the pickup shapes were changed to enable owners to change them for standard pickups. The neck now has a six-bolt mitre neck joint for enhanced stability.
The range includes both budget, mid-price, and more expensive models, and it has become the bass most associated with the manufacturer. Its now-classic design, playability, and sound have endeared it to many generations of bassists and with a modern version on the market, it is likely to be the dominant bass in Yamaha’s catalogue for the foreseeable future.