The 50th Anniversary Of The Fender Jazz Bass
By Chris Jisi
Sat, 1 May 2010
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Think Fender Jazz Bass, and what comes to mind? Jaco Pastorius’s fretless canvas? Larry Graham or Marcus Miller’s thumb thunder? John Paul Jones or Geddy Lee’s progressive punch? While Leo Fender’s Precision Bass stands as an iconic symbol of the first mass-produced electric bass guitar, his Jazz Bass, an arguably perfected upgrade introduced nine years later, in 1960, is better defined by the musicians who manned it. In truth, much about the instrument has a sense of irony, including the fact that the P-Bass’s perennially younger, sleeker, sexier sibling has turned 50 this year. Richard Smith, Fender historian, author, and curator of the Leo Fender Gallery at the Fullerton Museum, observes, “What’s interesting is how an instrument named for and targeted toward jazz musicians instead became the choice of rock & rollers, and made its mark very quickly. Timing-wise, the electric bass was making the huge transition from ’50s-style music to ’60s-style music, so the Jazz Bass not only helped define this new music, it was defined by the music itself.”

Bob Willocks, Fender’s Manager of Consumer Relations, concurs: “To me, the Jazz Bass is the instrument that changed the whole bass world. The Precision Bass was the defining instrument in the transition from double bass to electric bass. But so many players found their voices on the Jazz Bass; a great deal of music was developed on it that was unique to the player playing it.” He adds, “The J-Bass has this sort of transparent nature in the way it was constructed. It’s primitive, as basic as you can get on an instrument. It doesn’t force its sound on you, so a player can find his own way on it.” Super-hot L.A. session bassist Alex Al, who navigates the current old-school/modern mindset daily via his ’75 J-Bass, validates this theory: “With its simple design and layout, the J-Bass allows my personality to shine through in each style of music I play. At times, people can’t tell if I’m using a 5-string, a fretless, a P-Bass, or even a keyboard bass, and it’s all the Jazz. Best of all, they can still tell it’s me playing.”

In tribute to the mighty J, we reached out to a cross section of players for their impressions, as well as tracked down the instrument’s technological evolution over the past halfdecade. Among the more compelling testaments to the J-Bass’s endurance are how many other builders have copied it, and that an estimated 90 percent of bassists own or have owned a version of the instrument.

As the B-52s’ Tracy Wormworth notes, “Playing a Jazz Bass is like going home. Every player leaves home to ‘see the world’ and try other instruments—but when you pick up a J-Bass again that comforting feeling comes over you, like, Yeah, I’m home.” As if proving Tracy’s point, Oteil Burbridge, who started on a J-Bass and has come full circle playing one almost exclusively with the Allman Brothers, affirms, “The Fender Jazz is bass.”bp0510_feat_j3_nr

1960s: Pre-Teen Machine

The Fender Jazz Bass was conceived in 1959 as a deluxe-model bass to go with the Jazzmaster guitar line introduced two years earlier. After considering the name “Deluxe Model,” it was renamed Jazz Bass to appeal to jazz bassists; unexpectedly, though understandably, converted upright players preferred the wider neck of the P-Bass. In addition to being narrower at the nut (1w" to the P-Bass’s 1e") and having a rounder neck shape, the 34"-scale bass featured an “offset waist-contoured body” that was sleeker though heavier and longer than the P-Bass, and two separate single-coil eight-polepiece pickups that hum-cancelled with both on full. The phase cancellation of certain frequencies in this setting provided the instrument’s signature mid-scooped, punchy sound. From top to bottom, the original J-Bass sported a fourbolt/ 21-fret maple neck and headstock (with a strap button), clover-shaped tuning keys, bone nut, rosewood fingerboard, Fender flatwound strings, clay dot position markers, an alder (or on occasion, ash) body, white or tortoise-shell laminated plastic pickguard, G-string-side finger rest (for pick-playing or thumb-plucking), two stacked pots with volume and tone control for each pickup, chrome bridge and pickup covers (the former adorned with a large “F”), top-loaded bridge with adjustable string mutes, and a bottom strap button. In addition to sunburst or blond, there were 14 custom color options, which included a matching headstock.

Richard Smith postulates, “There were two factors going on at the dawn of the J-Bass: Leo Fender wanted to improve the notion of what the electric bass was, and Don Randall in marketing wanted something new to sell, as he always did. There really wasn’t much to compete against except the Danelectro Bass in Nashville— which led Fender to make their 5- and 6-string basses—and the late-’50s Rickenbacker bass, which really didn’t get popular until Paul McCartney used one with the Beatles. Leo was also very concerned about the P-Bass blowing up speakers in his amps, as a result of the percussive spike you get when plugging in the magnetic Alnico pickups. For him, it was about the evolution of guitars and amps, so he’d go back and forth between them all, making refinements. In the case of the J-Bass, for which he likely he felt he needed to introduce something new, improve on the P-Bass, and appeal to a wider audience.”bp0510_feat_j2_nr

Session legend Jerry Jemmott was part of that audience. “I never wanted to depart from my jazz roots, so the name alone was a source of inspiration to me. The body and the neck of my first J-Bass were so comfortable and easy-playing it felt like the Grand Touring Coupe of basses. And the character of the sound—a raw, punchy, tight, cutting tone—was great for the syncopation, ghost-notes, and dynamics I was playing. In the hands of others, the flexibility of the J-Bass gave voice to the electric bass guitar’s potential in all styles and roles, helping to forge the unique history of our instrument.”

 

 

 

 

1970s: Sound Of A Revolution

With Larry Graham, John Paul Jones, Aston “Family Man” Barrett, Berry Oakley, and Anthony Jackson among the select group forming their distinct styles on J-Basses, and with Jaco on the horizon, the ’70s was the breakout era for the instrument musically. Sonically, the most noteworthy change in the J-Bass design was the movement of the bridge pickup closer to the bridge by a quarter-inch, in 1972, leading to a noticeable change in tone. This would affect the sound of future J-Bass stars, and became a factor for bass builders deciding on pickup placement. The decade also saw the gradual acceptance of the J-Bass in the P-Bassdominated New York City studio realm, led largely by Neil Jason, who still plucks his beloved L-series ’65 J-Bass. “When I arrived on the scene,” he relates, “there was a lot of big low end going on, but nobody was really putting a point on their sound. Coming in with a J-Bass, I got some weird looks early on, and I was asked if I had a P-Bass, but I knew I could favor the neck pickup and play up near the neck to get that tone, while both pickups full on or the back pickup favored gave me that bite. As for the L-series, I don’t know what it is about them, but every one I’ve ever tried is amazing. Fender used an L before serial numbers from 1963 to 1965, though no one has a definitive answer why. I really like the old-style bridge on it, which has the string grooves, because precut saddles are sometimes not exactly right; the ability to pull the string over that one millimeter can make a huge difference in the feel. When you have an instrument you love, it makes you play a lot better.”

Jason’s Gotham session peer, Will Lee, who switched to J-Basses in 1975 after losing his cherished P-Bass in an apartment fire, adds, “The two-pickup configuration of the J-Bass is the most practical design for bassists. Its sonic versatility enables players to seamlessly glide to and from different styles of music, while affording the choice between sounding fat and round or thin and nasally. Also, for most players, the thinner neck by the nut translates into better articulation in those rapidfire- note-playing situations.”

bp0510_feat_j4_nr1980s: Get Back

Perhaps the most significant development to the J-Bass line in the ’80s, according to Willocks, was Fender’s vintage reissue basses, starting with the ’57 P-Bass and ’62 J-Bass, in 1982. Now called the American Vintage series, with ’62 and ’75 J-Basses, the instruments remain very popular. Neil Stubenhaus, who grew up with J-Basses on the East Coast before making his mark in the L.A. studios just as the decade began, offers, “When I first moved from a P-Bass to a J-Bass in the late-’60s I was hooked. Like the P, it was light, perfectly balanced, and comfortable; the smaller neck was easier to play and felt more natural, plus the sound was rounder, smoother, and seemed richer and more balanced. By the time I had paid attention to specific basses on recordings, it was clear that P- and J-Basses dominated the studio world for a reason: clarity in the track (I personally chose to combine the two with a P/J configuration). The way the bass sits in a track is due to a combination of many factors, including mix, EQ, and the density of all the other instruments. A J-Bass always held the best odds of being heard clearly and having the definition and punch one craves in almost any rock, jazz, or R&B setting, regardless of those factors. One’s sound is a most personal matter, and many great players have found magnificent voices via alternatively styled electric basses. But it’s hard to argue the dominance of the brilliant J-Bass design and its utter simplicity, from inception to all current versions.”

Darryl Jones, who began his impressive career with Miles Davis, Sting, and the Rolling Stones in the mid-’80s, observes, “Many of the great attributes of the J-Bass are still being revealed to me after playing them for nearly 30 years. For instance, Bigger Bang, the last album I recorded with the Stones, was all done on one ’66 J-Bass. I used several front and back pickup combinations to get many different sounds. Most bassists know that by totally turning down the bridge pickup you get a tone similar to the P-Bass, and with the bridge pickup only you get the classic Jaco sound. What I hadn’t realized is all the tonal variations that exist in between these two settings. During the development of my signature A Bass, which is based on a pre-CBS Jazz, I discovered that the original passive electronics of the early J-Basses allow them to be heard in a way that basses with active electronics sometimes cannot be heard—particularly in very large venues. I have nothing against active basses, but there’s an immediacy of sound present with passive instruments. I call it a ‘bark’—just another aspect that Leo got so right.”

Tal Wilkenfeld, whose J-Basses are a ’74 alder/rosewood and a ’74 ash/maple, adds some prudent perspective on vintage basses. “For a musician, it’s not wise to buy solely by the year of the bass or its condition. There are great old J-Basses and notso- great ones. Often the mint ones turn out to be duds, and that’s why nobody played them much; the best ones have the wear on them. When I got my J-Basses, I first listened to them acoustically and the wood sounded amazing; then I plugged them in and made further evaluations from there.”

1990s: Activate

While the J-Bass was a time-tested original, it was not impervious to the advancements in bass guitar design emerging in the ’90s. Willocks credits the introduction of active electronics and graphite reinforcement rods for neck stability as the decade’s key improvements. By 2001, the latter was perfected into a single Posiflex rod—a hollow graphite tube with a maple dowel inside allowing for maximum trussrod adjustments and flexibility. Marcus Miller, who is credited with putting the active J-Bass sound on the map, shares his thoughts. “The J-Bass really made my style. It developed around my ’77 Jazz, which I chose over a P-Bass, figuring two pickups had to be better than one. Everyone said get a pre-CBS Fender, but I didn’t want a used bass; I wanted a shiny new one with the smell of a new case! The run of my basses, 1975 to 1978, had the bridge pickup moved back and they were criticized for the three-bolt neck, having too much finish, and being heavy. But it turned out to be a very versatile bass, and when I got into the session scene it was all about versatility. The active idea came from Roger Sadowsky, who was maintaining my bass. He recommended and installed a preamp to give me some control of my sound in the fast pace of the studio. When I listen back now, I really hear the difference in tone—growly before the preamp and more round after. Best of all, it wasn’t an overly electronic, active sound; it was still the tone of the J-Bass, with a little bit of steroids. There are even some records I did before the preamp where the engineer got close to that sound by boosting the lows and the extreme highs.”

bp0510_feat_j1_nrHe continues, “When I road-retired my ’77 and went looking for a J-Bass from the same era, I learned all the subtle differences that contribute to tone. Like, was the tree the wood came from closer to the river or further back? Because the closer trees absorb more water, thus the more porous and lighter the wood becomes, and you get a bass with a more open sound. Overall, to me the J-Bass fits nicely smack between the upright and the guitar, whereas a lot of newer basses are slanted toward a guitar sound and feel. It’s harder for me to play some of the more modern soloistic stuff on my J-Bass when compared to the flatter necks and setups on more recent basses, but the sound justifies the extra work I have to do. And groove-wise, when you have to support the band, there’s one frequency down there waiting for you that’s not taken by the guitars and keyboards; the J-Bass fills that space perfectly.”

Like Miller, Victor Bailey is a jazzrooted J-Bassist who launched his solo career at the start of the decade. He recalls, “When I was coming up, everyone in R&B was playing a J-Bass because of Larry Graham, and then Jaco came out and I was even more attracted to the sound. I bought one and soon realized it was the one bass that sounded good no matter what style or technique I played. There’s a purity to it; you’re really hearing the sound of the body, the wood, and that makes it very personal. Anything I’ve ever conceived or wanted to attempt comes out freely on my J-Bass; I can get the sound of me. I also love the versatility of the instrument—I use every combination of pickup shading. It’s the bass I’ve used throughout my session and sideman career. Leo and his team really thought it through, from the pickup placement to the headstock shape and tuning keys on one side to the horn and cutaway design, so you can reach the upper notes and have balance. The J-Bass is like the piano—it doesn’t need to be redesigned.”

bp0510_feat_j5_nrAnother J-Bass purist in the decade was Geddy Lee, who settled on his ’72 J-Bass after seeking the more aggressive sound of a passive bass for the recording of Rush’s Counterparts in 1992. Geddy addressed his current lineup of J-Basses and their tonal details in BP’s August ’07 issue.

2000s: Design Expansion

With nine Fender lines featuring J-Basses, plus various artist models, the first decade of the new century was all about variations on a theme. Willocks notes the 24-fret J-Bass, available in the mid ’00s, was an interesting design challenge. “Having 24 frets changes everything; the position of the bridge and pickups, and where the neck comes into the body—for slappers that meant having a different fundamental when playing at the base of the neck.” The number of frets is also a factor on Steve Bailey’s signature Jazz Bass VI, the first new J-Bass designed from the ground up. Says Steve, “I’ve always loved the Jazz; all of my 6-strings have been modeled after it. I feel like I’ve been playing Fender 6’s my whole career; it just didn’t have the Fender name until now.” The other prominent feature of Bailey’s 34"-scale 6, built by Fender’s Michael Frank Braun (who also built Marcus Miller’s signature 5), is its aysmmetrical neck, which is thinner on the G-string side and thicker on the B-string side. Although Bailey brought this element in from his other 6’s, Fender used the concept on Roscoe Beck’s signature Fender 5 some years back. Adds Steve, “The J-Bass in any version is a sexy instrument, much like beautiful women— there are so many varieties.”

The Mars Volta’s Juan Alderete has long been a fan of J-Basses and their nuances. “The J-Bass was what my heroes, Jaco and John Paul Jones, played, so I set out to follow their lead. Initially, I was drawn to the deep bass response of both pickups on, but once I realized Jaco favored the rear pickup, it changed my whole approach to music. Harmonics, string scratching, and how feedback sounded all came to light for me. Effects react differently to the rear pickup, too. Sonically, the J-Bass sits solidly with the bass drum. Overall, bass became meaner and more profound in the band when the J-Bass came on the scene.”

So what does the future hold for the Jazz Bass? Predicts Willocks, “There are certain basic principles that won’t ever change and other aspects that will. We have vintage platforms that are extremely popular, and other platforms we use for evolution, like the American Standard and Deluxe series, and artist models. All of these will keep growing as long as we have great, creative ideas coming in.”

A DOZEN GREAT JAZZ BASS MINDS, 11 GREAT J-BASS LINES

Although jazz-monikered, the J-Bass steadily made its presence felt in all styles of music, led by an array of forward-thinking thumpers featured in the following examples.

Ex. 1 recalls the main riff of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Miss Lover” [Axis: Bold As Love, 1967]. Noel Redding and Hendrix were tuned down to Eb for the recording; remember Hendrix is doubling you, so keep it firmly in the pocket. Rock’s next J-Bass powerhouse was Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones. Revisit BP’s Feb. ’08 cover story for in-depth excerpts from “Good Times, Bad Times” and “Black Dog.” Ex. 2 contains the main riff of Sly Stone’s “Sing a Simple Song” [Stand!, 1969]. Emulate Larry Graham’s stone-solid rendering, and then dig his contrasting looseness in the bridge.Joe Osborn’s trademark slides and melodic, upper-register parts are in full display on the Carpenters’ “For All We Know” [Carpenters, 1971]. For the four bars of the verse, shown here in Ex. 3, think legato and lyrical. Jerry Jemmott made Tommy Cogbill’s “Memphis Soul Stew” one-bar ostinato (shown here in Ex. 4’s first measure) his own, on Aretha Franklin’s 1971 Live album. Check out the King Curtis YouTube clip of the song to hear Jerry’s taut feel and one of his occasional variations, captured in the second measure.

Perhaps Jaco Pastorius’s most enduring melodic reading, Ex. 5 features four bars of the first theme of Weather Report’s “A Remark You Made” [Heavy Weather, 1977]. Despite his Bass of Doom having no frets, note how Jaco rolls up to some of the notes, using his index, middle, and 3rd fingers for consecutive hammer-ons. Don’t worry about executing beat three of bar 3—the Db and Ab 5th would be overdubbed, or arpeggiated from the top note down, as Jaco did live.

Ex. 6 contains four verse measures from Bob Marley’s “Could You Be Loved” [Tuff Gong, 1980]. As seen here, Aston “Family Man” Barrett is a master of mixing melodies with more rhythmically dense phrases in his Rasta rumble; keep the bounce in your rendering. For his watermark work on Chaka Khan’s 1980 disc, What ChaGonna Do for Me?, Anthony Jackson tuned his J-Bass down two whole-steps (thus the odd tab markings here). Ex. 7 is from the outro (at 3:37) of “Night Moods,” where Jackson makes the most of his fill space with tasty note choices from the Fmaj7#11 chord. Anthony had to play with a very light touch, given the string tension; try to match his eveness throughout the phrase and the separation between his notes. Ex. 8 shows Tommy Shannon’s driving bass line on Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Crossfire” [In Step, 1989]. Like Hendrix and Redding, Vaughan and Shannon were always tuned down to Eb; pace yourself and give the rests their full value.

For sheer range on a J-Bass, look no further than Victor Bailey’s “Kid Logic” main melody [Bottom’s Up, 1989], shown in Ex. 9. As you get the fingerings together, listen and try to acclimate to how hard Victor is swinging. Turning to a bonafide bass anthem from the ’90s, Ex. 10 contains the opening four bars of Marcus Miller’s “Panther” [The Sun Don’t Lie, 1993]. The section is rubato, with an E minor tonality; try to match Miller’s phrasing and breathing. Finally, Ex. 11 is Geddy Lee’s raucous opening bass line on “Malignant Narcissm” [Snakes & Arrows, 2007]. Keep the open A string ringing, and mind where the downbeat is and isn’t pushed.

TIMELINE

For an expanded Jazz Bass timeline, including pivotal moments in the careers of prominent J-Bass players, go to bassplayer.com

bp0510_feat_tl3_nr1959

Conception of an upgraded companion bass to the Precision Bass, originally called “Deluxe Model” and quickly renamed Jazz Bass; prototype design has soapbar pickups and 3-knob configuration

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1960

First production JBass built in March; appears on the July pricelist at $279.50 for a sunburst model, $293.47 in blond or a custom color

1962

Stack knobs (introduced in 1960) replaced by original 3-knob design

1963

Round, laminated fingerboards replace slab fingerboards; rubber mute glued to the inside of the bridge cover replaces individual string mutes

1964

White vinyl pickguards replace tortoiseshell pickguards; faux pearl dot markers replace clay dots

1965

First version of CBSowned Fender Jazz Bass includes bound rosewood fingerboard and pearloid dot markers

1966

Medium jumbo frets replace smaller frets; oval (or paddle) tuning keys replace clover keys, and no longer turn backwards; maple fingerboard introduced, with block inlays (black on maple, pearloid on rosewood); bone nuts phased out for hightech plastic nuts

1969

Larger, bolder logo decal replaces traditional logo; headstock strap button removed and placed on upper body horn

1972

Bridge pickup moved about a quarter-inch closer to the bridge, introducing noticeable tonal change

1974-75

Pearloid blocks on all necks, white binding and block inlay for maple fingerboards; 3-bolt “Micro-Tilt

Adjustable” neck (mid-1975); “Bullet” trussrod adjuster at headstock end

1976

Headstock logo redesigned; serial number moved from neck plate to headstock logo

1977

Control knobs changed to black plastic, with numbers

1981

J-Bass Standard introduced, with bullet trussrod and white pickup covers

1982

Vintage ’62 J-Bass reissue offered; Japanese-made products introduced, including the lowercost Squier line, which features a Jazz Bass

bp0510_feat_tl10_nr1983

J-Bass Standard second version includes control plate and jack all on the pickguard, and returns to a four-bolt neck with dot markers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1988

American Standard J-Bass introduced, with larger body shape, curved neck plate set into chambered pocket, 22-fret neck, vintagestyle top-load bridge, two separate volume controls, and passive TBX tone circuit

1989

J-Bass Plus introduced: first J-Bass with active electronics; also features downsized body, Lace Sensor pickups, Schaller Elite fine-tuner bridge, and alder body option

1990

First Jazz 5-string introduced: the J-Bass Plus V, with Pao Ferro or Rosewood fingerboard and all five tuning keys on one side; the American Standard 5 follows in 1995

bp0510_feat_tl5_nr 1995

U.S.A. J-Bass Deluxe series introduced, with 22 frets, 3-band/18- volt active EQ on some models; initially available with John Suhr single-pole pickups, changed to Bill Turner dual-coil Ceramic Noiseless pickups, and then to Bill Lawrence Samarium Cobalt series pickups in 2004; in 1998 the line is renamed American Deluxe J-Bass; Strings-Thru- Body bridges are also introduced as an option on Standard and Deluxe Jazz models

 

 

 

 

 

 

1991

Custom Shop creates Jaco Tribute ’62 J-Bass, 100 made; Mexicanmade version introduced, some with basswood or poplar bodies

2001

Custom Classic line from the Fender Custom Shop introduced, including 4- and 5-string J-Basses with ash bodies, C-shaped necks, and 3-band/18- volt preamps

2002

Jazz 5-strings get 4+1 tuning key configurations, two Hipshot string trees, asymmetrical neck plate, and contoured neck heel

2005

Korean-made J-Bass 24 introduced, with alder body, 24 frets, and Basslines pickups; a 5-string version is added in 2008, but both are discontinued in 2009

2003

American Series J-Basses get S-1 Switching Systems, allowing pickups to be operated in standard, parallel, or series; moderately priced Highway One Jazz Bass introduced, with Leo Quann Badass Bridge and, in 2006, a Greasebucket tone circuit

2008

American Series replaced by American Standard series (different from the 1994 American Standard line); features include rolled-edge neck, high-mass vintage bridge, Hipshot lightweight tuning keys, and the removal of the S-1 Switching System

bp0510_feat_tl11_nr2009

Steve Bailey Signature J-Bass VI introduced, Fender’s first contrabassstyle 6-string [see main story]

2010

50th Aniversary Limited Edition J-Bass introduced [see review, page 50]

 

 

 

 

 

 

bp0510_feat_j7_nrBASS OF DOOM UPDATE

It remains the most famous Fender Jazz Bass of all, Jaco Pastorius’s sunburst fretless ’62 “Bass of Doom” (serial # 57308), heard on his solo albums and recordings with Weather Report and Joni Mitchell. Soon after buying it in the early ’70s, Jaco reportedly removed the frets with a butter knife and filled in the slots and dinks with plastic wood and several brushed-on coats of boat epoxy. Jaco started on a ’66 J-Bass, bought new, and went on to own and play dozens of J-Basses, mostly early ’60s models—including his main fretted, a sunburst ’60 J-Bass he used on tour with Joni Mitchell. But it’s the “Bass of Doom” that remains the holy grail, especially after it was recovered a few years back [see BP, April ’08]. The fate of the infamous 4-string continues to be in the hands of the federal courts, with the possibility of a trial that could begin this spring or summer. The case involves the instrument’s current owners—who purchased the bass legally, from a private citizen—and the Pastorius family, which contends the bass was stolen from and not sold by Jaco in New York City, circa 1986, and therefore not subject to sale.

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