Retro-Rama 1965 Fender Bass VI

THIS 6-STRING SURFER MAY SEEM LIKE more of a guitar than a bass, but any lowend lover who picks one up is guaranteed a good time.

THIS 6-STRING SURFER MAY SEEM LIKE more of a guitar than a bass, but any lowend lover who picks one up is guaranteed a good time. The Danelectro 6-string bass, tuned one octave below a guitar, came on the scene in 1956 and was popularized by Duane Eddy and others. As his answer to the Danelectro, Leo Fender created the Fender Bass VI, which is perhaps the pinnacle of design aesthetic for this unique hybrid instrument. This beautiful ’65 Bass VI appears courtesy of Gruhn Guitars.

Released in 1961—a year after Fender’s Jazz Bass—the Bass VI is a much more drastic departure from the classic Precision, which reached its present form in 1959. Like a Fender Jazzmaster but with a longer neck and bigger strings, this three-pickup sunburst beauty has a versatile, hi-fi sound, and its “floating” tremolo arm takes things to another dimension. The original production run ended in 1975, but it has been a reissued by Fender a number of times over the years.

There are many notable examples of its use. Glen Campbell played Carol Kaye’s VI for his solos on his classic hits “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.” Other users include Soft Machine’s Roy Babbington, Reggie Tielman of amazing Indo-rock pioneers the Tielman Brothers (check them out on YouTube), and Jack Bruce, who recorded most of Fresh Cream with a Bass VI before switching to a Gibson EB-3. John Lennon is also known to have used one when covering the low end for Sir Paul on sessions for The Beatles and Let It Be. As if that weren’t enough to earn this 6-string serious street cred, it’s a sea-foam green Bass VI that Nigel Tufnel begins to show off to interviewer Rob Reiner in This Is Spinal Tap before thinking better of it: “Don’t even look at it!”

The Bass VI’s 30" scale and close string spacing—similar to the Gibson EB-6 [April 2011]—can make typical fingerstyle playing tricky at best. But with a pick, the possibilities are almost endless. Playing claw-style with thumb and fingers is a little easier, and double-stops and chords are easy to grab. The real upside of the narrow neck is that palm muting is very easy if you are going for old-school “tic-tac” bass playing. The built-in mute is also one of the best I’ve ever used.

In combination with the master volume and tone controls, the three single-coil pickups offer interesting tone variations via individual on/off switches. The fourth switch is a low-end cut also known as a “strangle” switch, and brings out the guitaristic side of the VI. But the real X-factor on this bass is the whammy bar. For bassists who haven’t had the opportunity to fool around with a vibrato arm, buckle your seat belt—it’s an experience that can take some getting used to, but the payoff is a level of expression ranging from subtle, liquid vibrato to dive bombs worthy of Jeff Beck.

Despite all of its cool features and snazzy looks, the Bass VI never really caught on in the way that the Dano did. Having said that, the original Bass VI’s have become collector items over the years, and the cult of the VI thrives online. Ride the wild surf, if you dare . . . .