Retro-Rama : 1964 Gibson EB-6

THE EARLY ’60S WERE A TIME OF identity crisis for many bass players.

The early '60s were a time of identity crisis for many bass players. In the wake of Leo Fender’s creation of the first modern electric bass, the Precision, there was no doubt the electric bass was here to stay. But not everyone was sure where “bass” ended and “guitar” began. This specimen is a good example of this confusion.

Gibson got into the electric bass market in 1953 with the EB-1. A violin-shaped bass most famously used by Felix Pappalardi with Mountain. The double-cutaway hollow-body EB-2 came next in 1958, followed by the single-pickup EB-0 and the two-pickup EB-3. The original 1960 EB-6 had the EB-2 body, but a year later, this version replaced its predecessor. Its SG-style body shape is the same as the EB-0 and EB-3 models.

The 6-string bass craze began in earnest in the late ’50s, when Danelectro came out with the first baritone electric guitar, typically tuned EADGBE (an octave below a guitar). The combination of upright bass and “tic-tac” 6-string bass guitar was fairly standard in the ’50s and early ’60s on pop hits like the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” and country records such as Patsy Cline’s “Crazy,” but gradually gave way to the more aggressive and dominant sound of the electric bass guitar by the mid ’60s.

This EB-6, courtesy of Gruhn Guitars, is a true rarity, as Gibson made fewer than 200 of them between 1961 and 1966. This all-mahogany beauty is in great condition, and its classic cherry finish has mellowed nicely over the years. Its 30.5" scale is long enough to let the low strings speak, and it is a little neck heavy due to six large bass tuners on the slightly elongated headstock. Just about everything else about it screams guitar. The electronics also match the SG guitar model rather than the EB-series electronics, which evolved over the years to include a rotary tone switch and the famous Gibson “boom button.”

The full-range humbucking pickups sound amazing—much more hi-fi than the lipstick pickups used by Danelectro. Turning the tone knob barely changes the sound on the neck pickup, but the bridge pickup on this EB-6, replaced sometime in the ’80s, has a little more tonal range. There are a ton of interesting tone possibilities when you fool around with blending the pickups via the toggle switch.

It is fun to play, but the string spacing is so tight that fingerstyle playing in the normal bass sense is almost impossible. With a pick, however, a whole new world opens up. With a bit of palm muting, the percussive side of this bass literally jumps out at you. With more low end than just the traditional “click” or “tic-tac” sound, there is enough inherent bottom in the EB-6’s sound for a picked muted part to hold its own in a mellow track. On faster, more aggressive tunes, the low end gets a little lost but the top end is clear as a bell.

For a brief moment in the early ’60s, the worlds of bass and guitar collided and this oddball love child was the result. With a sound somewhere between Duane Eddy and Jack Bruce, this rip-roaring, trouser-flapping bass can move a lot of air. Perhaps the EB-6 could have been marketed better; maybe with a few design adjustments it might have found its niche. I guess we’ll never know. . . .