In 1951, Leo Fender changed musical history when he unleashed the Precision Bass on an unsuspecting world. With its ability to capture the tonal essence of the acoustic bass through a pickup and amp, combined with a more manageable size and the addition of frets, the P-Bass was the “big bang” that led to an unprecedented power shift in popular music. In the hands of players like James Jamerson, Larry Graham, and so many others, the music of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s became increasingly bass driven. The rest, as they say, is history.
As legend has it, the original idea for this bass was inspired by Leo’s guitarist friends who wanted to double on bass without the inconvenience and difficulty of mastering the upright bass. Leo’s solution—the electric fretted bass guitar with a 34" scale and a bolt-on neck—was a true stroke of genius. Interestingly enough, the P-Bass’s first big breakthrough was in the jazz world. Leo saw Lionel Hampton play in New York City and showed him the bass. Lionel immediately “got it” and started using it in his band. When “Monk” Montgomery, brother of Wes, joined the band soon after, he became one of the first iconic Fender bass players. The Fender brand soon became so omnipresent that well into the 1960s, any brand of electric bass was commonly referred to as a “Fender.”
It did not become the “modern” P-Bass we all know and love until 1957, so this 1956 model, owned by my friend Byron House (bassist for Sam Bush, Robert Plant, and many more), is a transitional instrument. Leo’s original body design was a straight slab of wood, like a monstrous Telecaster with deep double cutaways. In 1954 Leo began contouring both sides of the body for comfort, and before the end of the decade, this would become shape of the modern Precision bass. This bass also has a distinct “V” shape to the back of the neck. In 1968 Fender resurrected the original Precision design and pickup, and dubbed it the Telecaster Bass.
Another obvious visual and sonic difference between this bass and its descendants is the pickup, which sounds deep and warm, but does “spike” a bit while playing aggressively. Leo tweaked the height of the single pole pieces in 1955 in an attempt to even out the response, but was still not satisfied. In 1957, this pickup design was replaced with Leo’s innovative split humbucking pickup, whose dual poles for each string and offset shape helped to even out both the tonal response and the transient peaks. With a new pickguard and headstock shape, the “modern” P-Bass was born. The volume and tone knobs are similar to a Telecaster’s, and the bridge is quite primitive. There are only two adjustment screws, one for each half of the bridge, so intonation is a matter of selecting proper string gauge, rather than making too many adjustments.
This bass was created in the era of flatwound strings, and they sure do sound great on this axe, with all the qualities one might expect—funky, smooth, and thumpy. Remember, too, that the original bridge cover, long gone in most cases, also contained a string mute to minimize sustain, as emulating the string bass in a swing context was the original goal. With the tone control turned down, one can imagine the tone Leo was going for—a strong fundamental without a lot of overtones, and the ability to be as loud as the amp would allow. With the tone control maxed, this bass has a sweet midrange “plunkiness.”
Leo Fender’s revolutionary concept for an electric bass guitar gave bass players the power to drive the music in new directions, and this ’56 is a fascinating glimpse into the early stages of Leo’s vision. We share the same birth year, and like me, this bass has had plenty of well-traveled miles … hopefully we both still have plenty to say! Until next time, groove on—and give credit to Mr. Fender, who as BP Founding Editor Jim Roberts succinctly put it, “changed the world.” Thanks, Leo!