THIS FINELY WORN CHESTNUT IS a fantastic example of the genius of Leo Fender, and this bass remains vibrant some 52 years later. Leo’s original Precision Bass was introduced in 1951, and underwent a dramatic redesign from 1954 to 1957. First off, the original P-Bass’s slab-style body became contoured for greater playing comfort, borrowing design elements of the then-new Stratocaster guitar. Fender also added a gold anodized pickguard in a shape that was to become iconic.
In 1957 Leo dropped a bomb: a completely new pickup that placed twin polepieces under each string (for smoother attack) and featured a split-coil design with humbucking properties. This change was the final element that transformed the electric bass from curiosity into rhythm-section staple, and the “Fender Bass” became the standard by which all other electric basses were judged. Its punchy sound and unlimited potential for amplification without feedback put the bass guitar front and center for the first time in popular music.
This 1958 Precision, nicknamed “Pete” for the crudely carved name on its top, belongs to Paul Ossola, a recent Nashville transplant who was the bass player for the Saturday Night Live house band from 1991 to 1995. It has the wear marks of years of playing and also is relatively light, due to the wood drying out over the years. Paul also has a 1957 PBass (dubbed “Not Pete”), but this ’58 has been his main axe since he purchased it from G.E. Smith during the SNL days. “G.E. let me use it once for a rehearsal, and I mentioned afterward that if he ever ran across one like that, I would be interested in buying it,” says Paul. “A few weeks later, he sold it to me for a great price.” Neither G.E. nor Paul has any idea who “Pete” might be, but if you’re out there and reading this, Pete, welcome to your 15 minutes of fame!
Pete has the classic P-Bass neck shape. It plays like butta, and the sound is almost indescribably delicious; it perfectly highlights the bass guitar’s midrange frequencies, and has incredible clarity. With flatwound strings, you can go from a gnarly bite to an upright-like thump with a twist of the tone knob. It has that intangible punch factor that sits in a mix so well, and playing it instantly reminds you of all the classic Precision lines that great bassists like James Jamerson, Rocco Prestia, Chuck Rainey, Tommy Cogbill, and so many more have laid down over the years.
Talking shop with Paul, our conversation turned to the concept of there being a “holy grail” of electric bass. “The holy grail of P-Basses is whichever one you are holding in your hands at the time,” Ossola opined. As much as I love this particular bass, it’s hard to argue with that kind of logic. Over the years, Fender has made modifications and refinements to the Precision, but the essential design that Leo perfected in 1957 remains intact, and for good reason! All P-Basses are slightly different, but there is one thing they all have in common: they are part of a historic tradition that changed the landscape of bass playing and popular music forever.