The Electric bass
Best invention of all time
What is the best invention of all time? I’m not asking which invention is the most useful, what has changed our lives the most or what your personal favorite invention is. I’m asking which invention was so good when it was first produced that it has not been bettered since?
For example, nobody seems to be driving around in a Ford Model T do they? It was a good car for its time, but the whole thing has been constantly reinvented so that today’s cars have little in common with those first mass-produced cars.
I haven’t seen many people risking their lives in a Wright Flyer recently. Eleven U.S. military pilots were killed trying to fly these things in trials. Modern airlines are a bit more reliable and faster too.
You wouldn’t want to try downloading the upcoming KISS album on an IBM 650, the world’s first mass-produced computer. It had a memory of 8.5kb.
Boats, bicycles, kettles, toasters and sofas… They’ve all been reinvented beyond comparison with their original forms. The first plates were leaves, knives were bits of bone or flint and drums had skins, literally made of animal hide. That’s not how Lars got the kick drum sound on “…And Justice for All.”
The only example I can think of – and, therefore by my reckoning, the best invention of all time – is the electric bass guitar. That’s right, the bass guitar is officially the best invention of all time and certainly, therefore, the best instrument in any band.
That settles an argument I’ve been having on and off with loads of band mates over the years about which musical instrument is the best. In retrospect, these discussions were rarely constructive. “Bass is obviously the best instrument to play ‘cause it’s so cool,” would form the basis of my argument after a particularly good gig and a beer or two.
To be fair, the other musicians in the band were mostly at the disadvantage of playing lesser instruments, like guitars or keyboards. (And don’t even get me started on those non-musical collections of junk people call drum kits!) Because there was no real evidence for either my or their cases, these thought-provoking debates would usually end in stalemate.
Keyboard players sometimes said typical on-the-fence things like, “Come on, guys. All the instruments are just as cool as each other. We’re all needed here.” They probably all voted Lib/Dem, too! When verbal stalemate ends in physical violence, nobody comes out the moral victor. I’ve come to realize that recently.
More than once, I’ve been thrown off a tour bus on the side of an Autobahn with my middle finger still raised in defiance as my so-called band ‘mates’ drove off into the distance (basically because they were all jealous that I played the coolest instrument). I imagine Lemmy has suffered the same indignity from time to time. But no more. I can now declare categorically that the electric bass guitar is the best invention of all time because it simply cannot be bettered. It was and is perfect from day one.
In the 1940s, bands were getting louder. Those little twangers known as electric guitars were getting out of hand (as they always do). Electric guitars had been around for a while, since magnetic pickups were first stuck to half broken twiddly things in the 1920s. They’d come on a fair bit since then (being constantly reinvented because they weren’t and still aren’t perfect) so that by the late 1940s they even had multiple pickups and whammy bars (they didn’t keep tune very well back then, but that’s another problem with guitars ever since… We’ll talk about that at length another time).
The acoustic double bass that was in use in the 1940s was the same thing still used in orchestras and rockabilly bands. It’s a cumbersome beast to carry around. It is also difficult to play precisely in tune as it has no frets, but most importantly, by the end of the ’40s, it was not loud enough to compete with the lesser instruments that it shared a stage with.
Its beautiful-but-dull tone did not cut through those irritating electric guitarists and now that singers were starting to use small PA systems, things were clearly balanced against the bass player. In 1950, Leo Fender invented a prototype electric bass guitar and the following year it was mass produced. (Attempts had been made to make an electric bass as far back as the 1930s by the Canadian Audiovox company. Small numbers were made but it was not mass-produced or widely played.) Fender called his invention the “Precision” because, having frets, its tuning could for the first time be absolutely precise. Not only was the tuning easier, but the amplified sound was more punchy than the old double basses and it now had the ability to compete in volume with any musician onstage. And that’s where the story ends. That’s right, it was perfect from day one. There’s nothing more to add.
A few tiny modifications were made over the years. The first single-coil pick up became a split humbucker. The shape of the original scratch plate shape was changed and the pickup guard isn’t usually seen anymore. But the basic Fender Precision bass has not been bettered. Other basses have been invented since. Most are copies of the original Fender design. None has outsold it or been used as often by major artists. The Fender Precision is still an absolute industry standard.
Myself, I often play an Ernie Ball Music Man. It’s another bass invented by Leo Fender and it’s based very much on the Precision. It’s different from a Precision, but it’s not necessarily better.
Loads of your favorite bass players play Fender Precisions. All the guys photographed on this page are playing Precisions. Sometimes when bassists use more showy basses onstage, they use an old Precision in the studio to get the best sound on record.
The older the better, people often say with Precisions. The new ones are good and very popular, but those early ones are still the best invention of all time and sell for thousands.
You wouldn’t find Lewis Hamilton trying to beat his lap time in a Model T. Good luck trying clay pigeon shooting with a matchlock musket. But you will still find the biggest bands in the world using an old Fender Precision.
Leo Fender, we salute you. We have won. Bass is proven to be the best instrument ever. That’s now official.
Chris Dale is a heavy metal bassist, currently a member of the group TANK. He has previously played with lots of metal bands and projects, most notably a two-year stint in Bruce Dickinson’s solo band. Chris fronts the pop-group Sack Trick, DJs on Bloodstock Radio and, in his spare time, works on tour as a bass and guitar technician for anyone going to a hot climate (most recently Go West, Mr. Big and Armored Saint).