Re-inventing an original

Here’s an interesting thought experiment for you.  If Leo Fender were alive today, and he were going to re-invent the Precision bass, what would it be?

On one hand, it’s hard to ignore the history of the electric bass, and how far it’s progressed since the 1950s.  We’ve developed countless improvements to the original Precision bass, starting with its redesign in 1957 and progressing up to the active electronics today.  We’ve seen the changes wrought by the Jazz bass with its dual pickups echoed far and wide throughout the bass community.  Following this, we’ve benefited from all the other influential luthiers who pioneered all sorts of variations and options which are too numerous to list here.  We would therefore be hard pressed to select music that didn’t include any electric bass, or even to select music that only used the Precision bass and none of the improvements and variations that followed.

We’ve even seen several examples of Leo Fender re-inventing his own bass, initially with the Jazz bass, the Music Man and later on with G&L.  Indeed, the Music Man basses have become almost as iconic as the Precision and Jazz basses, and they paved the way for many of the bassists of yesterday and today.

But something remains special about the original Precision bass.  Its simplicity in design, its single pickup at just the right location, and its deep fundamentals and hollow midrange that fit nicely in the mix of so many recordings.  None of these improved models have forced the Precision bass out of Fender’s lineup, and it’s not likely that will change any time soon.

With that in mind, we can wonder how Leo would have done things differently for today’s music.  Let’s use that goal to try our thought experiment in several different ways.  All of these experiments require us to travel backwards in time to take a “snapshot” (or a syncording, if you will) of Leo, in a form that can be reproduced as a human (or a reasonable facsimile thereof).  We bring that snapshot of Leo (we’ll call him “Leo Novo”) up to the present day before setting up the initial conditions of each expperiment.

Experiment #1: We take our snapshot of Leo Novo just before his original self (whom we’ll call “Leo Prime”) invents the original Precision bass.  We then educate Leo Novo on everything that has happened since his original self  (whom we’ll call “Leo Prime”) invented the first Precision bass in the 1950s.  As part of this process, we give Leo Novo a thorough education in how his instrument (which the snapshot had not yet invented) had evolved over the years.  We introduce him to the Jazz, Mustang and Music Man basses, as well as those made by other manufacturers such as Alembic, Steinberger, Modulus, Wal, Fodera, Ken Smith, Rickenbacker, Tobias, Zon and Sadowsky (to name a few).  We introduce him to humbucking pickups, exotic neck woods, active onboard electronics, non-wood materials such as graphite, high-mass bridges, 5-string and extended-range basses, high-grade laminate wood tops, and all the other improvements and variations.  We also show him what other bassists have been able to accomplish with these instruments, and how they’ve changed the face of modern music.

Then we ask Leo Novo to take all of these improvements, technologies and materials into consideration, pick and choose from them as he wishes, and use those concepts to design his “first” electric bass all over again.  Make it clear to him that he doesn’t necessarily have to make this design the same as Leo Prime’s first Precision bass design (or any subsequent bass redesigns, for that matter).  But he should still strive to create an instrument that is as iconic, as distinctive, and as seminal as the first Precision bass was for its day.

Would this new bass have 5 strings?

Experiment #2: This experiment starts out like experiment #1, except that we isolate Leo Novo from any of the history of the electric bass.  Instead, we give him an altered version of our musical history in which the electric bass guitar was never invented, and Leo Prime only designed guitars (or other instruments).  We’ll also need to pretend that nobody else invented the electric bass guitar in the intervening years, and that the concept was never realized.  Leo Novo will be given a thorough history of his electric guitar designs, as well as the designs of other guitars, along with the technological refinements that have happened up until now.  But in this modified history we’ll do our best to make it appear that only acoustic bass instruments have been used up until this point, and we’ll ask him to design the “first” electric bass for today’s musicians.

At this point we need to decide whether we will expose Leo Novo to the acoustic bass guitar, the electric upright bass, and any other bass-like instruments which don’t derive from the original Fender design.  This probably means we won’t expose him to any of the modern fretted basses.  However, the use of these other “acoustic” bass instruments with a piezo pickup and some form of amplification may affect his design approach to the electric bass.

However, this experiment puts a somewhat severe restriction on what types of actual music (and real musicians) he can know about in this altered musical history.  Do we necessarily restrict him to country, jazz, bluegrass and soft-rock music that never uses electric bass?  Do we go back and re-mix iconic songs and albums with new tracks containing acoustic bass instead of electric bass?  To what level of intellectual honesty would we strive?  Or should we create a fictional musical history out of whole cloth, using some of the styles and concepts which were introduced in our real history?  There would necessarily be some styles which must be omitted, due to the role that the electric bass guitar played in their formation.  (Would he ever be permitted to know about Funk?)

Would the new Precision bass merely be an acoustic bass guitar with frets and a piezo pickup?

Experiment #3: We take a hybrid approach, by taking our snapshot of Leo Novo just after the invention of the 1957 redesigned Precision Bass, by pretending that Leo Prime never developed the Jazz bass or the Music Man, and that nobody else carried the concept of the electric bass any further.  In doing so, we simulate a world history in which the Precision bass in its 1957 form (or with some subtle improvements since then) was the pinnacle of the electric bass, and no improvements were made by himself or anyone else.

In this altered history, we would obviously need to selectively alter the musical history we give him to only include music which uses the Precision bass of 1957, or other bass-like fretless instruments.  In this history we allow the acoustic upright bass, acoustic bass guitars, and electric upright bass.  This gives us a bit more freedom to choose from our real musical history, but again it necessarily excludes some genres.  By creating this kind of a history, we can alter the tone to portray the Precision bass in a context which puts it somewhere between a “flop” or a “non-mainstream” result.  We can also give Leo Novo the impression that his Precision bass wasn’t particularly well-received in its time, or at least it didn’t capture the imagination of musicians or manufacturers to the degree that they needed to make any improvements or revolutionary design changes.

With this altered history in mind, we can then instruct Leo Novo to give it another try, and design a new electric bass that works for today’s music (as he is permitted to know it) and would pick up where the Precision left off.  As part of this experiment, we would ask Leo to analyze why nobody else decided to improve on the original concept.  Again, we should ask him to create something that was iconic, distinctive and seminal, in as much as we’ll pretend the Precision bass wasn’t.

Would the Leo Novo design this new bass to have multiple pickups?  Or would he even choose to design a new bass at all?

Follow-up: After Experiments #2 and #3, we should probably give each new bass design a thorough review, and then expose this instance of Leo Novo to the real history of the electric bass, as (re)invented by Leo Prime and as re-interpreted and developed by all the others.  It would be interesting to see Leo Novo’s reaction to nearly 60 years of development after having gone through the process (again, or for the first time, in his perspective) and get him to compare his “new” approach to what had been done before.

And, I must admit, it would be fun to let Leo Novo watch some of the great bassists in our history, to see what they’ve done with his instruments and how they’ve shaped the legacy of the electric bass.

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