The history of the electric bass part three: a UK perspective

German imports, homegrown innovation and early amplification

BASS EXPO 2014: Back in the 1950s walking into a musical instrument shop was a very different experience than it is today. Many of the instruments would be secondhand and there would be a rather limited choice.

Most guitars would be acoustic bodied, some with pickups and a few solids but rarely a bass in sight. No walls of Fender or Gibson guitars, in fact no American guitars at all, as the trade embargo between America and Britain was still very much in place following the end of World War II so buying American instruments in the UK was next to impossible.

That's why Hank Marvin's Stratocaster, brought in by a military friend of Cliff Richard, was such a revelation to the emerging rock culture of players over here. With the country still in the grip of economic restrictions most of the available guitars and basses came from Europe and two names stood out from the crowd, Hofner and Framus.

As both companies had been making instruments for many years their quality of build was good. The popular bass models at the time were the Framus Star Bass (pictured above right) and the Hofner 500/1 or Violin Bass as it is more commonly known, with both being introduced in 1956.

Jet Harris used the Framus with The Drifters and The Shadows, Licorice Locking with The Wildcats, Heinz Burt, who worked for producer Joe Meek and then with The Tornadoes, John Gustafson with the Big Three and Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman.

Early Star Basses had a chromed metal pickguard and Licorice Locking tried to avoid touching it when the guitar was plugged in. "Just in case," he says! The Hofners were very popular with several Liverpool bands and the 500/1 was soon joined by a range of hollowbody models.

Of course Paul McCartney is famous for using the Violin Bass but in the early Beatles Stu Sutcliffe was using a single cutaway Hofner 333 bass and this was also used by McCartney when he took over the bass playing duties before getting his own instrument. With relatively few basses in circulation bass strings were rather expensive so Sutcliffe took to using piano strings to replace broken ones.

Egmond instruments were also heavily imported by Rosetti Distribution and badged under the Rosetti name but although their Lucky 7 and Solid 7 guitars were popular in Britain the twin pickup Bass 7 didn't achieve anything like the same success.

Burns

Britain however was not without its own champions and in 1959 the legendary Jim Burns teamed up with Henry Weill to produce guitars and basses under the Burns-Weill name. Jim produced the bodies and necks whilst Henry took care of the electronics.

It was a short lived association that lasted about a year but during that time three different models of guitars and relevant basses became available, the Fenton, the Streamline and the Super Streamline and each bass model had a 29.5-inch scale length.

By 1960 Jim Burns was making guitars and basses under his own name and Henry continued production as Fenton Weill incorporating the name of that first guitar model. He revamped the Streamline and called it the Contrabass. Jim produced many different guitar models and most had a bass version too.

First up was the Artist Bass which borrowed ideas from the Fender basses that had now become available but were way too expensive for the amateur and semi-pro market. The Artist sported a twin cutaway body, a new 31.5-inch scale length and a pair of Tri-Sonic Bass pickups.

The shorter scaled and much smaller Sonic Bass followed then a whole succession of classic models were produced as the sixties progressed in spite of continued American competition. The Black Bison Bass and the Vista Sonic appeared in 1962, The hollowbody TR2 bass with innovative preamp circuitry in '63, the Jazz Bass, the Shadows Bass, the Nu-Sonic Bass in '64, and the Vibraslim Bass around 1965.

The problem was Jim Burns just couldn't stop inventing so whilst Fender was essentially consolidating its Precision and Jazz models because they worked, Jim just couldn't seem to stop and that costs money.

Backline

Almost as difficult as finding a bass guitar was finding amplification and dedicated bass models were rare indeed. In the mid 1950s, electronic wiz Charlie Watkins was producing amplifiers and by 1956 three models were available, The Clubman, the Dominator and the Westminster.

Although crude by today's standards they were well made and relatively well priced but sadly not much use with bass. Also very popular in Britain at this time were Selmer amps which they sold in their prestigious shop in London's Charing Cross Road.

Initially the company had imported amplifiers from America made by the Operadio Company but in 1935 they began making their own. In 1947 Selmer bought out RSA amplification to expand the business and in the mid fifties began producing the Truvoice combo.

Hank and Bruce of the Drifters/Shadows were using these whilst Jet had a Pepe Rush purpose built bass amp and cabinet until the introduction of Vox Amplification, designed by Dick Denney and made by Jennings Musical Industries.

The band commenced using the Vox AC15 for both guitar and bass but when they needed more power to overcome the volume of screaming fans the Vox AC30 was developed and a British legend was born. The AC30 also had a bass version with a slightly modified circuit and more powerful speakers.

For the average bass player in the street however these amplifiers were still expensive so no wonder that during the fifties Skiffle era, bass players were forced into making the tea-chest bass. Licorice Locking used one of these when he was with The Vagabonds but it was Jim Rodford (Later of Argent and The Kinks fame) who was the real crack hand on the tea-chest bass but in most instances all you got was a dull tuneless thud but it still added to the overall sound.

The bass guitar led to players like Mo Foster resorting to some home construction with the help of Practical Wireless magazine but for many of us an easier route was to use the general purpose Linear Conchord Amplifier and a homemade speaker cabinet.

As the 1960s progressed and pop music was embraced by one and all, American equipment dominated the bass market and although higher priced than the European and home grown equivalents they had the looks, the feel and the sound that held the most appeal.

But this was a very interesting time for gear in the UK and much of these early guitars, basses and amplifiers have become very collectable and in cases like the Hofner Violin Bass and even the curious Vox Phantom Bass, are still very much in demand.

For a more detailed history of the British music scene check out Mo Foster's excellent book, British Rock Guitar.

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