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P is for perfection: the tale of the Fender Precision Bass

The Precision Bass was truly the first of its kind. Its low-end power and ergonomic design made the electric bass a rock band essential.

The Fender Precision Bass is one of those rare instrumental standards that transcends genre – a true mainstay that every bass player can identify by look and sound. From straight blasting punk to smooth ’70s soul, Fender’s flagship bass has done it all.

The Who, The Police, The Beach Boys, The Clash, and The Ramones are just a few iconic acts that sport this low-end thump machine. Read on as we examine the enduring qualities of this bottom-end master.

Precision Bass Brian Wilson

At the Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll

The Precision Bass was truly the hero of music in the ’50s. The rising popularity of genres like rock ‘n’ roll meant that bands were only getting louder. The double bass simply couldn’t cut it and was too cumbersome to take on tour buses and small stages. It was time to strike, Fender decided to swoop in.

The first Precision Bass was produced in October 1951. The name “Precision” came from the use of frets to play in tune more easily than the fretless fingerboard of the double bass. Leo Fender borrowed a lot of characteristics from the Telecaster at the time, including the headstock, neck plate, truss rod nut, and control knobs.

The bass came in a solid body form which contributed to its overall power and ‘thumpy’ tone. Two cutaway horns were adopted instead of the Telecaster’s single horn. This design choice would go on to influence the shape of the Stratocaster not long after.

Features included a one-piece 20-fret maple neck and fretboard, a single pickup, black pickguard, Kluson tuners, and thumb rest. The bass had a 34” scale length and was available only in a blonde finish.

The revolution continued

The Precision Bass’ first modification came shortly after in 1957 and resulted in the Precision Bass design that endures to this day. The new headstock was made in the image of the first 1955 Stratocaster.

It took on a whole new look with a new split-coil pickup new pickguard and assembly to which the electronics were fixed. Additionally, the 1957 model featured bridge-mounted rather than through-body strings and individual threaded bridge saddles for better intonation. 

It was at this point the P Bass we know and love was starting to take shape. Although it wouldn’t be until the turn of the decade where it would become a staple.

Motown, California and the British Invasion

By this time, the famed bass had wriggled its way into the heart of the music industry with its infectious sound. Spurred on by its reception, Fender went off to release the equally iconic Jazz Bass in 1960. Although lacking the established popularity of the P Bass, the Jazz Bass became a companion rather than competitor.

The P Bass didn’t go through many major changes in the first half of the ’60s due to its growing popularity. Then in 1964, the clay dot fretboard markers were replaced with faux pearl dots. White three-ply vinyl pickguards replaced tortoiseshell pickguards and a new thicker headstock logo was introduced.

The artists responsible for this spike in popularity included The Beach Boys, John Entwistle of The Who, and the god of groove James Jamerson. The Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson grew up in Los Angeles and received his first Precision Bass as a gift from his father in December 1961. Meanwhile, over in Detroit, James Jamerson was busy pumping out smooth Motown hits using the 1962 Precision he dubbed “The Funk Machine.”

The ’70s saw more changes to the Precision design as rock music reached its adolescence. The sheer multitude of genres that were alive in the era proved how versatile the P Bass truly is. From serving up the pounding drive of the Sex Pistols to laying down the contagious pop grooves of Elton John’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. This bass tackled anything in its path.

The ’70s introduced a slightly narrower neck width, maple and rosewood fingerboards, and a fretless option. In 1974, Fender introduced black pickguards as standard and moved the thumb rest from the bottom to the top side.

The Precision Bass in the Modern Era

Fender had what seemed to be the home run of bass guitars, up until this point. Unfortunately, the ’80s was the age in which the quality of Fender’s instruments took a rather steep nosedive. In 1965 Leo Fender sold the company for 13 million dollars to the CBS Corporation. From that point on Fender became a company focused more on mass production. Sadly this meant instrument quality suffered due to the corner-cutting methods employed by CBS.

Although, this didn’t stop the Precision from dominating the airwaves of the era. Queen‘s 1980 smash Another One Bites The Dust birthed the turn of the decade its the best way possible. This three-note riff spurred an anthem that redefined the tone of the P Bass for the modern age.

Others like Sting of The Police upheld the legacy, sporting a vintage ’57 Precision bass handmade by Leo Fender himself.  The iconic artwork for The Clash’s London Calling featured bassist Paul Simonon smashing his P Bass on stage in New York.

The Precision was more than ready for a new decade and with that came a host of modern design changes. The company introduced its first bass model with active electronics in 1980, dubbed the Precision Bass Special. Fender also opted to abandon the three-bolt neck-mounting system and return to the classic four-bolt method for all of its bass guitars.

In today’s age, the Precision Bass is still popular in a number of musical styles. Artists like Micheal League of Snarky Puppy and Vulfpeck’s Joe Dart are carrying the funk world on their shoulders. Meanwhile, Nate Mendel of Foo Fighters is showing off his skills as a classic rock bass with his signature model.

Japanese Precision

Soon after this, Fender’s production began to move overseas and Fender Japan was established in March 1982 while U.S. production was reorganized. From this came the Vintage Reissue series ’57 and ’62 models. These high-quality and historically accurate precision models would then go to enter the European market under the Squier name.

This endeavor would even seek to destroy some of the Japanese copy-cats that had been manufacturing cheaper knock-offs that are now renowned to be just as good, if not better than the CBS era Fenders.

Its iconic look and feel, simple design, and versatile tone have carried the Precision Bass through generations of music – it’s telling that the silhouette hasn’t changed from 1957. The P Bass has proven itself to be the electric bass of the people and its ceaseless energy keeps the world grooving.

Check out the full Precision Bass production run at Fender.