Could you tell me something about the origins of the modern 6-string bass? Who built the first one, and what companies manufacture them today?
-Terry Chatreau, Los Angeles, CA
Although Danelectro, Fender, and Gibson all built what they called 6-string basses in the ’60s, those instruments might more accurately be called bass guitars, with their short scales and guitar-like tuning (though one octave lower). The modern 6-string bass originated in the mind of Anthony Jackson and the shop of New York luthier/repairman Carl Thompson in mid-1974. Feeling limitations in range at both ends, Jackson conceived of an instrument he called a contra bass. Tuned in fourths, it had an extra B string below and an extra C string on top. He engaged Carl Thompson to work out the details and execute the design. Thompson’s first effort had a Honduras mahogany body, an ebony inlaid tailpiece, a hardrock maple one-piece neck, a 34″ scale, 26 frets, and a single pickup designed by Attila Zoller. “I wasn’t too sure what was going on,” confesses Thompson. “At the time I had made maybe only eight or nine basses. I built it at the same time I was building Stanley Clarke’s first piccolo bass.” Though Jackson described the instrument as “extremely fine” in a Jan. ’86 Guitar Player interview, he rarely played it, because the string spacing he had specified was too narrow. Among the first builders to jump on the 6-string idea were Stuart Spector, Ken Smith, Alembic, and Vinnie Fodera. Nowadays, it is difficult to find a bass manufacturer that does not build a 6-string.