Welcome to a new feature examining the sometimes forgotten half of the bass player’s rig. Many of us ritually lust after the latest spalted burl nine-string coffee table basses or primitive vintage thud machines, but those black boxes full of speakers behind us require our attention too. To give you the inside info we’ll take a closer look at some of the most iconic bass amps ever made. This will hopefully give you a better understanding of the journey our amplification has taken towards today’s modern bass set-up.
It seems logical to begin at the beginning, and to the dawn of the electric bass guitar itself. Clarence Leo Fender was undoubtedly a genius. His inventive designs brought the six-string electric guitar to the masses, and in 1951 he gave us the first commercially viable electric bass. The amusing thing is that at the time the concept of an electric bass was so new that even Leo Fender himself overlooked the need for something to plug your newly acquired ‘Precision’ bass into. In fact, if you’d bought a Precision in 1951, the only thing you could use as an amp was one of Fender’s 1×15” Pro guitar amps. This was clearly an oversight, and the Fender team quickly tried to redesign the 1×15” as a dedicated bass amp. The 1952 Fender brochure includes a photo of an early P-Bass propped up by a ‘TV fronted’ (so called due to its similarity to the television sets of the time) tweed covered box, named simply ‘Amplifier’.
The adjoining particulars state: “A new high in bass amplification, ruggedly built, especially designed for bass reproduction… unique speaker housing for bass emphasis. Tone will not break up or distort even at extremely loud volume: the answer to true fidelity bass reproduction.” The bass amp was at last born. Fender’s chief of sales Don Randall soon gave this unassuming box its new moniker, the Bassman, and this has stuck ever since.
The first amplifier to bear the Bassman name was a combo, with just two knobs for volume and tone, two instrument inputs and a ‘specially designed’ 15” Jensen speaker. Unusually for Fender amps of the time, it has a closed back, with two three-inch ports designed to enhance the low-end response. The ‘TV Bassman’ had a change of appearance to a ‘wide panel’ version in 1953. The new ‘5B6’ was all valve (two 6SC7 or 6SL7GTs for the pre-amp, two 5881s in the power amp and a single 5U4G rectifier valve) and produced a full 26 watts. The catalogue read: “It’s not a hashed-over guitar amplifier, but an instrument that has been designed for the reproduction of bass and bass only”. Fender’s turnaround of designs at the time was rapid, and the 5B6 was discontinued after just over two years of production. There are believed to have been around 600 made.
Despite these claims, Fender began to receive complaints that the 5B6 could not reproduce the low end of the bass guitar without distorting, and that the single 15” speaker would frequently blow. The company, keen to please their ever-growing customer base, began working on a new bass amp. Production of the 4×10” Bassman (model 5D6) started at the end of 1954 to be included in the 1955 range. It featured four Jensen 10” speakers and was open-backed. By this time, electric guitar and harmonica players had begun to see the potential of the Bassman amp too: the open-backed design and the two ‘normal’ and ‘bright’ inputs is a definite nod from Fender to the new Bassman’s broader usage. This was a shrewd move by Fender, as it enlarged the amps market significantly. To quote the 1955 catalogue, the Bassman amp “provides true bass amplification, or may also be used for other instruments due to its widely varying tonal characteristics”.
The narrow-panel Bassman also sported some new controls: bass, treble and presence knobs. This allowed for far greater tone shaping, and its 40-watt output was unlike anything heard before in terms of volume. The ‘tweed’ 4×10” Bassman, so called due to its brown and white striped luggage linen covering, went through several changes in the five years it was produced, but the final 5F6-A has become one of the most sought-after amplifiers in history. It featured four inputs to accommodate a range of different instruments, a new middle control and revised Jensen P10Q speakers, enabling it to produce a whopping 50 watts output. The 5F6-A’s production was short-lived, though, starting in 1958 and ceasing in 1960. This short run time only adds to its allure, making original 5F6-As rare and expensive beasts.
The Bassman amp was still produced after 1960, but the entire range changed from tweed to the now familiar Tolex textured vinyl covering. The evolution of the Bassman continued, but that is a story for another day…
Chris Hanby has amassed a staggering amount of insightful, interesting and sometimes irrelevant information on bass guitar equipment during his career as a professional bassist. Some would say it’s a gift, others that he is a nerd, either way we continue to push boxes of electronics and bass amps under his nose and make him report to us on his favourites.