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The Appearance of the Electric Bass
Guitar: A Rockabilly Perspective
Roy C. Brewer Freelance Musician and PartTime Lecturer
a
a
University of Oregon
Published online: 17 May 2010.
To cite this article: Roy C. Brewer Freelance Musician and PartTime Lecturer (2003) The
Appearance of the Electric Bass Guitar: A Rockabilly Perspective, Popular Music and Society, 26:3,
351-366, DOI: 10.1080/0300776032000116996
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0300776032000116996
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Popular Music and Society, Vol. 26, No. 3, 2003
ISSN0300-7766 print/ISSN 1740-1712 online/03/030351-16 2003 Taylor & Francis Ltd
DOI: 10.1080/0300776032000116996
The Appearance of the Electric Bass
Guitar: A Rockabilly Perspective
Roy C. Brewer
Introduction
When listening to recordings from the first period of rockabillythat is, before
Elvis Presleys move to RCA Records in 1956it is obvious that the acoustic bass
played a major role in the sonic construction of the genre. The frenzied quality of
Presleys recordings from Sun Studio, for example, is as much due to the slapping
sound of Bill Blacks upright bass as to Presleys insolent vocal style. The musical
energy provided by the physical abuse of the acoustic bass helped propel the
raucous style and aroused a new sense of urgency in popular music. The fierce
approach to playing rockabilly bass and the traitorous disrespect to the cultural
traditions it represented were undeniably the roots of later rock and roll styles. By
the late 1950s, as rockabilly disseminated in to other popular musical styles, that
frenzied quality supplied by the upright bass was lost as the use of the electric
bass became more popular.
1
Arrangements for songs such as WalkDont Run,
by the Ventures in 1960, use the electric bass guitar in new parallel movement with
the electric guitars.
There has been a continuing debate about the influence of technology on the
sound and purpose of popular music, particularly those musics of ethnic origin.
There is little doubt that the rockabilly revival of the late 1970s and 1980s was
a response, albeit indirectly and probably unconsciously, to the new wave
of synthesizer-dominated pop music of that era. There is now a flourishing
rockabilly movement in the smaller rock and roll venues in the United States and
Western Europe, and also a new demand for the pioneers of rockabilly to perform.
In these deliberately historical performances of authentic rockabilly, the acoustic
bass has found a new home. We can now, in hindsight, view 1950s rockabilly and
its aftermath as a case study of the effects of technology, the electric bass guitar in
particular, on American popular music. Rockabilly helped standardize instrumen-
tation in the pop ensemble and ultimately changed the sonic character of rock
and roll and the direction it would take in the 1960s and 1970s. Amplification
of the vocal, guitar, and eventually bass, in both white and black roots music,
indeed altered the relationship between sound and sight during performances
and became an integral part of the music process and expectations of listeners
(Waksman 12949).
Although their construction is similar, the histories of the electric bass and
the electric guitar are surprisingly different. The electric guitar, for example,
entered popular music much more gradually. As early as 1932, Rickenbacker had
developed an amplified guitar, and, by 1940, retro fitting pickups were available
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352 Brewer
on the market. So long before the early 1950s, when Leo Fender created his solid-
bodied Broadcaster and Gibson developed the Les Paul model, the electric guitar
had begun a period of assimilation in to vernacular musical styles. By 1954,
electric guitarists had been influenced by the swinging low-string styles of Arthur
Guitar Boogie Smith, single-note solo passages by Hank Williamss Sammy
Pruett, and the finger-picking styles of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins. Rockabilly
electric guitarists were also influenced by performers in R&B, who adopted the
instrument at a surprisingly early date. Then, towards the end of the 1950s, pro-
mising performers such as Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran in white rock, and Bo
Diddley and Chuck Berry in black rock, solidified the image of the electric guitar
in rock and roll for the performers of the 1960s (Waksman 162). But in rockabilly,
the lead singer seldom played electric guitar. Those who followed Elvis Presleys
economical prototype instrumentation, which was based upon standards of
instrumentation developed in country music (acoustic guitar, electric guitar,
acoustic bass), delegated the electric guitar lines to a sideman. There are, of course,
a handful of exceptions to the pattern, such as Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, but
generally the rockabilly singer played, or at least held, an acoustic guitar rather
than an electric.
2
It is difficult to look at the dramatic changes within the short rockabilly era and
not conclude that the relatively sudden displacement of the acoustic bass from
the style had some role in what has been viewed as a homogenization of rock and
roll in the late 1950s. The visual image of the acoustic bass being abused by the
rockabilly player and the subsequent racket it produced were essential elements to
rockabilly. After the popularity of tame teen idols in the early 1960s, musicians of
the British invasion rediscovered and increased the rebellious nature and frenetic
qualities of rockabilly and R&B.
3
The post-rockabilly era also was a time for the
standardization of instrumentation in the rock and roll ensemble through the
success of instrumental hits. The earliest image of the electric bass guitarist was
finally defined in 1964 by the Beatles Paul McCartney, who played a 1963 Hofner
model 500/1 shaped much like an upright bass.
The acoustic bass
It is important to this study to address the unique sonic properties of the acous-
tic bass and to be able to achieve a clear comparison with the electric bass guitar.
Undoubtedly, individual timbre and volume will differ according to the construc-
tion and quality of the particular acoustic bass, but, nonetheless, the upright bass
has certain inherent qualities and physical limitations that encouraged the inven-
tion of the electric bass and its subsequent adoption by a majority of vernacular
musicians.
The acoustic bass, also known as double bass, string bass, upright bass, and
bull fiddle, has been played in European art music for centuries. While it is com-
monly included as the lowest pitched instrument in the European string family, it
is actually a descendent of the viol group (Clevinger). So, originally, the upright
bass was meant to be bowed. The bowing technique of sound production allowed
a variety of staccato and legato tones, and more resonance and volume. The
fact that the bass was primarily a plucked instrument in the vernacular world
probably played a part in its being replaced by the electric bass guitar.
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Popular Music and Society, Vol. 26, No. 3 353
The bass has been included in ensembles for American vernacular music since
the ragtime orchestras and string bands of the 1890s, when it was commonly used.
Although the acoustic bass was used in live performances, the tuba, which was
easier to record, was often a substitute in the early recordings of jazz and other
music in the 1920s. Nevertheless, as jazz moved away from its New Orleans brass
band roots, the plucked bass gradually became the standard harmonic instrument
in the rhythm sections of early big bands in the late 1920s. As the size of ensembles
grew between the 1930s and 1950s, the collective sonic volume was raised. Conse-
quently, the acoustic bass became difficult to hear during both live and recording
situations. It is no wonder that Duke Ellington used two bassists simultaneously
in his swing band lineup of 1934, and that symphony orchestras have as many as
eight or ten players in the bass section (Pekar 11).
There were several solutions to the sonic problems presented during the 1930s.
Steel wrappings were added to gut strings and string heights were raised (thus
increasing string tension and resulting volume), and there were isolated, unsuc-
cessful attempts to amplify the acoustic bass. By the 1930s, Rickenbacker, Regal,
Vega, Gibson, and other instrument manufacturers were trying to develop acoustic
basses with electric amplification.
Bluegrass and commercial country music adopted the acoustic bass for both live
performances and recordings in the 1940s and 1950s. But basses were sometimes
too expensive for many hillbilly musicians and, instead, bass lines were often sup-
plied by the lower strings of the accompanying guitar or by single-stringed basses
constructed from washtubs, wire, and broomsticks. Although fine old antique
instruments were available for large sums of money in the 1950s for professional
musicians in orchestral professions, most basses of the rockabilly era were usually
of lesser quality. But the sound they produced, with little sustain or volume, and
limited overtones, added a certain cultural element to rockabilly recordings. In the
early 1950s, for example, the first bass Clayton Perkins played with his brother
Carl was a homemade two-string bass that weighed twice as much as a factory-
made model; it was the closest thing to a bass available to the inspired young
musicians (Perkins and McGee 46).
In bluegrass, country, and especially rockabilly, the acoustic bass supplied more
than simply the lower pitches in the ensemble. Rockabilly bassists used a slap-
ping technique in the right hand, which helped to punctuate the notes and
rhythms played. The slapping is perhaps better described as snapping the
string against the fingerboard so as to create a percussive effect on beats 1 and 3,
followed by a slapping of the strings with the palm of the hand on beats 2 and 4.
The bassist was responsible for both tonal and rhythmic elements. In some cases
dotted eighth and triplet subdivisions can be produced. But slapping the bass
requires the string to snap against the fingerboard, thus impeding its vibrations.
Plucking the string sideways in the more traditional method allows for more
vibration and low-end frequency resonance from the body of the instrument. So,
although the slapping technique does punctuate notes with high frequencies, it
ultimately squelches the lower frequencies of the note being produced. The differ-
ence in tone and clarity between these two techniques can be heard by comparing
Bill Blacks bass lines from his recordings with Elvis Presley at Sun to those of
Bob Moore on the recordings of Ric Carty in Nashville.
4
Where Black forfeited a
full, rich tone for the more dramatic slapping style, Moore generally used a more
traditional plucking style, allowing the bass to resonate.
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Slapping the bass for percussive effect had been done long before the 1950s,
which is testament to the obviousness of the technique. A pioneer of the technique
was George Pops Foster in the 1930s, and it was perpetuated by John Lindsay,
Milt Hinton, Ray Brown, and others in the 1950s. Steve Brown tastefully employs
the technique in Jean Goldkettes recording of My Pretty Girl in 1927, and both
Ranson Knowling and Willie Dixon occasionally slapped the bass on some blues
recordings in the 1940s (Morrison 259). Slapping can often be heard during
solo sections of Hank Williamss recordings (Move It On Over, for example). The
technique was also performed to perfection by Marshall Lytle on the 1955 record-
ing of (Were Gonna) Rock Around the Clock, by Bill Haley and His Comets
(Shipton 302).
The slapping technique was often intensified in rockabilly by adding taped echo
effects during the recording process. This combination produced an overwhelming
and essential component of what is now often termed authentic rockabilly.
5
Carl
Perkins recounted his brother Claytons enthusiastic playing style to David McGee
in Go, Cat, Go:
The minute Clayton started that clickin behind Jays rhythm [guitar], then it all
exploded. It doesnt take a great musician to play. It takes feel, and a sound, and
thats what I heard. Im telling you theres times when us three boys sounded
like five people. That bass sounded like two instrumentsone clickin, and one
carrying that rhythm. (Perkins and McGee 47)
Perkins also recounts that he wanted his brother to click the strings in time rather
than focus on individual notes as the players on the Grand Ol Opry did. He
wanted the bass to imitate the sound of his foot tapping on the rickety front porch
of their shack in Tennessee (Perkins and McGee 46).
The electric bass guitar
Leo Fenders solid-bodied Precision Bass, which was available in the United
States by 1951, is now commonly referred to as the first electric bass guitar. But it
has recently been discovered that Paul H. Tutmarc had developed a solid-bodied
electric bass guitar in 1933 (Jasson and Malandrone 2022). It was capable of pro-
ducing more volume than several acoustic basses playing simultaneously. Simi-
larly, James Thompson built a solid-bodied electric guitar for recording purposes
in 1934. It was produced to fill the growing needs of bass players in smaller dance
bands who wanted more portability, volume, and left-hand harmonic precision
from their instruments. The relatively reasonable retail price must have played
a role in the popularity of the Precision Bass as well. By 1960, it had virtually
replaced the upright bass and had revolutionized the role of the bassist in ver-
nacular music. The relatively simple harmonic structures of early hillbilly compo-
sitions allowed the bassist (dressed in vaudevillian clown clothes, complete with
front tooth blacked out) to supply comic relief during performances. Certainly in
some way this stereotyped role was spurred on or at least enhanced by the mere
presence of the antique-looking and physically awkward acoustic bass.
Its no coincidence, then, that with the loss of the uprights visual reminder
of musical heritage, the bass players purpose in the ensemble and role on
stage changed as the electric bass became more commonly used. The compact
properties of the electric bass allowed the player new flexibility in the creative
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Popular Music and Society, Vol. 26, No. 3 355
and performance process. Instead of being limited to extra duties as a comic rube,
which were more visual than aural, the new volume and clarity of the electric bass
allowed bassists musical and physical freedoms (Malone 126, 204). Other proto-
type amplified basses were used as early as 1940 by jazz sidemen with the Lionel
Hampton band. Monk Montgomery, while playing with Hampton in 1953, for
example, is said to be the first jazz musician to have recorded the electric bass
guitar (Bacon and Ferguson 328). The relatively late addition of the electric bass to
jazz recordings may be, in part, due to the reinforcement of bass lines by the left
hand of the stride piano style.
In R&B, too, the electric bass found a home. Dave Myers, who switched from
guitar to the electric bass in 1958, helped make the Fender bass a success with his
recordings for Chicago blues artists. B. B. King, Little Walter, and Big Mama
Thornton all adopted the instrument for their groups to overcome the noise levels
found in nightclubs and road houses. In Detroit, James Jamerson switched to the
electric bass and played most of the bass lines recorded for the Motown label from
1959 to 1972 (Goldsby 30).
Because of its similarity to the guitar, played horizontally rather than vertically,
many of the first electric bassists were converted guitarists familiar with fretted
fingerboards and the technique associated with using a pick. Indeed, Leo Fender
invited the advice of professional guitarists and bassists from country, western
swing, and jazz while developing his prototype Precision Bass in 1951. If an
upright player was not accustomed to playing a fretted instrument, the electric
bass guitar required all new techniques for the converting player. All four of the
fingers on the left hand could be used with more ease and the right hand could
produce the sound by either the use of a plectrum or fingertips. Minuscule pitch
adjustments in the left hand were no longer necessary as much as precise finger
placement between the frets. Therefore, where the player once relied on helpful
portamento between position shifts, he now had to land precisely on the note. The
difference between acoustic and amplified instruments is explained by Muddy
Waters: That loud sound would tell everything you were doing. On acoustic, you
could mess up a lot of stuff and no one would know that youd ever missed
(Waksman 124).
Like the electric guitar, the new amplification of the bass also made new
demands on the player. For example, Bill Black, bassist for Elvis Presley, decided to
switch from his upright bass to electric some months prior to the recording of the
soundtrack for Jailhouse Rock in 1957. The switch to the fretted neck proved to be
difficult and frustrating for Black, who had no experience with guitar techniques
and was infamous for his microtonal idiosyncrasies on the upright. During the
recording of (Youre So Square) Baby I Dont Care, he threw the new electric
instrument across the studio floor in disgust after his repeated attempts to record
the introduction (Guralnick Last 408). He did, however, continue to play the instru-
ment during his successful recordings with the Bill Black Combo in the late 1950s
and early 1960s (Guralnick Good 9091).
Joe B. Mauldin played acoustic bass on all of the hit recordings by Buddy Holly,
but converted to a Fender electric bass during the summer of 1958 for what would
become Buddy Hollys last tour (Goldrosen and Beecher 119). He apparently had
no trouble making the switch and became more animated on stage. Bobby Jones,
who played on the road with Gene Vincent in the late 1950s, first took an interest
in the guitar when he was about thirteen years old and began playing the bass
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guitar some time around 1956. Unlike Jack Neal, his accomplished predecessor in
the Blue Caps, Jones never even played the acoustic bass. While on a world tour
with Gene Vincent, Jones mainly played a Fender bass.
6
The rockabilly perspective
As the musicians in the following section of this study will demonstrate, the
arrival of the electric bass guitar provided answers to many of the plights faced by
acoustic bassists.
7
In retrospect, these musicians have mixed feelings about the
electric bass and its role in the development of popular music, but most agree that
the portability of the electric bass was of utmost importance. To a lesser degree they
insinuate that its sound was more controllable and predictable, with intonation
no longer being problematic because of the fretted neck. There is agreement that
the volume of the electric bass provided a certain sonic power to the ensemble.
Most important for recording purposes, the instrument produced an undeviating
volume level, which made it easier to record and to hear in live concert settings
(Johnson 177).
Keeping in mind these changes caused by the advent of the electric bass in
other vernacular styles of music, most of which provided source material for the
rockabilly movement, what role did the electric bass guitar play in the transfor-
mation from 1950s rockabilly to what Craig Morrison terms white rock of the
1960s? As far as helping in the explanation of rockabilly as a distinct style and
despite my own convictions, the following quotations generally avoid commitment
to the idea that the electric bass played a role in the demise of rockabilly as a
distinct style.
Ken Davis, a guitarist and electric bassist active in the mid and late 1950s,
recalls the era of the appearance of the electric bass guitar:
I started playing electric bass in 1956. I took lessons from a Milwaukee teacher
who told me to keep it simple and to play it as a rhythm instrument. The main
reason was to allow me a better chance of getting in a band. I liked it . . . it was
great. To me, the electric bass, if played right, was a definite improvement to the
bands overall sound. By played right, I mean to play it as a bass and not like
a guitar as so many guitar-pickers-turned-to-bass-players had a tendency to do.
8
Davis is one of the few interviewed for this study who insinuate that there was a
prestige factor involved in owning an electric bass guitar and that it enabled him
to be hired by a band. There were certainly similar inclinations in R&B groups
during that period, who used amplification as a means to remain competitive in
the louder performance venues (Waksman 122).
Rockabilly musician Bob Kelly has similar memories:
Its funny you should mention the electric bass mainly because I am sort of in
the legends stage of my life and lots of rockabillies come up to me and ask
about the music of the 1950s. I got a Fender electric bass and amp as soon as
they were available and we could afford to buy one. Most of us back then were
guitar players that learned to play bass because we didnt need four guitar play-
ers in a band. The first one I saw was at a recording session at Sellers Recording
Studio in Fort Worth, Texas. I think that was about 1956 or 57. I bought my first
Fender Precision Bass in late 1958 or early 1959. I still played guitar in my own
band but I played bass with Scotty McKays band. As soon as the Fender Jazz
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Popular Music and Society, Vol. 26, No. 3 357
Bass came out, I immediately bought one because they were so much easier for
a guitar player to play.
Some of the really hot rhythm and blues records were beginning to use the
electric bass and, being a true rocker, I thought that was the only way to go. So,
I never played standup bass again. Some of the rockabilly guys today really
dont know how much bigger it made the band sound when you had an electric
bass. It was like a wimpy band becoming a killer. When the Fender company
started making the Precision Bass in the middle 1950s, thats when it all started to
explode and made it possible for rock and roll to emerge. It was a combination
of the electric guitar and the Fender electric bass that made it possible to have
rock and roll. The young kids can play the upright bass now because the
electronics are good enough to compete with the electric guitars and such.
9
These statements seem to suggest that the amplified electric bass supplied a
certain power and fullness that was, in part, responsible for the formation of rock
and roll after the rockabilly period. Bob Kellys comments insinuate that rock and
roll, as a style, should be partly defined as an ensemble sound with all electrified
instruments. Since many of the first generation of electric bassists were converted
electric guitarists, these quotations imply that the new capabilities inherent in the
electric bass challenged the traditional role of the instrument in the ensemble.
Where the physical limitations of the upright had prescribed the notes played for
the musical arrangement, the electric bass opened new doors.
10
Bill Mack, who played electric bass with Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps,
remembers the appearance of the electric bass guitar and its idiosyncrasies:
I started playing upright bass in 1947. I switched to electric in 1956 because it was
easier and it took up less room when going to a gig. The first time I saw an
electric bass was in the middle 1950s. I played one in a club in Piner, Kentucky,
called The Chicken Roost. It was a Gibson or a Kay and I really fell in love with
it. It was as different as night and day. The slap bass subsided somewhat after I
played some shows with Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins. Going
from one note to another just got easier and easier the more I played it. I had to
learn the frets but it didnt take long. For me, it was much easier than upright. It
allowed the player to play differently. The action [string height] became much
faster and easier to play. After a few weeks on the road with my electric bass all
the bands started using the electric bass everywhere I went.
The electric [bass] affected the way drums were played because it added
punch to the music and allowed the drummer to start adding rolls and riffs.
11
Mack recalls his early years, around 1955, with the electric bass and the
informality of instrumentation and personnel:
Paul [Peek] knew a musician from Greenville, named Red Redding, who had
moved to the Washington D.C. area. Paul asked him if I could come and play
bass in the band also. Red Redding said yes, bring him on. Red Redding was
gonna play his upright bass in the band, but when I got there, Red switched
from the upright bass to rhythm guitar, and I got to play my electric bass in The
Tunetoppers band. I had just changed over to the Fender electric bass. To my
knowledge I was the only one out there with an electric bass, especially on the
shows that I played. Marshall Grant asked me if the electric bass was hard to
play. I told him that I thought that it was easy. Later when we played a show
with Johnny Cash, Marshall Grant was playing an electric bass.
12
Dickie Harrell, who was the drummer for Gene Vincents Blue Caps during its
developmental years and is now one of the great mentors in the rockabilly revival,
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also has great respect for the electric bass. Yet his comments reveal the irony of the
displacement of the acoustic bass:
At first the standup bass was it! Then it changed to the electric. The electric has
more drive and adds a lot to the music. But with the upright you did a lot of
slapping. Gene [Vincent] used electric bass and his whole sound changed. Lotta
Lovin was a completely different sound. The electric adds so much to the music
and its easier for the player also.
13
The later 1950s recordings by Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps do, indeed, push
the limits of rockabilly by their increased tempi and exemplify the new pace of later
rockabilly music. The electric bass lines, which are rooted in traditional walking
eighth-note boogie-woogie patterns, stray into chromatic movement because of the
quick tempo. On the other hand, at these faster tempi, an acoustic bass player
would have probably shifted to a two-beat pattern, leaving the electric guitar to
play the faster boogie lines. Dickie Harrells dramatic snare-drum fills and other
sassy rhythmic accents, for which he has become famous, were made possible
because of the underlying rhythmic security supplied by the electric bass.
These subtle changes in performance were noticed by the Rolling Stones
guitarist, Keith Richards, who was influenced by the later rockabilly tours in
England:
The thing that really intrigued me, that turned me on to playing, was the rhyth-
mic ambiguity . . . the suggested rhythms going on, or a certain tension. Espe-
cially in early rock and roll, theres a tension between the 4/4 beat and the
eighths going on with the guitars. That was probably because the rhythm sec-
tion was still playing pretty much like a swing band. There was still a regular jazz
beat, 4/4 to the bar, a swing/shuffle.
It suddenly changed in 58, 59, 60, until it was all over by the early 60s. The
drummers were starting to play eight to the bar, and I thought at first maybe
they were just going for more power. Then I realized that, no, it was because of
the bass. The advent of reliable electric bass guitar. The traditional double bass
went bye-bye. This thing thats taller than most guys that play the thing. The
guitar players were being relegated to bass. If you didnt even have a bass, you
could tune down a guitar and play four strings; once you had an actual bass, it
was much louder than an acoustic pumping eight to the bar. And the natural
inclination of the drummer is then to pick up on what the new bass is doing,
because thats what youve got to follow. (Wheeler 97)
Although the rhythmic feel remained in the swing pattern, the late 1950s record-
ings by the Blue Caps and the statements above by two of its members and audi-
ence suggest that the acoustic bass simply could not keep up with the demands of
the transitional period in pop music.
14
The electric bass could be viewed as both
the cause and effect of the high level of intensity in these recordings. This is the
rockabilly style and instrumentation that the 1960s generation of British musicians
was hearing performed in American rockabilly tours in the late 1950s and early
1960s.
Bobby Wayne defends the qualities of the antique upright sound, but also
acknowledges the practicality of the electric bass:
I bought a used Kay upright bass in the 1950s for $35. I played slap bass until
the late 1960s. The first one I saw was in the 1950s. I didnt like it for my country
and rockabilly music because the electric bass was too loud! Besides, we couldnt
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afford an electric bass. I didnt like it much because most of the guys tried to play
it like a guitar. Little pop and jazz combos used them and they sounded okay
with that sort of music. But the electric bass was more efficient than the dog-
house bass and easier to transport to gigs. The electric bass took over because so
many different things can be done with it. I always used to say, why dig a ditch
with a teaspoon when you can use a backhoe? You know the volume of the
doghouse was perfect even without a pickup. The doghouse was more felt than
heard!
15
The overall volume level of authentic rockabilly (at least in an ensemble of
steel string guitar, electric guitar, and acoustic bass) must have been pretty well
balanced and similar to that of bluegrass bands. For example, the acoustic guitar,
being strummed by the lead vocalist, is audible in the earliest recordings of
rockabilly and was commonly picked up by the vocal microphone. The volume
level of this style of rockabilly was dictated by the sonic properties of the acoustic
instruments. To this extent, an argument could be made that rockabilly was ill-
suited to larger stages and venues and better suited to honkytonks and private
parties. Judging by its instrumentation, rockabilly, originally, was the informal
and spontaneous chamber music of the displaced rural population living in an
urban environment.
Jimmy Harrell of the act called Jimmy and Alton reminisces on his economic
level during his formative years:
I learned to play the washtub bass at home prior to enlisting in the Navy. When
we decided to form a little group in San Diego we knew that we couldnt afford
a real one so we went to the store and bought a washtub, a broomstick, and
some cord and in no time we were in business. Later on, we made enough
money to rent an upright at Smokey Rogers [Ferlin Huskeys father-in-law]
music store in El Cajon. So in those days, it was purely economic reasons that
we started with the washtub then went to upright. It still amazes me how good
that old tub bass sounded, particularly with the type of music we were playing
country and roots-rock now called rockabilly. When we formed Jimmy and
Gene and the Rhythm Kings, the bass player just happened to own an upright.
16
Regardless of its cultural roots or performance purpose, the changing styles
of American popular music are seldom dictated by societal norms or performers
economic restrictions. Rockabilly performers reflections on the past attest to the
constantly changing commercial environment in which popular music exists.
J. M. Van Eaton, a Sun Studio session musician, remembers the appearance of
the electric bass and its effects on the music Sun Studio created:
Rockabilly had a lot of the slap bass in it and along about that same time people
were changing over from the upright bass to electric bass and that made a
difference in the sound. (Morrison 8)
Another session player at Sun, Roland Janes, who is openly skeptical of the value
of academic research in rockabilly, became animated and outspoken when I raised
the theory that the electric bass helped dilute the rockabilly style. He said: I know
you guys like to think we were living in a case . . . see, musicians evolve, man. We
evolved just like the instruments.
17
His practical and utilitarian philosophy
toward music explains how the electric bass must have been viewed by many:
I liked it [the electric bass]. . . . It gave a certain fullness. . . . [W]ith the acoustic, the
low end wasnt there. The electric just had a different tone. The acoustic bass was
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hard to record too . . . depending on the player. I used to put a mike on the
f hole and one about five inches over the bridge. Its easy to record when you
have a good player, but most of them used to just beat on it and slap around
on it. The electric was easier. The old bass was hard to get around. You had to
worry about it staying in tune. They were hard to maintain too.
18
Although Janes threw my proposal aside, he did volunteer that the music he
played and recorded during the 19571960 period was not really rockabilly. He
considered the sessions he played for Jerry Lee Lewis and Billy Lee Riley, for
example, to be more rock. His guarded and subtle definition does support the
theory that rockabilly was a transitional genre during the development of rock and
roll. Coincidentally, Norman Petty, producer for Buddy Holly, also placed a small
microphone between the strings at the top of the acoustic bass to capture the per-
cussive effect, and other microphones were positioned around the instrument to
hear actual pitches (Goldrosen and Beecher 61). Likewise, Paul Burlison, guitarist
for Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio, recalled that the engineers at his
1956 sessions in Nashville for Coral Records positioned a microphone approxi-
mately one-and-a-half feet from the top of the fingerboard above Dorsey Burnettes
left hand.
19
As mentioned earlier, the electric bass reduced the physical demands on its
converted player. Rockabilly bassists played with such vigor that the acoustic
bass strings would cause damage to their instruments, and the repetitive grabbing
and slapping of the instrument took its toll on their fingertips as well. Marshall
Lytle, bassist for Bill Haley and His Comets, remembers his induction into popular
music:
Bill [Haley] asked me to come and play the bass for him. I said that I didnt know
how to play a bass. He said Ill teach you. So he spent one hour and taught me
the basic chords plus how to slap back and get a shuffle beat. The day I joined
The Saddlemen, I bought a bass.
20
He also remembers that his fingers were so sore and bloody that he had to
wrap tape around them to pound the strings of his bass fiddle. Later, when thick
calluses formed on his hands, the band-aids were no longer necessary.
21
Paul
Burlison also remembers the effects of the instrument on Dorsey Burnette:
Dorsey would slap the stew out of that thing. Ive seen him slap that thing till
the blood was running out of his fingers. Hed put tape on them, and when hed
pull the tape off, hed pull off a layer of skin. Now, a lot of people use power
and stuff [electric amplifications], But Ive seen Dorsey slap that thing. Id feel
so sorry for him. And he didnt do it like Bill and Johnny [the Black Brothers].
He [Dorsey] would bow-and-arrow that thing. Bill [Black] would take that
E-string, the big string, and hed loosen it about half way. He didnt even tune it.
He would hit it first then pull. He was slapping that string with the palm of his
hand. But Dorsey would pull them out and let them slap back against the neck.
Dorsey did it the hard way. By pulling it out and letting it slap against the neck.
(Bowman and Johnson 21)
Burlison further recounts similar logistical problems with the acoustic bass while
touring with the Rock and Roll Trio: One time Dorseys bridge busted. Dorsey
pulled the strings so hard, it came off right in the middle of a song. Sometimes
the G-strings would get unraveled. He did break one or two (Bowman and
Johnson 21).
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I had a long conversation with Burlison during the Memphis Music and
Heritage Festival in 1998 about the importance of the upright bass to an authentic
rockabilly sound; he agreed that the slapping technique was essential. But he also
stated that the young players, often from Europe, were almost too good and had
developed the slapping technique into an art form.
Roy Huskey Jr., a current Nashville session bass player, describes the technique:
For rockabilly slap, I use three fingers to pull the string. For bluegrass slapping,
Ill use only one finger: I usually pop or pull the string and then come back and
slap the board. You have to do it a lot for your hands to get used to it. Ill use gut
[strings] for slapping, but Ive also used metal strings. If the engineer is getting a
good sound on the bass, it can be a lot of fun to slap on metal strings. They have
a more raucous sound, and you get a lot more overtones. I show up with a
gut-string bass for most recordings.
22
Regardless of the qualms the performers themselves had with the acoustic bass,
there had been many enormously successful recordings in the rockabilly period
that exploited its unique properties. The electric bass had yet to prove itself in
the studio. As Marshall Lytle, who performed with Bill Haley and His Comets,
explains the control the recording studios had over instrumentation: I switched
to Fender bass for our stage work in 1955 but continued with the upright for
recordings because of the clicking shuffle beat I created. [Thats] what the record
company wanted.
23
Jerry Lee Merritt, who played a Fender Stratocaster electric guitar with Gene
Vincents band for a very successful tour of Japan in 1959, recalls: The first
bass guitar I ever saw was a Dan Electro and it was a six-string bass. But when
I recorded with Gene Vincent for Capitol in Hollywood, California, we used an
upright bass.
24
These statements imply that, regardless of the practical lessons the musicians
had experienced on extended road tours, the record companies were still looking
for the acoustic bass sounds to which they had grown accustomed.
Carl Perkins explains the techniques used by his brother Clayton:
Clayton attacked that bass; he had something to prove and he proved it. His
attitude was Wait a minute, Im part of this! Im a big part of this and Im gonna
ride it to the hilt! Im the best damn bass slapper to ever come out of these parts,
and Im gonna make the girls look at me. And that was one of the reasons he
pushed that bass so hard and hit it hard. He blistered his hand but never backed
off of it. (Perkins and McGee 47)
In the early years of performing, Clayton Perkins learned the importance of
clowning while playing his upright. His antics included balancing on the
basss side with no hands and with the aid of a rubber ball on the endpin, riding
the bass pogostick-style into the audience (Perkins and McGee 66). It is odd that
Carl Perkins speaks so highly of the upright bass. In the 1960s and 1970s, his band
used the electric bass exclusively. His son did, however, play the upright with him
from time to time in the 1980s.
Jody Reynolds, who has enjoyed a second career in the rockabilly revival, also
seems to have preferred the upright bass:
I first saw an electric bass in 1956. It was okay. Im a guitar player, not really a
bass player. The electric made players play too loud and too much. Everyone
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played louder. I missed the slapping of the upright. There was a single slap, a
double slap, and a triple slap.
25
Jimmy Harrell reiterates the downfalls of the acoustic bass in the later 1950s:
Basically, I believe that there are two reasons most everyone switched to the
electric bass. Number one was transportability. It was awfully hard to haul that
thing [n upright bass] around. And second, all the engineers that I knew said that
it was much easier to record an electric than an upright (although Sam Phillips
certainly didnt seem to have a problem getting a good sound out of Bill Blacks
bass).
The rockabilly sound is much better with an upright and Im glad to see
modern groups using it. But by no means do I think that an electric bass ruins
rockabilly.
26
Harrells reluctance to condemn the electric bass and his overall acceptance of
it into rockabilly demonstrate the difficulties found in all definitions of musical
genre. Perhaps he was simply too close to the creation of rock and roll to form
negative opinions. Others, who found notoriety in the rockabilly revival, have
reconsidered the instrumentation of the ensemble.
27
Conclusions
There is little doubt that the displacement of the upright bass played a role in the
stylistic changes of blues, rock, and R&B. We can only speculate what direction
popular music would have taken if the electric bass had been introduced during
an era of less social and musical turmoil. As the record-buying market was shifting
from the musical tastes of Eisenhower America, leaving the postwar era, and enter-
ing the era of the space race, the electric bass guitar quickly found great acceptance
in popular and vernacular musics. The effects of the new technology were wide-
ranging and blind to racial barriers. Not only was there impact on white vernacu-
lar music, but the electric bass guitar also played a role in solidifying R&B as a
genre. It is not merely coincidence that the electric bass was deliberately shunned
by those performers of bluegrass who appreciated the authentic qualities of the
upright bass and the tradition it represented.
The information from the musicians interviewed for this study remains incon-
clusive as to the importance of the electric bass and its role in the development of
popular music. There is some consensus that the portability of the electric bass
was of utmost importance to the everyday life of a traveling musician in the 1950s.
The acoustic bass was cumbersome and prone to being damaged while in transit.
There seems to be agreement that the electric bass increased the overall sonic
volume of the rock and roll ensemble and that it allowed the player to perform
more complicated lines at faster tempi with ease. To a lesser degree, the musicians
maintain that the sound of the electric bass guitar was more controllable and
predictable, both in live and recording situations. But there is complete agreement
among my interviewees that the volume of the electric bass provided a certain
sonic power to the ensemble, which was important to rock and roll.
Most important to the definition of rockabilly, my sources generally avoid com-
mitment to my theory that the electric bass played a role in the demise of rockabilly
as a distinct style. In the rockabilly ensemble, the acoustic bass was a remnant
from hillbilly, bluegrass, and other white vernacular musical styles before 1954.
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Although several interviewees gave testament to the importance of the uprights
slapping technique to the rockabilly sound, most were, nevertheless, grateful for
the invention of the electric bass guitar.
The displacement of the upright bass from vernacular music in the United States
did not occur in a vacuum. By the mid 1950s, as the drum set snuck its way into
rockabilly and eventually country performance settings, both live and on record-
ings, the beating of the hi-hat cymbals in swing patterns and eighth-note subdivi-
sions replaced the sound formerly supplied in rockabilly by the slap technique
and tape echo.
28
This percussive sonic expansion, combined with the advent of the
electrically amplified bass guitar, provided a new and more constant rhythmic and
harmonic grounding, which allowed treble instruments more rhythmic freedoms.
But with the addition of the drum set and electric bass guitar to rock music of the
late 1950s, the frenetic slapping technique and the sometimes nebulous tonality
and haphazard intervallic patterns identified with the rockabilly upright bass
style were eliminated. However, the acoustic bass remained the standard for main-
stream pop records where studio orchestras were hired to support vocalists.
Nashville musician Bob Moore, for example, played acoustic bass on nearly all of
the 1960s RCA recordings for Elvis Presley. He did, however, decide to use an
electric bass on Down in the Alley, recorded in 1966 (Guralnick Careless 232).
Even the recordings being produced in the last years of the 1950s at rockabillys
birthplace, Sun Studio, followed the popular trends in music by discarding swing
rhythmic patterns and slapping bass effects, and adopting arrangements with
straight eighth-note subdivisions.
29
After examining the memories of the musicians of the rockabilly movement, it
is also obvious and somewhat surprising that the musicians who created the
rockabilly style were generally oblivious to their role in the evolution of popular
music; this explains their open-minded acceptance of the electric bass. It is ironic
that their preference of the electric bass eliminated an important element of
the genre they createdrockabilly. With the appearance of the electric bass,
rockabilly no longer had a representative instrument of yesteryear to mock. The
frenetic energy supplied by irreverent performance techniques that exploited the
instruments limitations was lost. This standardizing of instrumentation in rock-
oriented popular music refocused the listener toward the singer and his song and
set the stage for the teen idols who would inherit the nations new youth market,
which mushroomed during the waning years of rockabilly. Now, only in retro-
spect, which is often clouded by their recent successes in the rockabilly revival, do
these pioneers of popular music reconsider the value of the acoustic bass to the
rockabilly style.
Notes
1. Rockabilly is defined as an early style of white rock and roll that blended blues with
country music. The experimental period of rockabilly was relatively short-lived, last-
ing roughly from 1954 to 1960. Although there were some rockabilly releases toward
the end of the 1950s, mostly promoted by small independent record labels with
limited marketing, by the end of the 1950s rockabilly vocalists and instrumentalists
had been integrated into other styles of popular music.
2. In some cases there was no electric guitar used for solos on rockabilly recordings.
Such is the case with Ric Carteys 1956 demos for RCA, in which producer Jerry Reed
played solos on an acoustic steel-stringed guitar.
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3. The 1970s saw a number of historical and sociological publications pertaining to
rockabilly, and in recent years a number of insightful biographies have been written
about the leading performers and instrumental sidemen of the era. Other aspects
of rockabilly, especially obscure and unreleased recordings and related biographical
information, have now developed an almost cultlike following with innumerable
websites and magazines devoted to the subject, and a large number of rockabilly acts
touring all over the world. In my own research into the music of the rockabilly
period, I have published the article The Use of Habanera Rhythm in Rockabilly
Music (Brewer) which examines rhythm interpretation and execution by
rockabilly musicians. This current study is a logical continuation of that research.
4. See Get Hot or Go Home: Vintage RCA Rockabilly 5659. LP. Country Music Foundation
Records CMF-014-L, 1988.
5. This slapping technique has been developed to an extreme art by bassists of the
rockabilly revival. See <http://members.aol.com/rodcat/bassindex.html> or <http://
www.spinne.vnweb.com/Slap.htm> for more information.
6. Website for Bobby Jones posted by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame <http://my.athenet.net/
~genevinc/gvbobbyjones.html>.
7. I mailed a two-page questionnaire to some thirty musicians (to which I received ten
written responses) and had e-mail and telephone correspondence with many others.
Other supporting quotations have been cited from other published sources.
8. Quotations from written responses to my questionnaire by Ken Davis, March 2000.
Ken Davis learned to sing and accompany himself on guitar/electric bass shortly after
his 1954 graduation from high school in Racine, Wisconsin. In early 1958, he and the
Honeybees, along with the Country Gentlemen, recorded Bundle of Lovin and
Sittin Pretty at the Pfau recording studio in Milwaukee. The record was released on
the Pfau label in March 1958 <http://my.athenet.net/~genevinc/KenDavis.html>.
9. Quotations from responses by Bob Kelly to my e-mailed questionnaire, March 15,
2000. Gene Vincent recorded Kellys Git It and Somebody Help Me. Kelly was the
son of musicians in the small West Texas town of Olney. He began playing the guitar
at ten years old and was writing songs and singing them at thirteen. See <http://
my.athenet.net/~genevinc/BobGIKelly.html>.
10. The style in which the electric bass is played on WalkDont Run (1960) by the
Ventures is a good example of the new flexibility of the electric bass guitar.
11. Quotations from written responses to my questionnaire by Bill Mack, March 27, 2000.
Born William E. McCreight in Greenville, South Carolina, March 19, 1933, Mack was
the second bass player for Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps and toured from March
through December of 1957 playing electric bass guitar.
12. Quotations from the Bill Mack website hosted by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame <http://
my.athenet.net/~genevinc/gvBillMack.html>.
13. Quotations from written responses to my questionnaire by Dickie Harrell, March
2000 <http://my.athenet.net/~genevinc/gvdickie.html>.
14. The charting recordings by VincentBe-Bop-A-Lula (1956), Lotta Lovin (1957),
and Dance to the Bop (1958)were already several steps away from the hillbilly
roots of rockabilly. Vincents career began as a direct influence of Elvis Presleys
infectious style and his band was from a bluegrass and jazz background.
15. Quotations from written responses to my questionnaire by Bobby Wayne, March 24,
2000 <http://my.athenet.net/~genevinc/BobbyWayne.html>.
16. Quotations from written reponses to my questionnaire by Jimmy Harrell, March 26,
2000.
17. Roland Janes, telephone interview, March 1, 2000.
18. Quotations from telephone interview with Roland Janes, March 1, 2000. Janes was a
staff guitarist at Sun Studio from the mid 1950s through the 1960s. He played on
records by Jerry Lee Lewis, Warren Smith, and Billy Lee Riley, to name a few.
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19. Information from a conversation with Paul Burlison during the Memphis Music and
Heritage Festival, 1998 <http://my.athenet.net/~genevinc/pBurlison.html>.
20. Denise Rosier at www.basslicks.com.
21. Website for Bill Haley and the Comets. <http://my.athenet.net/~genevinc/
BillHaley.html>
22. Denise Rosier at www.basslicks.com.
23. Quotation from e-mail correspondence with Marshall Lytle, July 3, 2000.
24. Quotations from responses by Jerry Lee Merritt to my e-mailed questionnaire,
February 25, 2000 <http://my.athenet.net/~genevinc/gvdickie.html>.
25. Quotations from written responses to my questionnaire by Jody Reynolds, March 12,
2000 <http://my.athenet.net/~genevinc/JodyReynolds.html>.
26. Quotations from responses to my e-mailed questionnaire by Jimmy Harrell, March
26, 2000. After leaving the Navy, Jimmy moved in with Alton (and his parents). Alton
and Jimmy recorded for Ace Record Company in Jackson, Mississippi. They cut two
songs for Ace entitled Looking for Someone and Got It Made in the Shade in 1958
at the Cosimo Recording Studio, New Orleans, Louisiana. They recorded Have Faith
in My Love and No More Crying the Blues at Sun Records on April 5, 1959. These
songs were released later on Sun 323. Exactly two months later, on June 5, 1959, Alton
and Jimmy recorded I Just Dont Know, Whats the Use, Why Do I Love You,
and The Longest Walk. All songs were subsequently reissued on vinyl LP and
CD. The Longest Walk cannot be located among the Sun masters. See<http://
my.athenet.net/~genevinc/AltonJimmy.html>.
27. Such is the case of Charlie Feathers, who spent a great deal of time checking and
double-checking the amplification and delay effects on the acoustic bass before his
performances in the 1980s.
28. Some good examples of rockabilly with drums and no bass-slapping technique are
Rock and Roll Ruby by Warren Smith (1956) and Red Hot by Billy Lee Riley
(1957). On That Aint Nothin But Right by Joey Castle (1958), the hi-hats supply
eighth-note subdivisions very similar to those caused by tape-delay echo.
29. On the two most popular records by Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun, Whole Lot of Shakin
Going On and Great Balls of Fire, there was no bass used.
Works cited
Bacon, Tony, and Jim Ferguson. Electric Bass Guitar. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz.
Ed. Barry Kernfeld. London: Macmillan, 1988. 328329.
Bowman, Robert, and Ross Johnson. The Train Started Rollin: A Conversation with Paul
Burlison of the Rock n Roll Trio. Journal of Country Music 11 (198687): 1725.
Brewer, Roy. The Use of Habanera Rhythm in Rockabilly Music. American Music 17
(1999): 30017.
Clevinger, Martin. The Evolution of the Electric Bass Guitar. www.batnet.com, 1987.
Goldrosen, John, and John Beecher. Remembering Buddy: The Definitive Biography of Buddy
Holly. New York: Penguin, 1986.
Goldsby, John. 100 and Counting: The Players Who Shaped 20th Century Bass. Bass
Player Jan. 2000: 2841.
Guralnick, Peter. Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley. Boston, MA: Back Bay, 1999.
. Good Rockin Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock n Roll. New York: St. Martins
Press, 1991.
. Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1994.
Jasson, Mikael, and Scott Malandrone. Jurassic Basses: Was There Electric Bass Before
Leo? Bass Player July 1997: 2022.
Johnson, Alphonso. Bass Guitar. The Guitar A Guide for Students and Teachers. Ed.
Michael Stimpson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1990. 177190.
Malone, Bill C. Country Music U.S.A.: A Fifty-Year History. Austin: U of Texas P, 1968.
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366 Brewer
Morrison, Craig. Go Cat Go: Rockabilly Music and Its Makers. Urbana, IL: U of Illinois P,
1996.
Pekar, Harvey. Sopisticated Basses: The Pioneering Parts and Players of Duke Ellingtons
Golden Years. Bass Player Jan. 2000: 1127.
Perkins, Carl, and David McGee. Go, Cat, Go: The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, the King of
Rockabilly. New York: Hyperion, 1996.
Shipton, Alyn. Double Bass. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Ed. Barry Kernfeld.
London: Macmillan, 1988. 30103.
Waksman, Steve. Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical
Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1999.
Wheeler, Tom. Keith Richards: Not Fade Away. Guitar Player 23 (1989): 92106.
Interviews and conversations
Burlison, Paul. Information from a personal conversation during the Memphis Music and
Heritage Festival, 1998.
Davis, Ken. Written responses to questionnaire, March 2000.
Harrell, Dickie. Written responses to questionnaire, March 2000.
Harrell, Jimmy. Written responses to questionnaire, March 26, 2000.
Janes, Roland. Quotations from telephone interview, March 1, 2000.
Kelly, Bob. Written responses to questionnaire, March 15, 2000.
Mack, Bill. Written responses to questionnaire, March 27, 2000.
Lytle, Marshall. Quotations from his answers to e-mail questionnaire July 3, 2000.
Merritt, Jerry Lee. Written responses to questionnaire, February 25, 2000.
Wayne, Bobby. Written responses to questionnaire, March 24, 2000.
Reynolds, Jody. Written responses to questionnaire, March 12, 2000.
Roy Brewer is currently a freelance musician and part-time lecturer at the University
of Oregon. He earned his PhD in musicology (regional studies) from the University of
Memphis in 1996.
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