The Story of the Bass Guitar: From A Small Acoustic Instrument to a Cultural Icon

There’s a reason that the bass guitar is the backbone of every classic rock band, and it has less to do with its low sound than its timbre. This instrument has had a long history of not only defining music genres but also shaping culture itself. From starting out as an acoustic instrument played by women and slaves, to the electric bass we know today, this story is one for the ages. Here’s how it went from small instrument to cultural icon.

The Acoustic Bass Guitar

The bass guitar is not an invention; it’s a transformation. The change can be traced to the late 1800s, when musicians started adding an instrument called the “electric cello”—a sort of upright bass with strings that were plucked with fingers, rather than bowed—to their orchestras. They quickly realized that the cello was too big to travel easily and also lacked the ability to play notes below G on its lowest string.

Early electric violins used metal strings, which couldn’t be bent like traditional acoustic ones. But they could be plugged in and amplified, so they were popular choices for bands who didn’t want to lug around heavy equipment. The first electric violin was designed in 1931 by George Beauchamp, who went on to co-found National Electro Music Industries (NEMI).

NEMI’s innovations helped create the electric bass guitar that we know today. The company’s early models resembled upright acoustic basses without necks or strings, but Beauchamp figured out how to make them more versatile by adding frets, pickup coils, and amplification systems.

From the 1930s to the 1970s

In the 1930s, it was still a relatively new instrument. It was first introduced by German musician Adolph Rickenbacker as a replacement for the upright bass, which had been traditionally played as a double bass or as a bass violin.

In the late 1950s, Leo Fender revolutionized the electric guitar and created the solid-body design which made it louder and more durable than ever before. Around this time, musicians started to abandon their acoustic instruments in favor of Fender’s new invention, but many couldn’t afford a guitar so they stuck with their old standbys—the acoustic guitar and upright bass.

In the 1970s, artists like Rick Danko from The Band began using the electric bass to create a rich sound that resonated throughout stadiums around America. In addition to its sound quality, it attracted many fans because of its versatility: Players could use both fingers and a pick on one hand to play different notes on each string, creating fast melodies and complex rhythms previously unheard of.

From Jazz to Rock

At the beginning, the bass guitar was an acoustic instrument, just like a violin or a viola. In the 1930s, jazz musicians began to use it in their music in an effort to add a new type of sound to jazz standards. They found that by putting a metal string on the bass and adding a pickup, they could create a louder and more percussive sound.

The electric bass was born when jazz musicians started using amplified instruments to be heard over larger groups during performances. But even though it had been around for decades by then, electric bass didn’t become popular until the 1960s with rock music.

The Electric Bass Guitar

In the 1950s, as rock ‘n’ roll was beginning to take shape as a dominant genre of American music, instruments like the acoustic bass guitar were being phased out. Rock bands wanted a louder and more aggressive sound, and electric guitars delivered.

This eventually led to the invention of the electric bass guitar in 1951 by Leo Fender—the same company that invented the iconic Stratocaster guitar. The first bass made by Fender was an upright model with two strings. It was known as the Model 2100 or “fretted” bass because it featured frets along its neck for fingering notes.

The first musician to play this new instrument on stage was Bob Bogle with Bill Haley and His Comets in 1953 at The Daisy Club in Battle Creek, Michigan. Soon after, many electric guitars were created that had both six or four string basses. It wasn’t until 1962 that bassists started experimenting with fretless playing techniques—like slapping and plucking strings without any finger pressure on them.


Bass guitars are an integral part of the modern music scene. From electric to acoustic, bass guitars offer a deep, resonant sound to suit any style. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced player, it’s important to find the bass that best suits your needs.

Researching the different types of basses and finding the one that’s right for you will help you take your playing to the next level.