Precision vs Jazz: The Bass-Off

A little something for the Bassy Brethren this week. And a debate as old as… well the Fender Jazz Bass. Which is better? Why is it better? And importantly: what’s the actual difference? All good questions, all valid questions, and all of the questions I hope to answer in this blog post. But first of all, for the look of the thing, let’s have a short history lesson.

The Birth of The Bass Guitar

The year was 1951, the hairstyles of the day defied all logic and reason and Leo Fender was a man with big ideas. The electric guitar had taken the world by storm and rock and/or roll was at its height. Guitarists were now plugging into enormous valve amplifiers and this created a problem. The bass was getting lost in the mix *Insert-who’s-listening-to-the-bass-joke-here*. All joking aside, the old double basses which were being used were impractical. They were huge, expensive, and – due to being fretless – allowed for less accuracy when playing than the electric guitars of the day.“Precision” said Leonidas Fender (seriously), sitting in his darkened workshop with a bourbon in one hand, staring at the schematics of his latest revelation. “Precision’s the key!”. At least that’s how I like to imagine it happened, but Fender did realise that what the market needed was a bass that was smaller, fretted to allow precise playing and – arguably most importantly – could be amplified! An electric Precision Bass, if you will. So in 1951, that’s exactly what he made.In 1958, Fender went on a jazz kick, producing the Jazzmaster which was, unsurprisingly, marketed at jazz musicians (for more on this, click here). In 1960, continuing his Jazzy vibes, he produced the first Jazz Bass. Except he didn’t. It was called the “Deluxe Model” and featured the narrower neck, offset body and dual single coil pick-ups we’ve now come to associate with Jazz basses.

The Precision Bass

So what is a Precision or P-Bass? Well it’s changed a fair bit over the years, but for the purposes of this post, let us look at the modern configuration for both basses. The original P-Bass is said to borrow design elements from the original Telecasters, with the obvious addition of the double cutaway at the neck, and in terms of shape, the modern Precisions more or less follow this template. They also feature a single split coil pickup in the neck/middle position, nothing in the bridge position, a volume pot, a tone pot and a chunky C shaped neck. That’s kind of it. So why is it the best selling, most copied, most recorded bass in human history? Because it sounds like thunder is why! The positioning of the neck pick up and the nature of the single split coil means that the P-Bass produces low end for days! Weeks! Months!!! You see where I’m going with this…Historically, the precision bass allowed the players of the day to compete for volume with their guitarist, play accurately with the addition of frets, and carry their bass comfortably in one hand, rather than feeling like they were turning up to gigs carrying a grand piano. But also, because Leo Fender had a background in electrical engineering, he was able to look at the instrument analytically and produce something so close to perfect that the design has remained almost unchanged for the last 70 years. Well played Leonidas!

The Jazz Bass

So what’s the Jazz Bass? Well, let’s use the P-Bass as our reference point. Let’s take that same body but make it “offset” (basically a little squint). Why? Because Jazz! That’s why!We’ll also replace that split coil behemoth in the middle position with a straight single coil, and add a second one in the bridge position for good measure. Each pick up can have its own volume pot, and a master tone to make your sound way more versatile, and we’ll also make that “C” shaped neck into a “c” shaped neck so it’s more comfortable to play on. And that’s Jazz (basses)! The Jazz Bass was designed to have more Mid and Treble than the P-Bass, giving the overall sound more shape and definition. Thunder is great and all, but it’s not what you’d call finessed. The bass lent itself to new styles of music, such as slap bass, and whilst it didn’t have the meteoric rise of the P-Bass, it’s the second best selling bass guitar in the world, so hardly unpopular.

So Which Is Better?

I’ll be honest with you readers. I’ve brought you here under false pretences. I don’t know. I can’t decide. Don’t make me choose!!The real answer is: whichever one works best for you. If you are playing music where you need to produce a thrum that will make the guy at the back of the room’s teeth rattle, the P-Bass is your weapon of choice. (Pair with an Ampeg SVT with 8×10 for best effect, although this will undermine portability greatly.)Need a bit more nuance and definition in your sound, or even just want a bit more scope in terms of shaping your tone? Get a Jazz Bass!Better yet, get one of each. And a couple of back ups. Maybe something with a PJ set up… Then a Rickenbacker. And a StingRay!I could go on…