[Last update: 02/06/2021]
When my friend Page and I decided to form a band, in 1984 or so, he had already decided he wanted to play guitar. He suggested I should play bass. Then, all we would need is a drummer and a singer. At first, I wasn’t all that hip to the idea. Then I thought about The Police, my favorite band at the time, and their bassist, Sting. This was after Synchronicity had been released, and images of Sting playing the white Spector NS2, above, were ubiquitous. In large part, Sting made bass guitar cool for me. And, as my ear tends to gravitate toward the bass line anyway, it was a good idea for me to play bass.
For my 14th birthday, my mom was cool enough to buy me a starter bass from the local pawn shop in Huntsville, Arkansas. It was a Kay KB1, a cheap knockoff of a Gibson EB-0. When I heard it through the big Fender Bassman amp at the shop, I was hooked. Here was power! This thing moved air. The Kay was $80 bucks, making it perhaps the most expensive birthday present my parents had ever given me. A few weeks later my father, who loved music, but disliked rock music and was considerably less keen on the idea of me playing it, momentarily set his concerns aside bought me a small Kay practice amp from a flea market for $30. That would be the beginning and end of his financial support of my musical endeavors. But I had what I needed. After quite a bit of posing and making tuneless noises on it, I spent the the evenings and weekends of the next year learning the basics. I knew, from playing trumpet in band that I needed to learn my major and minor scales. So, I set to work.
As that first year came to a close, my evenings of practice had paid off. My chops had grown to the point that the Kay was now a hinderance to further development. I started looking for a better bass. The local music store didn’t carry Spector basses. Even if they had, I wouldn’t have been able to afford one. I’m not sure what they cost in 1984, but today, finding one for less than $3,000 is a good deal. Three grand is far more than I would pay for a bass, even today. It was certainly more than I could muster at 15, a student working part time for minimum wage in restaurants. But no matter, the music store in nearby Fayetteville, Arkansas, forty minutes down the road had a pearl white bass with a black neck and headstock, the same, curious, pickup configuration and an equally curious name: the Fender “Jazz Bass Special.”
The Jazz Bass Special ticked all the boxes for me. The things that required effort on the Kay came easily on the Fender. The things that were impossible on the Kay–like slapping–were quite possible on the Fender. Whereas the Kay had been lightweight, the Fender was a substantial instrument, heavy and strongly constructed. I could get a variety of tones on it, and the pearl white color looked great, especially, as the salesman told me, “when the stage lights hit it.” This was true, as it turned out, as well as being a hell of a sales pitch. Even better, it was just under $700. I put it on layaway, and, over the course of the summer, made payments on it every other week from my summer job bussing tables. By the end of the summer, I had saved enough to make my final payment on the bass and added a small Peavey amplifier.
Most musicians are, as marketers say, “brand loyal.” They find a company whose products they like and stick with it. What Ford vs Chevy is to trucks, or Coke vs Pepsi is to sodas, Fender vs Gibson is to guitars. Guitarists tend to be loyal to models as well. Among Fender guitar players, Stratocaster vs Telecaster is a common (and endless) debate. Among bassists, the Fender vs Gibson thing never really got off the ground because Fender had (and still has) the clear advantage. But among bassists who play Fender basses—which is most of us—the debate is largely between the Precision Bass vs the Jazz Bass.
Both the Spector NS2 and the Jazz Bass Special are hybrid basses, which mix some of the distinctive features of those dominant bass designs. They often get left out of the debate, which sparked my interest in their history.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. One of the things that drew me to the Spector and the Fender was the split-coil pickup in the neck/middle position. I didn’t know anything about it at the time. I just thought it looked cool. It didn’t look like the pickups I’d seen on electric guitars. Leo Fender had invented the split-coil pickup as an feature improvement for the 1957 (and following) editions of his Precision Bass. He had introduced the Precision Bass–the first commercially successful solid-body electric bass–in 1951 and it had turned the music world upside down. Up until this point, rock players played the upright bass, and they were having a harder and harder time keeping up with amplified electric guitars.
From 1951 through 1956, the Precision Bass had one single-coil pickup in the middle/neck position. You can still find some of these early models online. The Fender Custom Shop will sell you a replica for about $3,600. The pickup is hidden behind a chrome cover, which many players ended up removing, as it didn’t serve any real purpose, other than an aesthetic one. The bridge had a similar cover, which also didn’t last long. You can see both on the reissue below:
And here’s an original 1955 without the pickup and bridge covers. This one fetched almost $12K at the Chicago Music Exchange:
Leo’s split-coil allowed him to balance the lower, boomier, E and A strings of the bass with the upper, thinner, D and G strings. The split-coil was a humbucking pickup, but Fender never mentioned this in sales literature, as Gibson still held a patent for humbucking pickups. That quality eliminated the noise that’s common in single-coil designs. Most importantly, Leo’s split-coil Precision pickup and his placement of it gave his Precision Bass a characteristic tone, especially when you “dug in” and plucked hard.
In 1960 Fender introduced the Jazz Bass, though it was first called the Deluxe Model. This was a departure from the Precision Bass in a number of ways. It had a thinner neck, an off-waist, contoured body, and two pickups. Both were single-coils: one in the neck position and one in the bridge position. Each had a volume knob, so bassists could blend them to create a variety of tones. When running both pickups all the way up, they eliminated (or “bucked”) hum, just as the split coil had.
The Jazz Bass was meant to be an improvement on the Precision Bass and, in many ways, it was. But it lacked the look and growl of the Precision’s split-coil pickup. The body, too, was a departure. The original Precision’s body had been based on the Fender Telecaster. But it had been redesigned, in 1954-1955, to match the contours of the Fender Stratocaster. The body shape of the Jazz Bass went in another direction entirely, taking its basic look from the Fender Jazzmaster. Fender thought these instruments would appeal to jazz musicians. That’s actually be true of the Jazz Bass, though the Jazzmaster guitar became the go-to for surf rock, not jazz.
Birth of the P+J
Sometime in the 1970s, bassists began modifying their Precision basses, adding a single-coil pickup in the bridge position. These were the first P+J basses, combining pickups from the Precision Bass and the Jazz Bass. It’s hard to know with any certainty who came up with the idea first. Rob Grange, bassist for Ted Nugent from 1971-1978, was among the first to record with one. The bass he played on “Stranglehold,” recorded and released in 1975, was a ’62 Fender Precision to which Grange added a Jazz pickup in the bridge, a master volume, a pickup-selector toggle switch, and a phase switch.
Another contender for the title of first major artist using a P+J bass is Dennis Dunaway who, during his early 70s stint with Alice Cooper, modified his Fender Jazz Bass, which he called his “Billion Dollar Bass,” by adding a split-coil, Precision Bass pickup in the neck position. Here’s a beautiful picture of it from photographer Phillip Solomonson of Philamonjaro Studio. Thanks to Phillip for letting me use it here. Thanks also to Justin Ditty, in the comments, who brought this early adopter for my attention.
Dunaway’s bass is an important step in the evolution of the P+J bass as it combines the slimmer profile Jazz Bass neck into the mix. For, while subsequent P+J basses often retain the Precision Bass body–and the split-coil Precision Bass pickup–they generally combine it with a Jazz Bass neck.
Early Production Models
A few Japanese bass manufacturers caught on to the trend and started releasing production P+J basses. The 1976 Ibanez 2369B might have been the first. In the catalog shot below, it’s the bass on the left. On the right is Ibanez’s 2366B, a knock-off of the Fender Precision. Note that the Ibanez P+J shifts the split-coil pickup considerably closer to the neck.
Fender Enters the Fray
Oddly, it took Fender longer to catch on. The Jazz Bass Special, their first P+J production model, and the inspiration for this history, arrived in 1984. The bass was made in Japan and it was marketed there as the PJ-555. In the US, there was a fretted and a fretless model. This being the ’80s, they came in lots of colors. In Japan, the PJ-555 was part of a line of basses called the “BOXER Series” which, in addition coming in lots of different colors, also came in lots of different pickup configurations, including a model (PB-555) with two split-coil pickups–mounted, oddly, at an angle, and another (PJ-535) with P+J pickups mounted at an angle.
The made-in-Japan (MIJ) Fender basses were well built and, to this day, have a good reputation. Fender went one better than just adding an extra pickup. The Jazz Bass Special also featured a Jazz Bass neck, which is slimmer and more easily playable, especially in the lower registers.
The P+J was still an outlier, though, in the Fender product line. Bassists as various as James Jamerson, Duck Dunn, Roger Waters, Sid Vicious, and Dee Dee Ramone had put the Precision Bass on the map. Bassists including Noel Redding, Jaco Pastorious, Larry Graham, and John Paul Jones had done the same for the Jazz Bass. But nobody had yet put their stamp on the P+J bass’s unique look and sound. That changed in the late 1980s, when Guns ‘n Roses broke large, with Duff McKagan and his pearl white Jazz Bass Special holding down the low end.
Duff bought his Jazz Bass Special in 1986, with some of his record advance money. And he was clearly proud of it. It’s the one you see him with most in live photos and photoshoots. I’ve found a few pix of him with a black one, but the white one was the clear favorite. Guns ‘N Roses were huge, and Duff, quite a talented and distinctive player, was always pleasantly high in the mix, showcasing the sound of the P+J.
Duff’s association with the Jazz Bass Special was strong enough that, in 2012, Fender released the “Duff McKagan Signature Jazz Bass Special.” And, to be honest, my heart leapt a bit. It was, in almost all respects, a replica of the Jazz Bass Special McKagan had bought in 1986. Unassumingly, it still said “Jazz Bass Special” on the headstock. One of the few marks of distinction that set it apart from the original–besides small upgrades like the metal knobs–was a custom neck plate. In addition to bringing a cool P+J design back into the marketplace, the release of the Duff McKagan Signature Jazz Bass Special also drove up prices of Jazz Bass Specials on the used market–making the two I own a little more valuable, though I’d never sell them–the listings of which now often mention McKagan. In a real sense, this model has become known as the “Duff McKagan bass.”
McKagan’s signature model was popular enough that Fender introduced a refresh of it in 2019. This one, marketed as the “Duff McKagan Deluxe Precision Bass” takes a few more liberties with the bass that inspired it, adding a Precision-style pick guard and block inlays, as well as coming in two colors, black and pearl white. But it’s still quite close to the humble model upon which it is based. It now says “Deluxe Jazz Bass Special” on the headstock.
The original style of the Jazz Bass Special proved desirable enough that Fender recently (I noticed these in February 2021) brought it back as the Duff McKagan Precision Bass and the Boxer Series Precision Bass. Both say “Jazz Bass Special” on their headstocks.
Side Note: I met Duff once in the late 1990s, at Stubb’s BBQ in Austin, TX during SXSW. I introduced myself and we talked about basses for a few minutes. He was really friendly and down-to-earth.
What’s in a Name?
Ever since they introduced it, Fender has had a P+J bass in its lineup. But, as you can see from the discussion of Duff’s bass, they’ve never made up their minds what to call it. It is, after all, a schizophrenic instrument–a hybrid of the two iconic Fender basses, drawing design elements from each. Over the years, it’s been the “Jazz Bass Special,” the “Precision Bass Special,” the “California P-Bass Special,” the “Power Jazz Bass Special,” and many other things besides.
Whatever the name, the P+J has evolved into a contender, worthy of mention alongside the Precision Bass and the Jazz Bass. It offers a distinctive look and sound that sets it apart–but not too far part–from its ancestors.
Whenever I hear someone debating the merits of the Jazz vs the Precision, I often chime in to say a good word about the P+J. It, for my money, really does combine some of the best features of both. While it’s not a true Jazz Bass, it can become a true Precision just by rolling off the bridge pickup’s volume. It’s a worthy contender.