1956 Fender Precision Bass

Bill with his 1956 Fender P Bass #13182 - ca.1959

In 1957 Bill Black acquired a 1956 Fender Precision Bass, serial #13182. Sid Lapworth from O.K. Houck said he delivered it to Elvis personally for Bill sometime after Elvis first moved in to Graceland. Graceland was purchased in March of 1957 and though the family moved there in May, Elvis did not spend his first night there until the end of June.

Bill with Fender and Kay basses during JHR sessions at Radio Recorders - May 1957
Photo courtesy David English

Bill with Kay and Fender basses during JHR sessions at Radio Recorders - May 1957
Photo courtesy David English

Initially introduced in 1951 by Fender Musical Instruments it was, as Peter Guralnick wrote, "achieving almost instant adoption in all fields but bluegrass, because it was compact, amplified and for the precise fretting it allowed".*  In April and May of 1957, Bill would first use one along with his Kay Maestro for the recording sessions of Jailhouse Rock and also at several live performances.  Scotty said, "all the people going along on the trips with Elvis' group got to take up so much room that there was no longer room for the big bass, so he began to play an electric."

Elvis with a 1955/6 Fender P Bass at MGM's soundstage, Hollywood, CA - May 1957
Photo courtesy David English

1956 was one of the transitional years for several of Fender's line when they switched body wood from ash, a highly figured wood, to plain grained alder for most of production along with vinyl pick guards from polystyrene.  On the basses the finger/thumb rests switched from a one screw mounted wooden rest to a two screw mounted plastic.  Though Bill's featured the latter, they were actually thought to have changed in early 1957. By mid 1957 the P Bass itself was redesigned.

1956 Fender Precision Bass similar to Bill's but with an early style finger rest
Photo © James V. Roy

1956 Fender P Bass Headstock and tuners on a Maple neck
Photo © James V. Roy

The serial number for Bill's P Bass puts it in the range said to be built in 1956. Unfortunately dating older Fender instruments by serial number is at best an approximation. Fender was less interested at the time in tracking serialization than they were at producing a quality product. When Fender migrated to serial numbers on the neck plates in 1954 all of their guitars were supplied from the same box, in a sense, in no particular order (some basses though had numbers on the bridge as late a '56).  As such other techniques like checking handwritten stamps and dates on necks, bodies, and pickups, along with potentiometer codes and features at times provide closer estimations.

Finger rests on a 1955 P Bass and an early pre-redesign 1957
Photos courtesy MyGear and Chicago Music Exchange

Unlike automobile manufacturers, certain features and styles don't begin and end with each model year and Fender often retooled as necessary which resulted in certain features overlapping models often classified as certain model years.  Parts like potentiometers were sometimes bought in lots and supplies were used as needed.

A sunburst ash body 1955 or 56 Fender P Bass with the bridge cover reversed
Photo courtesy Gbase

1956 Fender P Bass, Alder body with a sunburst finish and older style finger rest
Photo © James V. Roy

The 1956 Fender Precision Bass traditionally has a 34" scale length and featured a two tone sunburst (or blond) finish on a solid Ash or Alder body, 20 fret Maple neck with a 7.25" radius, 1 single coil pickup, Nickel/Chrome plated hardware with a Volume and Tone control.

Graceland Archives replica Invoice for Bill's Fender P Bass
courtesy Ken Wilbury

The P Bass that Bill, and Elvis, are pictured using in the April/May sessions has the earlier style finger rest and appears to have an ash body. Archives at Graceland has an invoice for a Precision Bass and amplifier from O.K. Houck's dated in August, which in all likelihood is for the one actually delivered by Sid, and is the alder bodied bass with the two screw plastic rest. Bill used it on his last tour with Elvis in the fall of 1957 and then later on Hi Records with the Bill Black Combo.

Scotty, Elvis, DJ and Bill with P Bass at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium - Oct 28, 1957
Photo courtesy Robert Gordon's "The King on the Road"

DJ, Elvis and Bill at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium - Oct. 29, 1957
Photo courtesy Robert Gordon's "The King on the Road"

Elvis and Bill at the Pan-Pacific Auditorium - Oct. 29, 1957
Photo courtesy Robert Gordon's "The King on the Road"

Bill's 1956 P Bass #13182 in Memphis - 2007
Photo courtesy Peter1970

Bill's 1956 P Bass #13182 in Memphis - 2011
Photos © James V. Roy

Today Bill's P Bass is owned by Memphis area collector Larry Moss, who, among other items, also owns Scotty's original ES 295.  The bass is currently on temporary loan to EPE, Inc. and on display at Graceland.

Bill's 1956 P Bass #13182 on loan and display at Graceland - 2011
Photo © Larry Moss

page updated June 24, 2011

*Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick

There's been a story that's been exaggerated and blown out of proportion over time about Bill getting angry, throwing down the bass and storming out of the studio after not being able to play the intro to Baby, I Don't Care.  It's often told by writers and fans alike that feel the need to unnecessarily embellish Elvis' abilities beyond vocals at the expense of others. Further, it unfairly presents Bill in a light that is uncharacteristic of his personality which can be attested to by anyone that was ever around him.

Bill and Elvis with Fender P Bass at MGM's soundstage, Hollywood, CA - May 1957
Photo courtesy David English

In reality, its much simpler. Scotty said that Bill could not play it after several tries, finally said, "I can't play the damn thing!" laid down the bass and walked away. He did not slam or slide it. Elvis played it without comment or acting mad, and Bill was not mad at Elvis, but just aggravated that he had not yet mastered the bass. There was no conflict, no bad feelings afterward. As always, the thing gets blown out of sight by everyone who was there trying to top the others' stories.

At the time, Bill played slap bass on a fretless instrument. His precision was in his feel. Unlike a fretless instrument, you can finger a fretted bass anywhere in the fret and the note will be true. It was called a precision bass for that reason. Most guitarists today easily interchange on bass and guitar so it was no amazing feat that Elvis was able to play it.

added June 27, 2011


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