The World’s First Bass Guitar (1936)

Image via Ebay

The big, stand-up double bass or “bull fiddle,” as it’s been called, dates to the 15th century. The design has evolved, but its four strings and EADG tuning have remained standard features of basses for several hundred years of classical and, later, jazz, country, and early rock and roll. Its booming tone and unwieldy size notwithstanding, the venerable instrument is a member of the violin family. So, when did the four-string bass become a bass guitar?

Leo Fender’s 1951 Precision Bass is frequently cited as the first — “such a special instrument,” writes the Fender company, that “if Clarence Leo Fender were to be remembered for nothing else, surely it would be the Precision — an instrument — indeed a whole new kind of instrument — that simply didn’t exist before he invented it.”

Prior to Fender’s innovation, it was thought that the earliest examples of electric basses were stand-up models like Regal’s Electrified Double Bass and Rickenbacker’s Electro-Bass-Viol, both dating from 1936.

Image via Ebay

But as historian and writer Peter Blecha found out, the first electric bass guitar actually appeared that same year, invented in ‘36 by “musician/instructor/basement tinkerer” Paul H. Tutmarc, “a pioneer in electric pickup design who marketed a line of electric lapsteel guitars under the Audiovox brand out of the unlikely town of Seattle.” Throughout the thirties and forties, notes Guitar World, Tutmarc “made a number of guitars and amplifiers under the Audiovox brand.” In 1935, he invented a “New Type Bull Fiddle,” an electric stand-up bass. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer announced it at the time as good news for the “poor bass-fiddler… who has to lug his big bull-fiddle home” at the end of the night.

The following year, Tutmarc combined his instrument-making skills into the world’s first bass guitar, the Audiovox 736 Electric Bass Fiddle, a true original and a “radical design breakthrough,” Blecha writes. Tutmarc’s instrument solved the bassist’s problems of being inaudible in a big band setting and being barely able to carry one’s instrument to and from a gig. The 736 did not catch on outside Seattle, but it did get out a lot around the city.

Tutmarc “gave the bass to his wife Lorraine, who used it while performing with the Tutmarc family band. [He] also sold copies to various gospel, Hawaiian, and country players.” (The bass cost around $65, or $1,150 today, with a separate amp that sold for $95.) Now, there are only three known Audiovox 736s in existence: one held by a private collector, another at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture, and a third auctioned a few years ago on Ebay for $23,000.

Did Leo Fender see one of Tutmarc’s creations when he invented the first truly mass-market electric bass guitar? Perhaps, but it hardly matters. It was Fender’s instrument that would catch on — for good — fifteen years after the Audiovox 736, and it was Tutmarc’s fate to be largely forgotten by musical history, “destined to remain obscure,” Blecha writes, “to the extent that, in the wake of Leo Fender’s Precision Bass… the very existence of a previous electric fretted bass (played horizontally) was effectively forgotten.” See an introduction and demonstration of the first bass guitar just above.

Related Content: 

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The Neuroscience of Bass: New Study Explains Why Bass Instruments Are Fundamental to Music

Visualizing the Bass Playing Style of Motown’s Iconic Bassist James Jamerson: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “For Once in My Life” & More

Legendary Studio Musician Carol Kaye Presents 150 Free Tips for Practicing & Playing the Bass

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Flash Sale: Get 75% Off Udacity’s Online Courses (Extended Through June 8)

A quick FYI: Udacity is running a 75% off flash sale, and it has been extended to June 8. Founded by computer scientist and entrepreneur Sebastian Thrun, Udacity partners with leading tech companies and offers an array of courses (and Nanodegree programs) in data science,  cyber security, machine learning, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and autonomous systems. To get the 75% off discount, click here and select a course/program. The discount should be applied automatically. But in case you have any problems, you could always use the code SAVE75 at checkout.

Note: Open Culture has a partnership with Udacity. If readers enroll in certain Udacity courses and programs, it helps support Open Culture.

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For a complete list of online courses, please visit our complete collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

For a list of online certificate programs, visit 200 Online Certificate & Microcredential Programs from Leading Universities & Companies, which features programs from our partners Coursera, Udacity, FutureLearn and edX.

And if you’re interested in Online Mini-Masters and Master’s Degrees programs from universities, see our collection: Online Degrees & Mini Degrees: Explore Masters, Mini Masters, Bachelors & Mini Bachelors from Top Universities.


That Far Corner: Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles–A Free Online Documentary

From KCET (the public broadcaster serving SoCal) comes the documentary, That Far Corner: Frank Lloyd Wright in Los Angeles. “During his time spent in Southern California in the late 1910s and early 1920s, Frank Lloyd Wright accelerated the search for L.A.’s authentic architecture that was suitable to the city’s culture and landscape. Writer/Director Chris Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, explores the houses the legendary architect built in Los Angeles. The documentary also delves into the critic’s provocative theory that these homes were also a means of artistic catharsis for Wright, who was recovering from a violent tragic episode in his life.” You can watch That Far Corner online. It will also be added to our list of Free Documentaries, a subset of collection 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

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Art Historian Provides Hilarious & Surprisingly Efficient Art History Lessons on TikTok

@_theiconoclassIf youse come at me again for my Australian pronunciation I swear 😂 #arthistory #arthistorytiktok #baroque♬ original sound – AyseDeniz

Art Historian Mary McGillivray believes art appreciation is an acquired skill. Her TikTok project, The Iconoclass, is bringing those lacking formal art history education up to speed.

The 25-year-old Australian’s pithy observations double as surprisingly sturdy mnemonics, useful for navigating world class collections both live and online.

Some highlights from her whirlwind guide to the Baroque period, above:

If it looks like the chaos after blackout where everyone is stumbling around in the dark under one solitary emergency light, it’s a Caravaggio.

If there’s at least one person looking to the camera like they’re on The Office, it’s a Velázquez.

If there’s a room with some nice furniture, a window, and some women just going about their everyday business, it’s a Vermeer.

Rather than the traditional chronological progression, McGillivray mixes and matches, often in response to comments and Patreon requests.

When a commenter on the Baroque TikTok took umbrage that she referred to Artemisia Gentileschi by first name only, McGillivray followed up with an educational video explaining the convention from the 17th-century perspective.

@_theiconoclassReply to @rajendzzz her dad was hot, comment if you agree #baroque #artemisia #arthistoryclass♬ Guilty Love – Ladyhawke & Broods

At the urging of a Patreon subscriber, she leaps across four centuries to discover an unexpected kinship between Cubism and Renaissance painters, using George Braque’s Man with a Guitar and Sandro Botticelli’s Four Scenes from the Early Life of Saint Zenobius. One is attempting to escape the shackles of perspective by showing surfaces not visible when regarding a subject from a single point. The other is using a single space to depict multiple moments in a subject’s life simultaneously.

@_theiconoclass#arthistory #arthistorytiktok #renaissance #cubism #medievaltiktok♬ original sound – Finian Hackett

McGillivray is willing to be seen learning along with her followers. She’s open about the fact that she prefers Giotto and Fra Angelico to contemporary art (as perhaps befits an art historian whose face is more 1305 than 2021). Artist Dominic White’s wearable, environmental sculpture Hoodie Empathy Suit doesn’t do much for her until a conversation with the exhibiting gallery’s director helps orient her to White’s objectives.

@_theiconoclassWant to see me tackle more contemporary art? Big thanks to @mprg_vic ❤️🪶#arthistorytiktok #arthistory #contemporaryart #artgallery♬ original sound – Mary McGillivray

She tips her hand in an interview with Pedestrian TV:

I’m not very interested in deciding what is art and what isn’t. The whole “what is art” question has never been very important to me. The questions I prefer to ask are: Why was this image made?

She recommends art critic John Berger’s 1972 four-part series Ways of Seeing to fans eager to expand beyond the Iconoclass:

It’s got all the things you would expect from a 1970s BBC production – wide collared shirts, long hair, smoking on television – plus some of the most influential insights into how we look at art and also how we look at the world around us.

Watch Mary McGillivray’s The Iconoclass here. Support her Patreon here.

@_theiconoclassWant a part two? 😏😘 #arthistorytiktok #arthistorymajor #learnontiktok♬ Rasputin (Single Version) – Boney M.

via Bored Panda

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her June 7 for a Necromancers of the Public Domain: The Periodical Cicada, a free virtual variety honoring the 17-Year Cicadas of Brood X. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Art of Balancing Stones: How Artists Use Simple Materials to Make Impossible Sculptures in Nature

Not so long ago, a wave of long-form entreaties rolled through social media insisting that we stop building rock cairns. Like many who scrolled past them, I couldn’t quite imagine the offending structures they meant, let alone recall constructing one myself. The cairns in question turned out, mundanely, to be those little stacks of flat rocks seen in parks, alongside trails and streams. They’re as common in South Korea, where I live, as they seem to be in the United States. Both countries also share a great enthusiasm for Instagram, and it’s the apparent Instagrammability of these cairns that has increased their number (and consequent ecological and cultural harm) in recent years.

No matter how many likes they garner, these common cairns require little or no skill in the building. The same can hardly be said of rock balancing, an art that demands a great deal more discipline and patience than many an influencer can muster. The Wired video at the top of the post profiles one of the most famous living rock-balancers, a Canadian named Michael Grab.

“One of my core drives is to make the formation as impossible as possible,” he says, referring to the apparent defiance of gravity performed by all the rocks he finds and arranges into stacks, arcs, orbs, and other unlikely shapes. In fact, it is gravity alone that holds his artworks together — and repeatedly destroys them in the countless trials and errors before their completion.

Yes, Grab has an Instagram account: Gravity Glue, on which he showcases his precariously solid sculptures as well as their natural contexts. So does Jonna Jinton, a Swedish “artist, photographer and Youtuber” who also balances rocks. “It’s such a great way to also balance myself,” she says in the short video just above, “and to create something beautiful at the same time.” For her, the art has become a form of meditation: “As I try to find a tiny, tiny little balance point, my thoughts are completely silent, and that’s a very good feeling.” Jinton doesn’t say whether she personally ensures the destruction of her works, as Grab does. But doing so, as one should note before entering the rock-balancer lifestyle, may keep you on the better side of the ecological recommendations and indeed the law. But then the aforementioned anti-cairnism seemed to hit its zenith in early 2020, since which time, it’s fair to say, the world has had more pressing concerns.

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Watch an Archaeologist Play the “Lithophone,” a Prehistoric Instrument That Let Ancient Musicians Play Real Classic Rock

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why Do Tech Billionaires Make for Good TV Villains? Pretty Much Pop #93 Considers “Made for Love,” et al.

The tech genius has become the go-to bad guy in recent films: They’re our modern mad scientists with all imaginable resources and science at their command, able to release dystopic technology to surveil, control, and possibly murder us. Even Lex Luthor was made into a “tech bro” in Batman v. Superman.

Your Pretty Much Pop hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian discuss the HBO Max series Made for Love starring Cristin Milioti, as well as Alex Garland’s Devs, Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley, and Jed Rothestein’s documentary WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn. How does this trope work in comedy vs. serious media? How does it relate to real-life tech moguls? Can women be villains of this sort, or is a critique of toxic masculinity part of this sort of depiction?

To learn more, read what we read:

Hear more of this podcast at This episode includes bonus discussion that you can access by supporting the podcast at This podcast is part of the Partially Examined Life podcast network.

Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast is the first podcast curated by Open Culture. Browse all Pretty Much Pop posts.

Leonardo da Vinci Designs the Ideal City: See 3D Models of His Radical Design

Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd WrightRay Bradbury: they and other 20th-century notables all gave serious thought to the ideal city, what it would include and what it would exclude. To that extent we could describe them, in 21st-century parlance, as urbanists. But the roots of the discipline — or area of research, or profession, or obsession — we call urbanism run all the way back to the 15th century. At that time, early in the European Renaissance, thinkers were reconsidering a host of conditions taken for granted in the medieval period, from man’s place in the universe (and indeed the universe itself) to the disposal of his garbage. Few of these figures thought as far ahead, or across as many fields as Leonardo da Vinci.

In addition to his accomplishments in art, science, engineering, and architecture, the quintessential “Renaissance man” also tried his hand at urbanism. More specifically, he included in his notebooks designs for what he saw as an ideal city. “Leonardo was 30 when he moved to Milan in around 1482,” writes Engineering and Technology‘s Hilary Clarke.

“The city he found was a crowded medieval warren of buildings, with no sanitation. Soon after the young painter had arrived, it was hit by an outbreak of the bubonic plague that killed 50,000 people — more than a third of the city’s population at the time.” This could well have prompted him to draw up his plan, which dates between 1487 and 1490, for a cleaner and more efficient urban environment.

While it wouldn’t have been particularly hard to envision a less dirty and disordered setting than the late medieval European city, Leonardo, true to form, performed a thoroughgoing act of reimagination. “Drawing on the knowledge he had gained from studying Milan’s canals, Leonardo wanted to use water to connect the city like a circulatory system,” writes Clarke, who adds that Leonardo was also studying human anatomy at the time. “His ideal town-planning principle was to have a multi-tiered city, which also included an underground waterway to flush away effluent.” The top tier would have all the houses, squares and other public buildings; “the bottom tier was for the poor, goods and traffic — horses and carts — and ran on the same level as the canals and basins, so wagons could be easily offloaded.”

Though its ambition would have seemed fantastical in the 15th century, Leonardo’s city plan everywhere marshals his considerable engineering knowledge to address practical problems. He had a real location in mind — along the Ticino River, which runs through modern-day Italy and Switzerland — and planned details right down to the spiral staircases in every building. He insisted on spirals, Clarke notes, “because they lacked corners, making it harder for men to urinate,” but they also add an elegance to his vision of the vertical city, a notion that strikes us as obvious today but was unknown then. Of course, Leonardo was a man ahead of his time, and the 3D-rendered and physical models of his ideal city in these videos from the Ideal Spaces Working Group and Italy’s Museo Nazionale della Scienza e della Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci make one wonder if his plan wouldn’t look both alluring and impossibly radical to urbanists even today.

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Denmark’s Utopian Garden City Built Entirely in Circles: See Astounding Aerial Views of Brøndby Haveby

The Utopian, Socialist Designs of Soviet Cities

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hear the Earliest Recorded Customer Complaint Letter: From Ancient Sumeria 1750 BC

Three-thousand, seven-hundred, and seventy-one years ago, in the city of Dilmun, near Ur in Mesopotamia, there was a merchant named Ea-nasir. His business was in selling metal ingots that he purchased in the Persian Gulf. Was he a good merchant? Not according to one of his customers, Nanni. If Yelp had existed back in 1750 BC, Nanni would definitely have given Ea-nasir a one-star review.

We know this because Nanni’s complaint about Ea-nasir, written in Akkadian cuneiform, still exists. The tiny 4.5x2x1 inch tablet is currently on display at the British Museum, and was discovered by archaeologist Sir Leonard Wooley in his 1920s excavation of Ur.

In the video above, Voices of the Pasts David Kelly brings Nanni’s complaint to life with his reading of the complaint.

Ea-nasir had agreed to sell copper ingots to Nanni, who sent a servant with some money to pick them up. Not only were the ingots of low quality, but Ea-nasir was rude to the servant, giving him the ol’ “take it or leave it” treatment. And not only that, but the servant had to travel through enemy territory. And for all the things Nanni’s done for Ea-nasir! (You can just imagine Nanni picking out a fresh clay tablet and getting down to some furious cuneiformin’.)

David Kelly’s reading brings out some of the haughty anger from Nanni’s complaint, but I wonder if Kelly is being too nice. Maybe Voices of the Past should hire a New York cabbie to have a go the next time they find some several-millennia-old ephemera from Ea-nasir’s former business quarters. We don’t know if Nanni ever settled his dispute, but apparently he wasn’t the only one.

The room that Sir Leonard excavated contained many complaints from many customers, including several back and forths from frustrated people all over Mesopotamia. According to this Forbes article, Ea-nasir did have a legit profitable business once, but as his debt grew, the creditors came calling, and he began to stiff people. What makes Nanni’s letter stand out is that he used both the front and back of the tablet to write his withering assessment. We’ve all seen those kind of letters.

The full text from Nanni reads:

Now, when you had come, you spoke saying thus: ‘I will give good ingots to Gimil-Sin’; this you said to me when you had come, but you have not done it. You have offered bad ingots to my messenger, saying ‘If you will take it, take it; if you will not take it, go away.’ Who am I that you are treating me in this manner — treating me with such contempt? and that between gentlemen such as we are. I have written to you to receive my money, but you have neglected [to return] it. Repeatedly you have made them [messengers] return to me empty-handed through foreign country. Who is there amongst the Dilmun traders who has acted against me in this way? You have treated my messenger with contempt. And further with regard to the silver that you have taken with you from my house you make this discussion. And on your behalf I gave 18 talents of copper to the palace, and Sumi-abum also gave 18 talents of copper, apart from the fact that we issued the sealed document to the temple of Samas. With regard to that copper, as you have treated me, you have held back my money in a foreign territory, although you are obligated to hand it over to me intact. You will learn that here in Ur I will not accept from you copper that is not good. In my house, I will choose and take the ingots one by one. Because you have treated me with contempt, I shall exercise against you my right of selecting the copper.

It’s kind of comforting in its own weird way, knowing that finding a good business you can trust has been an eternal quest, whether you’re trying to get a refund from eBay or looking at some low quality ingots and dealing with a very annoyed servant.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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