When a bass player hooks up in the studio or at a concert, he most often uses an Ampeg amp. And if they aren’t, they should be. Ampeg came to dominate the bass boosting world so completely that you’d be forgiven for thinking that was their only goal.
Along with their amplifiers, however, Ampeg has a parallel history in creating bass guitars. These are not typical specimens, however – the basses produced by Ampeg are decidedly left-centered in terms of sound and especially aesthetics. So let’s explore this wonderfully wacky experience in bass history and find out why these rare relics are still treasured today.
Known as the gold standard in bass amplification, Ampeg has created a lesser-known side story in bass guitars. Let’s get to know these strange and wonderful instruments.
From the mind of a bass player
Everett Hull founded the Ampeg Bassamp company in 1949. The company rose to fame in 1960, a few years after employing Jess Oliver, the engineer who was behind the B-15 Portaflex bass amp. The B-15 would become a leading voice in this new arena, and subsequent models – like the stadium-rocking SVT amp series – cemented the company’s reputation as an industry standard in bass amps.
Hull was an accomplished double bass player. And like most innovators, its initial impetus was to meet a practical need. In competition with the ever increasing volume of rock’n’roll combos and big bands, he wanted to create a microphone for the double bass: an amplified peg, or ‘Ampeg’ for short.
Ampeg’s bass projection concept came to fruition with its revolutionary amps, but there were also early experiences with pickups, as evidenced by their Baby Bass. It was also quite a bizarre creation and a tribute to Hull’s love for old school swing music from his early years. It was a miniature double bass with a plastic body that didn’t look much like a traditional upright, although it was a favorite among traveling salsa groups, due to its portability and thump at mid-range.
By the mid-sixties the world had really changed. Rock music was firmly entrenched in popular culture, and electric bass legends like James Jamerson took Ampeg’s own products and pushed them to the verge of distortion. The bass had changed and if Ampeg was to continue to compete, they had to live with the times.
Hull’s predicament led him to seek younger opinions. As such, the development of Ampeg’s first horizontal bass was led by Dennis Kager, who was in his twenties when he got the job. This resulted in the AEB-1 Horizontal Fretted Bass. So like a Fender P Bass, right? Not even close. Although there was a nod to the Fender Jazzmaster, which Kager played in his own band, the bass’s appearance still had the characteristics of the old one – a vertical-style spiral headstock, hollow, with F-holes passing through the body.
The key to the mysterious sound of this new generation of bass is the mic. The configuration was explained in this excerpt from Vintage guitar:
“Below the diaphragm, two magnets and two large coils – nestled in a block of epoxy – would translate the acoustic vibrations of the strings, bridge and diaphragm into electrical impulses for amplification.“
Obviously, this setup wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. The players (Rick Danko from The group for example) would often replace the original mic with a standard magnetic mic – like that of a P Bass – to achieve sound that covered a wider range of frequencies.
Dealing with the devil
Alongside the AEB and AUB fretless basses, the even rarer ASB and AUSB models received limited production. His nickname was the ‘Devil Bass’ and it’s not hard to see why. Yes, the scroll head is still there, but the body is a much wilder creation.
The AEB series’ unique pickup system has been carried over to the Devil Bass, but the body features a black center block with red horns facing outward from the center of the guitar. Like the aforementioned Kager, Devil Bass designer Mike Roman took inspiration from the outside. In this case, the Ampeg emulated DanElectro’s Longhorn bass.
Another odd detour in the Ampeg bass catalog was the Dan Armstrong Plexi model. Although deemed transparent, other aspects of this model were slightly more conventional. A magnetic pickup with a stacked design in which the tone control mixes the treble and bass controls.
For a multitude of rational reasons, Ampeg has decided to focus its innovations on amplifiers. The brand has grown from strength to strength, launching several lines of tube amps that still beat the competition. But for a brief period in their history, they followed their inspiration by creating bass guitars. The world is a better place for these adventurous creations.