Ask most people who created the modern electric bass guitar and they will tell you it was Leo Fender. However, there were at least five other prototypes resembling the now well-known design of the modern bass, each created well before Fender introduced the world to the Precision bass in 1951.
The modern bass is a direct descendant of the double bass, which dates back to the 17th century. However, it was not until the early twentieth century that the design of the bass was changed to be more practical.
In the 1920's, Lloyd Loar, working for Gibson, designed the first 'electric double bass'. The bass used an electro-static pickup, but amplification of bass frequencies was as yet undeveloped, so there was no practical way of hearing the instrument. In the early 1930's, Paul Tutmarc became the first known individual to refine the double bass to a more practical size. The first prototype was about the size of a cello, and featured a rudimentary pickup, but this was found to be too heavy, and the design was refined to be more like a guitar. This new bass was 42 inches long, solid body, made of black walnut and piano strings and, like the previous, featuring a pickup.
In the mid '30s, several established musical instrument firms - Lyon & Healy, Gibson and Rickenbacker to name a few - began marketing experimental electric basses that were, like Tutmarc's prototype bass, much less bulky than a standard double bass. However, these were all still tall, unfretted, upright instruments held in the standard vertical position.
Around 1940, Paul Tutmarc Jr began manufacturing guitars and basses, including the Serenader bass. This was distributed by L.D. Heater Music Co., in Portland, Oregon, and was the first time a large distributor handled the electric bass. The genius was that this new instrument was a bass Guitar - a compact, fretted instrument that could be held and played horizontally. The main features of the design were:
The pickup - designed because the double bass was often drowned out by the brass sections of jazz bands.
The size - the double bass player had to travel alone because of the instrument's size, and often got lost on road trips to shows, due to being separated from the rest of the band. The new compact design meant that the bass player could travel with the rest of the group.
There was very little progression until Leo Fender famously created the Precision bass in 1951. This was named the Precision bass as the frets on the instrument allowed the notes to be played with precision. This was, to many people, the first real electric bass, as it was the most mass-produced and recognisable bass guitar at that time, and still is. Its design is the most copied in bass guitar history. In 1957, the pickup was changed to be a split pickup, and the pickguard and headstock were redesigned.
In 1960, Fender designed and created the Jazz bass, with two separate pickups rather than a split pickup like that of the Precision. The popularity of the Fender basses meant that later followed bass guitars from Gibson, Rickenbacker, and Hofner. This led to a surge of popularity in the modern bass guitar, and led to it being known as it is today - an important part of rock, blues, jazz, funk, reggae and countless other genres of popular music.
In 1959 Danelectro created the first 6 string bass, tunes E A D G B E, and Gibson and Fender used this idea to make the Gibson EB-6 in 1960, and the Fender VI in 1962. Fender created the first 5 string in 1964, with the Fender V.
In 1965 came the first fretless Bass Aubi from Ampeg and in 1968, there appeared an 8 string bass from Hagstroem. The first fretless 6 string, (later owned by Les Claypool) was built by Carl Thompson in 1978. Because of playing styles like Slap and Pop, the variable number of strings and the different combinations of woods, necks, etc. pickups had to become much more varied. EMG pickups became widely used on bass guitars.
Bass guitar was popularised early on by players like John Entwistle and James Jamerson in the 60's, Jaco Pastorious and Stanley Clarke in the 70's, and Marcus Miller and Cliff Burton in the 80's. The late 80's saw a decline in the popularity of the bass, as the fashion was for electronic synthesised dance music. However, the bass had now diversified further away from the double bass guitar.
Nowadays, bass has further increased in popularity due to bassists like Les Claypool (Primus) and Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), who have shown the importance of bass in modern music. Unfortunately, the double bass declined in popularity, as it is unable to compete with the compact size and versatility of the electric bass guitar. Now, when somebody talks about a bass, the mind instantly jumps to an image of an electric bass guitar, rather than it's predecessor, the acoustic upright.