SEATTLE — History is full of could-haves and should-haves.
On eBay this week was one of those historical could-haves.
It’s called the Audiovox 736 Electric Bass guitar, and it was made in the basement of the Roosevelt District home of Paul Tutmarc, along with other guitars that Tutmarc electrified. There is a photo showing him working on one on a band saw.
It was marketed beginning in 1936, with an early ad in a Seattle high-school yearbook.
It was the world’s first electric bass guitar.
Fifteen years later, in 1951, Leo Fender, of the Telecaster and Stratocaster electric guitars, would begin selling his Fender Precision Bass.
Fender’s bass guitar took off, and Tutmarc’s invention was forgotten.
On HistoryLink, music historian Peter Blecha writes, “. . .the instrument was so completely ahead-of-its-time that it never succeeded commercially. So, despite the trailblazing uniqueness of Audiovox instruments, relatively few were sold, no national distribution strategy was ever implemented, and Tutmarc’s contributions basically fell through the cracks of history.”
Now, only four copies of the Audiovox 736 are known to exist. The one on eBay is stored under the bed of a couple living in a Snohomish County mobile-home park.
Dale and Bev McKnight, 85 and 79, respectively, have lugged it around for decades. Dale bought it in 1947 when he was in his teens and living in Seattle.
“We’re retired and old. We could use the money,” says Bev.
Two of the other four Audiovox 736’s are with collectors and the third is a prized exhibit at Paul Allen’s Museum of Pop Culture, formerly known as EMP.
By classic-guitar standards, the $20,000 bid for the Audiovox 736 is surpassed by bids asking at least $46,000 or $60,000 for electric guitars that are part of the lead section. Bass guitars are considered part of the rhythm section and don’t get as much glory or money at auction
Bass guitarists sometimes jokingly (post on a music blog: “Groupie accidentally sleeps with bass player”) and sometimes more seriously (post on talkbass.com: “Bassist are criminally overlooked and underappreciated members of most every band.”) complain about their unappreciated status.
But try to imagine the “Peter Gunn Theme,” ”Sunshine Of Your Love,” ”Stand By Me,” ”Another One Bites The Dust,” ”I Feel Good” or “Ace Of Spades” without the driving bass. There are YouTube videos such as “20 Amazing Bass Lines of All Time!” that just compile those astounding riffs.
Paul Tutmarc was a singer and music performer and had a guitar-instruction business.
His son, Bud Tutmarc, would later write an essay about his dad’s inventions.
The son wrote that in the early 1930s, an “electrical enthusiast” name Art Simpson came from Spokane to visit Tutmarc. Simpson had taken apart a telephone and wondered “how the local vibrations against the enclosed diaphragm were picked up by the magnet coil behind the diaphragm and carried by wires to another telephone.”
That led Tutmarc to begin experimenting and eventually to building a horseshoe-shaped magnet, with coils wound around it, and wrapping the grapefruit-sized contraption with friction tape.
It was the beginning of electrifying a guitar.
“NEW DIMENSION” IN SOUND
As with many inventions, the work continued in such homespun circumstances.
Tutmarc worked with another friend, Bob Wisner, a radio repairman, and they rewired a radio to create a crude amplifier.
A 1972 Seattle Times story about Tutmarc said, “The result surprised Tutmarc. He expected increased volume, but was unprepared for the ‘new dimension’ in sound.
“Always before, the sound of a plucked guitar string has quickly expired. Amplified, the sound lingered as a piano note does when the foot pedal is depressed.”
It was revolutionary for the world of bass players, who up to then had to play on bulky, stand-up instruments that were overwhelmed by brash horns and drums.
Bud Tutmarc remembered, “My dad, being a band leader and traveling musician, always felt sorry for the string bass players, as his instrument was so large that once he put it in his car, there was only room left for him to drive. The other band members would travel together in a car and have much enjoyment being together .”
But the bass was electrified.
Tutmarc said he tried to patent his electrified guitar.
He told The Seattle Times, “I blew about $300 (about $5,600 in today’s dollars) in patent offices before attorneys convinced me I’d have to go all the way back to Alexander Graham Bell to find something patentable. Anyway. Bell’s telephone still is the basis of the magnetic pickup. It wasn’t an invention so much as bringing existing forces together.”
Greg Tutmarc, his grandson, says that his granddad never expressed bitterness about missing out on the glory that Leo Fender got. There is no indication that Fender in any way copied Tutmarc.
“This whole case is probably just parallel evolution, like bats and birds,” writes Jim Roberts in his book, “How the Fender Bass Changed the World.”
Says the grandson, “He just went on to the next thing.”
Greg Tutmarc came to know his grandfather’s bass guitar was at the home of Dale and Bev McKnight because he knows a next-door neighbor at the mobile-home park. He told the couple he’d help put it on eBay, not taking any remuneration.
The guitar has held up astoundingly well over the decades.
With bidding ending Tuesday, the $20,000 high bid is from David Wallis, 64, who lives in Georgia.
Wallis is a retired electrical engineer who played bass guitar in his youth and has built up an astounding collection of guitars, among other collectibles.
He sent a photo of the guitars hanging on a wall, which he sometimes randomly picks out and just plays. He’s not keen on people knowing his hometown.
Wallis expects bidding to jump in the last few seconds before the end.
“If Paul Allen wants it, I can’t compete,” he says.
The guitar is made out of black walnut and is about 38 inches long and 10 inches at its widest.
“As an electrical engineer,” Wallis says about Tutmarc, “I can see what he did was just pretty amazing.”
UPDATE: The auction ended at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. Wallis gets the guitar for a high bid of $23,850.09.
“I’m still jumping around,” he says.
Information from: The Seattle Times, http://www.seattletimes.com