Although Leo Fender was the first to mass produce the electric bass guitar in the 1950s, Seattle musician Paul Tutmarc could be considered its true inventor.
Born in 1896, Tutmarc started playing Hawaiian-steel guitar at the age of 15, and was soon working as a touring musician. In 1917 Tutmarc arrived at Seattle, began work in the shipyards and raised a family. By 1926 Tutmarc was singing on the local radio station and on the stage, and by 1931 he was teaching guitar from a studio in down-town Seattle.
It around this time that Tutmarc began experimenting in his basement workshop with a friend, Arthur J. Stimson. Inspired by the telephones of the time they attached an iron blade, wrapped with copper wire, to a large horseshoe magnet. When put inside Tutmarc’s flat-top Spanish-style guitar and plugged into a radio, the device picked-up the instrument's sound, amplified it. Both partners realized the potential of their discovery, but were advised (by lawyers) that their pickup design was non-patentable because the telephone companies already held patents such devices.
In 1934 Tutmarc established the Audiovox Manufacturing Company to build electric lap steel guitars and other instruments. In February 1935, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran an advertisement showing Tutmarc with his latest invention: an electric, cello-sized, solid-bodied upright bass. The advert notes that
“People have always pitied the poor bass-fiddler ... who has to lug his big bull-fiddle home through the dark streets after the theatre closes. But he doesn’t have to do it any more. Because Paul Tutmarc, Seattle music teacher and KOMO radio artist, has invented an electric bull-fiddle. One you can carry under your arm. The first electric bass-viol is only four feet tall, instead of six. It could be made a lot smaller, but Tutmarc didn’t want to be too revolutionary right off the bat. Bass violinists are a conservative race, and have to be accustomed gradually to the idea, he says.”
Although Tutmarc’s Audiovox company sold many Electronic Bass Fiddles in the Pacific Northwest it was not a great commercial success. Maybe it was ahead of its time and maybe Tutmarc failed to promote his invention. Gibson made several upright electric basses in the late 1930s, inspired by the success of Rickenbackers early frying pan guitars, but these instruments were never mass produced. It was not until the 1950s that Leo Fender made the bass guitar a commercial success.