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Leo Fender and his Mysterious Thumb Rest
Leo Fender was a remarkable man. His electric guitars helped to change western popular culture forever. But what is truly remarkable about Mr Fender is how much he got right straight off. Two of his most iconic instruments, the Precision Bass and Stratocaster Guitar are testament to that. Both are still in production today and are pretty much unchanged from their original 1950s design. Among the exceptions to this, however, is the Precision Bass’ mysterious thumb rest.
This innocuous strip of plastic which was originally fixed into place just under the instrument’s G string has proved puzzling to many. How can this be a thumb rest if it sits under the strings rather than above them?
The answer is Leo Fender originally envisaged his groundbreaking electric bass to be plucked with the player’s thumb, and the small strip of plastic was intended not to be a thumb rest but rather a tug bar for the player’s other fingers to wrap around. Fender did not foresee the intricate bass lines his instrument would make possible and instead thought it would be played in much the same root and fifth way as an acoustic double bass.
Instead players quickly adopted a technique that used both their index and middle fingers, anchoring their thumbs either on one of the pickups or on the bottom E string when not being played. This made the position of Fender’s tuck bar obsolete. On later instruments it was moved to its rightful place above the bottom E, and then surprisingly moved back for the retro look on Fender’s vintage range.
For all else Fender got right I think he’s forgiven.