"I have an short-scale Gibson Les Paul Recording Bass from the
’70s. I don’t know what it is about this one—it’s a very inspiring instrument. The strings very rarely
get changed, and I haven’t changed the way it’s set up since I bought it. But I always have it sitting around
the studio. When I put it on, I always go somewhere with it, playing little melodies. That’s what I used to play the
countermelody on “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own.” - Adam Clayton
After spending most of our time with basses from the ’50s and ’60s, let’s creep into the
early ’70s and look at the Les Paul Triumph, an early attempt by Gibson to modernize its bass line. Gibson basses had
an impact in the ’60s and early ’70s thanks to players like Jack Bruce, Andy Fraser, and Felix Pappalardi, but
as rock music and recording techniques continued to evolve, the sound of Fender basses became the “state-of-the-art”
tone. By 1969, though, Gibson was ready to go on the offensive, and the Les Paul Bass became a late-arriving companion to
the hugely successful Les Paul guitar line. It was innovative in a number of ways, especially its low-impedance electronics.
It was aimed at professional players and was touted as a studio instrument, perhaps a marketing first. In 1972 the Les Paul
Triumph Bass replaced the original version, the primary difference being the addition of a high/low impedance switch. Both
of these basses were known informally as the Les Paul Recording Bass, although that name never appeared in the company’s
The Triumph’s look is modern, classy, and even a little intimidating. While it represented a new direction
for Gibson from an electronics standpoint, the Triumph retained the traditional 30w" short-scale neck of the earlier EB series.
The relatively deep and round neck feels less “plunky” than most short-scale necks, perhaps because the neck is
glued in (or “set”) rather than bolted on. It weighs a lot more than any previous Gibson bass, which might have
been one reason why it took Gibson so long to try the “Les Paul as a bass” concept.
The complicated electronics take some getting used to, but the innovative passive design offers an astonishing
array of tones. There is a master volume knob and 3-way pickup switch, but from there it gets a little wacky. The treble knob
is a high-frequency rolloff not unlike a regular tone control. A bass knob allows you to actually remove low-frequencies from
your signal, which isn’t always a bad thing given the bass-heavy sound available with the control maxxed. The impedance
switch dramatically changes the output level. The phase in/out switch, which works only when both pickups are on, gives an
interesting Jazz-like flavor. The 3-way tone switch goes from a quite thin tone, to a full-range setting in the middle, to
a honkin’ deep bass reminiscent of that good ol’ fashioned mud from earlier Gibsons.
I was able to speak with Les Paul himself about this bass. “With a balanced low-impedance output, you
could use long cables without all the problems inherent in unbalanced high-impedance lines,” says Les. “Gibson
was keen on having the low-impedance transformer close to the amp, so we made a special cable with a transformer on the other
end, which you had to have in order to use it. But if you forgot your cable, you were out of luck—so we added the switch
to go from low to high impedance. I tried to talk them out of staying with the short scale, but they didn’t want to
change to a longer scale like on the Fender.” Was it designed to compete directly with the Fender Precision? “Leo
Fender was a dear friend and deserves a pat on the back for coming up with a great design. One [switch] position on the Les
Paul Bass was meant to sound just like the Precision, and all the other settings were extra choices for the player. The Triumph
sounded so good it was scary; it was the finest bass I knew how to come up with, but the kids of that time were not ready
for so many options. If I could have done something different, I would have made a bass with one great sound. Simpler is better—like
a water faucet.” Many thanks to Les for taking the time to comment for this article.
In hindsight, it is a little hard to imagine thousands of Fender players switching over to this short-scale
science project, but you have to admire Gibson’s attempt to shake things up. The Triumph was discontinued toward the
end of the ’70s, although the classic body shape has been resurrected a few times in recent years. Even though the Triumph
didn’t catch on, it was an interesting precursor to the active basses and sophisticated preamps that came along later.
It’s fun to play, and if you’re looking for a lot of tonal variety in a short-scale bass, it can deliver the goods—as
long as your back is strong, or if you play sitting down!
"So there I
was, fifteen years old, with a dark brown Ibanez-copy bass guitar and no amp. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with
it. Absolutely none. Not a clue. It just sounded good to me." - Adam Clayton