Dating a Fender bass guitar to figure out when it was made is not always as easy as it sounds. This is especially true with a vintage bass. Ever since Fender started making basses in 1951, they dated certain parts and components to provide a general idea of when the instrument was produced. The problem is that a neck might be made and dated and then sit in the factory for a while until finally being bolted to a body produced and dated months later. Even using official Fender bass serial numbers isn’t as straightforward as you might think.
There are pickup and potentiometer date codes that you can try to identify. There are even bridge stamps and pickguard codes in some cases. So how do you properly determine the year of production for your Fender bass?
The challenge with dating a Fender bass
Back in the 1950s and ’60s, no one at Fender had any clue that one day these instruments would be highly sought after collector’s items or coveted vintage tone machines and that people would be highly concerned about when any particular bass was made. They just grabbed whatever part or component was ready and put the instrument together to fill an order as fast as possible.
The general rule of thumb is that a bass guitar is as old as its newest part. Or, at least its most recently dated part. So, if you have a Fender with a neck date of 1964 and the pots are dated 1965, then you have a 1965 Fender bass guitar. Some years, in particular, can get really tricky.
Some 1959 Precision Basses have no Fender neck dating stamp at all. Several Fender basses from 1969 to 1980 have neck stamp codes that are difficult to decipher and sometimes impossible to read. After 1981, most Fender neck dates are easy to read and understand; however, I’ve still seen a few Fender basses from the 1990s with no neck stamp at all.
Who previously owned your Fender bass?
This may seem obvious, but remember that with older bass guitars it’s very difficult to say with absolute certainty who owned it and what they did to it.
It’s very common for people these days to get a new bass and immediately swap something out. Maybe they like the feel of a different neck, or maybe they want different electronics to work with. Now, think about a bass that was made in the 70s. That’s a half century ago! What do you think could have happened to that instrument over the decades?
It’s pretty impossible to tell with 100% accuracy what a Fender bass has gone through over that amount of time. Even relying on Fender bass serial numbers can get dicey in those situations.
This isn’t to say that you should just give up and stop researching your beloved Fender Jazz bass that you’re sure is from the late 60s and is worth the price of a small car today. It may be. We just need to be very careful when doing this research. We need to use as many different clues as possible, yes like Fender serial numbers, to give us a clear picture of when these instruments were made.
What does Fender date?
Fender used body stamp dates from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. After that, they stopped until the 1980s when they started again sporadically to this day. Sometimes you see them and sometimes you don’t.
Potentiometer codes are pretty reliable for dating, usually indicating the year, and even the week it was made. One exception is that most Fender pots from 1966 to 1969 are dated to 1966. Not always super helpful there.
Pickups were only date stamped from 1964 to about 1979. However, they can be really useful in helping pin down the year of an older Fender bass guitar.
Fender bass serial numbers
Even relying on official Fender serial numbers can be tricky when trying to get an accurate build date. I once had a Japanese Fender ’75 reissue Jazz Bass that I bought used. According to the Fender serial number I looked up, it was made around 1985.
I was suspicious. I didn’t think they made the ’75 reissue that early on. So, I popped the neck off, and it had a date stamp of 1998. It turned out that this was a case of overlapping serial numbers used by Fender Japan on different models. The lesson here is that until you see the date stamp on either the neck or the body, the Fender bass serial number is only a guess.
Locations and codes of Fender serial numbers
The earliest Fender serial numbers were stamped on the bridge, moving to the neck plate in 1954. From 1951 to 1963, the Fender bass serial numbers were pretty straightforward, using sequential numbers, although there are exceptions.
Sometime in 1963, Fender added an “L” prefix with 5 digits to all their serial numbers. That lasted until mid-1965. Fender then dropped the “L” and started using a large stamped “F” with 6 digits on the plate. They used this pattern until 1976.
Later in 1976, Fender moved the serial number to the headstock just below the logo. After that, Fender serial numbers began with a letter for the decade they represented. For instance, serial numbers on Fender basses in the 1970s began with an “S” for, well, “seventies.” Then later, they used an “E” for “eighties”, an “N” for “nineties”, and a “Z” for 2000s and on.
In 1995, Fender moved the serial number to the back of the headstock for all U.S. models. The vintage reissue line, which began in 1982 and continues to this day, uses a separate serial number system, as do the Fender Custom Shop models. You can usually find those numbers on the neck plate.
Ask Fender what they think
You can also send your Fender bass serial number to Fender themselves. They’ll give you a pretty accurate date for when your bass was made. But again, it won’t be exact. You can also start with Fender’s product dating page to see if that will help.
If you’re still committed to properly dating a Fender bass guitar, you’ll have to take all these factors into consideration and do your best with the info at hand. Then, just keep in mind that it’s still mostly an approximation.
Taking a Fender serial number and doing some detective work on your bass can be a lot of fun actually. Just be methodical about how you do your research. Understand how dating methods have changed over the years, and enjoy the sleuthing trail!