Is it a Bass, Is It A Guitar, is it Both, does it Djent? All this and other curiosities answered.
Overview - The Fender VI, or Fender Bass Six or Bass VI or Bass V-I or whatever you w ant to call or spell it (I'll just call it Bass VI here) is a 30" Scale Six String Bass guitar with regular guitar pickups, tuners, and a floating syncrhonized "tremolo" bridge unit. It was introduced in 1961 as a "deluxe bass" in Fender's lineup, one step up from the Jazz Bass - or so historians now say, though some sources like Tony Bacon and Paul Day's "American Guitars" book in an interview with Leo Fender said it was "half guitar, half bass" - so which is the truth. The truth is both are right and both work. It also works as an ERG (Extended Range Guitar - I've played Korn on my VI....sounds mean), and has many unique appearances over the years in music. However, it is kind of obvious it was designed to compete with Danelectros six string baritone "Longhorn".

Famous Players: Jet Harris, John Entwhistle (The Who), Glenn Campbell, Joe Perry (Aerosmith), The Beatles, Robert Smith (The Cure), and a handful of others.. Bass VI's are a rare occurance in music, rock or otherwise, and kind of hard to find people who played them to any great degree. The sound the Fender VI is known for the most was that "tic-tac" bass guitar sound heard on 60's westerns, specially spaghetti westerns.
The Fender Bass VI Is one of the most obscure Fender instruments right up there with the 4-string electric mandolin. Few people have seen one, even fewer have played one. It was introduced in 1961 as a "deluxe bass" per Fender, though Leo seemed to have envisioned it as a half-bass/half-guitar halfbreed sort of instrument. While it has frets, a vibrato, 3 guitar pikups, guitar tuners, and six strings, the entire shebang is tuned town an entire octave and strung up with .038-.090 gauge wound strings - like a bass. Probably why it's not that popular is it's too different from either to really attract players from either side.

The original Bass VI we saw released in 1961 was a bit different than the usual. The original version had a Jaguar-style control plate with 3 switches, 3 Strat type pickups in square, almost humbucker-sized metal enclosures, and no mute. Not a lot of these were made and they are quite the collectors piece now. This design lasted until 1962 or 1963, when it got updated.

In 1962 or 1963, the Bass VI was updated to use 3 Jaguar pickups, had a new 4-switch control plate to allow the Strangle Switch - a capacitor wired in series with the signal on a switch - to be added to the Bass VI as well. Also, a larger version of the Jaguar's "Vibramute" was also applied to the Bass VI.

During that time, people who played the Fender VI were either guitarists who ware moonlighting on bass, Spaghetti Western types looking for that "Tic Tac" bass sound, or guys like Jet Harris who were using hte "baritone" capabilities of the VI to play really low melody lines. So it had it's players in the sixties, just not very many.

John Entwhistle played on the the early Who, posibly when they were called the "High Numbers". Jet Harris recorded an album with one in the early 60's. Best known is probably Jack Bruce of Cream who used a Fender VI before switching to a Gibson EB-1. Periodically they'd turn up in other places as well. But not very widely celebrated.

The 70's, on the mainstream, were not kind to the Bass VI in general. In 1975, Fender discontinued it for poor sales and something like only 800 VIs had ever been built to that point since 1961. However, that same year, Aerosmith put out the song "Back in the Saddle" which is probably rock's most famous use of one. It's not playing the bass, and it's not playing guitar, it's playing it's own part, through a phaser, that gives the song it's unique western-meets-hard-rock feel.

Still discontinued as we enter the early 80's, the second most well known user of the Bass VI appeared, Robert Smith of The Cure started using one on some of their songs on the second or third Cure albums, and it became a synonymous instrument with The Cure.

Probably the most well known site of a VI on film though, would be 1984's Spinal Tap, a rock music mockumentary about a quasi-fictional rock group called Spinal Tap. At one point in the movie the narrator/videographer and lead guitarist Nigel Tuffnel are at Nigel's house looking at his guitar collection, and in the corner is a Sea Foam Green sixties Fender VI with the hang tags on it, it was the famous guitar that had the lines "it cannot be played" "don't even touch it, don't even look at it" tied to it. Sort of a comical critique of the rock star guitar collector and vintage guitars you can't even look at or touch, doomed to just sit on a stand for eternity.

In the early 1990's Fender Japan made a short run of MIJ VI's at the Fujigen factory, and then stopped making them again around 93, 94, or 1995. Then they came back for a time again in the 2000's, then left again. There may have been an American version in there. All of these were reissues of hte Pre-CBS, early sixties, Jaguar-based design.

In 2013, Squier released a Classic Vibe Bass VI in Olympic White, Sunburst, and Black with a white pickguard, styled ul like a late 60's model wiht blocks and binding. These VIs were sold for around $350-400 new. This is the version I own. After Fender stopped making them, the VI faded off again for awhile.
The Bass VI Already has a bit of a hard-rock pedigree thanks to Joe Perry and "Back in the Saddle Again". But outside of that, it's almost seldom seen for that. And it's nearly anonymous nature makes it very difficult to stereotype as an instrument, which happens to most guitars. This makes it quite unique, and even for the most socially and trend-conscious person, a blank slate upon which to write your own narritive, which puts it at an advantage over any other on this page from a social and status standpoint.

The first thing is what the heck is this thing. What is it's role. The real truth is "anything you want it to be". BUT, we all know Fender says they originally promoted it as a "Deluxe Bass". So that's it's original purpose, to play bass guitar in a band, to do the job of the "doghouse" bass in a jazz or country band, or the job of a Precision Bass in a pop, rock, or r&b band. But it nver caught on because bassists and guitarists are two separate worlds with clearly defined elements. Your typical 4-string bass guitar has 4 large tuners with large, clublike keys on it. A Very long 34" scale neck with 18-20 frets, a elongated body with one or two pickups switched by a blend knob if there's more than one, one tone, one volume, a chunky metal bridge for the bridge cables these things use for strings, usually being like an .056-.124 gauge set. No mutes, no switches, no doohickeys of any kind, just a neck, a body, 4-strings, a pickup or two, and two or three knobs at most, that's it. Oh yeah, and FRETS ARE OPTIONAL. While guitar players are used to having as many as three pickups, five switches, four knobs, a vibrato bridge, pretty much always 21 or more frets on the fretboard, a scale length bebtween 23" and 25.5", a regular sized body, and six small machine heads.....what do we have here?

We have a 30" scale - between bass and guitar - instrument, with SIX strings, but .032-.095 gauge (or .105 for the low E if you're me), a vibrato system, 3 GUITAR pickups, an elongated body like a bass, a fancy circuit like aguitar, 21+ frets like a guitar, and small guitar-like tuners. So what is it, a guitar, or a bass? Fender sold it as a "bass for guitarists to play" - which some people such as John Lennon used it as (Bass on Helter Skelter people - that's a VI), but then you have Jet Harris using it like a Danelectro Longhorn Baritone (Tuned A-A I believe), then there's Joe Perry who uses it somewhere between - like a mix of a bass, extended range guitar, and a regular guitar, then you have Robert Smith using them in a similar way, then you have loons like me who use it as a bass, an Extended Range guitar, and as a melodic thing of it's own being. I'm just as likely to Djent a Bass VI (and oh how they can DJent!) as I am to carry a groove on one.

As a Bass....

As a bass, the VI shines as being good at emulating most popular bass guitars. Middle pickup alone is very much in P-bass territory, bridge is like an old Danelectro bass or a Jazz Bass on bridge only, both pickups on is like the traditional J-bass sound, while all three on yield almost an "active" bass like an ESP BT-204 or a Steinberger bass. The neck alone is EB-0 minusthe muddiness that makes it awful - much tighter. Neck + middle alone is pretty unique. That's why it's the only bass I have, I can use it to cover so much ground, and it plays like a Mustang Bass but can do so much more.

As a Baritone or ERG, it benefits from lower output pickups. One of my complaints from the late 90's/early 00's was this idea that you NEEDED heavy, loud, thick pickpups to "sound metal" back then. This was just toxic masculine posing by saying "My humbucker is 16K ohms" "Oh yeah! Mine is 18K!" - but then you listen to both and they sound like a hot tub motor being listened to through a pillow filled with bees, while the Bass VI sounds like a 2x4 upside your head wielded by an angry robot running at overvoltage. That's why every Neo-Korn sounds more like Children of the Corn watching a hand being ground up in a blender - because Munky and Hed know more about E.Q. than you probaby do, so their Ibanezes don't sound like a hornet's nest sieging a shorted power line.

The traditional Bass VI thing is to find an open string - or capo one to key - and then play against them melodically. Think of every Cure song with a VI on it. I wrote a piece called "Power's Out" on my VI - that uses a similar method to this. It can be a very pretty instrument when done right, Robert Smith mastered that, and this style also carries over to distortion well as the most cited example is Back in the Saddle Again. But it also can play a pretty mean "Rock Lobster" as well.

The Vibrato Bar makes much less of a pitch change, but it's nicely used for warbles on the higher strings, or occasionally diving it under high gain on the Low E for a swooping effect or a falsified dive-bomb. With a stronger spring I'm pretty sure it'd have longer range, but I Find that might be the thing that tears the vibrato up on this since it was originally intended for the Jazzmaster.

One key thing to talk about is string sets because I think most instrument string makers totally neglect the VI if they even make any strings for it at all. So this was intended as a "deluxe bass" but the darned thing has a low E a full .020 lower than the standard Bass Low E string. Finding strings for it is a pain, I'm sill using the samae set mine came with + that 105 Low E for lower tunings.