Properly Dating a Fender Bass
Figuring out when a Fender Bass was made is not as easy as it sounds, especially if it's a vintage bass. Ever since Fender started making basses in 1951 they dated certain parts and components to give a general idea of when the instrument was produced.
The problem is that a neck might be made and dated and then sits in the factory for awhile until it's finally bolted to a body that is dated months later.
Then there are pickup and potentiometer date codes, serial numbers and even bridge stamps and pickguard codes in some cases. So how do you properly determine the year of production?
Back in the 1950's and 60's no one at Fender at 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 so concerned about when any particular bass was made. They just grabbed whatever part or component was ready and put together the instrument to fill an order as fast as possible.
The general rule of thumb is that a bass is as old as it's newest part, or at least it's latest dated part. So if you have Fender with a neck date of 1964 and the pots are dated 1965, then you have a 1965 Fender Bass. There are some years in particular that can get real tricky. Some 1959 Precision Basses have no neck date stamp at all and 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 1990's with no neck stamp at all.
All in the Numbers
Body stamp dates were used by Fender from the early 1950's to the mid 1960's and then stopped until the 1980's where 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 week it was made. One exception is that most Fender pots from 1966 to 1969 are dated to 1966. Pickups were only date stamped from 1964 to about 1979 but can be really useful in helping pin down the year.
Serial numbers can also be tricky when trying to get an accurate build date. I once had a Japanese Fender '75 reissue Jazz Bass that I bought used and according to the serial number I looked up, was made around 1985. I was suspicious because 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. Lesson here is that until you see the date stamp on either the neck or body, the serial number is only a guess.
The earliest Fender serial numbers were stamped on the bridge, moving to the neck plate in 1954. From 1951 to 1963 the serial numbers were pretty straight forward, using sequential numbers, although there are exemptions. Sometime in 1963 Fender added an "L" prefix with 5 digits to all the serial numbers that lasted to mid 1965. Fender then dropped the "L" and started using a large stamped "F" with 6 digits on the plate which they used until 1976.
Later in 1976 Fender moved the serial number to the headstock just below the logo. All serial numbers now began with an "S" for seventies and then later an "E" for eighties, "N" for nineties and an "Z" for 2000 and later. 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 does the Fender Custom Shop models. Those numbers are usually found on the neck plate.
You can actually send your serial number to Fender and they will give a pretty accurate date on when your bass was made, but again it won't be exact. If your determined to get the precise date locked down, you have to take all these factors into consideration and then still know that it's just always an approximation.