Accurate dating of musical instruments is a very easy and useful skill to learn. Whether the instrument was found at a yard sale or a museum, there are several signs that can confirm the authenticity of an instrument. Fender bass guitars are no exception.
Fender has grown substantially since its establishment in 1946. The company has employed several serial number policies over the years. While these policies offer an indication of what year they refer to, they are typically specific to the component they are attached to. Removal of the neck of your bass might show a stamped date on the heel of the neck, but the neck might have been stored for sometime before it was actually attached at the plant and shipped for sale. It's likely that your bass can be given a birth 'range' rather than a date.
Bridge Plates and Neck Plates
Fender stamped its bridge plates and neck plates in the early years. The Precision Bass models, for example, had bridge plates that were marked from 100 to 2000 between 1951 and 1955. The range 100-400 was used specifically between the years of 1951 and 1952. Numbers 0001 through 0999 were used between 1952 and 1954. Numbers 1000 to 2000 were used between 1953 and 1955. Again, these numbers are specific to the bridge plate, which could have been removed and installed on your guitar at some point, or stored a time before installation at the plant. Notice that there is also overlap in serial numbers between different years.
Neck plate stamping was employed from 1954 to 1976 on all models. Especially unique neck plate stamping includes those serial numbers that start with a "o" or "-" sign (1957 through 1958), stamping at the bottom of the neck plate (1959 through 1960), double stamping and overlapped stamping. Number sequences ranging from four to six digits represent neck plates that were stamped between 1954 and 1963. Number sequences starting with an "L" are considered to have been stamped between late 1962 and 1965 prior to Fender being bought by CBS. If your neck plate has a large scripted "F", it is considered to have been stamped between late 1965 and 1976 if it includes a number sequence starting from 100000 through 750000.
Serial Numbers At the Headstock
Serial numbers where put on the headstock of guitar necks somewhere near 1976. Alphanumeric characters offer a faster way to identify the decade the neck was built. Necks built in the seventies started with an "S". "E" started the units that were made in the 1980s. "N" refers to necks made in the '90s. Both "N" and "E" series instruments could potentially have been created in Japan. Between 1985 and 1987 Fender instruments were only constructed in Japan while a recent new owner took over Fender and was building a new plant in America. Most Japanese-built instruments were marked with a "J". "DZ" or "Z" numbers were printed after 1999.
"FN" serial numbers are intended for export. "CB" serial numbers were put on Jazz basses from 1981 to 1982. These are considered "Gold Jazz Basses". "CD", "CE", "CO", "GO" and "CB" serial numbers are on special Precision Basses from 1981 and 1982.