Paul McCartney's bass lines

The creative genius of Paul McCartney’s bass lines

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Paul McCartney’s bass lines are an integral part of the Beatles’ evolution from world-beating pop band to musical pioneers. We identify just what Paul did to make his parts stand out from what other bassists were doing at the time.

In “A look at Ringo Starr’s enduring musical influence,” we analyzed the creative drumming of Ringo Starr in the context of his capacity to come up with simple, memorable drum parts that helped make each song unique. Continuing with this thread, Paul McCartney’s development as a bass player provides a textbook case for today’s songwriters and music producers on how a little creativity can go a long way to help make a recording stand out. Through the Beatles’ evolution, Paul McCartney’s bass lines became an integral part of each song’s texture, sound, and color. Let’s rewind through a number of Beatles’ tracks and identify just what Paul did to make the bass parts stand out from what other bassists of the day were doing.

Traditional bass lines

The normal role of a rock bass player in a song is to accomplish two tasks:
1. Keep time
2. Establish the song’s harmonic base

Usually a bass player will do this by playing a steady, repetitive bass line using mainly the root note of whatever chord is being played (C note on a C chord, G note on a G7, etc.) and occasionally the fifth or even the third of the chord as well. The image below demonstrates these chord tones and their relationship to the chord being played. Unique bass lines can be created around chord progressions by using these chord tones, but more often than not, the role of the bassist in a rock and roll band is to stick to the root note.

Bassline

In early Beatles albums, where the audience was primarily screaming teenage girls, we hear Paul sticking pretty closely to that role, with a few exceptions. Aside from the fact that early recording and amplification techniques did not treat the sound of the bass very well, the pop music they played in these early years was much simpler than what can be found on the group’s later albums. Listen to his playing on “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Feel Fine” – classics from 1964 – and you’ll hear almost nothing but roots and fifths in the bass part. The focus of these songs is on the vocals, so Paul (and Ringo, for that matter) kept things simple, with only slight variations on the powerful live performance techniques they had mastered over the previous three years of non-stop gigging.

A new chapter for the bass

Released in December 1965, Rubber Soul marked a clearly audible change in direction for the Beatles. They were nearing the end of their touring days, and as the most successful pop band of the day, had the clout to insist that they be afforded significantly more time in the studio working out arrangements and harmonies of greater complexity than could be found on their nine previous US albums. What emerged was an album that featured a strikingly different sound when compared to their earlier hits, with influences ranging from Indian classical music to dense vocal harmonies influenced by contemporaries like the Beach Boys.

It was on this album that each member of the band stepped outside the traditional roles of each instrument and sought out new ways to contribute to various songs.

For example, consider John Lennon’s song, “Nowhere Man.” The bass line Paul played on this song mainly consisted of chordal tones. The image below contains music notation for an excerpt of his bass line. The colored notes (green for roots, red for thirds, blue for fifths) are all notes found within the chord played during that measure. Black notes are the “in-between” or passing tones he uses to get to the next chord tone. You can see that the bass line he created plays the root, third, and fifth of each chord in every measure, but does it in a different way for each chord, creating a memorable bass part that gives the recording a fresh sound.

Bass Line Nowhere Man

 

Paul’s bass line on “Nowhere Man” may have been his most active up to that point. He not only fulfilled the role of the bass by keeping time and providing a harmonic base, but he added greatly to the energy and groove of the track. His bass line, with its constant motion and runs, smoothly leads into the next chord, propelling the record along. If your song needs a boost of energy, emulate Paul’s approach to keep your listeners tapping their foot to the song’s groove.

Bass boundaries expanded

In 1966, when The Beatles stopped touring altogether and became exclusively a studio band, each member’s musical contributions grew tremendously. Each song was viewed as a palette for them to expand their musical creativity. Rightly considered one of the greatest albums of all time, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club’s Band helped to redefine the role each instrument would play in pop music, and Paul’s bass playing epitomized this sea change.

The track “Lovely Rita” presents a bass line similar to “Nowhere Man” in that its constant motion during the verses gives the song a feeling of always moving forward. It is a bit more advanced in that Paul relies on many more passing tones than “Nowhere Man.” At times his lines form a walking bass line getting from one chord to the next, identical to what you would hear a jazz bassist doing on any standard. It helped the track stand apart from the more typical root-fifth bass lines of the day and underpins the song’s whimsical sounding vocal and horn parts perfectly.

In “A Day in the Life,” Paul’s bass line serves as an essential melodic element, nearly as important as the vocal melody. Let’s examine the first 13 bars of the first verse, notated below.

Bass Lines From A Day In The Life

 

First off, Paul’s not simply sticking to the root note. The variety of rhythms used (quarter notes, half notes, dotted half notes, eighth notes, etc.) show a more “composed” bass line, instead of just repeatedly outlining the chord like he did in the “Nowhere Man” example. In some chords he doesn’t even play the root note, adding harmonic complexity to the piece, and in some measures he doesn’t play on the first beat of the measure, adding rhythmic complexity. In short, he’s moved beyond the traditional role of the bassist.

Paul still provides a harmonic base, but he does so by lazily finding his way to the next chord. His diverse choice of rhythms, instead of using one consistent line, plays with the timing as he hesitates and varies the space in between notes, resulting in a lazy, sleepy vibe – very fitting for the “dream” image that the first half of the song portrays. During the subsequent “waking up” section of the song, Paul’s playing is completely the opposite: steadily rhythmic and march-like to represent the character marching through his day. It’s a perfect example of a bass line that matches the mood and intent of the song and really gives it an ideal character, far beyond what the normal bass line might afford.

Throughout the album Paul uses his bass in numerous instances to add tasteful riffs and fills expanding the instrument’s role beyond simply keeping time and mapping the chord changes. Check out his fill in riffs between the vocals on “With a Little Help from my Friends,” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Another inventive bass part can be heard on the bass harmonies he plays to the horn and vocal parts on the song, “Good Morning, Good Morning.” Paul was at the top of his game and these far-from-standard bass touches provide us with a great classroom to learn how to improve our own use of the bass.

Unlike some virtuosos, Paul’s playing became more musical, and better served each song. In some cases, that meant creating very simple parts if the focus clearly needed to be on other aspects of a song. Probably the best example of this was his own tune, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” which focuses primarily on the lyrics and clarinets. This song is an homage to the dance hall music he heard as a boy growing up in Liverpool. Paul’s simple bass line, played with a very light touch, helps give the track a light, playful feel.

As The Beatles matured and neared the end of their time together as a band, we see each member reach their creative peak, displaying fully what each instrumentalist was capable of bringing to a song. Paul’s bass parts on the Abbey Road album are another chapter in his melodic bass textbook. On George’s classic love song, “Something,” the bass spends very little time on the root of each chord, instead opting to explore the upper registers of the bass, thereby creating an ideal countermelody to the verse vocal line. During the chorus, the bass returns to the low register to give the song the necessary weight and depth that only a full bottom end can bring.

The song, “Come Together,” features one of the most well-known of McCartney’s bass lines. Transcribed below, we can see that every note in the bass line is a chord tone: either the root (green notes) third (red notes) or fifth (blue notes) of a D minor chord.

Bass Line Come Together

 

Unlike the two previous transcriptions, there are no passing notes, and no leading tones. It’s also very repetitive, and the pattern repeats itself with little variation for each verse. So then what makes it so memorable? To start with, simple repetitive lines are easier for listeners to remember – this bass line becomes a hook in its own right. Secondly, Paul’s slides up and down between the notes and across the bar lines give the bass line a fresh, memorable feel.

Making the part even more memorable is its pairing with one of Ringo’s most iconic drum parts. These two parts, each fairly simple on their own, complement each other and create a steady, unshakable pocket that anchors the entire vibe of the track. The groove is nearly unstoppable and, when it was first released, showed the world once more that the Beatles were a potent rock band capable of upping the bar for all bands that followed them. “Come Together” is probably one of the best examples in the rock canon of just how powerful an intricately woven bass and drum part can be to a song.

Final thoughts

If we can learn anything from Paul’s development as the Beatles’ bassist, it’s that the bass can play a variety roles in any given song and that taking a “one size fits all” approach to writing bass parts is seldom the best way to go. Of course, the primary function for the bass part in many songs will always be to keep time and provide a harmonic base, but how to go about doing that depends entirely on the nature of the song.

Take a page from Paul’s creative bass book – if it’s a simple pop love ballad, such as “And I Love Her,” a fat, repetitive bass line sticking to the roots of each chord may be the perfect solution. When it’s time for a track you want people to jump up and dance to, a grooving bass line a la “The Word” may get the job done. And if you are hunting for a hypnotic, trance-like, all-consuming bass part to anchor an anthem, take a listen to Paul’s stellar playing on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” On it, his bass lines provide an unshakable, sinuous foundation for the heavy guitars and vocals that John laid over the top. Definitely a precursor to the harder sound that was soon to emerge from bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin.

Whatever direction your song calls for, be sure to give some extra attention to the bass line and how it can help serve the song’s mood and direction. The next time you sit down to imagine the ideal bass part, take a page out of Paul McCartney’s playbook and see if one of the techniques he employed might best serve your own musical ideas. Going beyond the basics of relying on root notes is a proven recipe to give your song a fresh, original sound.

Check out part two of this post: “After The Beatles: Paul McCartney’s bass playing, Part II“.

Keith Hatschek is a regular contributor to Disc Makers Echoes blog and directs the Music Management Program at University of the Pacific. He has also written two music industry books, How to Get a Job in the Music Industry, which just came out in its third edition, and The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros.

Robert Bassett is a freelance engineer, producer and bassist living in Northern California. He teaches music while completing his degree in Music Management this spring.

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46 thoughts on “The creative genius of Paul McCartney’s bass lines

  1. While I am a huge fan of the Beatles music I feel it has to be pointed out that Jet Harris was playing outstanding bass lines on The Shadows recordings from 1958 on. This significantly predates the McCartney era.

  2. Hey guys and girls, how about “Old Brown Shoe?” I’m a Jazz snob, but I think that was a George Harrison B-side to one of their hits, and I remember being VERY impressed by the bass playing on that track.

  3. I had read somewhere (I don’t remember where or who was writing), a long time back, that McCartney had developed his approach to playing bass largely because, in the early years, he was covering with his guitar for Stu Sutcliffe’s almost complete inability to play the bass. One result was that McCartney, from the beginning, played bass lines with his guitar and added his guitar skills to them, and that all carried over into his later bass playing.

    But, as I said, I don’t know where I got that, or how true it is. Any further knowledge out there?

  4. Had some very unpleasant dealings with Discmakers several years ago, but this piece was strongly recommended to me & was well worthwhile.

  5. Hmmm Max. ‘Yes’ was formed almost 10 years later than the Beatles. Although I am a huge fan of ‘Yes’ I think that the influence of Paul’s playing is audible in Chris Squire’s playing as it was in most post-Beatles-Era bands (maybe Gentle Giant excepted…). I also wonder what the influence of the late great Sir George Martin was on Paul, since there are obviously some classical , especially Bach, hints in his playing. Just my 2 cents…

  6. Yes…except I noticed that since the early days. I had never paid attention to bass lines till the Beatles arrived. I used to listen the songs again only to listen to the bass because they were so melodic. There is something wrong in the videos showed here because we can’t listen to them. it seems to be they were removed. In my records the bass like were outstanding since day one!

  7. Have say, I think the bass pattern for All My Lovin’ give some good hints of what the future held

    1. That’s exactly what I was thinking too! Paul’s bass line in All My Lovin’ was ahead of it’s time.

  8. Nice perspective. I love the way you use colour coding for the root/3rd/5th/outside notes – I might just go ahead and steal that approach for my students, if you don’t mind 🙂 Excellent having the audio example instantly available too. Perhaps it would be even better with a colour code key directly above/below the score?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  9. Paul McCartney’s style of playing the Bass guitar comes from two thoughts he put to great practice. 1). Drive the melody of the song by being a part of it and 2). Timing is everything! Macca’s melodic ear and knowledge of what a great melody needs from the rhythm section helped anchor the most famous band the world has ever known. Songs like Penny Lane to Something shows how he can play a beautiful bass melody within the songs melody creating a masterpiece. Sir Paul is a musical genius and as John Lennon said of Paul….He turned into one fine bass player.

  10. James Jamerson was the greatest bass player of the 1960s and possibly of all time. Paul said “The biggest influence on my bass playing was James Jamerson, who played on many of my favorite Motown releases.” Jamerson gave Paul something to strive for. Melodic bass lines like those on “Rain” and “Something” are strong efforts in that direction.

  11. How’s about focusing on the later 85% of his career instead of limiting yourself to just the first 15%. Paul became a better bassist as a solo artist. Silly Love Songs, Goodnight Tonight, See Your Sunshine along many other songs abound with beautiful, inventive lines. Let’s see a part two to this article please!

  12. Rain is his tour de force, whille the primitive, trance like, repetitive bass (with the primeval drums) on Tomorrow Never Knows inspired many a 90’s dance track.

  13. Great article man!
    Very educational and right on point. McCartney is indeed a musical genius and his bass playing is indeed a good example of that.

  14. Awesome–thanks for feeding my Beatles addiction today! In fairness though, Led Zeppelin 1 came out 9 months before Abbey Road–so the influence may have gone the other direction. But it’s still awesome–and that’s one thing I think about the Beatles–they often drew from what was going on around them, and made it their own, in a very special way.

    1. The Beatles great rock White album came out in November 1968 before Led Zeppelin’s first album.The Beatles started recording it in May of 1968.

    2. Actually several people have said that Led Zeppelin were influenced by Paul’s screaming vocals and the very heavy overdubbed hard rocking guitars in Paul song Helter Skelter which many people have said is the first heavy metal song. IF this is true,then if there was ever anything to be pissed off at Paul for it would be influencing them.

  15. Chester Mathis, you couldn’t be more wrong with your opinion. McCartney is and will continue to be one of the best and most melodic bass players ever. I learned my craft from him, and use it today in our recording with The Silvers.

  16. Terrific article, thank you. I’ve always felt that McCartney’s bass often plays a role that is similar to a cello in a small string ensemble. He grounds the rhythm and the harmony, but he also often adds a harmonic color that changes the emotional tone of the phrase. Your examples outline just how that happens. Thanks!

  17. The isolated bass track from “I’m Looking Through You” on YouTube is well worth a listen. Very melodic, and quite hard to follow on the record.

  18. I’ve always though Joe Lally’s playing in Fugazi to be significantly underrated, when in fact he actually made that band what it was. Being given the time to develop the right groove for a song is not all that common in a lot of amateur bands – my experience has often been “Just keep it simple, will you?!” More time in the studio without those impatient people certainly helps!

  19. I love how he mixes quarter notes on the verse of ‘One After 909’ with an eighth note walking pattern on George’s brilliant solo. Then back to quarter notes. Nobody does that today.

  20. One of my favorites was always “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”, also on ABBEY ROAD. I especially love the way he changed the bass part up on the second verse, from the slow, walking quarter notes to a more loping, dotted-sixteenth feel on the second verse, before he goes back to the walking quarter notes on the next verse. So very cool. I used to think, geez, that’s so cool, why didn’t he do it through the whole song? And then I thought, nah, much cooler to change it up for that verse.

    1. YES!! — one of his top tracks ever, PERIOD! A track that really shows the big-time change from the simple/support to the foreground/melodic role of much of McCartney’s later lines, is the rarely cited tune, “Rain.” As some of you know, around about that time, the Beatles argued that they wanted their tracks to have the bass presence of Motown releases, and eventually that more modern quality became part of their sound.

      Shout out to Keith at U. of Pacific for a great piece here, from fellow Mus Biz prof & bass teacher at Elmhurst College, Chicago.

  21. Never considered McCartney to be the great bassist everyone thought & your article did nothing to change my mind. If McCartney had been the only bassist recording at the time, your may have made some good points, but he wasn’t the only bassist in the world although many seem to think he was.

    1. What Chester Mathis said,is so ignorant and inaccurate!

      As The All Music Guide says in their excellent Beatles biography “That it’s difficult to summarize their career without restating cliches that have already been digested by tens of millions of rock fans, to start with the obvious,they were the greatest and most influential act of the rock era and introduced more innovations into popular music than any other rock band of the 20th century.”

      “Moreover they were among the few artists of *any* discipline that were simultaneously the best at what they did *and* the most popular at what they did.” They also say as singers John Lennon and Paul McCartney were among the best and most expressive in rock.

      Also on an excellent site,The Evolution of Rock Bass Playing McCartney Style by Dennnis Alstrand,Stanley Clarke,Sting,Will Lee,Billy Sheehan,George Martin and John Lennon are quoted saying what a great,melodic and influential bass player Paul has always been.

      http://abbeyrd.best.vwh.net/paulbass.htm

      And Wilco’s John Stirratt was asked in Bass Player which bass players have had the most impact on his playing and the first thing he said was, Paul McCartney is one of the greatest bass players of all time,if you listen to what he was tracking live in the studio it’s unbelievable.” “With his tone and musicality he was a huge influence,he covered all of his harmonic responsibilities really well but his baselines were absolutely melodic and inventive.”

      http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/15716769/windy-city-wingman-john-stirratt-lays-roots-wilco

      In this 2010 interview the blogger says that John Stirratt has an affinity for good melodies so it’s not surprising that Paul McCartney is one of his musical icons and then he quotes him saying that he’s always absolutely in awe of his playing,including Paul’s Beatles years.
      http://audreeanne.blogspot.com/2010/02/interview-wilcos-john-stirratt-talk.html

      And in an online 1977 Eric Clapton interview,Eric Clapton In His Own Words he says that there was always this game between John and George,and he said partly because John was a pretty good guitar player himself http://www.superseventies.com/ssericclapton.html .He played live with John as a member of John’s 1969 Plastic Ono Band.

      And there is a great online article by musician and song writer Peter Cross,The Beatles Are The Most Creative Band Of All Time and he says that many musicians besides him recognize Paul as one of the best bass guitar players ever.He too says that John and Paul are the greatest song composers and that to say that John and Paul are among 2 of the greatest singers in rock and roll is to state the obvious,and that John,Paul and George were all excellent guitarists and that George is underrated by people not educated about music but that Eric Clapton knew better,he also says that both John and Paul played great leads as well as innovative rhythm tracks.

      John Lennon co-wrote,sang and played guitar on one of David Bowie’s first hits Fame in 1975 and David invited John to play guitar on his version of John’s beautiful Beatles song Across The Universe.Brain May,Ozzy Osbourne,and Liam Gallagher and many more call The Beatles The Greatest Band Ever.’

      http://ezinearticles.com/?The-Beatles-are-the-Most-Creative-Band-of-All-Time&id=222245

      Also on MusicRadar Tom Petty,Joe Perry and Richie Sambora in What The Beatles Mean To Me all say how cool and great they thought The Beatles were when they first saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 when they were just teen boys,Richie was only 5.Tom Petty said he thought they were really really great.

      Robin Zander of Cheap Trick said he’s probably one of the biggest Beatles fans on the planet.Brad Whitford of Aerosmith said that a lot of that Beatles influence comes from Steven Tyler’s collaborartion with Mark Hudson both whom are absolute Beatles freaks and he said I guess the goal is to try and emulate probably some of the best music of the last 50 years which has to be The Beatles.

  22. McCartney was the boss bass man in the 60s, and ‘Rubber Soul’ was the touchstone for many players back then. ‘The Word’, ‘Michelle’, and especially ‘Rain’ were wake-up calls for any musicians trying to understand what a solid, creative bottom sounds like.

  23. You missed a few of Paul’s other great bass performances: “Penny Lane”, “Get Back” and “I Want You” come to mind.

  24. Because Ringo Starr is basically a 1-2-3-4 drummer – very little syncopation, just pickup figures and such…McCartney became the one who did what were traditionally percussion fills. By Revolver he had given the bass more of a lyrical direction. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club is a primer for bass players who wanted to express themselves in the r&r idiom.

    McCartney’s work on bass is – to me – a combination of necessity and ego. I’m not a fan of McCartney but his early bass work was very nice…..

  25. Keith, Besides the melodic content of the bass lines, their overall sound included a dry direct feed and a microphone, with reverb on the mic. Additionally, if I recall correctly, the bass may have been added after the basic tracks were done. This is a technique that allows the bass player to hear the overall arrangement and better fit into it, particularly if there has been an orchestra overdub. Too often a bass part tends to get is too busy when done with just a rhythm section. – Nick

  26. If you think McCartney’s base lines were interesting, you should analyse the work of Chris Squire. THEN you’ll see some magic.

    1. I am a huge, lifelong admirer and student of Squire. He was, in fact, the true successor to McCartney in all the ways described in this article. You cannot separate the two.

  27. “Silly Love Songs” Greatest bass line EVER! And the chord pattern is “Imagine”/”Layla” (you can actually play a modified version of the “SLS” bass line under the “Layla” outro. And you can use Lennon’s chromatic riff on the acoustic guitar intro to “SLS”)

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