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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After The Beatles: Paul McCartney’s bass playing, Part II
A look at Ringo Starr’s enduring musical influence
How To Record Bass Guitar – Recording tips for the home studio and beyond
Fixing your audio mix: how to tweak that problem bass note
Mystery chords in “A Hard Day’s Night” and “London Calling”