Paul McCartney’s basslines are an integral part of the Beatles’ evolution from world-beating pop band to musical pioneers. We identify just what McCartney did to make his parts stand out from what other bassists were doing at the time.
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, McCartney’s basslines 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 McCartney did to make the bass parts stand out from what other bassists of the day were doing.
The normal role of a rock bass player in a song is to accomplish two tasks:
- Keep time
- Establish the song’s harmonic base
Usually a bass player will do this by playing a steady, repetitive bassline 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 basslines 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 McCartney 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 McCartney (and Ringo Starr, 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 bassline McCartney plays on this song mainly consists of chordal tones. The image below contains music notation for an excerpt of his bassline. 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 bassline 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 bassline.
McCartney’s bassline 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 bassline, 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 McCartney’s approach.
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 McCartney’s bass playing epitomized this sea change.
The track “Lovely Rita” presents a bassline 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 McCartney relies on many more passing tones than “Nowhere Man.” At times, his lines form a walking bassline 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 basslines of the day and underpins the song’s whimsical sounding vocal and horn parts perfectly.
In “A Day in the Life,” McCartney’s bassline 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, McCartney’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” bassline, instead of just repeatedly outlining the chord like he did in “Nowhere Man.” 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.
McCartney’s bass style evolves
McCartney 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, McCartney’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 bassline that matches the mood and intent of the song and really gives it an ideal character.
Throughout the album, McCartney 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.” McCartney 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, McCartney’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. McCartney’s simple bassline, played with a very light touch, helps give the track a light, playful feel.
Basslines on Abbey Road
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. McCartney’s bass parts on Abbey Road are another chapter in his melodic bass textbook. On George Harrison’s classic love song, “Something,” McCartney spends very little time on the root of each chord, instead opting to explore the upper registers of the bass, 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 basslines. Transcribed below, we can see that every note in the bassline 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, what makes it so memorable? To start with, simple repetitive lines are easier for listeners to remember — this bassline becomes a hook in its own right. Secondly, McCartney’s slides up and down between the notes and across the bar lines give the bassline a fresh, memorable feel.
Making the part even more memorable is its pairing with one of Starr’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. “Come Together” is 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.
Play to the needs of the song
If we can learn anything from McCartney’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 McCartney’s creative bass book. For a simple pop love ballad, a fat, repetitive bassline 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 bassline 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 McCartney’s stellar playing on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” On it, his basslines provide an unshakable, sinuous foundation for the heavy guitars and vocals that John Lennon lays 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 bassline and how it can help serve the song’s mood and direction. Going beyond the basics of relying on root notes is a proven recipe to give your song a fresh, original sound.
Keith Hatschek is author of The Real Ambassadors: Dave and Iola Brubeck and Louis Armstrong Challenge Segregation, which tells the story of Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, and Iola Brubeck as they took a stand against segregation by writing and performing a jazz musical titled The Real Ambassadors. Hatschek, who directed the music management program at University of the Pacific for twenty years, has authored numerous music industry books, including The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the New Music Industry, The Golden Moment: Recording Secrets from the Pros, and The Historical Dictionary of the American Music Industry.
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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