Friday, September 29

How to play bass like Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney was always an unlikely bass hero. The left-handed musician occupied many roles in his music career spanning over 60 years, including composer, arranger, remixer, and producer. As a member of The Beatles, McCartney has been hailed as one of the greatest singers and songwriters of all time, responsible for iconic tracks like ‘Hey Jude’, ‘All My Loving’, and ‘Get Back’. But being a bass player never seemed to be at the forefront of McCartney’s mind. In fact, by his own admission, he wasn’t terribly keen on playing the instrument in the first place.

“We couldn’t have three guitars and no bass. Nobody wanted to be the bass player in those days because it was always the fat guy playing bass,” McCartney explained in his book The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. “There seemed to be some sort of stigma attached to it.”

Almost by accident, McCartney fell into a role that he would help define for the next seven decades. His evolution included going from never having played the bass guitar before to mastering it in less than half a decade. Within that period, he had a distinct change in style that started with rudimentary playing and grew into some of the most creative and memorable bass lines in the history of rock music. Even John Lennon gave McCartney his due later in life.

“Paul is one of the most innovative bass players,” Lennon told David Sheff in 1980. “Half the stuff that’s going on now is directly ripped off from his Beatles period … He’s an egomaniac about everything else, but his bass playing he’d always been a bit coy about.”

McCartney’s coyness probably comes from the fact that he didn’t grow up as a bassist. Throughout his childhood, McCartney largely focused on guitar and piano as his main instruments. Since he began playing with Lennon in 1957 at the age of 15, McCartney had always played either guitar or piano in the bands that eventually evolved into The Beatles. Had it not been for the exit of Stu Sutcliffe in 1961, McCartney likely would have stayed a guitar player. But as fate would have it, McCartney was destined to play bass.

His reluctance to fully embrace the instrument was obvious from The Beatles’ first recordings. The first single the band ever released, ‘Love Me Do’, has what can generously be called a simple bass line. McCartney had only been playing the instrument for roughly a year when The Beatles signed their record contract with EMI and began recording. When coupled with limited studio time and dedication to songwriting, first and foremost, McCartney spent the majority of the Beatlemania years cranking out serviceable, if unmemorable, bass parts.

McCartney’s shift happened thanks to a number of reasons. For one, the evolution of music in America treated the bass with more attention and volume, which McCartney heard through labels like Motown and Stax Records. The Beatles’ dissatisfaction with touring (largely thanks to the lack of adequate amplification) also gave McCartney more time to create in the studio. After years of playing, McCartney no longer saw the bass as a necessary evil and could finally give it the proper attention it deserved. The result was a massive influx of classic bass lines that pushed the sonic boundaries in terms of what the instrument could be.

Another major change was that McCartney had some new equipment. After years of partnership with the Rickenbacker company, McCartney finally got his left-handed 4001S bass guitar. The thicker sound on the Rickenbacker gave McCartney the confidence to begin experimenting with his bass lines. Instead of following the chord changes, McCartney would create distinct lines and harmonic movements that acted almost as another lead instrument. McCartney’s lead guitar intuition began to filter into his bass playing more prominently, leading to busier and more varied bass parts in songs like ‘Lovely Rita’, ‘Dear Prudence’, and ‘Come Together‘.

As The Beatles splintered at the end of the 1960s, McCartney’s attitude toward the bass changed as well. Now in full control of his songwriting, McCartney carried over some of the more eclectic playing styles into his solo career. McCartney could be heard reflecting on the times, adopting funky and frenetic disco bass on ‘Silly Love Songs’ and electronic synth bass parts on ‘Temporary Secretary’. By this point, McCartney’s approach to the bass would often change song to song, lapping back to basics when needed or pushing the melody when called on.

In order to play bass like Paul McCartney, first you need a bass. Although his gear changed at different points throughout his 60-year career, he most frequently returned to the Höfner 500/1 violin bass and his Rickenbacker 4001S. Specific periods might require more specific models, but the soul of McCartney’s playing can be found in these two bass guitars. Similarly, The Beatles were best known for their use of Vox amplifiers, but McCartney himself has been a devotee of Mesa Boogie in recent years.

As for McCartney’s playing style, it helps to approach songs from a songwriting perspective rather than a bass-forward focus. His love of walking bass lines was a thread throughout his entire career, appearing as early as ‘All My Loving’, taking form in music hall-inspired tracks like ‘Lovely Rita’ and ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, and even lasting as long as solo tracks like ‘Teddy Boy’ and ‘Heart of the Country’. Early pre-funk R&B was also a major influence, with McCartney taking lessons from James Jamerson on songs like ‘The Word’ and ‘Drive My Car’.

McCartney’s love of octaves is a signature sound as well, as heard in tracks like ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘Come Together’, and ‘Sun King’. McCartney occasionally innovated with his bass lines, including using fuzz bass on ‘Think For Yourself’. But most of the time, his occasionally busy and highly melodic lines were psychedelic to the core, with songs like ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘Something’, and ‘Taxman’. Paul McCartney might be a songwriter at heart, but his bass lines complement that sensibility while also letting him get busy when the time is right.

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