5 - McCartney, the bass composer
5 - McCartney, the bass composer
One of the world’s leading experts on McCartney’s bass playing is Dr. Michael Hannan of the Contemporary Music at Southern Cross University in Australia. He says to understand McCartney’s bass playing – and why it was so important to the signature sound of The Beatles – it is required to first know what the general role and key functions the bass plays in a rock or pop group:
1) The bass provides the harmonic grounding for the chord structure that the song is based on so it can contribute to the rhythmic groove of it. This involves establishing an interactive pattern between the drums, bass, and sometimes other rhythm
instruments. (For example, so many Beatle songs are driven by Ringo’s drums and Paul’s bass.)
2) It provides a driving force to the forward impetus of the song. This is comprised of riffs (repeated melodic patterns) or repeated notes.
3) It is used to add decorative (melodic) elements to the musical texture, non-harmonic tones such as passing tones between chords, and to emphasize the beginning of a new section of a song structure. McCartney has said many times that he first picked up the instrument when Stuart Sutcliffe was thrown out of the band for not being a good bassist. Yet considering how smart McCartney is, it is likely he quickly realized that George was destined to become the “lead guitarist” of the group – and, that the bass was an important instrument. Being in even shorter supply than drummers, it makes perfect sense that McCartney would take up this challenge.
Since bass lines are not normally composed along with songs, the bass player usually has to become a bass composer. This is perfect for McCartney’s melodic counterpoint bass style. For him, the bass line can be seen as an additional melody. He is probably the only musician to actually compose a song using the bass, and to sing as well.
What is unique about McCartney’s bass playing
According to musicologist Walter Everett, the most important new aspect to Rubber Soul’s “rainbow of colors” was McCartney’s adoption of the Rickenbacker bass. Its solid maple body provided a much more focused tone than did the hollow-body Hofner. McCartney played it through a Fender Bassman amplifier for the first time in the Rubber Soul sessions.
“This combination produced a new sound, and it led McCartney to invent highly independent bass lines that would add a new melodic dimension to his continued role as the band’s harmonic foundation. He was now and forever after easily disposed to play rhythm guitar or keyboard for basic tracks, adding his bass track as an overdubbed counterpoint.”
Dennis Alstrand is another expert on McCartney’s bass playing and author of Evolution of Rock Bass Playing; McCartney Style. He says the most interesting aspect of McCartney’s bass playing is that he is not merely a bass player. He hears and feels the entire range of the song as it is being developed, and he has definite ideas on what the guitars, keyboards and drums should sound like:
“The bass player must also be in synch with the keyboards and the guitars. The bassist acts as a conduit between those instruments and the rhythm section of which they are a part. So the bass, and generally the bass alone, must compliment all the instruments.
McCartney knew the role of the instrument he was playing, and he had/has a great sense of what the roles of the other instruments should be relative to the bass. His brilliance is that he would play simple and solid when it was called for. But because he had so many different flavors to add to a song, he was able to take the instrument far beyond a supportive role. He showed that there are no limitations to being a bass player.”
Another view of McCartney’s bass playing is held by author and musical producer Bobby Owsinki.
He points out that like James Lee Jamerson, the great Motown bassist, McCartney’s playing evolved into mini-melodies, part hook and part counterpoint to the rest of the instruments in the band. As a result, the band always sounds full, even with a minimum of overdubs.
Owsinki says that this was because the bass became an overdub that happened in the late stages of Beatle tracks, instead of being recorded the traditional way during the laying down of the basic tracks. This allowed McCartney the freedom to come up with a line that fits in better with the final track.
Analyzing and tracking McCartney’s bass lines
In his essay, Melodicism in Paul McCartney’s Bass Playing 1962-1970, Dr. Hannan reported on his research on the track-by-track analysis of all the albums and singles of The Beatles released in the period 1962-1970.
He described approaches used in each song and multiple techniques within individual tracks. This enabled him to trace developments in McCartney’s bass playing throughout The Beatles’ seven year recording career.
For the most part, the techniques used by McCartney in the first five Beatles albums and the singles of the same period are remarkably straightforward, functional, and economical. Rubber Soul is the first album which contains a concentration of melodic bass line tracks. The verse of Drive My Car is riff-based but contains quirky runs and fills. You Won’t See Me has an active riff-like bass line.
Many of The Beatles’ greatest songs have McCartney’s bass signature. For instance, there is his flamboyant bass line on Nowhere Man and Think For Yourself – two songs which employ chromatic passing tones in the verse and elaborate fills in the boogie-like chorus. The Word involves a bouncy riff and triadic formations but also a
number of decorative flourishes. If I Needed Someone, based on a one-bar riff, achieves melodic prominence high in the bass register. Michelle contains a mixture of functional bass tones and concludes with a solo created by overdubbing a second bass part.
“This bass-rich album significantly coincides with the beginning of McCartney’s practice of overdubbing the bass line after the bed tracking is done. At this stage it could be seen as the result of him playing other instruments on the bed tracks. The practice inspired him to experiment with the overdubbed bass lines that he played, perhaps because he was not constrained by the requirements of ensemble with the other members of The Beatles.”
He says it‘s a good example of a creative or performance practice changing as a result of changes in the technology and techniques of recording. Four of the seven melodic bass tracks of Rubber Soul were done by overdubbing, as were all of the Sgt. Pepper’s bass tracks except Fixing A Hole. Four of the seven bass tracks on Abbey Road, and four of the nine on the White Album were overdubbed.
Hannan found that of the 44 tracks with bass overdubs played by McCartney, only 17 have unremarkable bass lines. There is also a concentration of these unremarkable bass lines on the White Album. He says this may be indicating a period where McCartney’s bass-playing aesthetic took on a different focus.
How McCartney’s bass created the Beatle signature sound
McCartney said the Hofner violin bass allowed him to develop a melodic style of playing. (It is ironic that on the track which is often cited as one of his most adventurous bass excursions, Rain, he used another bass guitar, the Rickenbacker 4001S.)
The instrument is particularly noticeable on the tracks of Sgt Pepper’s such as With a Little Help from My Friends and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds where its trademark rubber mutes are used to create a characteristic dampened sound.
Ian MacDonald wrote that the Rickenbacker possessed a more fluid action than the Hofner, and a cutting trebly tone. Hannan says this, along with some new experimental developments by the EMI technicians, boosted the bass sound to new prominence on Beatles records.
“Rain is based on a riff played high in the bass register which contrasts with other sections played low in the bass register. Like the melodic tracks of Rubber Soul, it is rhythmically active and highly decorative. This instrument was able to cut through the mix more than the Hofner, but also was better suited for more agile and higher register playing.”
Hannan says that almost every track of Sgt Pepper’s has an inventive bass line. The prominence of the bass in the mix, often placed in its own acoustic space, amplifies the interest these bass lines have. Of the thirty tracks on the White Album, only nine have remarkable McCartney bass melodies. Of these, perhaps the most notable is Dear Prudence which employs a combination of pedal note and descending bass line, as well as interesting sliding effects and a set of evolving variations on these ideas.
Abbey Road represents a more concentrated effort of bass invention. Eight of the seventeen tracks are particularly melodic in their bass lines. Harrison’s classic song Something is widely regarded as one of the highlights of McCartney’s bass playing. An analysis of the first two verses of the song reveals an attempt to develop standard bass line ideas to create an evolving melodic structure.
In the course of his research, Hannan discovered that McCartney played more freely and more elaborately on the tracks of Lennon and Harrison than on his own songs. The authorship of the songs that have been designated as having bass lines with melodic properties shows that McCartney was the primary author of 20 of the songs with prominent melodic bass qualities, whereas Lennon wrote 27 and Harrison 9.
The reason, according to the Australian researcher, is that as a reputedly meticulous composer, McCartney may have been less inclined to take risks with his bass playing, being more concerned instead with the honing of all facets of his composing, including a precise approach to the crafting of the bass lines.