Paul McCartney Offers a Short Tutorial on How to Play the Bass Guitar

It sounds like a cliché, but if I learned anything in grad school, it’s that I know very little. I apply the same insight to music. While I’ve played guitar—six string and bass—with some consistency for over twenty years, I’d be the first to say that my room for improvement is infinitely large, and I’m always keen to sit at the feet of a master and beg, borrow, or steal whatever I can. So when I discovered that Paul McCartney had an instructional video on Youtube I leapt at the chance to see what I could pick up.

Rightly renowned for his mastery of every rock instrument, McCartney plays nearly all the parts on most of his solo albums (and on many Beatles tracks as well). He does so on “Ever Present Past” from 2007’s Memory Almost Full, and he released tutorial videos for each part of the song as part of the promo for the album. In the video above, Sir Paul teaches the bass part, casual in jeans and t-shirt and wielding his classic Hofner violin bass (“me little baby”). The overarching lesson? Keep it simple.

As McCartney says, the bass part is “really simple,” and gloriously so. While McCartney has written some very complex music, his playing style is on the whole very straightforward and melodic. On “Ever Present Past,” he plays mostly root notes on the bass, eschewing flourishes and “fiddly bits,” though he encourages you to add them if you wish. First, he shows us the notes on bass alone, and an inset in the video shows their position on the fretboard. Then, a full track comes in, and he plays along (hear the studio version in the official video above).

The tutorial was produced by “Now Play It,” a “new and exciting way to learn and play your favorite songs” by artists like KT Tunstall, Blondie, Coldplay, Radiohead, and many more, often with the original musicians as teachers. You’ll have to pay for most of the content on the site, though there are some nifty free previews. Unfortunately, it appears that the full “Ever Present Past” lesson—with McCartney teaching his drum and rhythm and lead guitar parts—is no longer available on the “Now Play It” site (you can see a teaser trailer here). But you can watch a snippet of the acoustic guitar lesson above. And if you’re eager to see more of McCartney’s range of instrumental skill, check out the clip below from a 1997 episode of Oprah in which he plays the song “Young Boy” from that year’s Flaming Pie, while projected on screens behind him are three more McCartneys on bass, drums, and lead guitar.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (12)
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  • Ric says:

    What I have always admired about McCartney’s bass lines is that he sticks to the fundamentals of the role of a bass (not guitar).
    Rhythm and leave room for the other instruments.
    The first lesson for anyone is understanding the role, function and voice of bass, and it helps if you call the electric alternative to a double bass by its correct name. It is an electric bass, not a bass guitar.
    Get that right and the whole approach to playing bass falls into place.

  • Terry says:

    I’ve been trying to see if he uses a pick-he doesn’t seem to here, he’s using his thumb. But if he just uses his thumb edge all the time- it would surely hurt and get calloused after a few gigs???

  • Paul says:

    Beautiful, nobody does it better. I would just like to say thank you Mr McCartney for your time… you are an inspiration.

  • Jeff Berlin says:

    An important point to consider is that Paul McCartney’s video wasn’t educational, but actually a piece of entertainment. If the author of the article who stated that his “room for improvement is infinitely large,” I would suggest that there are way better and much more impactful ideas to both observe and practice than showcased here. I love Paul McCartney but will suggest that players for the most part are not improving and while I don’t state that McCartney is in any way responsible for this, certainly the people that present videos like this one should reconsider what is entertainment and what is academically meaningful. Bass education is in trouble and for some reason, the people that try to improve its condition aren’t presenting the right material. But, this can change! Jeff Berlin

  • Cly Rosas says:

    Jeff Berlin, me gustaria saber que pondrias vos?….
    Quisiera saber si mano de piedra seria educar con el bajo.
    Como dijiste Mc Cartney no tiene nada que ver, pero te voy a decir algo: Mc Cartney es Un Beatle, dejó una obra gigante, es un bajista que influyó generaciones, con lineas de bajo realmente interesantisimas y muy complejas, de hecho las tocaba y cantaba sobre ellas, me parece que fijarte en éste solo video es negar.
    Creo que aunque los de la academia se equivoquen como vos decís,ése tipo del video te enseñó a vos y a otro millón de bajistas, espero que subas algo que vos consideres criterioso y de tu obra para que se vea cual camino hay que ver según tu propia lente, Mc Cartney hace años no toca por dinero ya lo tiene hace 40 años….
    Y si lo pusieron en el video es porque Es un verdadero BASSLINE.

  • Dr. Rob Burns says:

    Can’t argue with that Cly. Jeff is entitled to his opinion. But it is disingenuous to critique someone whose lines have inspired so many.


  • Peter Laman says:

    Rob Burns, why should anybody have the privilege of never to be criticized, only because of his achievements? No matter how famous people are, they’re still people. First you say Jeff Berlin is entitled to his opinion and then you immediately contradict yourself by saying McCartney may not be criticized. Freedom of thought, but no freedom of speech? Strange.

    Jeff Berlin fully acknowledges the merits of Paul McCartney and he doesn’t actually criticize him. All he says is that the educational value of the video is zero and I agree with that, except perhaps for someone who has hardly touched a bass before. One doesn’t learn music from just looking at how some hero plays his tunes. I myself am a guitar player and when I was young I watched videos (VHS at the time) to see how my guitar heroes played their licks. I didn’t really learn anything from that. The only thing you can learn from that is how to be a copy cat, but it doesn’t give you any insight in the music itself, it doesn’t help you to find your own way of playing and to understand how to make your creativity actually work.

    So yes, I agree with Jeff the video is nice entertainment, but no valuable education to anyone seeking to become a better player.

    And really, I do respect Paul McCartney. To me Lennon/McCartney wre among the best songwriter teams in pop music ever.

  • len miller says:

    sir paul is an amazing musician, has had an amazing life, and has influenced millions. i still remember learning to play by listening to paul and learning bass parts note for note. some of the most melodic bass playing ever. what a blessing to have played with all those folks over a lifetime.!! thank you sir paul, for all the great music and entertainment.


    leonard miller

  • Yücel says:

    ım kontrabass player

  • Barry says:

    Thanks for the lesson Paul! Notice the sound ,punchy bass ,
    keeps it simple, knows when to push the melody when needed,the key to bass is stay close to the rythm,watch your timing,riffs when required,get comfortable with a finger technique you like but hopefully ideal.
    and Chase the guitar parts when needed,meaning leave a little bit of space between the guitar and bass ,bass compliments and supports the guitar as do drums,Let the bass breathe via a bit of seperation,chase the melody of guitarist and singer.
    Nice bass sound coming thru that amp.

  • Art says:

    Keeping it simple is good advice for any musician when in doubt about what to play. That said, listening to his bass playing on the White Album and later Beatles albums, as well as som of the Wings stuff…it is far from the basics.

  • Art says:

    Basically, he plays what the song needs. Simple pop numbers get very fundamental bass grooves. I’ve also seen him really work the fretboard during some of his more rocking tunes. I think Paul has a thorough understanding not only of each instrument’s general role, but also their roles specific to each particular piece of music. He is definitely a maestro.

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