The Genius of Paul McCartney’s Bass Playing in 7 Isolated Tracks

In many a musical situation, one can communicate an entire playing style in a name. When it comes to the bass—in pop music, at least—one of the foremost of those names is Paul McCartney, whose soulful basslines have given us some of the most memorable melodies in music history.

McCartney started out—in the Quarrymen, then The Beatles—on rhythm guitar and piano, only taking over the bass when Stuart Sutcliffe left the band in 1961. And while it’s true that he’s distinguished himself in album after album over the past few decades on every instrument in the rock and roll arsenal, as a stylist, Sir Paul has always best used the bass to express his instrumental genius.

He became a bassist “somewhat reluctantly,” Joe Bosso of Music Radar notes, but soon “proved to be a natural on the instrument… The very image of McCartney with the violin-shaped Hofner 500/1 bass is one that will forever be burned into the minds of music lovers everywhere.”

The hollow-bodied Hofner’s resonant, woody sound is as recognizable as its look. But in recordings, McCartney also played a Rickenbacker and Fender Jazz bass. (Speculation about which bass he used on which song spans many years, and can get pretty contentious.) Even so, his tone is ever distinctive. Take Abbey Road’s sinister, seductive “Come Together,” a song with one of the most recognizable basslines in history. At the top of the post, you can hear the solo track.

On its own, it carries all the energy of the song, as does the isolated bass track from “Dear Prudence,” just above. McCartney begins with one resolutely plucked note that rings out for several bars, then launches into the song’s familiar walkdown. In his baseline, we can hear both the song’s trance-like melodies and harmonies, the bouncy rise and fall of its playful appeal. Here, the rhythmic texture of McCartney’s playing modulates from a plucky thump to a muted click.

“Speaking of mobile basslines,” writes Zach Blumenfeld at Consequence of Sound, “McCartney’s contributions to ‘Something’ are the most underrated aspect of the song. The bass “sets up a counter-melody” to the vocals and strings, “more like a lower vocal harmony than a bass. It’s also one of McCartney’s busiest bass lines, showcasing his dexterity on the instrument.”

Many of McCartney’s basslines work this way, creating counter-melodies and acting like another voice in the song. But while he can be a busy player, he just as often opts for simplicity and generally avoids what he calls “fiddly bits” in a recent video lesson. But his restraint is all the more striking when he does rock out, as above in “Hey Bulldog,” a song that poses a challenge to seasoned bass players. Even such a monster player as Geddy Lee credits McCartney as a seminal influence for his inventiveness and melodies. (As Susanna Hoffs says, “melodies just tumble out of him.”)

McCartney’s bass playing reached its apogee in the band’s best-known final albums, in songs like “Come Together” and “I Want You,” above, where the bass growls, moans, and throbs. But even in earlier hits like “Paperback Writer,” below, McCartney’s playing showcased explosive riffs, confident attack, and pregnant pauses and subtleties.

McCartney’s legendary melodicism on the bass, and his signature exploration of its upper ranges, is perhaps nowhere more evident than on “Rain,” the B-side to “Paperback Writer” and, in general a highly underrated Beatles tune. While we don’t have the solo bass track from that recording, we do have the pleasure of seeing musician Wes Mitchell demonstrate the bassline in the video below, playing along to a bootleg version of the track without bass or lead vocal overdubs.

Mitchell nails McCartney’s tone and style. See him do so again here with the Abbey Road medley “Mean Mr. Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” a veritable buffet of McCartney styles, techniques, and moods.

Related Content:

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

John Lennon’s Raw, Soul-Baring Vocals From the Beatles’ ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ (1969)

Musician Plays Signature Drum Parts of 71 Beatles Songs in 5 Minutes: A Whirlwind Tribute to Ringo Starr

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

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Comments (13)
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  • David says:

    McCartney is quoted as saying that “For the benefit of Mr Kite” is one of his hardest bass lines to play and sing a long to

    Isolated bass video here

  • Brian Gay says:

    By far the most underrated instrument of all-time. Thanks

  • Prisci says:

    Very good analysis!
    I would add that in Maxwell Silver Hammer (from Abbey Road), the bass is so musically interesting that it literally overwhelms the melody of the voice. I’m always been unable to remember the lyrics and the main melody, whereas the bass stays in mind for a long time. It’s the only beatles song I know that does that amazing effect :)

  • Adink De Menace says:

    Have you tried to sing and play the bass All My Loving? Not many people can do that. His older numbers such as I Saw Her Standing There and some others are more difficult to play while singing but their newer numbers after ’65 are novelties.

  • Marcus Phelan says:

    Spot on analysis. Although I’ve earned a living as a guitarist all my life, it was Macca’s bass lines on the Pepper album that started my fixation with music, and the Beatles in particular. I share your appreciation of the bass in Maxwell’s, Prisci, but I’m fairly positive that George played the bass on that (same with Golden Slumbers and Oh Darling from that album.)

  • Sarah says:

    It’s probably cause it’s hardest to pay attention to it without specifically listening for it, and because many don’t have bass-friendly systems.

  • Rick Lacy says:

    I love the bass and with rare exception most songs would lose their,very necessary foundation without it.Paul proves that every time he picks it up.He is such an inspiration.All songs he plays on is concrete,aural proof.

  • Roger Mac says:

    Really ??? Maybe you’re not a Bass player. I’ve never had a problem playing and singing those songs you mentioned. As for your comment about newer songs after ’65 are novelties is just so wrong. That’s when Paul really started to develop as Bass player and song writer. Pure genius.

  • Danny Caccavo says:

    Note the Maxwell bass is played by George Harrison

  • Mirek says:

    Absolutely right! Paperback Writer/Rain 1966, to begin with, both have killer inventive lines.
    Before that maybe I Feel Fine was a precursor of the things to come.

  • Pedro says:

    George played the bass on Maxwell’s Silver Hammer

  • Néstor Flores says:

    Yo habría incorporado ‘Old brown shoe’… ¿Y Uds?

  • Mark Donald Chergosky says:

    I think Harrison played bass on “Maxwell”.

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