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‑a-paul-mccartney-looks-back-on-his-latest-magical-mystery-tour-20130725

    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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