As part of Motown’s Funk Brothers house band, James Jamerson was the bubbling bass player behind hundreds of hit records from Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, Martha and the Vandellas, and plenty more. His licks duck and dive and weave like Ali but never get in the way of the melody or the rest of the band.
Paul McCartney was an early fan, but for the general public, Jamerson was not a household name for decades–Motown never listed the Wrecking Crew in its credits–until much later when music journalists and filmmakers pushed him into the spotlight.
But his style is so identifiable that YouTube channel Scott’s Bass Lessons has several videos about the man, explaining in detail how Jamerson produced that sound.
Jamerson used a Precision Bass made by Fender, heavy flat wound strings that gave it those thick tones, and a very high action (i.e. how tight the strings are). So high in fact, that many contemporaries said his bass was impossible to play. (The tightness had warped the neck of the instrument.) He also placed foam under the bridge, and played high on the body with only his index finger, “the hook” as they used to call it.
The other peculiarity of Jamerson’s recordings it that he plugged straight into the recording deck, instead of recording his amp. (McCartney started doing this in the middle of the Beatles’ career as well.) This led to a very compressed sound that helped his playing stand out in the mix.
These techniques are all easy to adopt, but one then has to add the talent, and that’s the hard part.
As you can see from these visualizations, Jamerson never stays still. If he could play a note on an open string he would (instead of moving over a fret), and that led to a fluid journey over the neck. On something like “I Was Made to Love Her,” Jamerson always makes sure to head up to double the sitar-like riff at the end of the verse:
While on “For Once In My Life,” he uses the steady groove of the band (not heard on the video, but listen here) as a jumping off point of some very tricky rhythms. And though it’s complex, it never gets in the way, nor does it feel flashy or indulgent.
Jamerson rarely changed strings, only if they broke, and he didn’t really look after his “black beauty” bass.
Asked why, he said, “The dirt keeps the funk.”
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.