Visualizing the Bass Playing Style of Motown’s Iconic Bassist James Jamerson: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “For Once in My Life” & More

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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Car­ol Kaye Became the Most Pro­lif­ic Ses­sion Musi­cian in His­to­ry

The “Amen Break”: The Most Famous 6‑Second Drum Loop & How It Spawned a Sam­pling Rev­o­lu­tion

Every Appear­ance James Brown Ever Made On Soul Train. So Nice, So Nice!

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 and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (3)
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  • Mike says:

    The ‘wreck­ing crew’ were LA stu­dio musi­cians. Not Motown.

  • Michael says:

    The house band for Motown was called the Funk Broth­ers. Seek out a doc­u­men­tary called “Stand­ing in the Shad­ows of Motown”.

  • Kristin says:

    What is the program/technology being used to visu­al­ize the bass notes (tem­po and tone)? as a graph mak­er, this fas­ci­nates me, and seems only to need some hor­i­zon­tal bars to indi­cate tone and ver­ti­cal bars to indi­cate tim­ing in order to make it basi­cal­ly a cheat sheet. To me as a musi­cian, that’s fab­u­lous and fan­tas­tic that they can cre­ate a pic­ture, so to speak, of the sound?

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