Paul McCartney’s bass lines are an integral part of the Beatles’ evolution from world-beating pop band to musical pioneers. We identify just what Paul did to make his parts stand out from what other bassists were doing at the time.

In “A look at Ringo Starr’s enduring musical influence,” we analyzed the creative drumming of Ringo Starr in the context of his capacity to come up with simple, memorable drum parts that helped make each song unique. Continuing with this thread, Paul McCartney’s development as a bass player provides a textbook case for today’s songwriters and music producers on how a little creativity can go a long way to help make a recording stand out. Through the Beatles’ evolution, Paul McCartney’s bass lines became an integral part of each song’s texture, sound, and color. Let’s rewind through a number of Beatles’ tracks and identify just what Paul did to make the bass parts stand out from what other bassists of the day were doing.

Traditional bass lines

The normal role of a rock bass player in a song is to accomplish two tasks:
1. Keep time
2. Establish the song’s harmonic base

Usually a bass player will do this by playing a steady, repetitive bass line using mainly the root note of whatever chord is being played (C note on a C chord, G note on a G7, etc.) and occasionally the fifth or even the third of the chord as well. The image below demonstrates these chord tones and their relationship to the chord being played. Unique bass lines can be created around chord progressions by using these chord tones, but more often than not, the role of the bassist in a rock and roll band is to stick to the root note.

In early Beatles albums, where the audience was primarily screaming teenage girls, we hear Paul sticking pretty closely to that role, with a few exceptions. Aside from the fact that early recording and amplification techniques did not treat the sound of the bass very well, the pop music they played in these early years was much simpler than what can be found on the group’s later albums. Listen to his playing on “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “I Feel Fine” – classics from 1964 – and you’ll hear almost nothing but roots and fifths in the bass part. The focus of these songs is on the vocals, so Paul (and Ringo, for that matter) kept things simple, with only slight variations on the powerful live performance techniques they had mastered over the previous three years of non-stop gigging.

[This article is long but is really relevant. Please read the whole thing if you can.]

By Keith Hatschek and Robert Bassett

[Thank you to Doug Garvey for contributing this article.]

Leave a Reply

Close Search Window