Jamerson is the Schoenberg of getting from the I chord to the IV chord. He’s algorithmically generating a new pattern every phrase…[He] belongs with Bach, Debussy and Mozart.
- Jack Stratton
Never heard of James Jamerson?
You probably have, even if you don't know his actual name. A true session giant, Jamerson has played on over 30 number one records, laid down stone-cold grooves for the biggest artists Motown, soul and funk could throw at him, and has influenced scores of bass players from all genres of music.
From Les Claypool and Victor Wooten to Pino Palladino and Rob Trujillo, they all dig James Lee Jamerson.17 years after his death in 1983, Jamerson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.
There are scores of bassists today who make a living out of teaching others how to play like him, proving that his technique and tone are as influential now as they were back then. As the following lines will testify, it's easy to see why he's held up as one of the greatest bass players of all time.
Darling Dear - Jackson 5
This bassline is jammed full of Jamerson's signature tricks and techniques. Many hail Bernadette (Four Tops) as his best work, but if you want a crash course in his inventive playing style, Darling Dear is it.
Ain't No Mountain High Enough - Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell
Jamerson's playing often mirrors other instruments within the song, and on this one it's most notably the vocals. Note the rhythmic variations between sections, which Jamerson uses to change the feel.
Bernadette - Four Tops
Jamerson's greatest bassline? Some believe so, while others tip their hat to What's Going On (Marvin Gaye). Either way, his playing becomes just as much a focal point as the vocals on this Motown staple.
Hear the bassline in isolation...
What's Going On - Marvin Gaye
With the main groove over an Emaj7 chord in the intro, Jamerson sets the tone for Marvin Gaye's socio-commentary: soulful, and with bags of feel.
The album was also the first time Jamerson was credited by name for his work on the sleeve notes of a major Motown release that he played on, as "the incomparable James Jamerson".
For a more in-depth listen, check out the isolated bass track...
And here's rare footage of the man himself performing it…
For Once In My Life - Stevie Wonder
Released in 1968, For Once In My Life marked Stevie Wonder's move into more overtly pop territory. Jamerson makes use of open strings to add a sense of fluidity and flow to position shifts and jumps.
A more concentrated focus on the bassline, complete with funky graphics...
Fever In The Funk House - James Jamerson and The Funk Brothers
Jamerson truly rips up the rule book and throws it out the window on this sizzlin' slice of super funk. It's also one of the few tracks (in comparison to how many he actually played on) where he was officially credited for his bass playing.
It’s slicker than a penguin’s back and smoother than a hot-butter silk nightgown.