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”. 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.
And this is just his work with The Beatles, don't get me started on Wings!