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Exploring the Legendary Bass Techniques of Motown's James Jamerson

Updated: Apr 19

Embedded within the heart and soul of Motown's legendary Funk Brothers house band, James Jamerson wielded his bass guitar like a master craftsman, shaping the sound of countless hit records. From the mesmerising melodies of Stevie Wonder to the soulful rhythms of Marvin Gaye, Jamerson's basslines added depth and groove to the iconic songs of Motown's golden era. His musical prowess was akin to Muhammad Ali's nimble footwork, effortlessly weaving through each composition without overshadowing the melody or the ensemble.

Though revered figures such as Paul McCartney swiftly acknowledged his brilliance, Jamerson lingered in obscurity to the masses for years. Motown's practice of omitting individual credits, compounded by the anonymity of the esteemed Wrecking Crew, cloaked Jamerson's contributions in darkness. Only through the tireless endeavors of music journalists and filmmakers did Jamerson emerge into the limelight, at last garnering the acclaim befitting his unparalleled talent.

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.

Mastering these techniques may seem straightforward, but the true challenge lies in harnessing one's innate talent—that's where the real difficulty arises.

when looking at these visualisations, it becomes evident that Jamerson's playing is in constant motion. He exhibits a preference for utilising open strings whenever possible, eschewing fret movement and allowing for a seamless traversal across the neck. Take, for instance, his approach in "I Was Made to Love Her," where Jamerson skillfully ascends to double the sitar-like riff in the verse's culmination, showcasing his musical ingenuity.

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.”



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