The Motown session bassist James Jamerson is widely regarded as one of the most influential and important bassists in modern music history. I certainly think he is.
A large part of Jamerson's genius was his note choice. He knew how to define harmony and how to drive it forward.
We take a lot of his bass-playing sounds for granted today. This is because so many copied him directly or copied those who copied him. His influence is inescapable.
Jamerson's bass-playing style is often described as “very chromatic.” In many songs it is. But, his use of chromatic notes is not random, and it's not as frequent as you might think.
It's not just Jamerson's use of chromatic notes that made him so spectacular—it was his understanding of where to place all types of notes.
If you don't have the book Standing in the Shadows of Motown, I highly suggest you get it. If you thoughtfully study Jamerson's basslines, you'll find they contain everything you need to know about notes and rhythm in basslines.
Note Choice Heat Map
In our last lesson I explained the Note Choice Heat Map analysis graphic. As a quick reminder:
Chord Tones – Orange
Scale Tones – Grey
Chromatic Tones – Black
Fifth Approaches – Red
Silence – White
Now let's apply it to a song...
James Jamerson on What's Going On
I created a Note Choice Heat Map of James Jamerson's bassline on What's Going On by Marvin Gaye.
Download PDF or view below.
Listen and follow along bar-by-bar if you like. Or, just study the heat map on its own.
Before you read my comments below the heat map, examine it. What things do you notice?
Which note types are most prominent? Do they land in strong or weak places?
Which note types are less prominent? Where do they land?
Try visually scanning down each column. Scan down the beats 1, 2, 3, and 4. Then, scan down the "ands". Finally, scan the "e" and "a" columns.
* Analyzed as B7. Why? Jamerson is clearly outlining a B7 chord (the V in the key of E). This is a cool, more advanced harmonic trick where in some places one can build tension playing a V chord while the band plays another. Think of it as a huge fifth approach. This frequently happens on ii and IV chords.
Black Bars denote section changes (intro, verse, chorus, etc.).
Let's discuss some things on the map...
Chord Tones (Orange)
First, you'll notice beat 1 is always chord tones (colored in orange) for the entire bassline. In fact, the bassline is almost all chord tones from beat 1 to 3 of every bar. Jamerson firmly establishes the sound of each chord before applying any other types of notes in the bar. That's an intelligent strategy.
Remember: The less doubt the listener has about the harmony, the more possibilities you have. Don't expect the listener to work too hard.
Just as Jamerson takes time to establish the harmony at the beginning of each bar, he does it for the beginning of the whole song, too. Look at bars 1-16. They're much simpler than what he does later.
After the song's harmonic structure (chord progression and key) is established, you gain a little more freedom because the listener already knows how the song goes. The listener no longer needs to work as hard.
Scale Tones (Grey)
& Chromatic Tones (Black)
Next, notice Jamerson's use of scale tones in grey and chromatic tones in black. Almost all of them fall in-between the beat on the “e,” “and,” or “a”.
There are a few scale tones on the strong beat 3, but never a chromatic tone.
Scale tones rarely fill up more than one beat.
Scan down the last two columns (the "and" and "a" of beat 4). This is the weakest point of the bar. As you can see, Jamerson commonly applies the weakest notes here. Jamerson applies a few chromatic notes which fill up the entire 4th beat.
All of these chromatic notes create momentum in the bassline and propel you into the next chord.
Fifth Approaches (Red)
Along with everything else, Jamerson is a master of the fifth approach.
Note the classic location of his fifth approaches (in red). He uses them at the end of the bar to set up the next chord.
He doesn't use them constantly. Just a few are all you need.
While Jamerson's bass-playing style is indeed very chromatic, it's only possible due to his emphasis and placement of Chord Tones.
Jamerson is able to define the chords while making it singable and melodic. He stresses chord tones in strong places and embellishes with melodic scale tones in the weak places around them.
Jamerson guides you through the journey of chords by adding chromatic and fifth approach notes in just the right places. Their tension is what propels you into the next chord.
If you emphasize practicing chord tones and arpeggios, you will soon hear them as a unit. When you hear the chord tones as a group, you will hear their strength and placing them well will become second nature.
From there, you will naturally hear where to embellish with scale and chromatic notes. Yes, it will take time, but it will take less time than if you just started with scales.
Hopefully my crazy heat map analysis gives you some new insight into note choice in basslines and helps give you added focus in your practice.