The Beatles' Paul McCartney is another bassist often cited as one of music history's most important bass players.
Even if for some crazy reason you don't like The Beatles, you can't deny their tremendous popularity. When you're as popular as they were, lots of people are going to imitate you.
Could you imagine if one of the most influential bands of all-time had had a boring bass player? Well, lucky for us, Paul turned out to be an extremely musical bassist.
Just like Jamerson, Paul's basslines and style have influenced thousands of bassists all over the world.
One of the most fun things about Paul McCartney is you get to witness his growth as a bass player on The Beatles recordings.
Just before The Beatles signed their first record contract, they had lost their original bassist Stu Sutcliffe. He wanted to pursue his painting career.
Paul already sang and played guitar and piano, but not bass. The Beatles decided to be a four-piece instead of a five-piece. As Paul put it, “So it was like, Uh-oh, we haven't got a bass player. And everyone sort of turned 'round and looked at me.”
On the early albums Paul started with what we all do—banging away at roots and fifths. With every successive album Paul's basslines became more interesting and sophisticated. It's very insightful to listen to and study his basslines chronologically.
Something — Paul McCartney
It's hard to choose, but I think The Beatles album Abbey Road has many of McCartney's best basslines. For our Note Choice Heat Map, I've chosen the song Something composed by The Beatles guitarist George Harrison. It contains everything you could want from a McCartney bassline.
Download the heat map PDF or view below.
The song itself is highly melodic and has an excellent chord progression.
Paul McCartney's style is often described as "melodic," and it is. What I'd like you to understand is that a bassline can be melodic—singable—but, it still has to function as a bassline and pin down the harmony.
The bassline on Something is a great example of McCartney's melodic, yet harmonic style. Listen to the isolated bassline:
[Audio Note: It's hard to find the full song streaming anywhere. You need to hear it all together. You can buy it through the common channels. I suggest you buy the whole Abbey Road album!]
[Transcription Note: I've seen many bad transcriptions and tabs of this bassline—in books and online. They are often wrong or incomplete. The one in The Beatles — Complete Scores is close, but leaves out a lot. If you want to play this line, check what you play against the isolated bassline. Use your ears. That's what McCartney did!]
Something Note Choice Heat Map
As in the last lesson, look over the heat map. Scan through the individual beats and see what you notice. What notes fall where? How does it line up to the Note Choice Pyramid? How does it fit with the concept of rhythmic weight?
My comments and analysis follow the heat map.
There's a lot to discuss about this bassline.
Chord Tones (Orange)
Like most basslines, Something's bassline is overwhelmingly made up of Chord Tones.
Once again, beat one is all Chord Tones except for the last two bars.
The next strongest beat (beat 3) is nearly all Chord Tones. We'll discuss the few exceptions below.
Like we saw with Jamerson, McCartney doesn't go too crazy early in the song while the song's harmony (chords and key) is being established in the listener's mind. Always save the fancy stuff for later.
Scale Tones (Grey)
& Chromatic Tones (Black)
While Something perfectly outlines the chord structure, it also has some of the best Scale Tone usage you'll ever find in a bassline.
Paul does it all here:
Connecting Scale Tones
Bars 3, 4, 5, 6, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 30, 31, 32, 33, 40, 41, 42, 44, 46.
McCartney frequently guides you from chord to chord using a single step-wise connecting note between the strong Chord Tones. He doesn't blindly walk up and down scales—he places a single connecting note between the strong ones.
Bars 4, 13, 22, 23, 26, 27, 31, 39, 40, 45.
This is one of my favorite examples of melodic turns in a bassline. McCartney's use of melodic turns really contributes to the singable nature of his basslines.
Bars 9, 11, 18, 32, 38, 40, 45, 49.
One of this bassline's most memorable features are the scalar fills. Notice how they occur between the vocal phrases, not during them.
Bars 25, 29.
You probably saw the rule-breaking chromatic note on beat 3 of bar 25 and thought, "I knew this guy was making this up!"
These two bars are not really a bassline, but a melodic riff. McCartney joins the strings and piano to play these tense, transition phrases in unison. The first one in bar 25 walks down chromatically from A to E on the E-string (E being a fifth approach to the coming A chord). The second one in bar 29 walks down the C major scale returning to C.
Bars 10, 19, 21, 37, 48.
McCartney sparingly applies Chromatic Tones. His favorite use here is chromatically leading into a fifth approach. This is a great way to create momentum. A tense note leading chromatically into music's most powerful note—the fifth—is as strong as it gets.
Fifth Approaches (Red)
Bars 10, 16, 19, 21, 25, 32, 37.
It might seem wrong to analyze some of the fifth approaches as I have. Many of the chords are, in fact, already the V of the next chord (secondary dominants like C7 to F, or D7 to G).
McCartney, however, really exploits the fifth approach sound. He often stresses the fifth note of the upcoming chord instead of any number of other notes he could have chosen.
He even exploits the fifth of the fifth: On D7 he uses A (5th of D) moving to D (5th of G) moving to G. This is no accident. He intuitively knows these sounds and where they are on the bass.
As I've been explaining about rhythmic weight, the majority of McCartney's non-Chord Tones fall in-between the beat or on the weaker beats 2 and 4.
The times when McCartney breaks the “rule” of chord tones on beat 3, he does something very interesting:
On the G chord in bar 8 McCartney plays a memorable walk up the scale connecting G to A to B (root to 2nd to 3rd). Here he sticks to our “rule” and lands the Chord Tone B on beat 3.
Later however, on the same G chord in the following verses (bars 17, 35, & 44), he stretches the phrase out where the Scale Tone A lands on beat 3 immediately followed by the Chord Tone B. This really enhances the melodic character of this phrase. Changing this after the song's harmony is established in the first verse is a great example of McCartney's deep musicality.
Finally, at the end of the song McCartney really breaks the rules and puts brief Scale Tones on beat 1. Listen to the melodic quality of beat 1 on those last two bars. He ends the song with a melodic bang.
Just as we saw with Motown's James Jamerson, Paul's style also conforms to the hierarchy of our Note Choice Pyramid—Chord Tones > Scale Tones > Chromatic Tones.
Using mostly Chord Tones, McCartney embellishes and connects them with Scale Tones, and lightly uses Chromatic Tones and Fifth Approaches to move things along. And, like Jamerson, this is pretty consistent in all of his bass playing.
While McCartney's style is indeed very melodic, he's able to make it happen because he knows how to define the harmony.