Unsung Heroes of Bass Guitar: #2 James Jamerson



As with the first in our series, Carol Kaye, you may not know the name of today’s subject, but you will certainly know their work. And what a body of work it is too.

James Jamerson played the bass on a huge amount of Motown’s hit records between 1959 and 1972 and his playing style has influenced generations of bass players since. From the classic opening to The Temptations’ ‘My Girl’ via Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ to ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ by The Supremes, Jamerson’s legacy is monumental in the pantheon of popular music. Like many artists touched by genius, his was a tortured soul and, tragically, it wasn’t until after he died a depressed alcoholic, having not worked for years at the age of 47 in 1983, that he gained widespread acclaim for his work.

James Lee Jamerson was born January 29 1936 in Edisto, South Carolina, moving to Detroit in 1954. He picked up a double bass in high school and found an immediate affinity with the instrument. He cut his teeth on the Detroit jazz and blues circuit and, much like Carol Kaye, was recruited by a local record producer to play on his recording sessions in 1958. That record producer was one Berry Gordy who used Jamerson, along with other musicians from that circuit, to record in his Hitsville USA studio – home of the Motown record label. That group of musicians (the self titled ‘Funk Brothers’) played, uncredited, on the vast majority of Motown hits in the sixties, and Gordy, the ultimate cutthroat businessman paid them a pittance for their work. After a day’s session in Studio A at Hitsville (which the Funk Brothers named ‘The Snakepit’), they had to supplement their income by playing the jazz clubs by night.



For the first couple of years for Motown Jamerson was still playing double bass, but in 1961 his friend and fellow bassist Horace Ruth convinced him to try a Fender Precision electric bass. By all accounts he didn’t really care for the instrument at first, but before long he was developing a style incorporating syncopated melodic lines, string mutes and chromatic passing tones (more on this later) which were groundbreaking and forged a new role for the electric bass. He transferred his right hand double bass technique by resting his third and forth fingers on the bridge guard of the bass and plucked just using his index finger with up strokes. Dubbed ‘The Hook’, it’s incredible to think that those syncopated, intricate lines were created in this manner. He eventually acquired a 1962 sunburst finish Precision which he called ‘The Funk Machine’ (carving the word ‘FUNK’ with a ballpoint pen into the heel of the instrument). Using flatwound strings which he never cleaned or replaced until they broke: his mantra being “the gunk keeps the funk”, this was the bass that featured on the majority of those classic tracks. Sadly, the bass was stolen days before he died and has never since been recovered.

Jamerson was long troubled by alcoholism and when Motown moved to Los Angeles in 1972 he followed, but struggled without the support of his fellow Funk Brothers. As a result, the work dried up and the demons set in. He died, in 1983, of complications related to cirrhosis of the liver, heart failure and pneumonia, broke and bitter about his lack of recognition.

Jamerson did eventually get worldwide recognition. Six years later Allan ‘Dr Licks’ Slutky’s book/CD package featuring transcriptions of his basslines and accolades from well known bass players started the ball rolling which culminated in Jameson being elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000 and the film documentary “Standing In The Shadows Of Motown’ in 2002.

So let’s have a look at some of Jamerson’s techniques and examples of his work with Motown. Firstly, I want to share my favourite bassline of his with you: ‘For Once In My Life’ by Stevie Wonder. I’ve already covered this one in a previous blog about my becoming a bass player, so to put a different slant on things I want you to listen (and watch) this piece on YouTube to demonstrate his amazing style. The bassline is Jamerson’s with a visual representation of the notes played, overlaid with the melody of the song. If you do nothing else on this blog, I urge you to watch this.

It’s a fascinating insight into his technique, with his trademark chromatic runs (up and down) between key notes, plunging note drops (he often used open strings as passing notes, something most likely learned from his jazz upright days) and just downright funky phrasing by the means of syncopation; in other words, he hardly ever plays a note dead on the beat, he’s always pushing forward or laying back to create a groove. Not only that, like many of his tracks, he never played exactly the same thing twice. Quite astounding.

‘What’s Going On’ – Marvin Gaye

Jamerson used to record his parts in ‘The Snake Pit’ standing up. For this track there was some alternate positioning involved.
By 1970, his drinking was starting to become a bit of a problem (he apparently used to keep a bottle of the Greek sprit Metaxa in his bass case) and he had a very high tolerance to alcohol at this point. The story goes that Marvin Gaye had to go searching the Detroit clubs to find Jamerson to get him to lay down a bass track for ‘What’s Going On?’ Gaye found him playing a set and brought him down to Hitsville when he had finished. The only problem was that Jamerson was absolutely smashed. Legend has it that he looked over the chord charts and, unable to stand or even sit in a chair, he lay down on his back and recorded the track from the studio floor.
It certainly didn’t impair his performance with a fantastic groove, replete with those characteristic syncopations, chromatic runs and beautiful melodic flourishes.

‘Bernadette’ – The Four Tops

Another candidate for best Jamerson bassline is ‘Bernadette’. Like a lot of bass players (before and after) he built many basslines around the simple root-fifth-octave shape and you can hear this in the main chorus of the song. Again, it’s how he plays that shape, with chromatic passing notes between the chords and oodles of funk.

‘I Was Made To Love Her’ – Stevie Wonder

This bass part is so busy, yet it never gets in the way of anything, least of all Stevie’s voice. Much like on ‘For Once In My Life’ Jamerson’s bass acts as a glorious counterpoint to the vocal line. He switches to some down and dirty chromatic (there, I said it again) runs up the neck for the breakdown, and then it’s back to those flurries of notes. These aren’t notes for notes sake, God damn it; it’s all about the song.


Leon Wilson


4 thoughts on “Unsung Heroes of Bass Guitar: #2 James Jamerson

  1. Reblogged this on Ugly Bass Face and commented:
    Here’s a fantastic write-up of the one-and-only James Jamerson from Cut me a notch at 125Hz. It goes over his history, technique and selected songs from the vast catalog of his work with other artists. I actually haven’t watched Standing in the Shadows of Motown yet. Its been on my list for a long time (at least 4 years), but I haven’t gone and ordered it yet.

    The video for the bassline for “For Once in My Life” is interesting. It really shows just how busy Jamerson’s lines could be, especially considering the claw technique described in the original post. Its fun to see the brevity of his use of space when setting up chromatic runs or drops onscreen.

  2. An excellent overview. That analysis of James’s playing on ‘For Once In My Life’ is freaky deaky. His influence is absolutely massive, especially on players such as Marcus Miller, Anthony Jackson and James Genus. There’s some great footage of James playing ‘What’s Going On’ live with Marvin on piano somewhere which is well worth checking out, but it doesn’t seem to be on Youtube unfortunately…

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