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


Bass Players Anonymous


Hello. My name is Leon and I’m a bass player.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s something to be proud of.

Being a bass player, I’ve learned, is something innate, hard wired into the brain.
Some bass players start out as bass players and know they are bass players. Others, like myself, and a few more notable players (such as Paul McCartney, Bill Wyman plus many more) start out on other instruments and end up on bass. This can be due to many different factors, but if you are destined to be bass player, there is no escape.

I, like so many other musicians, started off by learning the guitar. I had a false start at the age of ten when my well-meaning parents paid for guitar lessons. My dad would drop me off at Foulds on Iron Gate with my rented classical guitar and I would wait for the tutor to take me upstairs for my lesson. Once there I would be instructed on the rudiments of reading and playing sheet music using examples such as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Frere Jacques.

I hated it.

I loved music, but this seemed to be a thousand miles away from what I loved and what my ten year old concept of being a musician was. Surely my musical heroes didn’t have to go through all this to get where they were?
I eventually gave it up as bad job and spent the next four years just listening to, and enjoying music.

When I was fourteen my family and I were visiting one of my dad’s old schoolmates. He played guitar in a band and had a Fender Stratocaster set up in a box room with a little practice amp. I expressed an interest in this so we went upstairs, he plugged the thing in and then played the riff to ‘Oh Well’ by Fleetwood Mac. Bang! That was it. Some kind of lightening bolt from the Musical Gods hit me between the eyes and I was hooked. I spent the rest of the afternoon up there on my own trying to master the five notes of that pentatonic scale in E.
With this renewed interest in learning to play again, I begged my parents for an electric guitar. They were a little wary after my abortive attempts previously, so the compromise that we reached was that if I started on a classical guitar and taught myself to some degree of proficiency then I could get an electric guitar. So, back we went to Foulds, scene of my previous failure, and bought a cheap, nylon strung, classical guitar. I can still picture it now. It was dark brown ( as opposed to the usual light brown of most classical guitars), had a colourful binding pattern around the sound hole and sounded, to my ears, like the Archangel Gabriel blowing the Trumpet of Truth. It also had an action (the distance between the strings and the fretboard) about the height of a Derby Corporation Blue Bus. A double decker at that. But not to worry, it was a start, and it was mine.

We scoured the instructional books section of the shop and (more by luck than judgement) bought Volume 1 of Russ Shipton’s Complete Guitar Player series. Russ, judging by the accompanying photos, wore a hairpiece, liked sitting on a stool and devoted a page and a half to holding the guitar in the correct way. There were the usual introductory pages on how to position the fingers for 2 or 3 basic chords and how to strum, but the best bit was this: he showed you how to use these chords in recognisable songs! Genius!


By the end of the week I could do a passable version of ‘Bye Bye Love’ by The Everly Brothers. OK, my left fingertips were a mashed pulp of bloody flesh and my left forearm ached like a navvy’s back from pressing down the strings the required inch and a half to the fretboard, but I was making progress. As I worked my way through the book and subsequent books, the great thing was that he included some (in my opinion) really great songs. The Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll’ were in there along with other stuff by The Who and The Eagles. Mind you, he would sneak some of his own songs in there (‘Going Where The Action Is’ anyone?), but I’ll let him off.

I think that the most important part of this learning process was developing a ‘good ear’. By learning (through Russ) to play songs that I knew already, I could then move on to working out how to play songs from the records that I loved. I learned how to hear changes and melodies and harmonies within those changes. Now, I don’t profess to be an accomplished musician, by any stretch; I can’t read a note of music and know very little about music theory, but I know that I do have a good set of ears, and that, I think, is invaluable.

By now, I’d convinced my parents that I was worthy of an electric guitar, so nights were spent scouring the classified pages of the Derby Evening Telegraph. Finally, a suitable prospective purchase was found, a phone call made and an arrangement for the vendor to come round to our house one evening was sorted out. I remember not being able to concentrate at school that day and the last lesson (Business Studies with the interminable Mrs Edge) seemed to last a lifetime. At around 7pm there was a knock on our front door and a middle aged man with a neatly trimmed grey beard came in with a bergandy soft vinyl guitar case in one hand and a small practice amp in the other. He unveiled the guitar from it’s covering and I stared in awe at the hunk of maple before me: a Westone Thunder 1A in natural finish.


For the princely sum of £89 ( I still have the handwritten reciept from the Mr Glydn-Davies who sold it) I was now the proud owner of the above guitar and case, curly grey lead and ten watt ‘Badger’ practice amp. I still own the guitar and amp (and curly grey lead) some twenty five plus years later. That cheap, Japanese chunk of maple, ash and rosewood was my main guitar for the next fifteen years and still sounds great when you crank it up.


I spent the next ten years or so in various bands playing guitar and very occasionally bass ( does anyone apart from the two other members remember The Dangerous Jazz Brothers…?). I got myself a bass to tinker about on due to an inexplicable obsession with Level 42 in my mid teens ( I still have a soft spot for their early jazz funk orientated stuff) but ended up selling it as I was skint before going to University. I never really studied the bass properly or took it seriously, I just faffed about on it.

From the mid to late ’90’s I took a bit of a hiatus from bands and playing fell by the wayside. An opportunity for a bit of a blues jam with some friends came up with an opening on bass. So, I got myself a cheap bass and amp and went to the session. Wallop! I’d been kicked in the nether regions by the Doc Martin of fate. It was if a switch had been turned on in my brain; this was the instrument I was meant to play. There was this indescribable feeling of holding down the rhythm and the harmonic aspects of the tune whilst moving so much air with the speaker cone it made your trouser bottoms flap.
It suddenly all made sense.

Looking back, I realised that all this time, whilst singing along to my favourite songs or albums, I had usually been singing the basslines. Not the lead vocal line like most normal people but the bassline. Whether it be Nathan Watts’ grooves on Stevie Wonder’s ‘Sir Duke’, Norman Watt-Roy’s beautiful fluid lines on Ian Dury’s ‘Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick’ or Wilton Felder’s fantastic parts on ‘I Want You Back’ by The Jackson Five, I was hooked on basslines. Bass players are often maligned as the talentless one in the band, only able to bash out root notes, and yes, that may be true to a very limited extent (and some music may dictate that that is what is required of the song), but listen to ‘For Once In My Life’ by Stevie Wonder and try and tell me that James Jamerson’s bassline is not a thing of beauty. The whole performance is like a fantastic counter melody to Wonder’s vocal line but still holding down the rhythm and the harmonic elements of the song. Absolute perfection.

I also realised that this was not a recent habit. I played one of the favourite albums of my youth, ‘Complete Madness’ ( a best of Madness compilation from 1982 featuring their early hits that I used to play religiously) and realised that I could sing all of Mark Bedford’s bass parts without even trying (Bedford is a seriously underrated bassist, by the way. Try and listen to his basslines the next time you hear a Madness song…)

Many of my musician friends (and non-musician friends) may well be shaking their heads and wondering what the hell I’ve been going on about. Many of them may not have even made it this far and would have bailed out at the mention of Level 42. But I would like to think that a few are nodding their heads in appreciation and understanding (and maybe some in pity…). Those that are may well be bass players too. Some may not even have realised they are bass players until now…

So, like I said, my name is Leon and I am a bass player.


Leon Wilson