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McCartney’s Masterpiece: Bass on the Beatles’ Something by Rob Collier

McCartney’s Masterpiece: Bass on the Beatles’ Something by Rob Collier…  In last month’s article, I did an overview of Paul McCartney’s melodic bass lines, citing short examples from seven different songs. When making the list of songs to include in the article, “Something” was at the very top; however, I quickly decided I couldn’t just show excerpts from this song. It is one of the masterworks of rock bass lines, and it deserves to be presented in full.

Download “Something” for Bass

The bass line on “Something” is, in my opinion, the best that Paul ever recorded. It is one of the best bass lines ever recorded, by anyone. You just don’t hear bass lines like this very often. It is almost like a bass solo through the whole song, weaving in and out of chords. It is very active, but still manages to stay out of the way of the vocal melody (one of the nicest melodies in the Beatles catalog).

During the Abbey Road sessions, McCartney played his Rickenbacker 4001S along with a Fender Jazz Bass he had acquired during the sessions for The White Album the previous year. Several different recording engineers worked on Abbey Road, and they each favored a different method of recording the bass. Some songs on the album were recorded by placing a microphone in front of the bass cabinet, some were recorded with a DI, and some used a combination of the two. The bass on “Something” was recorded DI as an overdub, and is most likely the Jazz Bass. This recording also features a keyboard bass that occasionally doubles the electric bass in octaves or in unison.

The bass line is pretty busy during the verses. It has an orchestral quality to it—almost like a timpani part—very percussive and dramatic. In the verses, there are usually crescendos through the 16th notes on beat 2 of the C and C7 chords. Paul also plays a slight, but very natural, crescendo on the ascending line over the G chord (measures 7, 16, 34, and 43).

During the verses, McCartney isn’t sticking to a regular pattern or even a consistent rhythmic feel. He is mixing dotted quarters, quarters, eighths, and sixteenths. The sixteenths usually fall on beats 1 and 2; McCartney tends to leave a little more space on beats 3 and 4. Still, it’s not just a straight quarter note or eighth note groove—it is fairly irregular. But the other instruments are leaving plenty of space for the bass to be active. Ringo plays the sparsest backbeat imaginable with hardly any fills (a total of three fills through the first two verses!). In the first verse, there is a rhythm guitar strumming the chords and an organ that comes in midway through to play staccato chords on the Am. The strings enter at the end of the first verse, but just as sustaining chords. So in the first two verses, the only moving parts are the vocal melody and the bass. Thus, the bass functions as harmonic foundation, countermelody, and percussive drive.

As Ringo’s part becomes substantially more active during the bridge, McCartney falls into a straight eighth note pattern. It is his turn to be supportive, but he still plays an interesting descending line, moving down the A major scale, but with an E pedal at the top (see measures 21-22).

Harmonically, this song emphasizes descending voice leading. In the bridge, the bass line goes R-7-6-5-4 (with an E pedal throughout). The opening chord progression in the verse (measures 2-5) is a familiar one: I – I(maj7) – I(b7) – IV. The typical thing to do is to start on the root and descend chromatically: R-7-b7-6. This, however, is what the vocal melody is doing: C-B-Bb-A. So McCartney, rather than just having the bass mimic the vocal melody, implies a I-V-I-IV progression by playing C in measure 2, G in measure 3, C again in measure 4, and F in measure 5. Had he doubled the already prominent line, the song would have felt much more “square”; however, McCartney makes a nice choice that brings added dimension to the song.

At the end of the verse, the chord progression does the same motion but in the relative minor, A minor. This time it is twice as fast, each chord lasting two beats rather than four. So the progression is Am – Am(maj7) – Am7 – D9. McCartney applies the same concept in the minor progression as he did in the major progression. He begins on A, plays E (and then embellishes) on the first beat of the Am(maj7) chord, goes back to A on the Am7 (in the first two verses he lands on a G), and ends the progression on the root of the D9 chord.

In measure 3, Paul plays an upper neighbor tone figure (G-A-G on the “and” of beat 2) which becomes a recurring motive, appearing again in measures 5, 12, 30, and 39. It usually occurs over the Cmaj7 chord in the verses. Since the vocal melody is at rest and the bass line is the only moving part, it attracts the listener’s attention, and makes it an easily recognizable motive.

In measure 39, the motive appears for the last time. McCartney emphasizes its importance by playing it three times. The third repeat is slightly different rhythmically, being more of a grace note before an eighth (on the “and” of beat 3). But when we hear it, we still recognize it as the upper neighbor tone motive.

This motive may seem fairly insignificant, but it actually serves to support the overall harmonic structure. Let’s look at exactly how this figure functions in relation to the whole song. “Something” is in the key of C major. The bridge modulates to A major, but returns to C before the start of the guitar solo. So the entire song has a large scale C major (verse) – A major (bridge) – C major (verse) motion. But the verses also briefly move through an A tonality, this time A minor, and then return to C. So within those larger C major sections, there is a smaller C major – A minor – C major motion. This C-A-C progression is mirrored again, though not exactly, on a comparatively microscopic level with McCartney’s G-A-G neighbor tone motive. G is the fifth of a C chord, so it is the second strongest note in the chord. With the G-A-G motive, McCartney is essentially hinting at a motion from the I chord (C) to the VI (A) and back to the I (C). It is a short motive in the bass, but it slyly sets the stage for the key changes throughout the song.

Of less structural importance to the song, but interesting from the standpoint of bass line construction, Paul consistently includes an upper neighbor tone figure over the Am(maj7) in the verses (see measure 8). The descending sixteenth note run on beats 3 and 4 always starts with the notes E-F-E, or scale degrees 5-6-5 in the key of A minor. The G-A-G motive in the first part of the verses is scale degrees 5-6-5 in C major. As mentioned above, the progression Am – Am(maj7) – Am7 – D9 is the relative minor version of C – Cmaj7 – C7 – F which begins the verses. So McCartney’s 5-6-5 neighbor tone figure occurs in the same place in the minor progression as it does in the major progression: over the maj7 chord. The two versions of the neighbor tone motive, major and minor, are different rhythmically, so their similarity is not immediately apparent upon listening to the song. The connection between the two, however, is unquestionable. It is a subtle way of tying the whole bass line—and in a way, the whole song—together.

Now let’s be realistic. McCartney was certainly not thinking about this stuff in the detail I just described. He didn’t sit down and do a harmonic analysis of the song and decide how he wanted to support it. He didn’t map out which parts of the song he had space to play sixteenth note runs and in which parts he should lay back. But he did these things intuitively. The neighbor tone motive was not an accident, nor was it a coincidence each time it occurred. It was the product of a great bass player instinctively constructing a great bass line—arguably one of the best bass lines ever recorded.

18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. Raul Amador

    Raul Amador

    June 10, 2012 at 4:19 am

    Excellent analysis of one of my favorite pieces!
    Just printed it off to work on…

    Well Done!

  2. Pingback: Analysis of Something - Bass Guitar - Paul McCartney | how-to-play-bass.com

  3. Kevin

    June 24, 2012 at 12:17 am

    Check out youtube Something isolated bass line.. Sorry Rob it’s not a Rickenbacker or a Jazz. It’s a lowly old Hofner. Sad news for some.
    Cheers

  4. Rod Earl

    June 24, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    Nice job Rob and thanks.
    Paul MccArtney’s bass track is available out there from a number of sources and It’s quite obvious when listening in almost full isolation and with the advantage of a good set of headphones to hear that the bass he chose for this song was his beloved Hofner. This sound, imo just can’t be copied by any other bass. Why would you imitate a Hofner with a Jazz bass? This song really lends itself to the Hofner Beatle sound and it’s truly a no brainer as to why he chose it. Nice sound yet again from his “Little Baby”.

  5. obic

    June 6, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    The transcription book “Paul McCartney – Bass Master” cites the bass being played as Paul’s Rickenbacker. It sounds that way to me too, lots of bite in the midrange, and a more complex sound than the single coil Hofner/Jazz Bass pickups. Could be wrong of course, but when compared to other recordings Paul did with the Ric (Rubber Soul, Revolver, etc.) it sounds very similar.

  6. obic

    June 6, 2013 at 8:13 pm

    I meant to say great article too! I love the musical analysis and how you describe the effect of Paul’s note choice in addition to providing the notes themselves.

  7. Rob Collier

    Rob Collier

    August 21, 2013 at 8:02 am

    Thanks for the comments! My research indicated McCartney played the Rickenbacker on this track, but that could be wrong. Regardless of the instrument he used, this is a brilliant bass line!

  8. Bradlee TheDawg

    August 21, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    Who is the twit who thought “Something” was recorded with anything other than Paul’s 30″ scale Hofner? There may be some Fender overdubs or something – who knows… Paul doesn’t even remember at this point… but the sound of the “Beatle Bass” is unmistakable from beginning to end. And BTW – listen to “Abbey Road” as a whole – that bass is a friendly voice holding so many of the tracks together with each other – never in the way, but always there. Genius IMO.

  9. Bradlee TheDawg

    August 21, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    Oh yes – I forgot to say great article Rob – despite the “Rick” faux pas. If it is written elsewhere that Paul played a Rick or Jazz bass – all I can say is George Martin and Allan Parsons did a masterful job disguising it to sound exactly like a Hofner. I just listened to the song again with high quality headphones – I have no doubt what he was playing. I’m not even sure he could get around like that on a 34″ scale bass – he plays them very differently than the Hofner.

  10. Rob Collier

    Rob Collier

    August 29, 2013 at 8:22 am

    Haha! Well, thanks for the comments, everyone! My bad about the Rickenbacker. It now seems clear that he probably did use the Hofner on this recording. Hopefully that didn’t detract too much from the real focus of the article, which was the amazingly beautiful bass line. 🙂

  11. Terrell Phillips

    May 30, 2014 at 9:08 am

    If requests are in order, I’d like for Basssmusicianmagazine.com to consider publishing the complete bass transcription to Dion’s hit “Abraham, Martin and John”. I can play the bass parts somewhat in the key of A (which is what I gather from the YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5hFMy4pTrs) but what I play does not seem to flow from chord change to chord change. I’ve not seen this piece published other than for simple piano and guitar. Hope to see some future transcriptions surface from the great hits of the 1960s i.e. “Along Comes Mary” by The Association, and other bands i.e. Paul Revere & The Raiders, The Critters “Mr. Dieingly Sad”—by the way…This Critters’ song is an absolute jewel for a bass transcription!!

  12. David Schwab

    June 3, 2014 at 10:49 am

    The bass sounds like the Rick to me. Keep in mind that Paul would place a piece of foam rubber under the strings on the Rick to get that dead tone. You can hear that tone clearly on songs like Baby You’re a Rich Man (only that’s with the bridge pickup on). The Höfner tended to play out of tune on the E string, so this sounds like the Rick to me. It has a clearer attack. How many here have played a Höfner? He’s using the neck pickup with the tone turned down. Having owned Rick 4001s with toasters and the factory flatwounds, I’m very familiar with how they sound.

  13. David Schwab

    June 3, 2014 at 10:53 am

    Also, who’s the twit that said Rick’s are 34″ scale length? 😉 They aren’t. They are 33 1/4”.

  14. Bunny Baker

    April 19, 2015 at 12:54 am

    As a devoted Beatles fan, I have been particularly interested in the base lines of Paul McCartney. I ran across your article. I appreciated your introduction to Paul’s base contribution: “It is one of the best bass lines ever recorded, by anyone…It…manages to stay out of the way of the vocal melody.” Could there be a better compliment to a contributing band member than to underscore, enrich and support the writers work! Thank you for your article.

  15. Fred

    April 22, 2015 at 11:06 pm

    Thoroughly enjoyed your article – thanks!

    You’ve got to see this guy play the “Something” bass part. He has many other great Beatles bass cover videos too.

  16. Dan Lee

    July 16, 2015 at 1:28 pm

    Fantastic article, demonstrating how people with little formal training could intuitively craft such amazingly sophisticated music.

    By the way, I think the word you’re looking for throughout the article is “motif” rather than “motive.”

  17. Mark

    July 20, 2015 at 8:56 am

    Thanks for the great article on this bass line. I just finished listening to it on my best headphones for the first time. (Although I’ve listened to it a hundred times on the original vinyl, which I bought the day it came out, as well as my new digitally remastered CD.)The one thing that stood out immediately was that the bass is recorded exclusively on the right channel. I’m not sure, but that may be the only song in their library recorded that way. Usually, the right channel is reserved for melody parts, vocal harmonies, etc…the fact that the bass was mixed there is a testimonial to the melodic part it plays in the song. I actually came to this site by googling “who played the bass line in Something”. I felt in my bones it was Paul, as he is still overall my favorite bassist in pop/rock music, but then I thought…maybe George played it somewhat in the style of Paul. Paul is famous as a melodic bass player, but this song is over the top! One of, if not the best bass line in music. I took up the bass because of Paul when I was 14, and my first bass was a Hofner copy by Gretsch…wish I had it now!

  18. Rob Collier

    Rob Collier

    July 25, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    Thanks for the recent comments Bunny, Fred, Dan, and Mark. I’m glad people are still finding this article helpful!

    Dan, “motive” and “motif” are generally interchangeable these days. Most American music theorists tend to use “motive,” while British theorists stick with the more traditional “motif.” Either is correct!

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