Meet Alex Wilkerson
Click on link at the bottom of this page to download the transcription
This transcription is an amazing piece from one of the world’s greatest bass players: James Jamerson. “What’s Happening Brother” comes from Marvin Gaye’s epic album: What’s Going On. This album is an absolute must for musicians. There are so many great songs, performances and arrangements…but I digress. Let’s take some time to talk about Jamerson’s style, his licks, and some of his arranging techniques.
One thing you might notice on first glance of this transcription (besides having a lot of black on the page) is that there aren’t many measures throughout the song that are identical. Even when a theme is repeated, the rhythm is often slightly altered in some way. This is a great way to keep interest in the song. You’ll also notice that instead of playing completely different lines for every measure, he uses a lot of themes throughout the song. This is one reason why he was able to apply so much motion and variation without stepping all over the singer (as if that was possible with Marvin Gaye). Check out the first 12 measures. The theme here is quite clear despite the variations applied. Another theme appears at measure 17-18, and reappears in measures 25-26. Both sections B and B2 are very similar in theme, as are sections C and D. You’ll notice that the first four measures of the B sections contain almost identically repeating measures. The theme of section C however is not as exactly duplicated. Take a moment to look at the rhythms of the first two beats of every measure in section C. Even though the notes change, the rhythmic theme continues through the entire section. Jamerson most likely improvised this bass line but it’s important to note that the themes here are purposeful and not haphazard. His use of themes is not an accident and was a crucial part in helping the audience relate to the song and to keep the song cohesive. Whether you have or haven’t already, pay some attention to your own use of themes in improvised bass lines. It’s also a great idea to take Jamerson’s approach and subtly alter a repetitive bass line.
Another topic worth mentioning about Jamerson comes from the first 12 bars of the song. Play or listen to these measures once. It’s a really amazing line, but one interesting point is that they are comprised of simple chord tones. You’ll find that most of these measures only contain the triad of the chord. Sometimes a seventh sneaks in but the content is 95 percent triadic. This fact is really impressive and demonstrates the importance of rhythms in a bass line. Jamerson didn’t need fancy passing tones, reharms or substitutions to make an impressive bass line. He could take a simple triad and make it more hip than most bass players can to this day. The lesson here for us is that using more notes from the scale is not always better or needed. Jamerson only used essentially three notes but made them sound incredible. Consider this in your bass lines, especially when introducing a song.
Now let’s take a look at some of Jamerson’s licks. Check out the lick that occurs on beat four of measures four, eight, and twelve. This is a great and easy lick to make your own and will work on any minor seventh chord and also on certain dominants. For the next lick, direct your attention to beat four of measures 22, 52, 54, 56, 58, 60, 62, and 64. I would analyze this lick as the fifth and third of the chord followed by the leading tone on the “and of four”, which to my ears briefly hints on the dominant sound and points to the resolution on beat one. Whatever way you look at it, this lick will give your lines great motion and keep the energy up when you have to spend time on a stagnant chord. Lastly, check out measure 23. Recognize this lick? It’s really close to the opening bass line of “What’s Going On”, which this song strongly resembles. This is really encouraging to us as bass players because as great as Jamerson was, he used licks. This implies that he didn’t just come straight out of the womb improvising spectacular bass lines, but rather had to work at it over time. We can do the same. We can take licks like the kind he’s given us, incorporate them into our playing and eventually be capable of some of the things we love Jamerson for. Don’t get me wrong Jamerson fans (of which I am top of the list), there will never be another Jamerson, and the fact that he helped invent the electric bass can never be duplicated, but his lines and concepts are so good that one would be a fool not to learn from him.
Now let’s talk about some of his concepts. We already mentioned that one great Jamerson trait is his use of syncopations without getting in the way of the groove or main vocals. This is a lot easier said than done however. Granted, one small reason he got away with being so busy is because of his flat-wound strings, but this reason is far overshadowed by the fact that his phrasing was so masterful. Check out measures 28, 56 and 58. These rhythms are highly sophisticated and are great lines to have in your bag of tricks. In the midst of all this syncopation is an interesting phenomenon. Take a look at the first measure of every section (measures 1, 13, 29, 40, 51 and 61) and tell me what you notice. I’m seeing a whole lot of solid quarter notes on the down beat of one. Now look through the whole song and count how often this happens. The first 12 measures of the song have a lot of quarter notes but they are all tied through beat two. Now the fact that this is such a rare occurrence throughout the song, and the fact that most of these occurrences mark the beginning of a new section are no coincidence. Jamerson used this technique to create a sense of momentary resolution for the start of new sections and to clearly define their beginnings. Remember how many of the first 12 measures started with a really long note? All of them did. If you really took the time to analyze the beginning of each measure, you’ll notice that this trait (quarter notes on one, tied through beat two) ONLY occurs in the first 12 bars. This use of space is a great arrangement technique. We have all heard the loose rule that you should keep the top of the song simple and can later use more variation and fills. This is because the audience is potentially hearing the song for the first time and needs some “space” to get comfortable with the harmony, beat, and instrumentation of the song. Once they acclimate, you can then add more changes or variation to the song to keep your audience from getting bored. Too much “new” information at once can make a song hard to accept. If everyone is playing their busiest parts at the beginning of the song, the most likely result will be that you lose your listeners. On the other hand, if you start simple and build into the peaks of the song, you will keep your audience interested and able to relate to the music. Jamerson clearly had a purposeful intention to give listeners a breath at each of these points of change in the song and so should we with our own work.
The last concept I want to talk about is the use of variations in style. Take a quick look at how many sixteenth notes are in the song and find the places where there aren’t as many. You can clearly see that the lines at measures 33-36, and 44-47 are in contrast with the rest of the song. They contain less movement, less syncopation, and the effect gives the song variation. This is another excellent arranging technique. Jamerson could have played continuously thick sixteenth note syncopations for every measure of the song, but he didn’t. A good story can’t have cloned content reoccurring over and over again, and neither can a good song (which should also be a good story). Look for this concept in some of your favorite songs. Chances are you will see the same technique of making space in the song when new material is presented, applying variation later, and keeping sections of a song different from each other. The difference between sections could be the appearance of a new instrument, a new subtle melody or sound effect, or just more fills and busier lines from the musicians.
“What’s Happening Brother” is an amazing piece of music and has a lot of great tools and lessons for musicians of all experience levels. If this transcription gives you a thirst for more Jamerson material to study, you can check out the book Standing in the Shadows of Motown from Hal Leonard. It contains a lot of good transcriptions and insight. Jamerson really is one of the world’s greatest bass players and I hope you enjoyed what I consider to be one of his all time best performances.
Click on link below to download the transcription