The Melodic Bass Lines of Paul McCartney by Rob Collier… Through the Beatles’ eight years of recorded output, they showed an incredible versatility in the styles of songs they wrote and performed. They recorded everything from hard rock to show tunes, blues to ballads, R&B to avante garde, and everything in between. In every instance, Paul McCartney showed his versatility as a bass player. He could play simple root/fifth lines (“Love Me Do,” “From Me to You,” “One After 909”), rock ‘n’ roll (“I Saw Her Standing There,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Little Child”), driving bass lines (“Get Back,” “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” “I’m Down”), short repetitive grooves (“Taxman,” “Dr. Robert,” “The Word”), and even fast and flashy lines (“Rain,” “Paperback Writer,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”). But he was probably best known for his melodicism as a bass player.
A “melodic bass line” could be defined as one that moves through the chord changes, connecting them with scalar passages and arpeggios. This is opposed to a bass line that just plays the roots of the chords, or that is just based on a short, repeated pattern simply moved up or down the neck when the chord changes. A melodic bass line weaves through the chords, often with the intent of smoothing out the transition from one chord to the next.
Of course, Paul McCartney was a natural melodist, having written some of the most memorable songs in the history of popular music. In this article, we’ll look at a few of McCartney’s most melodic electric bass passages and focus on some common patterns that he used to connect chords.
In a rehearsal or recording session, whenever anyone requests that I “play like McCartney,” there are two songs that I always think of: “Lovely Rita” and “Something.” These two songs are, to me, the essence of McCartney-esque melodicism. (In next month’s column, I will provide a full transcription of “Something,” because it deserves to be presented in its entirety!)
“Lovely Rita” is like a bass etude. It is “How to Connect Chords 101.” The whole bass line is a compendium of patterns, mixing arpeggios with walk-ups and walk-downs, moving seamlessly through the chords. (To play along with the recording, you have to do a bit of re-tuning. The Beatles are somewhere between Eb and E on this track—most likely they played in Eb and sped up the tape, making the pitch go slightly sharp.)
In the excerpt below (example 1), I’ve provided a breakdown of each pattern McCartney plays as it relates to the chord (i.e., on the Eb chord, he plays a “root-7-6-5” walk-down). Each figure he plays is a great pattern to get under your fingers. McCartney doesn’t just select these figures at random, though. Notice how often the last note of each figure is just a step away from the first note of the next pattern. In the first measure of example 1, the last eighth note of the Eb pattern is Bb, which is a whole-step above Ab, the first note of the next chord pattern. The last note of the Ab pattern is C, which is a half-step below Db, the first note of measure two. Approaching a new chord by a whole-step or a half-step helps to create a smooth sounding bass line, and McCartney does it brilliantly here.
Okay, the entire Sgt. Pepper album is a bass masterpiece. Every song is worth studying. Not just learning. Studying. 1967-1968 was McCartney’s most creative period as a bass player. All of the examples we’ll look at are from those years. (For great examples of his playing on earlier Beatles songs, check out his lines on “Michelle,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” “Paperback Writer,” and “I Saw Her Standing There.”)
“Getting Better” is interesting mostly because of the way McCartney treats the choruses. In the first chorus (example 2), he plays a walking line that seems to outline the wrong chords. (He outlines Am7 instead of Dm in the 2nd measure of the chorus; Dm instead of F in the 4th measure.)
In subsequent choruses (example 3), he plays an unusual four-measure melodic phrase. It isn’t an arpeggiation of the chords, but rather it is a melodic figure that descends through the chords—and because it is also the bass line, it changes the way we hear the chords in this passage. It’s a very classical-esque contrapuntal bass line. This melody wouldn’t be at all unusual if it were played by a horn or a violin in a higher register. It’s just such an unusual bass line for a pop song, but it gives a clue as to how McCartney was thinking of the harmony in this passage. He doesn’t feel the need to arpeggiate each chord the piano is playing—he just treats this section as if it is in the “tonal area” of C Major. The piano chords (C-Dm-Em-F) just become a sort of “harmonic coloration” instead of a true harmonic progression. McCartney plays a melody beneath those ascending triads as if they’re only a tonal guideline.
“A Day in the Life”
The bass line for “A Day in the Life” is mostly a “root” based line (example 4). McCartney throws in some passing tones and arpeggiations here and there, but the real beauty of this bass line is how he keeps altering the rhythm. He starts out with mostly eighth notes in the first two measures of the verse, then slows down the rhythm to quarter notes in measure three. He adds syncopation in measure four, but keeps it mostly a quarter note rhythm, with some embellishments. At the end of the first verse, he moves back into a strictly eighth note rhythm (continuing into the second verse, where he abruptly alters it again). It’s strange how suddenly he changes the feel, but how it always seems natural. It helps keep the song exciting.
In “Hello Goodbye,” McCartney mixes arpeggios and scalar patterns, and changes the feel between whole notes, quarter notes, and eighth notes. Considering this was recorded during the height of McCartney’s bass creativity, he doesn’t get too adventurous here. But it’s very nice the way he arpeggiates chords and connects chords through scalar passages.
Much of the verse (example 5) is made up of eighth note arpeggios and scale patterns.
Another bass player might have kept the running eighth note feel during the chorus (example 6), but McCartney just plays descending quarter notes, giving the chorus a more “open” feel. The quarter notes are a nice contrast with the steady eighth notes that almost all the other instruments are playing. During the chorus, there are quarter notes in the kick drum and bass; straight eighth notes in the piano, guitar, strings, and floor tom; maracas playing sixteenth notes; and the vocal sits on top of all of this with a syncopated eighth and sixteenth note melody. All of these different parts create “rhythmic layers,” locking in with each other, but moving at different rates (like the hands of a clock!).
“Cry Baby Cry”
The chorus of “Cry Baby Cry” from The Beatles (commonly known as The White Album) has a nice moving line, mixing arpeggios with scalar patterns (example 7). This line, like “Lovely Rita,” is another great example of how to connect chords. The R-2-3-R and R-2-3-5 patterns on the G and Am chords are very standard figures, and they always work so well. The R-7-R-#R movement to get from F to G (measures 2 and 4) is also a very common pattern when connecting two chords a whole step (two frets) apart.
In 9th grade I brought “Dear Prudence” into my bass lesson so my teacher could transcribe the bass line for me. I still remember him saying, “You know, most people wouldn’t really think of this song as being a great song for bass. But this is a great bass line!” That’s still how I think of this song. The bass is not at all the focus. It is repetitive and just plays a supporting role. But this is a great bass line. It would have been easy to just play descending quarter notes, but Paul created a cool little melodic figure using the open D as a pedal note (example 8). It serves as a really nice counterpoint to the acoustic guitar, and gives the song a lot of energy when it comes in during the 2nd verse.
“Sexy Sadie,” also from The White Album, features more very typical (not that it’s a bad thing) McCartney bass patterns. Particularly on the C-D movement in the verse (example 9)—he uses the R-7-R-#R and R-2-3-R patterns again (see “Cry Baby Cry”).
The ascending pattern on the bridge (example 10) is another great McCartney figure with a low pedal note (D). This is very similar to his line on “Dear Prudence.”
Next month, we will take a look at McCartney’s brilliant playing on “Something” from Abbey Road, and discuss why it is truly his finest moment as a bass player.