Bass In The Spirit – James Jamerson…
In our small world of bass playing the life work of James Jamerson will always remain an undeniably rock-solid foundation upon which to build your own creative musical personality.
When you study Jamerson bass lines there are always a few curveballs thrown in – downbeats missing, upbeats strung together, counter-intuitive rhythmic combinations, chromatics, and so much more.
It was said by his band mates that Jamerson was something of a practical joker.
After studying the lines of this master I truly do picture Jamerson chuckling as he yanks the rhythmic rug out from underneath your feet. He likes to get you thinking of the last two repeated rhythmic figures and then switch it up like a left jab out of nowhere!
This incredibly musical rhythmic whiplash effect is exactly the type of spirit-element in Jamerson bass lines that sets him apart. To study it and isolate it as a conceptual skill would take a very serious musical research effort.
From my own experience with him I feel that it is Jamerson’s rhythmic intensity, the quality of his rhythmic feel that is the most readily available musical skill to benefit a serious student of bass. Jamerson bass lines explode off the fingerboard!
The purpose of this lesson is to give bass players a bit of a push to take on the study of Jamerson’s masterful bass lines and to also give several examples of bite-size things that can be done to begin to improvise bass lines with some of Jamerson’s moves and signature rhythmic intensity in mind.
If you can work to emulate these rhythmic moves you stand to get a scrap of this incredible musical spirit into your playing. And just a scrap of spirit from this master bassist is enough to last a lifetime.
The bass line in question for our lesson is from the first verse of I Heard It Through The Grapevine, the Gladys Knight version. If you concentrate repeatedly on the original recording of this Jamerson bass line you will be amazed with the rhythmic intensity of his playing.
The very first rhythmic couplet in the verse of the tune is a good way for a student to start working with a small chunk of the Jamerson rhythmic technique. Alternating between the root and lower fifth using short stabs of sixteenth-notes is a smart way to generate a readily available source of energy for your own bass lines.
If you look closely in the video sample you can see that I am not using raking to complete these sixteenth-note couplets. For normal mortal bassists, using a dedicated index or middle finger on each string gives better separation between the notes.
One of the better known bass line figures of which Jamerson had near sole-proprietorship in the world of rhythm and blues is where the root is played on the downbeat of a dominant or major chord and then the third, fourth, and sharp-fourth degrees are placed on the upbeats to dramatically bring in the five-chord.
This “upbeat pulsing” is one of the signature Jamerson moves that in one way or another is probably derived from Count Basie-inspired Ray Brown lines, who was one of his original bass heroes. Please allow me to suggest that bassists hereby refer to this move as “The James”!
One of the other prominent rhythmic devices used in this great bass line is pivoting from the octaves with the internal added fifth.
Would you like to know how to have access to punchy functionality while dive-bombing from higher to lower registers? Look no further because if you can accustom yourself to expertly raking across three strings you can develop combinations between the octaves and fifths that are very useful in creating powerful rhythmic propulsion.
Now, if there were one thing that would keep you from appropriating this masterful Jamerson bass line then it would probably be the infamous 16th-note raking riff across all four strings from the chorus section.
LESSON: Bass In The Spirit – James Jamerson
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In the chart of my opening playing clip, I have developed a fingering specifically for this knuckle-busting riff. It’s a very close transcription to the original and it will definitely help you tackle it.
There are so many other things to discuss but I must mention something that deserves an entire treatise, and that is Jamerson’s deft use of open strings. As a serious student of bass you will find that this is a thorny skill to master. But it is also a very smart play which will help you to move effortlessly between open and closed positions.
My purpose here was to bring forward these few things as an orientation for the start of your Jamerson studies. With careful listening and a stout heart you will be able to advance your rhythmic skills to a remarkable degree.
I truly hope that this lesson is helpful to you, that you always remain willing to return to the James Jamerson musical legacy, and that you can also find a friend with whom to share and study this great music.
Thanks for stopping in.