How Paul McCartney Learned To Play Bass

And how you can too....

Before we get started, let me define the two components of 'how to play bass:"

  • The first part of "how to play bass" is the physical component. This is the need to know how to fret a string to make a note and how to pluck the string that you're fretting to make that note sound.
  • The second part of "how to play bass" is knowing what notes to play. And when to play them. (I often use the shorthand "Bass IQ" for this part.)


How did Paul McCartney learn how to play bass? Especially given that...


...McCartney Started Out A Rhythm Guitarist!

McCartney joined John Lennon's band "The Quarrymen" in 1957 as a rhythm guitarist. And as the band transitioned into "The Beatles," an art school fried on Lennon's called Stuart Sutcliffe joined as the bass player.

Sutcliffe left in '61 and McCartney - against his wishes - became the bass player.

So at this point in time, the bass guitar as an instrument was 11 years old. No-one taught it. There were no tabs or sheet music. The majority of people who played the bass guitar were either upright jazz players. Or guitarists.

McCartney fell into that second category.

So from his years of guitar playing he knew:

  • How to fret a note. (Though guitar technique is different from bass technique)
  • How to use a plectrum.

So the two components of the physical side of playing the bass were already in place for him. Though his fretting hand technique was interesting to say the least. Here's a clip from a 1963 TV concert and you see some of his fretting hand technique for yourself:



But How Did McCartney Develop His "Bass IQ?"

The answer to that is that can be found in the experiences McCartney had playing bass in the residencies the Beatles undertook in the Hamburg strip clubs in the early 60s.

As well as experimenting with writing their own songs, The Beatles also covered everything from rock and roll, to 'pop' tunes of the day, to country songs, to jazz tunes and so on.

To create bass lines to the Beatles' own songs, McCartney 'modeled' the kind of lines he was playing on the cover songs that the Beatles were playing. For instance, here's the verse of "I Feel Fine" and the bass line McCartney came up with for this is just roots and fifths (which he would have learned from two beat country songs and maybe two beat jazz intro songs):



Or to make that country inspired, two beat roots and fifth style even clearer, here's the verse of Love Me Do:



The influence of early rock and roll can be heard in the verse of Twist And Shout - this is a creative combination of different ways of playing major triads in a bass line:



Or how about this 16 bar example which is the verse of All My Loving.  The first two bars use a descending walking bass style line, and the rest of the 8 bar section (which repeats) uses either major triads, roots and fifths or root notes:



The point of all this is that McCartney didn't sit down and "invent" the language of bass lines. Instead he took ideas from country, ideas from rock and roll, ideas from blues, ideas from jazz and mixed them all up and played those ideas with a rhythmic framework that suited the songs The Beatles were writing and of course Ringo's drumming!

This is how all the great early bass players learned....from McCartney to Jamerson to Jack Bruce to John Paul Jones to Jerry Jemmott and so on.

There were no YouTube videos to teach them.

No transcriptions to study.

No tabs existed. (In those days, 'tab' was a 15th century anachronism from classical music!)

They listened to songs and bass players they liked. They heard ideas that they thought sounded cool. They took those ideas to their own playing.

Essentially those early players built on their influences to create a vocabulary for electric bass that didn't exist.

Weirdly - 50 years later - that vocabulary still hasn't been codified  despite the proliferation of bass information in videos, tabs, transcriptions and the like. But that vocabulary can be discovered by analysis of hundreds of bass lines looking for common ideas.

In the next article I'll give you a bunch of examples that demonstrate some of this vocabulary. Hit the blue CONTINUE button below to read that article.



Paul Wolfe/