There were great bass guitar players before Paul McCartney switched from guitar to bass in 1962 (James Jamerson and Carol Kaye to name just two). And there have been better technical players after Paul (John Entwistle, Chris Squire, Les Claypool, etc.). But Paul McCartney may have had a greater impact on the future of the bass guitar than any of them. For it was Paul who proved that the bass player could be the frontman and command the same level of attention as the singer or the guitarist. And though his dedication to his instrument Paul pushed the boundaries of melodic bass playing past where any of his contemporaries were at the time. Let’s go back to the beginning.
Between 1960 and 1961 The Beatles featured a three lead/rhythm guitar attack consisting of John Lennon, George Harrison and Paul McCartney. Stuart Sutcliffe played bass -reportedly very poorly. When Stuart decided to remain in Hamburg, Germany instead of accompanying The Beatles back to Liverpool, The Beatles faced a dilemma. They would either have to look for a new bass player, or one of them would have to switch instruments.
None of them wanted to do it.
The rest of the group naturally assumed that Paul, being the most gifted musician in the group, would be the best choice to fill the vacancy. For the good of the group, Paul accepted the responsibility. The stage was set. He just needed to buy a bass.
After making the decision to become The Beatles bass player in 1961, Paul was forced out
of necessity to purchase a bass guitar. With little money and even less knowledge about basses Paul headed to music shops in Hamburg. The bass that caught his eye, however was the 1961 Hofner 500/1 . Hofners were not a high-end bass. In fact, Paul selected the bass more for its affordability than its sound or looks (it cost around $45). But that simple decision made in a Hamburg music shop in 1961 helped to create one of the most iconic visual images of The Beatles; Paul McCartney with his left-handed Hofner violin bass.
The Hofner also changed the way in which Paul learned to play bass. As it was lighter than a standard bass and had a shorter fretboard it was less demanding on an inexperienced player. Paul was able to move with it and its lightness allowed him to remain energetic during the numbers that he sang. Quite the opposite of the motionless robot weighted down by his instrument that he surely feared he would become. And since the frets were closer together it meant that the switch from guitar to bass required less of an adjustment. Paul’s playing reflected this combination of elements. The early records reveal a light, bouncy bass sound instead of a bass that simply holds down the bottom.
The limitations of this bass began to show themselves after The Beatles achieved stardom. Hofners of that era were notorious for their inability to stay in tune as you went up the fretboard. A great example of this can be heard in the video for “I’ve Got a Feeling” from The Beatles 1969 “Rooftop Concert” at the end of this piece.
In addition to being hard to tune, The Hofner just didn’t have a great tone. It was fine for what was required of it in The Beatles early catalog. But as their music became more ambitious, and as Paul’s ability on the instrument increased, Paul was ready for a change. In 1964 Paul was presented with a Rickenbacker 4001S model bass from the president of Rickenbacker guitars -and Paul’s bass playing would never be same.
The Rickenbacker 4001S
It is not known exactly when Paul began using his Rickenbacker 4001S in Beatles recording sessions. Photographic evidence shows that he was using it during the Rubber Soul sessions in the fall of 1965. But due to the way in which George Martin recorded the bass in that era it is difficult to tell which songs on the album are played with the Rickenbacker and which were played with the Hofner. One thing is clear, however. The bass playing on Rubber Soul is more advanced than on any previous Beatles record. Paul may have continued to tour with his Hofner, but for recording he would select the Rickenbacker from that point onwards.
The Rickenbacker bass has become one of the most celebrated bass guitars in rock history. The guitar had a clear tone and was well suited to studio recording. When played high up on the neck the tone was as clear as a bell. Played down low it created a formidable bottom. And with a little gain, it growled. The list of famous Rickenbacker bass players reads like a who’s who of hall of fame bassists (Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, Lemmy Kilmeister, Cliff Burton, John Entwistle). And much like George Harrison and the Rickenbacker 12-string, most, if not all of those players would not have played the guitar had it not been for Paul McCartney.
Paul’s high water mark as a bassist was almost certainly during 1966 and 1967, thanks to the Rickenbacker bass. At Paul’s insistence the bass was brought up in the mix, and the result was a single that might be the greatest bass single of all time, “Paperback Writer/Rain.” I am including the following video of a bassist performing “Rain” on a Rickenbacker bass to illustrate the beauty of Paul’s bassline for two reasons. 1) Because he plays it perfectly. And 2) because he plays it at the pitch and speed in which it was actually recorded (the finished song was slowed down to achieve a slightly hazy, psychedelic effect).
Revolver, recorded in the spring of 1966 was recorded almost exclusively with the Rickenbacker. As with “Paperback Writer” and “Rain” (recorded during the same sessions) the bass was featured more prominently on Revolver than on any previous Beatles album. This was due in no small part to the promotion of Geoff Emerick to the role of chief engineer. Paul’s bass sounded better, and it was left higher in the mix than had ever been done before.
Paul’s playing became more melodic as Paul was beginning to use the bass to produce countermelodies instead of merely providing bottom. Songs like “For No One” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” are good examples of this. Paul has written distinct melodies that complement the main melodies of each piece.
1967 began with another bass-heavy single. People may not associate “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” with the bass guitar. But take a moment to listen to Paul’s playing on the two songs. “Penny Lane” is driven by the bass guitar’s melody in a way that Beatles single had been to that point. The bass in “Strawberry Fields Forever” is much harder to hear due to the big production, but what you can hear is a much clearer Rickenbacker sound that points the way towards Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Sergeant Pepper is many things to many people. Concept album, ground breaking cover, ground breaking use of different musical styles, ground breaking use of different instruments on a pop record. And on and on. But one thing that it definitely is is a great bass album -probably Paul’s best work. Paul’s approach on this album was to record some of his bass lines over the top of the finished rhythm tracks (sometimes after the majority of the track was complete), giving him time to write and rewrite the bass parts. It also allowed him to punch the bass parts into the mix, making them stand out a bit.
His bass lines were becoming even more complex, as evidenced by songs like “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Paul’s playing ranges from bottom to playing melodic lines up on the neck. For fans of the bass guitar these songs are distinguished by their bass lines. I know that I personally haven’t heard the songs the same way since discovering these bass parts. Here is an example of an isolated bass line from Sergeant Pepper.
In early 1969 Paul returned to the Hofner briefly to record the Let it Be album. The decision to do this could have been the desire to capture The Beatles earlier sound, or it could have been because the sessions were being filmed and Paul wanted to be seen playing the guitar with which he was so closely associated. But for better or (more likely) for worse the Hofner was back on a Beatles record. And if I’m honest it actually sounds right for the material. The album was meant to sound live; to sound flawed. And if the following clip is any indication, flawed it was. Here is the isolated bass track from “I’ve Got A Feeling.” Listen as the old troubles with the Hofner’s tuning come back with a vengeance.
Paul finished up his Beatles career playing the guitar that made him truly great, the Rickenbacker. Abbey Road was recorded with the Rickenbacker and, strangely enough, a Fender jazz bass. Paul’s stayed with the Rickenbacker throughout his solo career as well, until nostalgia prompted him to bring the Hofner out of retirement in 1990. He now plays the Hofner almost exclusively.
It seems the enduring image of Paul McCartney with his violin bass is burned too deeply into the subconscious of music fans to accept another -even though Paul’s greatest work and his greatest influence on other players was achieved on a different instrument. It is understandable, though. One of the main reasons why the Rickenbacker never really got associated with Paul’s image as a Beatle was that The Beatles had stopped touring when he began using it. Sure, people saw him playing the Rickenbacker in a few promotional clips and later with Wings. But it just couldn’t supplant the image of “that funny little guitar” people were so curious about when The Beatles hit it big in 1963-1964. It deserves its place in the hearts and minds of Beatles fans everywhere. Even if it was thin sounding and out of tune…