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Ask The Bass Guy – 60s R&B Bass

Chuck writes:

Hello, Ask the Bass Player-

Thanks for taking my call.  Here’s my question:

I’m trying to capture the most authentic ’60s R&B bass sound that I can.  I already own a PBass, though it’s a modern MIM one.  I am wondering if it’s worth the expense of replacing the pickups with something like Lollars (http://www.lollarguitars.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=pbass-pickups) and putting on flat wound strings.  Or should I focus on getting an old Ampeg amp?  Or all three?  Money is kind of an issue but I have lots of time to work my way up to “the perfect sound”. How would you proceed if you were me?




Dear Chuck,

Honestly, I wouldn’t get too hung up on the gear thing. Follow the 80/20 rule. {Spend 80% of your time finding your tone, and 20% on the gear}.

Here’s my simple two-step process to getting that Motown-era R&B bass sound.

1) Transcribe as many James Jamerson bass lines as you can. The man re-invented the way bass was played, and did it all with his index finger (often referred to as the “hook” technique). (Definitely avoid playing with a pick. Playing with the flesh of your finger cuts out all of those higher overtones, and gives you a warm, round tone).

The secret is “Be this man.”

Check out this clip on Jamerson from Standing in the Shadows of Motown:

And here’s that index “hook” technique at 2’27”:

As far as gear goes, you can’t go wrong with a P-bass – nice, fat, consistent sound. After playing upright for a number of years, James Jamerson switched to a 1962 Fender Precision Bass with La Bella heavy-gauge (.052-.110) flatwounds, and never changed strings unless he broke one.

Now here’s the interesting part. Contrary to popular knowledge, Jamerson, did not in fact play bass out of an Ampeg B15 (in the studio at least).

Here’s how it actually went down at Hitsville U.S.A. (Motown Studios). Due to limited studio space, engineer Mike McLean of Studio A built this monstrous 5-channel tube amplifier/DI. Here’s a picture of this beastly looking thing. This puppy had a fixed gain structure (rather than variable) so as to maximize gain performance, and was rigged to a monitor system so the musicians could hear themselves back in the live room.

Here’s the part I find the most compelling…

“He [the musician] automatically had a perfect line level to patch into his console, because the musician had adjusted the level right at his guitar, using his VU meter….I feel that it worked out very well to assign the responsibility for the level control to the musician. As far as I know, we never had any problems with improper levels. I got the feeling that it made the musician feel good to be responsible for this function.” -McLean

That’s right. The engineer gave the musician control over the level.

This is truly revealing of how music was recorded in the 60s versus today. Because the players had limited mix control, and were all listening back through the same pre-amp/monitor, these guys really had to learn how to play with each other. They didn’t have the ability to edit in ProTools, or apply fancy plugins in the mix stage. In the truest sense, they mixed on the way in, in real time, with each other.

So to answer your question, a lot of the R&B sound you’re looking for comes from how you play the bass. No amount of gear or money spent can help you with your feel. How do you approach playing the bass? What are you trying to communicate? Certainly study the masters, but find your sound.


“If you don’t feel it, don’t play it”. – James Jamerson to his son, James Jamerson Jr.

{You can read the conversation with Bob Babbitt, Mike McLean, and others HERE.}

6 Responses to Ask The Bass Guy – 60s R&B Bass

  1. patrick Reply

    December 7, 2012 at 11:18 pm

    I found a schematic of that tube pre-amp, by the way:

    • Herb Guthrie Reply

      December 8, 2012 at 11:54 am

      In hindsight the gear seems so important, but for the players of that era, it wasn’t. Most musicians just used what they had, if they saw something else, they might try it; more often than not they used the same gear throughout their entire career. Instrument choice was a lot more random than one might think. Imagine this: if Muddy Waters had been able to afford a good amp, the sound of the blues would have been quite different… Remember that Elvin Jones used an 18″ bass drum (a defining drum sound of be-bop) only because the case was small enough for him to also squeeze his golf clubs into the trunk of his car. The Beatles preferred Fender over Vox Amps. Good thing Brian Epstein inked that promo deal with Vox– otherwise the Beatles would have sounded like the Knickerbockers! My guess is that James Jamerson went to a music store, bought the shiniest bass they had, drove over to Motown Studio and said: ‘Where do I plug in?

  2. sean Reply

    December 10, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    The second video clip is interesting and especially powerful at the end; as is the article. Thanks

  3. patrick Reply

    December 12, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    Man, I love that scene where the guy is trying to play the “What’s Going On” part ACTUALLY lying on his back. So great.

  4. patrick Reply

    December 12, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    “Man, ain’t nobody can play that lying on their back….”

  5. patrick Reply

    December 12, 2012 at 6:05 pm

    ‘Standing in the Shadows of Motown’ is my bible. I carry a copy around in my bag JUST IN CASE I need to hand it to someone and say “Take this home and watch it. Everything you need to know is in there.”

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