Paul McCartney’s bass playing was probably his tertiary contribution to The Beatles, after his songwriting and his singing, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t just as revolutionary. Throughout the 1960s and earlier, the bass was mostly viewed as a rhythm instrument, a bridge between the drums and the guitars intended to provide some low-end sound to flesh out chords and simultaneously emphasize the beat. Aside from the occasional solo (think The Who’s “My Generation”, which arrived in 1965), it remained in the background. McCartney, one of the world’s preeminent writers of melody and most innovative musical minds, wasn’t content to let the bass take a backseat on every Beatles song, particularly as the band’s career advanced.
Photo by Jim Bennett
The bass sound on “Paperback Writer” was actually John Lennon’s idea, yet another example of the astounding creative dynamic he and McCartney shared. Lennon had heard a booming bass sound on a Wilson Pickett record and thought it would be cool to replicate. Together with their legendary studio engineer Geoff Emerick, the band rigged up a way to use a loudspeaker as a microphone and, with Paul using a Rickenbacker instead of his iconic Hofner, boosted the volume higher than anyone had done before. The result: Paul’s bass line, showcasing his mixture of melodic and rhythmic capabilities on the instrument, drives the song.
In honor of “Paperback Writer”, and in honor of its bass line, we’ve ranked McCartney’s top 10 bass contributions to The Beatles’ catalog.
10. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
Praising Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as a landmark innovation is old hat at this point, but for the most part, Paul’s bass plays a background role. On this song, though, it’s vital. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” starts out like a dream, George Harrison’s tamboura and McCartney’s Lowrey organ combining with John Lennon’s delicate vocals to create the effect of Alice going down the rabbit hole. One thing keeps the song grounded in reality: McCartney’s steady bass line. It begins walking during the pre-chorus (“Cellophane flowers of yellow and green”) to drive an increase in the song’s energy, leading to the triumphant, titular explosion of sound in the chorus.
09. “Hey Bulldog”
The fact that “Hey Bulldog” is piano-driven means that McCartney isn’t holding down the low end on his own — there’s piano down there, too. And with the piano locking in on a steady beat the way you’d traditionally expect a bass to do, McCartney’s able to carve out his own niche, both rhythmically and melodically. His bass thuds in a way that a piano can’t, acting almost like a guitar during the song’s verses and leaping all over the place. And during the guitar solo, he noodles around, acting almost like a partner to the guitar instead of its backup. This is an excellent example of McCartney’s ability to make the bass a melodic instrument.
“Rain” is legendary for its relentless rhythm section. Noted as one of Ringo’s best drum songs, McCartney’s bass playing exists to match Starr’s inventiveness. His bass does some exploring during the more static parts of Starr’s playing, then chills out during the drum fills, creating a seamless bottom end of the song (but even then, it’s not really a bottom end since he’s playing mostly high notes). The repetitive, trance-like notes during the “chorus” emphasize the more Eastern modes of the song. Add in the perfection with which McCartney accentuates Starr’s quasi-drum break at the end of the song, and you’ve got one of his tightest bass performances.
McCartney has said that he had the idea to write just a melody and a bass line for “Michelle” and then let the rest fill out around it. What we end up with is one of the jazzier Beatles songs, a departure not only from the rest of Rubber Soul but also from what their music as a whole had sounded like until this moment. The lilting bass walks in a more traditional rhythm than what we’d see out of Paul later in his career, but it’s the force that leads the inventive chord changes, the instrument to which you can clearly tell McCartney keyed “Michelle’s” iconic melody, and it sets the tone for a lovely lounge-like number.
06. “Helter Skelter”
The story goes that McCartney heard “I Can See for Miles” and decided The Who couldn’t be the heaviest band out there, so he wrote “Helter Skelter” to top them. When you’re competing with The Who, you compete with John “Thunderfingers” Entwistle, one of the more legendary bassists ever to have lived. Accordingly, it’s McCartney’s bass that drives most of the raw, powerful, heavy energy of the song, thudding along unstoppably below his shrieks. Even though it lacks the melodic finesse of McCartney’s other work, it stands out as a rhythmic and stylistic precursor to heavy metal; in the bass tone, you can hear shades of John Paul Jones’ work with Led Zeppelin and Geezer Butler’s work with Black Sabbath.
05. “Dear Prudence”
One of The Beatles’ more beautiful, wistful songs, originating with Lennon’s sunny lyrics and hypnotic guitar playing, “Dear Prudence”’s real engine is McCartney’s leaping bass line, which recounts the playfulness of the song but is simultaneously part of the trance the song creates. It’s the perfect complement to Lennon’s finger-picking, which, like the piano on “Hey Bulldog”, provides more than enough on the low end to allow for McCartney to craft a hybrid of rhythm and counter-melody. And as with many McCartney bass lines, the bass line on “Dear Prudence” stands out because it’s mobile in an otherwise sedentary sonic environment.
Speaking of mobile bass lines, McCartney’s contributions to “Something” are the most underrated aspect of the song. As with “Dear Prudence”, the verses of “Something” offer very little in the way of dynamic background for George Harrison’s vocal melody. The guitar and drums sit back, almost imperceptible, very much accent instruments. Even when the strings come in, they’re playing the role that a guitar would normally play — long, held chords. What fills the space? The bass, which sets up a counter-melody to Harrison, playing off it beautifully, more like a lower vocal harmony than a bass. It’s also one of McCartney’s busiest bass lines, showcasing his dexterity on the instrument.
03. “Paperback Writer”
The aforementioned “Paperback Writer” is the catalyst for this list for a reason: it’s an outstanding bass performance. It’s not enough that it dominates the song sonically; it also makes the otherwise one-note song (literally — there’s one brief chord change over its entire length) sound far more interesting. McCartney stays centered on the base note of G but explores the space around it effectively, teaming well with Starr to give the song an unstoppable motor, delivering on the promise of the opening guitar riff.
“Taxman” provides one of McCartney’s most iconic bass lines, in that it’s the main riff of the song. Paul’s best bass work with the Beatles stands out for filling the space the guitars and melody don’t cover, and that objective stands out here more than on most of the band’s songs because the guitars provide naught but abruptly struck chords. Take away the bass, and “Taxman” no longer has any sense of flow. Even though George Harrison undoubtedly wrote the song from the melody, McCartney’s work makes it shine, from the verse-filling work to the measured chaos of the B-section, which is probably the most complex bass he had thrown into a Beatles song to that point.
01. “Come Together”
Could it have been anything else? Abbey Road is, as a whole, a revolutionary bass album, a revelation in the way the instrument could be used melodically. But on “Come Together”, maybe The Beatles’ most popular song (at least according to Spotify, it’s top five); the bass is the undisputed star. It’s impossible to imagine the song without its bass, and it combines all the elements of McCartney’s playing: the ability to craft a melody, the ability to blend into the background, the heaviness, the lightness. It’s all there, wrapped perfectly to counterbalance Lennon’s growled vocals and craft a masterpiece.