Paul McCartney has easily become one of the most influential bass players of all time. Through his stint with The Beatles, his 1970s run with Wings, and his subsequent solo career, McCartney always held down the low end of the rhythm section with creative runs and melodic counterpoint. However, it took McCartney a long time to become comfortable with his association with the instrument.
When talking to just about anyone who will listen, McCartney would usually describe himself as either a songwriter, a singer, or a musician, but very rarely would he reduce himself solely to the status of a bass player. “Nobody wants to play bass, or nobody did in those days,” McCartney explained in 2007. It was only after Stuart Sutcliffe left the group in their Hamburg days that McCartney was directed to pick up the four string.
“When we were in Hamburg, Stuart fell in love with a local girl called Astrid and decided he was leaving the group,” McCartney says in The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present. “So we were now without a bass player. We couldn’t have three guitars and no bass. Nobody wanted to be the bass player in those days because it was always the fat guy playing bass. There seemed to be some sort of stigma attached to it.”
Even while Sutcliffe was still in the band, McCartney had to jump ship from his favoured instrument of guitar for practical purposes. “After my cheap Rosetti Solid 7 guitar fell apart in Hamburg, I had to find a new instrument,” he explained. “We already had two guitars, a drummer, and Stuart Sutcliffe, the bass player. There happened to be a piano on the stage where we played, so I took to that and just sort of worked all the songs out on piano. So, I became the pianist in the group.”
Eventually, McCartney had to accept the bass position full time. But as a budding songwriter, McCartney found the bass a less-than-ideal instrument for composing: “I’ve never composed on the bass. Never. Not to this day.” He composed on guitar or piano, and mainly improvised a bassline during recording and kept it simple. It was only when the band recorded ‘She’s a Woman’ in 1964 that McCartney began to take the role of the bass guitar seriously.
McCartney has come around to his identity as a bass player these days. “I have to smile at the fact that I turned out to be a bass player, because my dad always used to point out the bass in songs we heard,” he said. “He was a musician with Jim Mac’s Jazz Band, playing piano and trumpet, and he educated me and my brother on music appreciation. We’d listen to something on the radio, and he’d say, ‘Hear that? That’s the bass!’”.