Paul McCartney never really wanted to be The Beatles’ bass player. He was more or less stuck with the instrument after Stuart Sutcliffe decided not to continue with the band when they left their early club residency in Germany. John Lennon was too stubborn to move from guitar, and George Harrison was the band’s designated lead player, which meant that McCartney reluctantly had to pick up the four-string.
McCartney initially played in a relatively basic style, one that was optimal for singing melodies. Simple root notes, major scale runs, occasional doubling of the lead guitar parts. These were all part of bass playing 101, and unless the band were playing on stage or recording in the studio, McCartney almost never picked up the bass for writing or casual playing.
But as The Beatles began to expand their sonic palette, and as new influences like Indian music, counterculture, and drug use began to filter into the band’s purview, McCartney’s bass playing began to change. His runs became more improvised and expressive, picking up on the melodicism of Motown bassist James Jamerson. When studio work began to take priority over arranging songs for a live setting, McCartney expanded his own playing style to create far more interesting lines on songs like ‘Rain’ and ‘Paperback Writer’.
When the band retired from touring for good in 1966, McCartney adopted a new method for recording his bass parts: backing tracks from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band onward rarely featured McCartney on bass. Unless the band were playing a specifically rock-centred song, McCartney would usually take up a keyboard position or a guitar to play on the initial take, saving a track on the tape for an overdubbed bass part later on.
This allowed McCartney to work out his parts after the song had already mostly come together. Sometimes McCartney would play into the other instruments, but more often than not, he favoured counterpoint and contrapuntal bass lines that added to the dense array of melodies that were often featured in The Beatles’ arrangements. When he moved from his thin-sounding Hofner bass to the fatter and rounded tone of the Rickenbacker 4001S, McCartney’s lines popped out in ways that they never had before.
A great example of McCartney’s process and style is from the Sgt. Pepper track ‘Lovely Rita’. Filled to the brim with guitars, pianos, harmonies, and even simulated horn parts courtesy of comb and tissue paper kazoos, there was an endless array of sounds to key into while listening to the track. But McCartney saved his bass part for last, and the result is one of the most unique bass lines ever featured on a Beatles song.
Rarely repeating himself throughout the song, McCartney travels up and down the neck of the bass to find the perfect notes to contrast against the main vocal melody. Taking on a walking style that had more to do with jazz than pop, McCartney creates a bouncy and occasionally chromatic bass line that is almost impossible to replicate properly. Nobody but McCartney could have thought of it, and nobody but McCartney could have played it.
Check out the isolated bass guitar for ‘Lovely Rita’ down below.