Upright (Everything's Alright): The Genesis Of The Jamerson Sound
By Rick Suchow
(This article was published in Bass Guitar Magazine, February 2009 issue)
"Bass players call from all over, wanting to know what type of equipment I use," said James Jamerson in a 1979 interview with music journalist Dan Forte. "What type of bass, what kind of strings, things like that. I'll tell them, but that's not what's important; it's the feel. The strings don't make the sound, it's the feel. It's all in here, in the heart." Be that as it may, James' bass of choice for twenty years was a single 1962 Fender Precision. By the time he had given that interview, Jamerson and his prized Precision had supplied the bottom on more pop and R&B hits than any other bassist in recorded history. The instrument, which he and his fellow Funk Brothers fondly nicknamed "The Funk Machine", was actually Jamerson's fourth bass. In 1954 he began his bass journey by learning the upright in high school, and eventually bought his first instrument, an old German upright, usin it exclusively for seven years. It wasn't until 1961 that James reluctantly switched to the electric when he was asked to go out on the road with singer Jackie Wilson, and bought his first bass guitar -- a 1957 Precision-- from a friend. It was eventually stolen as was a second Precision that James bought to replace it. Jamerson finally acquired his brand new, soon-to-be storied Funk Machine in 1963, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Ironically it was Jamerson's firm grounding on the upright that contributed most to his sound on the electric, via the strength he had built up in his hands after seven solid years of acoustic work, and his desire to obtain the upright's big sound on the smaller Fender. James himself acknowledged the importance of hand strength when Forte asked him if he had any advice for beginners: "I think the first thing you should do is play upright bass. That would stregthen everything-- your wrist, your fingers, the joints of your fingers." It was this strength that gave Jamerson such great facility on a set of heavy gauge strings and an unusually high action. Other bass players often found the instrument almost unplayable: "His action was so high, you had to get your friend to help you play Bb!," once joked veteran bassist Michael Henderson, but it was precisely that string height that allowed Jamerson to apply his heavy touch to the electric and achieve a remarkably strong fundamental tone without any fret buzz.
Jamerson’s decision to use La Bella heavy flatwounds (gauges .52, .73, .95, and .110) instead of the standard Fender string set was the only significant change he made to the otherwise stock Precision-- always his electric bass of choice. "None of the other basses get that sound," said James. "When I got it I immediately took the Fender strings off and put LaBellas on and I've had the same strings on it ever since. You don't need to change strings all the time; you'll lose the tone. It's like a new car: the older it gets, the better it rides." Other non-playing components of the Jamerson sound included the dampening effect of the Precision's foam mute (under the bridge cover) pressed against the strings, and the Jamerson's preference to keep the instrument's tone control rolled off whenever possible. "It depends on the producer and the session," revealed James. "Some people like the treble up; I like the bottom end, because that makes the record sound fuller. It gives a rounder tone, a fatter sound." Jamerson also eschewed effects boxes unless he was specifically asked to use them. "It's all in the fingers, man. I don't think a bass should sound in any way different than it's supposed to sound. It should sound like a bass."
As for amplification, Jamerson used an Ampeg B-15--an amp combo with a single 15 inch speaker-- for live gigs in small venues. In larger halls he often used a blue-sparkle padded Kustom amp with two 15-inch speakers. For session work, particularly In Motown's Studio A, he generally recorded his bass direct and would often boost his signal, which he was able to contol from the live room, enough to put the VU meter slightly into the red for a bit of overdrive. Later in his career James utilized the Ampeg amp more frequently, often miking it in the studio and plugging it directly into the P.A. on live gigs.
More than anything, it was Jamerson's unique playing style itself that was the dominant factor in his sound. While a complete analysis of his technique could fill volumes, most bassists agree that James' unique sense of syncopation, his clever use of open strings as passing tones in all keys, and his keen ability to melodically compliment a song's vocal melody with his basslines, were the most recognizable aspects of a Jamerson performance. Once again drawing from his upright background, James' right=hand technique utilized only his index finger (nicknamed "the hook") to attack the strings, and this was also an important factor in his playing style.
In retrospect, James Jamerson himself was the "Motown Sound" in many regards, and in the company’s heyday no records would be made until James came off the road and went back into the studio. A Motown recording wouldn't be considered ready for the masses until James put his Funk Machine stamp on it. Sadly, this legendary Precision bass would eventually become Jamerson's third stolen bass many years later; it disappeared in the final days before Jamerson's untimely death in 1983, and remains missing to this day, with no clue as to its whereabouts. Now that Jaco's "Bass Of Doom" has finally turned up (see BGM issue 40) one can only hope that Jamerson's fabled Funk Machine will find the same fate. If and when it does, you can be sure there will be dancing in the streets.