James Jamerson: 11 iconic basslines

Never heard of James Jamerson? 

You probably have, even if you don't know his actual name. A true session giant, Jamerson has played on over 30 number one records, laid down stone cold grooves for the biggest artists Motown, soul and funk could throw at him, and has influenced scores of bass players from all genres of music.

Bass lesson

(Image credit: Sipa Press/REX/Shutterstock)

How to play bass like James Jamerson 

From Les Claypool and Victor Wooten to Pino Palladino and Rob Trujillo, they all dig James Lee Jamerson.17 years after his death in 1983, Jamerson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.

There are scores of bassists today who make a living out of teaching others how to play like him, proving that his technique and tone are as influential now as they were back then.As the following lines will testify, it's easy to see why he's held up as one of the greatest bass players of all time.

1. Darling Dear - Jackson 5

This bassline is jammed full of Jamerson's signature tricks and techniques. Many hail Bernadette (Four Tops) as his best work, but if you want a crash course in his inventive playing style, Darling Dear is it.

2. Ain't No Mountain High Enough - Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell

Jamerson's playing often mirrors other instruments within the song, and on this one it's most notably the vocals. Note the rhythmic variations between sections, which Jamerson uses to change the feel.

3. Bernadette - Four Tops

Jamerson's greatest bassline? Some believe so, while others tip their hat to What's Going On (Marvin Gaye). Either way, his playing becomes just as much a focal point as the vocals on this Motown staple.

Hear the bassline in isolation...

4. What's Going On - Marvin Gaye

With a main groove over an Emaj7 chord in the intro, Jamerson sets the tone for Marvin Gaye's socio-commentary: soulful, and with bags of feel.

The album was also the first time Jamerson was credited by name for his work on the sleeve notes of a major Motown release that he played on, as "the incomparable James Jamerson".

For a more in-depth listen, check out the isolated bass track...

And here's rare footage of the man himself performing it…

5. For Once In My Life - Stevie Wonder

Released in 1968, For Once In My Life marked Stevie Wonder's move into more overtly pop territory. Jamerson makes use of open strings to add a sense of fluidity and flow to position shifts and jumps.

A more concentrated focus on the bassline, complete with funky graphics...

6. Standing In The Shadows Of Love - Four Tops

Playing with a sense of urgency to match the lyrical vibe, Jamerson uses open strings to shift from one position to the next. To combat string crossings, he uses the rake technique - a basic right hand movement where you 'rake' your finger across the strings either backwards or forwards.

The bassline in isolation...

7. Fever In The Funk House - James Jamerson and The Funk Brothers

Jamerson truly rips up the rule book and throws it out the window on this sizzlin' slice of super funk. It's also one of the few tracks (in comparison to how many he actually played on) where he was officially credited for his bass playing.

8. Love Child - Diana Ross and The Supremes

A pop number one in the fall of 1968, Motown founder Berry Gordy recruited four staff songwriters including R Dean Taylor to come up this hit for Diana Ross and The Supremes. Jamerson with the legendary Funk Brothers created a solid foundation for Diana and co to build upon, just like they did on other choice Supremes tracks.

9. It's The Same Old Song - Four Tops

This perky line is one of the easiest ways in for Jamerson beginners. It's also a whole heap of fun to play and sing along to.

10. Going To A Go Go - The Miracles

Recorded in 1965 for Motown's bustling Tamla label, here Jamerson makes the bass swing as much as the sax.

11. Home Cookin' - Jr Walker & The All Stars

The title track from Jr Walker's celebrated 1969 album, Jamerson's line manages to be both red hot and laid back. 

A genius player, bass guitar owes him a debt.