The Birth of the Bassline
By Phil O'Keefe |
Getting to the bottom of the Beatles bass gear
By Phil O'Keefe
The electric bass was still a young instrument when the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show for the first time in February of 1964, and it had not really developed any major stars or notable players - at least not ones that enjoyed widespread notoriety among the general public at the time. A young left-handed bassist with a distinctive-looking instrument changed all that with a single television appearance. There are not many people who are as closely associated with an instrument as Paul McCartney is with the "violin" or "Beatle bass." Paul actually had two Hofner basses. He purchased the first one, a 1961 Hofner 500/1, in Hamburg Germany while the Beatles were performing there. He selected the model because unlike American-built instruments, it was readily available in Germany at that time, and also because he liked the symmetrical design and felt it would look good as a left-handed instrument.
Paul's second Hofner 500/1 bass was a 1963 model - the primary differences between the two being different Hofner logos on their headstocks, and the location of the pickups. The earlier Violin Bass had the second pickup located close to the neck pickup and further away from the bridge than the 1963 version. The second Hofner bass, which McCartney purchased as a backup to the first in 1963, served as his primary bass for the duration of the band's career, and can be seen in countless photos and films, and heard on the majority of Beatles recordings. It is also the instrument Paul plays on the first Ed Sullivan Show appearance. His first 500/1, with the bridge pickup positioned almost like a middle pickup, and closer to the neck pickup than to the bridge, was also there as a backup, and can also be seen in use in the movie Let It Be.
Another very significant bass was the Rickenbacker 4001S. This was given to McCartney by Rickenbacker. They had first attempted to give him one in 1964, but McCartney had declined it due to it being a right-handed instrument. Rickenbacker presented him with a left-handed Fireglo (red sunburst) 4001S model in August of 1965. Photos from the Rubber Soul sessions suggest it may have been used for some of the bass parts on that album, but there is no doubt that this bass is responsible for the distinctive sound heard on Paperback Writer and Rain, although it is not shown in any of the promotional films for either song. Although supplemented with the Hofner 500/1 on Let It Be and a Fender Jazz Bass on The Beatles (aka the White Album), the Rickenbacker 4001S would see considerable use for the remainder of Paul's association with The Beatles, and was also used extensively with his next band, Wings. Currently Rickenbacker is not making a 4001S model, but they still make the very similar Rickenbacker 4003 bass.
Fender's Jazz Bass was also used on various Beatles recording dates. Photos from the White Album sessions show McCartney holding a left-handed Fender Jazz Bass. He also may have used it on some Abbey Road recording sessions. A right-handed Jazz Bass can also be seen in some late-60s era Beatles session photos. Both of these basses were sunburst models with block inlays on their rosewood fretboards. The Fender Jazz Bass remains a popular model that is still in production in various forms today.
George Harrison is shown playing a Burns Nu-Sonic bass on some of the photos from the Paperback Writer sessions, although the bass parts on the final recording were performed by Paul. John Lennon and George Harrison occasionally used a sunburst Fender Bass VI for bass parts on the rare songs where Paul McCartney was unavailable or was otherwise occupied playing guitar and / or keyboards on the song. Songs that John played bass on include The Long And Winding Road, Helter Skelter, Let It Be, and Back In The U.S.S.R., while songs featuring George on bass include Hey Jude, Birthday, Golden Slumbers, and Carry That Weight. The Bass VI has six strings instead of four, and is tuned an octave lower than standard guitar. Its close string spacing and 30" scale length makes it an easy bass for many guitarists to transition to. While long discontinued and relatively rare, Fender recently released a slightly modified Bass VI as part of their Pawnshop series. Squier has also recently released a new Bass VI variant for those on a tighter budget.
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.