Interview for musicradar • Tuesday, November 1, 1994

Paul McCartney on his favourite basses, key lines and influential players

Interview of Paul McCartney
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Tony Bacon
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Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, certainly the Beatles’ best-known album, and possibly the most regularly-referenced album of the entire 60s rock canon, turned 50 this year. We celebrate the work of Sir Paul McCartney, the most famous electric bass player of them all, with a classic Macca interview by the great Tony Bacon.

I met Paul McCartney for this interview in November 1994 at his studio in East Sussex. It was part of my research for the first edition of The Bass Book, and McCartney could not have been more generous, entertaining, and candid in the few hours we spent together. I started by asking about my favourite period of his bass work with the Beatles, during the making of Sgt Pepper.

When you were recording Sgt Pepper, you created some great independent lines for the bass.

“Yeah, that was really when I got into that. That was probably what ended up being my strongest thing on bass, the independent melodies. On Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, you could easily have had [he sings a root-note version through the first few chords]. It would have been like Louie Louie or something. Whereas I was going [sings the Lucy bass-line], just running through that. It’s only really a way of getting from C to F, or whatever, but you get there in an interesting way. That became my thing, doing that.”

In the early days, the bass was just something you had to put in the song, but now you seemed to be thinking about being a bass player in your own right.

“From the word go, once I got over the fact that I was lumbered with the bass [laughs], I did get quite proud to be a bass player, quite proud of the idea. Once you realised the control you had over the band, you were in control. They can’t go anywhere, man. Ha! Power!

“I then started to identify with other bass players, to talk bass with the guys in the band. In fact, when we met Elvis, he was trying to learn bass, so I was like, ‘You’re trying to learn bass, are you … son? Sit down, let me show you a few things’. So I was very proud of being the bass player. But as it went on and I got into that melodic thing, that was probably the peak of my interest.”

You were responsible for many people thinking of the bass as a much more acceptable instrument, compared to when you were “lumbered” with it back in the early days of the band, when you took over from Stu Sutcliffe.

“Yeah, it became a bit more skilful. I wouldn’t personally credit myself, but thanks for that. But I think James Jamerson, him and me, I’d share the credit there. I was nicking a lot off him. That was the thing, though, it did become a lot more of a funky instrument: it was becoming almost like a drum, the rhythmic possibilities. It was very exciting, that, and it also gave me something to keep me interested.

“The danger with bass is that everybody else has got the interesting jobs and you’re just the last guy to get a part, and literally you get the root notes, two in a bar. But actually… now, I quite like that, I like the simplicity. Sort of country and western bass playing.”

It’s like you have to learn the complicated stuff in order to…

“To come back, that’s right, to come back to the nice simple stuff. But as I say, I became very proud to be the bass player in the Beatles. The other thing for me that was hard was because some of these parts were independent melodic parts, it became much more difficult to sing, it was like doing this [pats his head and rubs his stomach].

“So I had to put a little special effort into that, which made it very interesting. If you were singing ‘She was just 17…’ and going [sings energetic bass-line], well… that became the skill, I could just learn [sings I Saw Her Standing There bass-line], nicked from Chuck Berry as I’m sure you know, I’m Talking About You. I’ve given him credit, though.”

In Wings, it rarely seemed to be at the same creative level.

“I never quite had the interest that I had during that sort of dream period around Sgt Pepper, and Rubber Soul, when I was doing something. See, with Wings, I was now the band leader, the business manager, the this, the that… we didn’t have Apple, we didn’t have [manager Brian] Epstein, we didn’t have anything. It was me doing it all. That was the biggest headache. That’s difficult.

“In the Beatles, I’d been free of all of that – we had a manager, we had three other great guys. I could concentrate everything on writing the song, singing harmony with John [Lennon], or playing the bass, pretty much my role, or maybe playing a bit of piano or guitar or something.

“Other than that, I really didn’t have much to do, so you could put all your energy into that. And I think after that, I sidelined the role of bass, a bit, in favour of the role of frontman. It was not really my favourite thing to do, but there was really nothing else to do. The only alternative was to give up music, that I saw.”

Your first basses in the Beatles were the famous Höfners. How did you come to play those?

“I found a nice little shop in the centre of Hamburg, near a big department store called Karstadt. And I saw this bass in the window, this violin-shaped Höfner. It was a good price, because my dad had always said I shouldn’t do the never-never [buy on credit], but we were earning reasonable money. I liked the Höfner’s lightness, too. So I bought it, and I think it was only about 30 quid.

“I’ve still got one which is from the Beatles days, one I actually use now on tour, and I’ve had some technical work done on that. Last year, Mandolin Brothers in New York did some serious good work, actually put it in tune for the first time in its life. Usually the E could be in tune but the third fret G was always a little bit sharp – as soon as you’d gone to the third fret it was a little bit sharp. I was using it on a big tour, so it was a bit embarrassing. I hadn’t used it for a long time for that reason, but I got it all sorted.”

Were you listening to other bass players much? You already mentioned James Jamerson.

“Funnily enough, I’d always liked bass. My dad was a musician, and I remember he would give me little sort of lessons, not actual sit-down lessons, but he’d just say something… when there was something on the radio he’d say, ‘Hear that down low? That’s the bass’. I remember him actually pointing out what a bass was, and he’d do little lessons in harmony.

“So when I came to the Beatles, I had a little bit of musical knowledge through him – very amateur. And yes, then I started listening to other bass players, mainly as time went on. Motown, James Jamerson became just my hero, really. I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently. Him and Brian Wilson were my two biggest influences.

“James Jamerson just because he was so good and melodic, and Brian because he went to very unusual places. If you were playing in C he might stay on the G a lot, just to hold it all back, and again, I started to realise the power you had within the band, not actually vengeful power, just that even though the whole band is going in A you could go in E, and they’d go ‘Let us off the hook!’ You’re actually in control then, an amazing thing.

“So I sussed that and got particularly interested in playing the bass. Then I took it beyond that. I thought ‘If you can do that, what else can you do?’ You might even be able to play notes that aren’t in the chord.

“I just started to experiment: what could you do? Well, maybe you can use different notes. Sevenths instead of the regular notes, or maybe even a little tune through the chords that doesn’t exist anywhere else. That idea of an independent melody.”

On some Beatles footage you look like you’re playing with a plectrum; elsewhere, as though you’re playing with your thumb.

“I did a bit of both. Mainly, if it was a sort of important gig, I’d nearly always resort to a pick because I feel safer that way. And with recording it helps. The engineers used to like to hear the pick, because then they get the treble end out as well as the bass, and they could do the mix, get it to kick right out. I used to do a bit of both. I was never trained in any styles, so I just picked it up.”

How did you get your Rickenbacker bass?

“I got it in America. Now we were getting quite famous – obviously once we got to America we were quite famous – and Mr Rickenbacker said ‘Paul, we have a bass’. Oh, great! Freebie! Thank you very much.

“I became fond of that instrument and then I used to use either that or the Höfner, just to vary it a little bit, and round about the time of Sgt Pepper I was definitely using the Rickenbacker quite a lot. It was a slightly different style, and it stayed in tune better, that was the great thing.”

I think you started using the Rickenbacker around the time of Rubber Soul in 1965, and Michelle always struck me as a good melodic line, quite thought out.

“It actually was thought up on the spot. Yeah! Because you didn’t have much time. You had to think on your feet, that was the thing. I would never have played Michelle on bass until I had to record the bass-line. Bass isn’t an instrument you sit around and sing to – I don’t, anyway. But Michelle, I remember that line against the descending chords, that was like, oh, a great moment in my life.

“It’s quite a well-known trick to do that, I’m sure jazz players have done that against that descending thing. But wherever I got it from, the back of my brain somewhere said: do that, that’ll be nice, it just lays it out a bit more. Just a bit cleverer for the arrangement, it’ll sound good on those descending chords.”

How long did the Rickenbacker have the psychedelic paint job?

“That was around the time of Magical Mystery Tour, I got out the old aerosols. Because we were all doing that: George did his guitar, we did the cars. So if you did the cars, you might as well do your guitars.

“It looked great, and it was just because we were tripping, that’s what it was, man. Look at your guitar and you’d trip even more. I sort of grew out of that, like most people did.”

I believe you’ve been looking back at your time in the Beatles for a TV project called the Anthology [first broadcast in 1995, the year after this interview]. What’s that been like?

“It’s very good. Funniest thing is that we don’t always agree on the memories, because it’s 30 years ago. So it’s hilarious… on camera. There’s one bit, Ringo’s telling a story, and he says, ‘At that point George had a sore throat…’ Camera pans to George, George says, ‘I thought it was Paul’, and the camera pans to me, and I say, ‘Well I know it was John.’

“And I’ve worked it out since, I say this to people: if Ringo thought it was George, it wasn’t Ringo; if George thought it was me, it wasn’t George; I thought it was John, so it wasn’t me. It must have been John, he was the only one left! But this is funny, for the definitive bloody thing on the Beatles. It’s great, you’ve just got to laugh. It’s so human, so real. We forget… who cares? We did some great stuff. Exact analysis was never our bag. And it obviously still isn’t!”

From :

Tony Bacon: I’d like to talk about you as a bass player, really, and go back as far as we can. I apologise in advance for going back…

Paul McCartney: No, I’m happy to go back. People think oh, you’ve had so many questions about The Beatles you must be fed up. I love it. It was a great period of my life. I don’t mind, I’m proud of it. I think what it was, near the break-up of the Beatles we didn’t want to hear about Beatles because it was painful. Now there’s enough time gone. But my bass playing days go back to when Stuart was the bass player with his big Hofner.

Tony Bacon: Because you started out as a guitar player.

Paul McCartney: Yeah, I did. We all started together when we were kind of kids, early teens, I would have been about 15 or something. Me Dad bought me a trumpet for one my birthdays, because a trumpet was kind of a heroic instrument at that time, ‘The Man With The Golden Arm’ and all that. And I liked it, and he’d been a trumpet player so he showed me a bit of trumpet. But I realised I couldn’t sing with the trumpet, and I wanted to sing as well, so I asked him if he wouldn’t mind if I traded it in for a guitar. He said fine, he was very understanding, an amateur musician himself, he had a little band called Jim Mac’s Band in the 1920s. So I went down and got a Zenith guitar which I’ve still got around somewhere, quite nice, and I learned on that.

Tony Bacon: Was being left-handed a problem straight away?

Paul McCartney: I realised when I got it home that it was right-handed and I was left-handed, and I didn’t know what you did about that, there were no rule books. Nobody talked about being left-handed. So I tried it this way, and I couldn’t get any rhythm because it was all the wrong hand doing it. And then I saw a picture of Slim Whitman in NME or Melody Maker, one of the early musical papers, it was a little ad for Slim Whitman, and I just noticed… hang on, he’s got the guitar on the wrong way round, oh this is OK. I found out he was left-handed, so I thought that’s good, you can have it the other way round then. Then I changed the strings round. I never could change the nut, I was not a tech, so I would just change the strings round. The sixth string always had a fat hole, so the first string would have to go into it, and we’d chop a little bit of a match off, stick that in there, and that would kind of lift the nut enough, and then you had to hollow out a bit of the nut to get the bass string in because that kept slipping out. So you did your own technical work, ha ha. High precision… a very do-it-yourself affair. But it eventually worked, and it would hold all the strings, that was the main thing, because if you clouted it it would just come off.

Tony Bacon: You met John and George around this time, didn’t you?

Paul McCartney: George used to get on the bus. I was and still am one and a half years older than George, I’ve managed to keep ahead of him. So he was the younger guy getting on the bus one stop after my stop. Cos we were round about the same age… it was probably like his haircut or something that made me think well, he’s a bit groovy, he had what we used to call a bit of a Tony Curtis, greased back, you know? So I’d think well he’s probably all right to talk to. We got chatting on the bus and he had an interest in guitars like I did, and music. Turned out he was going to try to make one, going to make a little solidbody Hawaiian, which was like a good place to start. You didn’t have to get into the hollow body or anything, which was very difficult. And he did that, and we kind of hung out and became good friends. He did that Hawaiian thing and it wasn’t bad, real high action of course.

Tony Bacon: And John?

Paul McCartney: Meanwhile I’d met John through another friend of mine, and he’d asked me to join The Quarrymen, which was the very first group. So I did that, and I kind of went in first of all as lead guitarist really, because I wasn’t bad on guitar. And when I wasn’t on stage I was even better. But when I got up on stage at the very first gig I totally blew it, I had never experienced these things called nerves before.

Tony Bacon: Was this still with the Zenith?

Paul McCartney: This was still with the Zenith, yeah, might have got a pickup on it by then. I did, I got a little pickup and a little wire, bought the pickup separately, tried to gash it on there. But I was playing ‘Guitar Boogie’ (sings riff) and I knew it fine off-stage, like I say, but on-stage my fingers all went very stiff and then found themselves underneath the strings instead of on top of them. So I vowed that night that that was the end of my career as the lead guitar player, I just thought I’ll lean back. So me and John kind of both did that around that same time, both became rhythm guitarists. And I knew George, as I said, and we were kind of looking for a lead guitarist, so I got George in. So that meant there were three of us on guitar at that time, on and off, the nucleus of us was just three acoustic guitars. So we did a few auditions like that, sometimes John wouldn’t even have his guitar. Because he had one of those Guaranteed Not To Split guitars that were advertised in the back of the Daily Mirror. That was his main claim to fame. So maybe it had split. But we did a few auditions where just me and George played guitars and John just stood in the middle. And then he nicked a guitar at that audition so he had a guitar again. But it was mainly three guitars.

Tony Bacon: What about your first electric guitar?

Paul McCartney: Then we got to Hamburg and I bought a Rosetti [Solid Seven model]. It was a terrible guitar. It was really just a good looking piece of wood, it had a nice colour or something, some paint job, but it was a disastrous guitar, cheap. I bought that in Liverpool and took it out to Hamburg. My dad had a big thing against hire purchase, on the never-never, he’d lost money that way, and so he was very keen that you shouldn’t do that, so I had to buy something really cheap to persuade him that I could do it. That fell apart when I got to Hamburg, the Rosetti, the sweat and the damp and the getting knocked around, falling over and stuff.

Tony Bacon: Can you remember buying it?

Paul McCartney: Yes, in Hessy’s [music store in Liverpool]. It seemed nice at the time, but obviously as I say it didn’t perform very well, and eventually half the gigs… because you couldn’t always get things, we were playing in a little club and there wasn’t immediately a music shop, you had to go into town of Hamburg to get strings, new equipment. We’d always go into Steinways, which is where John found first of all a Club 40, him and George got Club 40s, which was one step up from where we’d been, and then John found a Rickenbacker, which was like boom! We’re there. Because you couldn’t really get Rickenbackers in England. It was like the clothes thing in Hamburg, there were different clothes, so you’d buy up a few little outfits, come back to England and it’d be like, bloody hell where d’you get that? Oh, I’ve been abroad. We had some natty jackets with suede collars, and we came back with some bits of equipment. I didn’t really, until my guitar bust. I then turned to the piano.

Last updated on August 30, 2020


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