James Jamerson–A Look At His Gear And Playing Techniques

James Jamerson

Strings used: LaBella Deep Talkin Bass - Model 760-M

There have been a number of giants in the bass world over the years, but one thing that many of them have in common is a deep respect for one of the early figures of modern electric bass: James Jamerson. One of the most recognizable names in the scene, Jamerson’s role in the expansion of the bass’ role in modern music is the stuff of legend. While many flashier and more technical players have come along since, Jamerson’s groundbreaking work has nevertheless earned him a spot in the roster of the instruments true pioneers. Among the players who count Jamerson as an influence are Rick Danko, Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, Jason Newsted, Jaco Pastorius, John Patitucci, John Paul Jones, Mike Watt, Geddy Lee, Victor Wooten, Paul McCartney, and many more.

Jamersons style was a distinct departure from the typical bass role in previous years, which largely relied on the root and fifth notes, and was fairly rhythmically simple. Jamerson built on this foundation and incorporated more melodic lines, at times almost serving a complementary role to the lead vocal. He also tended to play a lot more syncopated parts, and was known to improvise many of his lines. It was these characteristics that informed much of the "Motown Sound".

Before making his mark as an electric bassist, Jamerson played acoustic bass on a number of hits. His primary instrument then was a German double bass purchased when he was still in his teens, which he used to propel such hits as Mary Wells’ "My Guy" and Martha and the Vandellas’ "(Love is Like a) Heat Wave".

It was as an electric bass player that Jamerson would make an even bigger impact, when he used a 1962 Fender Precision Bass to power many of the Motown hits for which he would achieve renown. The bass was actually his second P-Bass, after his first one was stolen. This second bass was called “The Funk Machine”, and featured a striking sunburst finish, a tortoise-shell pickguard, and chrome hardware. Unfortunately, this bass was also later stolen just before Jamerson died in 1983, and it has been missing ever since.

To achieve his characteristic full and mellow tone, Jamerson used La Bella L-760M flatwound strings (.052-.110) exclusively, and it was said that he never changed strings. This along with the already dark sound of the flatwound strings and his installation of a piece of foam under the bridge cover to dampen the strings slightly led to his distinctive heavy, pinched tone. For amplification in the clubs, Jamerson used an Ampeg B-15. In bigger venues, Jamerson plugged into Naugahyde Kustom amps fitted with two 15" speakers. In the studio, Jamerson simply plugged straight into the mixing board. Scroll to the bottom of this page to hear a track.

A distinctive Jamerson trait that led to his unique sound was his use of only his index finger to pluck the bass strings. This was pretty much how he played the acoustic bass as well, and the unusual style led to his index finger being dubbed "The Hook".

For a GREAT read with tons of biographical information on Jamerson, quotes, photos, and dozens of accurate transcriptions and recorded tribute performances from top players from around the world, I strongly recommend this book. I have practiced with it for years and have read it more than once.


Listen to this classic Jackson 5 track with Jamerson - one of the great basslines and performances of all time