The Left Hand

Dan Forte: “What advice would you give to beginners?”
James Jamerson: “Well, I think the first thing you should do is play upright bass. That would strengthen everything — your wrist, the fingers, the joints of your fingers.”

James Jamerson began his career as an upright bassist and from the Dan Forte interview excerpt above it is pretty clear that he was a proponent of learning that craft early in one’s training. Jamerson’s technical approach to the electric bass is a direct result of his background as a double bassist. This can NOT be overstated. We see this very clearly in his left-hand technique where the fingering patterns follow those traditionally used on the upright bass with the index, middle, and pinky fingers covering a three-fret span. Bassist Ralph Armstrong points out that Jamerson’s ring finger is also used, faithful to upright fingering, on top of the pinky “to help hold down a note, or sometimes just squeezing the two together.”1 The image below illustrates Jamerson using this fingering pattern. His index finger on fret one, his middle on fret two, and his pinky squeezed together with the ring finger on fret three.2

James_Jamerson_Full_LH_RH TechniqueJames-Jamerson_LH_Technique_Ring

It is understood that Jamerson preferred to play in the lower positions of the instrument, as he is doing in the picture above. With the inclusion of open strings, the first and second fret hand positions offer a wide chromatic palette to work from while requiring minimal left-hand shifting movement. For example, on the E-string, the F on fret one is fingered by the index (i), the F# on fret two with the middle (m), and G on fret three with the pinky (p). This is shown below as fingering position X.

JJ_Tech_1st_2nd_Fret_Hand_Positions

As this pattern is moved vertically up the neck on the A, D, and G string every chromatic pitch from E1 to A#2 can be played from this position with the exception of G#1, C#2, and F#2.  These remaining chromatic pitches are achieved when the fingering position is shifted up one fret, as shown by fingering position Y. In this position the pinky grabs the missing pitches G#1, C#2, and F#while also adding B2 to the chromatic collection. The advantage here is no other two adjacent fret positions, when paired with open strings, create as complete and wide a chromatic range. The distance between notes is much greater on the upright bass so these first and second positions help maximize the availability of the instrument’s low register while minimizing the shifting motion needed to cover the necks vast real estate. Furthermore, the lowest fret positions provide the greatest sustain and bottom-end support.

For the most part this three-fret fingering pattern is strictly adhered to even as Jamerson moves into the upper positions of the neck where frets progressively get closer together. Take a moment to watch the opening riff in the video below.

For reference, here is a transcription of this intro riff.

Power of Love LH Finger Pattern

We can see from the still image below that Jamerson is using this same three-fret fingering pattern over the high E, F, and F# on frets 9, 10, and 11 of the G-String.

Jamerson_Left_Hand_Fret_11

This position is an example of Jamerson’s upright playing sensibilities in action. Jazz bassists will often use this position to orient themselves in the upper register of the instrument and it is also the last position before the octave point of the string where a double bassist would begin shifting into thumb position. This position is magical as the pinky at fret 11 can create beautiful rich 10ths when played with the open string directly below it, which Jamerson takes advantage of here. He walks up chromatically on the G-string from E to F# with finger four on fret 11 to create a 10th with the open D string below it as a double stop. The open D and fretted F# outline the root and third of a D chord. The example below shows how this three-fret pattern can be adapted to the D and A string as well.

JJ_Blog_10ths_Example

On the D string an A chord is outlined with the root on the open A and the third (or tenth) on C# at fret 11. Similarly on the A string, an E chord is outlined (root on open E and third on G# at fret 11).

This three-fret fingering pattern inherently creates situations where shifting is frequently necessary. To address this, jazz bassists will often use open strings to allow smooth left-hand motion between positions. Lets use the Jackson 5’s “Who’s Lovin’ You” as an example. Jamerson is hardcore groovin’ in the low register at the opening of this track. Roughly thirty seconds in he does this:

The Left Hand - J5 tenths

Beginning in first position Jamerson simultaneously approaches the D7 chord through a chromatic descent from E to the open D and through a pedal on B that steps down to A that functions as a fifth motion approach tone to the open D. The use of the open D string is strategic as it allows Jamerson to sustain the root of the chord while he shifts way up to E on fret 9 which also happens to be the ninth of the D chord. Using a familiar pattern he ascends chromatically on the G string to the 3rd of the D7 chord from E to F#. Like the previous example, the F# here creates a rich 10th sonority with the open D string.

At this point Jamerson begins working his way back down, again, through open strings. He oscillates between the open A (which now functions as the fifth of the D7 chord, but also as the 6th of the approaching C7 chord) and the open D (which simultaneously functions as the root of D7 and as the 2nd of the approaching C7). While playing these open strings Jamerson likely shifts back to the 7th fret position so he can grab C on the E string with his middle finger (or finger 2) on fret 8. From here he is perfectly positioned to  walk up chromatically on the G string from the high D on fret 7 to E (the third or tenth of the C7 chord) on fret 9. Essentially Jamerson is able to use the same R, 2, b3, 3 (or R, 9, b10, 10) pattern he played over D7, but this time transposed to C and without an open string on the root.

The example below shows this pattern where the root is played by finger 2 on the E string and the chromatic assent to the major 3rd or tenth above the root is played on the G string — all within the same position.

The Left Hand - Fretted 10ths

There are many other three-fret patterns that Jamerson uses beyond the R, 2, b3, 3 structure. For now just know that Jamerson’s lines are primarily built on three-fret fingering patterns often paired with a heavy dose of open strings that facilitate shifting between fret positions. These other left-hand patterns will come to surface as we dive deeper into the upright bass aesthetic of Jamerson’s style in the next discussion: his right hand technique.


1 Chris Jisi, “The James Jamerson Style,” Bass Player, December 2002, 47.
To clarify: by “ring finger” we mean finger three, not finger four which is pictured wearing the actual ring. Jamerson has likely moved his wedding band over to his pinky — commonly done to avoid clicking against the neck.


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