That Jamerson Sound

“Bass players call from all over, wanting to know what type of equipment I use, what type of bass, what kind of strings – things like that. I’ll tell them, but that’s not what’s important; it’s the feel. The strings don’t make the sound, it’s the feel. It’s all in here, in the heart.” — James Jamerson1

Jamerson’s attribution of “feel” as a source of his sound may seem indefinite. In the context of music, the word itself is difficult to explain or understand beyond the physical concepts of touch and sensation. As touch, feel can be understood through technique or the act of making sound (i.e. the way Jamerson played or physically interacted with the bass). As sensation, feel can be understood through the way his electric bass felt to play (i.e. the gear, strings, setup, etc.). Although I believe these to be important factors, they seem to miss the essence of Jamerson’s point here. It’s not the strings. It’s not the equipment. Jamerson clearly attributes the source of his feel as coming from “in the heart.” It’s emotional. “The strings don’t make the sound” as he says, “it’s the feel” or decision of the player to choose if, when, and how they do. That decision, as he suggests, is ultimately informed by the “heart.” Playing with feel in this sense is instinctive or what some might describe as playing from the soul – a kind of musical carpe momentum where belief or conviction drive one’s impulse to seize any moment that might deepen a groove.

As described by Jamerson’s son, the late James Jamerson Jr., the most important lesson he learned from his father was to remember while playing “if I don’t feel it, don’t play it.”2 Thus, if you DO feel it, DO play it. But what is IT? And more to the point, what is it that informs these felt decisions in Jamerson’s playing and how does his approach to “feeling it” manifest into a distinctive sound?

The articles that will be posted here are an attempt to provide some answers to these questions. The goal is to deepen our understanding of Jamerson’s sound as focused through the lens of feel. Although Jamerson discredits the significance of the physical properties of his setup, I believe all facets of feel are interconnected. The way his instrument behaved and his concept of playing as a Jazz upright bassist influence how he played and ultimately what he played.

The content here is by no means a complete study. The purpose of these articles are intended to initiate a deeper understanding of Jamerson’s sound. By defining his feel and how it operates throughout his work, these writings hope to initiate a meaningful and ongoing analytical discussion to help us better understand and grow through his music.

1 Dan Forte, “James Jamerson,” in Bass Heroes: Styles, Stories and Secrets of 30 Great Bass Players, ed. Tom Mulhern, (San Francisco: GPI Books, 1993), 155.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown, directed by Paul Justman (Santa Monica, CA: Artisan Entertainment, 2002).


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