The Genius of James Jamerson

 By Tim Sykes
A youthful James Jamerson, as he was just starting his musical career

Everyone has a hero that they look up to.  For some, it was a superhero like Superman or Batman.  For others, it’s a hockey or baseball player.  To achieve their greatness, these people seem to rise above the norm and take their accomplishments to greater heights.  My hero was a man you have quite likely never heard of, but I’m ok with that.  His name was James Jamerson, and he played electric bass guitar for Motown Records in Detroit, Michigan throughout the 1960s.  He was a key member of a group of studio musicians who called themselves the “Funk Brothers.”

The man was a genius.  Where most bass players at the time simply played root notes and simple repetitive arrangements, Jamerson wove intricate bass patterns into every song he played on at Motown, transforming each song into an entirely unique work of art.  Any bass player that tries to play his lines note-for-note soon realizes how complex his style actually was.  60 years later, Jamerson’s creative style of bass playing continues to inspire musicians around the world, which perhaps is the true testament to his greatness and ability.  During his days in the Motown studio, the other musicians were given specific chord charts to play, but the song writers would just let Jamerson improvise his parts, trusting his incredible musical abilities.  For years, the Motown record producers were rewarded with hit records based on Jamerson’s bass lines.


It is clear that James Jamerson totally understood everything about the instrument and its capabilities.  As a bass player myself, I have studied his style and his music over the years, and am constantly in awe of his talent.  Attempting to learn one of his “licks,” I find myself trying hard to piece together each complicated nuance and phrase he was able to play.  Each time, I am in total amazement, knowing every note that Jamerson was playing had been made up on the spot as it was being recorded.  Jamerson’s depth of knowledge, his sense of timing, and his natural feel for the music continually leaves me speechless.


As much as I have studied his musical techniques and phrasing, I have also extensively read as much as possible regarding the bass guitar he used.  Initially, this was my attempt to replicate that unique James Jamerson sound using my own Fender bass guitar.  I learned about his use of flatwound strings, the way in which he set up his instrument, and the various amplifiers he used.  Each of these factors, combined with the various techniques of his playing style helped me to finally achieve at least a portion of that unique Jamerson sound that I had been trying to master for decades.


Over the years, there have been many rumours and stories about Jamerson’s bass guitar, which have grown into wide spread misconceptions and folklore.  I too have come to my own conclusions regarding this part of Jamerson’s story.


Jamerson started his career playing jazz on a German manufactured stand-up bass. He purchased a used 1957 Fender Precision bass from his friend Horace “Chili” Ruth in 1960.  When this guitar was stolen, Jamerson bought a brand new 1960 Fender Precision bass.  The guitar was the standard Fender model in the classic “sunburst” color, with a tortuous-colored pickguard and chrome covers over the guitar’s bridge and pickup.   What made this quite ordinary bass guitar special, of course, was the creative genius who played it.


Jamerson’s bass as shown in an  auction listing, 50 years after being stolen.


After experiencing Jamerson’s distinct and funky style of bass playing, his bandmates christened his bass guitar “The Funk Machine”.  Jamerson played this bass on countless recording sessions at Motown Records, and endless sessions in nightclubs.  After he had owned it for about 6 years, this bass was mysteriously stolen.  Heartbroken, Jamerson was forced to replace it with a nearly identical 1966 model Fender Precision bass.  Shortly after buying this replacement, he took a ball point pen and scribed the word “Funk” into the heel of the neck, thinking that nobody would be able to steal it with such a distinct marking.  This guitar was then used by Jamerson throughout the rest of his career.


James Jamerson’s upright bass. This instrument took Jamerson through his early jazz career, and was heard on the earliest  Motown hits before he switched to Fender electric bass guitar.

James Jamerson’s oldest son was James Jamerson Jr., who also became an accomplished bass player with an extensive recording career, playing bass on several hits recorded in studios in Los Angeles.  Jr. had always been intrigued with his famous father’s history, including the instruments he played.  For years, Jr. played his father’s favorite upright bass in recording sessions.  He and hundreds of fans wanted to know what ever happened to James Jamerson’s stolen bass guitar known as The Funk Machine.  Jr. was the expert on the actual history of The Funk Machine, knowing first hand every detail and nuance regarding his dad’s missing bass guitar.  Sadly, Jr. passed away in 2016 from health complications.  Oddly enough, almost a year after Jr. passed, a little known bass player from Detroit appeared out of nowhere with an outrageous proclamation.  According to a hastily prepared press release, he claimed to have been “friends” with James Jamerson during the Motown era of the 1960s.  Apparently, he needed a bass for an upcoming weekend gig and Jamerson offered his spare bass to use.  In the early 1970s, Jamerson never asked for the bass back, so the guitar was never returned.  Jamerson left Detroit and moved to Los Angeles, and the two bass players never saw each other again.  In 2017, a bass guitar advertised as once belonging to the great James Jamerson was announced as suddenly being available through a prominent and reputable auction house.  Overall interest was high, but the bass eventually sold for much less than it probably should have.


The back of Jamerson’s  well-worn  bass  guitar
Let’s have a closer look at this interesting and curious timeline.  A few short months after the death of the only person that could immediately identify this famous guitar, the auction was announced.  An interview with Annie Jamerson reveals that James Jamerson never had a spare bass back then, or at any time during his career.  That fact was confirmed by fellow musicians that played with him in Detroit.  Photographs of the bass guitar at the auction show a well-worn bass that had not been looked after.  The bass shows plenty of wear and age, as would be expected of a well-used instrument of course.  However, several key points still abound.  Details conclude that the bass at auction is indeed the same year and model as Jamerson’s stolen bass.  From the well known documented pictures of Jamerson playing his bass guitar and overlooking the obvious wear and tear on this abused instrument, you can detect hidden clues.  The plastic pickguard on Jamerson’s bass had several distinct chips and cracked pieces that also appear in the exact same places as the auction guitar.   The look of these “tortoiseshell” effect pickguards is distinct, in that every guard is unique and different.  A close look at the early pictures of Jamerson’s bass and the auction bass shows identical features on both pickguards.  Another key fact is that the bass player selling the guitar acknowledges that it had belonged to Jamerson.  The story about how he actually acquired the instrument leaves the reader with a lot of doubt.  Either way, it is my opinion that this definitely is James Jamerson’s famous bass guitar.  Because of the somewhat shady circumstances of why this historic instrument has been in hiding for nearly 50 years, sadly, its place in history has also become tarnished.  Instead of properly being displayed in a place of honour as an unquestionably important part of musical history, James Jamerson’s famous Fender bass is now just another beat up old bass guitar residing in a private collection.
James Jamerson playing his Fender Precision bass guitar at a gig in the mid-1960s


*Pictures from the Tim Sykes collection.

One Reply to “The Genius of James Jamerson”

  1. Karen Johnson says:

    Well written and very respectful article.
    Did, will, Annie Jamerson receive a commission of the sale of her late husband’s property?

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