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Learn to Play Motown Bass Guitar Like James Jamerson

James Jamerson is one of the most influential bass guitar players in modern history and also the originator of the Motown sound. R&B, funk, pop, jazz, and even rock bass players have taken notes from his playing.

TrueFire’s Andrew Ford continues in this tradition, teaching students how to play like Jamerson in his new course, Motown Bass Survival Guide.

He’ll go through the techniques necessary to get the tone and feel of the Motown sound, utilizing techniques like embellished passing tones, muted non-diatonic ghost notes, root five movements, major pentatonics, and “dropping the biscuit”. Then, play through eight performance studies that will put these techniques into your bass playing. Let’s get our groove on:

Embellished Passing Tone

Download the tab and notation for this bass lesson on TrueFire.

Jamerson often demonstrated how to use passing tones even if there were none as part of the original chord progression. In these examples, I use two bar phrases, first over one bar of D and one bar of Bm. Then, I use a two bar phrase over a bar of Dm and a bar of Bb.

I’ll first show you a sample bass line with no passing tones, then I introduce a passing tone, and lastly, I “embellish” that passing tone. These embellishment notes are not supposed to be heard as much as felt. They are meant to be more rhythmic than melodic, more about the rhythmic placement than the melodic content although they can be quite melodic. I use a C# passing tone in the D to Bm progression since the C# is still part of the D major scale. Over the Dm to Bb progression you notice I use a C because it works better with the D minor tonality.

Dropping the Biscuit

Download the tab, notation, and jam track for this bass lesson on TrueFire.

A very impactful Jamerson signature technique was walking down or up to the major 3rd after beat one. This major 3rd can occur on a down beat or upbeat, but usually stays there for a second for emphasis. It sometimes serves as a pause between the question and answer parts of a phrase. Keyboard master Greg Mathieson told me there was a term Chuck Rainey used for these types of bass fills: “dropping the biscuit”, like you have a hot biscuit in your hands that you fumble but finally catch it.

Dropping down to the major 3rd can happen on a syncopated beat or on a down beat. I have 3 examples of the hundreds of ways to use this approach. The first one drops down on the and of beat 1. The second on the and of beat 2. The third example is on beat 2, the downbeat.

Hand in Hand – Overview

In this performance study, I demonstrate the “dropping the biscuit” concept, it is in the key of F.

Hand in Hand – Performance

Download the tab, notation, and jam track for this bass lesson on TrueFire.

This one is based on another Stevie Wonder classic, “I Was Made to Love Her”. We have an active line that changes directions horizontally very quickly and demonstrates our dropping the biscuit technique. We drop it in bar 1 descending down to that major 3rd, A, on the last 16th note of beat 2. Of course, we need those in between notes before we get to the A to create the dropped effect.

Hand in Hand – Breakdown

This one is based on another Stevie Wonder classic, “I Was Made to Love Her”. We have an active line that changes directions horizontally very quickly and demonstrates our dropping the biscuit technique. We drop it in bar 1 descending down to that major 3rd, A, on the last 16th note of beat 2. Of course, we need those in between notes before we get to the A to create the dropped effect.

Standing in the Dark – Overview

In this performance study, we take a look at Jamerson signature use of root fifth movement. This four bar groove is based on The Four Tops’ song “Standing in the Shadows of Love” and is in Bb minor.

Standing in the Dark – Performance

Download the tab, notation, and jam track for this bass lesson on TrueFire.

A lot of classic root-fifth movement throughout this example, starting in the first bar where we pivot between Bb and the F below. In bar two also we have an Ab to Eb movement. That continues in bar 3 with the Gb to Db rhythms and lastly in the 4th bar we have an F to C pivot surrounded by a few other notes, rhythms, and ghost notes.


If you’re still itching for more bass grooves taken from the Motown playbook, then make sure to get the full course on TrueFire.

There’s even more techniques and performance studies to help you “survive” when playing like James Jamerson. Check it out now!