Learn to Play: James Jamerson-Style 16th Note Grooves

James Jamerson was one of the first true pioneers on the electric bass. He had a knack for inventive rhythms and melodic ideas, and a true transcription of any recording of his is a masterclass in electric bass technique.

We could spend our whole lives studying his work, but today I wanted to peer a little closer at one aspect of his style and share an exercise that will teach you how to incorporate his brilliant 16th note grooves into your own playing.

As the great Bootsy Collins once said, "Hit the one." A lot of the magic of a good groove comes from the gravity of the downbeat. So each of these examples will start from there, and we'll preserve the integrity of that downbeat throughout. But that can't be all of it, so let's take a look at how to familiarize and internalize the pulse and feel of some of the other subdivisions that make up the space between the downbeats.

This is a simple practice exercise I designed to help us get familiar with the notes in the space between the one. It was loosely inspired by a Barry Harris masterclass I saw where he had students play off of a bebop scale and slowly remove one note at a time to feel the different places to start any lick. The song that inspired this was Jamerson's playing on Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her." Some of the later examples are directly lifted from that recording.

The premise is simple:

  • Always hit the root note on the first beat of each measure.
  • Lead into the next measure, adding one subdivision before the downbeat at a time—first with the eighth notes, then the 16th notes.

In Ex. 1, we are establishing the basic changes (F-Bb) with no lead-in. In Ex. 2, we are adding the first eighth note before the downbeat, the "and" of 4. In Ex. 3, we add the "and" of 3, and then, in Ex. 4 we add the "and" of 2.

Be sure to practice each of these slowly at first and develop a familiarity with the way each added beat feels. This is the foundation of the entire exercise. Beginning with Ex., 5 we are going to start adding 16th notes in between the beats we've already played.

As an important side-note: If you aren't comfortable with 16th notes please take some time before going into these later examples to practice vocalizing them. Just repeat the "one-e-and-uh, 2-e-and-uh" phrase to yourself until they feel consistent in length. Go slowly with each of the 16th note examples as well. There's no need to rush—the importance is in internalizing the groove. Getting it tight at a slower tempo can do much more for your feel than playing it fast. The video is here to help you feel and hear each example, so pause and rewind as needed.

The one thing I must stress above all else is that this is just a guide. I encourage anyone working through this exercise to come up with your own patterns and phrases, perhaps over some different changes or across a different range of the bass. The goal is to learn from some of the magic of James Jamerson and incorporate it into a style all your own.

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