Bass Players to Know: Bill Wyman
While the quote “It’s Only Rock and Roll But I Like It” has become a bit trite, there’s no denying the fact that it’s true. It requires a certain amount of raw talent, part-driven playing, and soulful swagger to play in one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time. As an integral member of the Rolling Stones and the bass player on the hits we all love, Bill Wyman is a bass player to know.
So Who Is Bill Wyman?
On December 7th, 1962, Bill Wyman managed to find himself in an interesting musical scenario: he showed up to play with a few other lads in London, hit it off, and began a 31-year stint with the Rolling Stones. Hailing from Lewisham, Wyman joined the Stones after being introduced by the then-drummer, Tony Chapman. Shortly after Wyman became part of the band, Charlie Watts took the place of Chapman and the Stones as we know them began writing, recording, and performing their unique blend of blues, R&B, and rock’n’roll. In addition to playing on the Stones’ classic albums, Wyman concentrated on solo projects from the mid 1970’s onward, including a self titled record, Monkey Grip and A Stone Alone.
After three decades with the band, Wyman decided to leave the group in 1993 to pursue other projects, including photography, writing, and new musical endeavors. He formed the group “Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings” in 1996 and continues to write, record, and tour with the group. Wyman has published both an autobiography and a book of photography documenting his experiences with Rolling Stones and continues to work on various musical and artistic projects.
Let’s Talk Style
Working through the catalogue of Rolling Stones records, I can’t help but relate the band’s uniquely crafted rock and roll tunes to one of the great wonders of the culinary world: the pizza. Charlie Watts is the foundation, the solid bed that everything sits upon. Mick Jagger supplies the oogey gooey elastic vocal line that entices the consumer. And Keith Richards provides the toppings, the unique flavor and delectable licks that define each song. Going along with the analogy, Wyman is the secret sauce. He lies below the surface, sinks into the crust, and brings about a delightful tang and “je ne sais quoi” to elevate the perfect piece of pie.
Wyman has an innate sense of musicality that makes him the ideal bass player for the Rolling Stones. He understands how to lock in with Watts, compliment the rhythm guitar, leave space at the appropriate moments, and support the song with solid root notes, primal energy, and traditional blues patterns. Wyman tends to settle into bass parts as opposed to bass lines; he doesn’t necessarily play a set “groove” or sequence of notes. Instead, he establishes a somewhat loose, yet clearly distinguishable part that unites all of the musical elements of the song. His part is malleable and reactionary, always going with the flow of the band and often developing in complexity as the song progresses.
Playing with a distinctively “rooted” mindset, Wyman clearly defines the harmony of the song, which happens to be just the right thing for rock and roll. He inherently knows just the right place to jump up an octave, creating a sense of motion even though the harmony remains the same. Though his approach is fairly simplistic in terms of note choice, he has a keen understanding of how to drive a song and use the sound of his instrument.
Where Can I Hear Him?
“Monkey Man” (The Rolling Stones: Let It Bleed)
Wyman kicks this song off with a funky, octave-based groove as the atmosphere builds and develops before the verse. He rides the root during most of the song, often jumping up the octave to supply movement, and wavers between punctuating the rhythm guitar and locking in with Watts. As the song progresses, he takes a loose and varied approach regarding when to play, sometimes favoring slides and sounds as opposed to distinctive notes. He chooses to lay out during a good portion of the song, re-entering towards the end to give the final dynamic push.
“It’s A Wonder” (Bill Wyman: Monkey Grip)
In case you’ve ever wondered whether Wyman can bring the funk, check out this super cool groove tune from his 1974 solo effort. With a handful of odd bars thrown in, this tune leaves the listener waiting in anticipation for the thunderous re-entrance after each break. Evolving into a jam over a one-to-four chord progression, Wyman soulfully slides between the two chords, jumps registers to embellish with fills, and introduces variations to the original groove.
“Love Letters” (Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings: The Collectors Edition Box Set)
His approach is simple, elegant, and shows great respect for traditional rhythm and blues.
How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Bill Wyman? Please share with us in the comments.
Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!