Bass Players to Know: Bill Wyman

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

Bill WymanWorking 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)

The Rolling Stones: Let It BleedWyman 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.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“It’s A Wonder” (Bill Wyman: Monkey Grip)

Bill Wyman: Monkey GripIn 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.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Love Letters” (Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings: The Collectors Edition Box Set)

Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings: The Collectors Edition Box SetA modern take on an R&B classic, this song is a great example of why Wyman started the Rhythm Kings: it is a musical outlet to play the songs he wants to play with the people he wants to play with.

His approach is simple, elegant, and shows great respect for traditional rhythm and blues.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

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!

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  1. Still can’t get over how creepy he is.

  2. John Fajvan

    Ryan Madora… I love your summation of Bill Wyman. I don’t think even the Stones appreciated how Bill weaved his counterpoint bass parts into their uniquely quirky sound. His replacement made them sound more common.

    • Gregg

      I agree. Emotional Rescue and Miss You are good examples of Bill developing the structure

      • Twan L.

        Gregg: Ron Wood played the Bass on Emotional Rescue (Bill and Keith weren’t involved in the session for that song). But I agree, Bill’s work on Miss You is great. Listen to the 12-inch version of that song and you can hear Bill parts much better.

  3. Miss You is the perfect example of his playing. Groovy but not overly busy. @John Fajvan, I disagree that Daryl Jones made them sound ordinary. Mr. Jones is a monster in his own right.

    • John Fajvan

      Ruben- Daryl is a great doubt, but his lines are very solid (like most rock). Bill’s parts were more syncopated. One isn’t better than the other. It’s all art.

  4. Darryl PLAYS the Stones music and does it great. Bill was MAKING it.

  5. Those who are afraid of creepiness shouldn’t listen to the Rolling Stones.

  6. Ryan, over the weekend I had watch the Rolling Stones’ “Return to Hyde Park”. Kind of a then-and-now docutainment thing. Lots of great footage of concerts along with some interviews of the members. Keith Richards was particularly supportive of Daryl Jones, which surprised me in that a bass player was actually mentioned. I haven’t had the opportunity to listen to Wyman’s solo and post-Stones work. I’m very grateful for your selections. Thanks again for your continued efforts, this column is my favorite on NoTreble.

  7. “Start Me Up” has an incredibly inventive bass line. It makes the song, really.

  8. “Goin Home” 12 min of genius Bass Playing

  9. Richard

    Going home. Under my thumb…..

  10. Dan

    Does he play on exile? I really like Rip this Joint.

  11. Grant Stewart

    The original look of the Rolling Stones, as a pack of Artful Dodgers, complete with an almost “inbred” look, suited them perfectly and Bill Wyman was an integral part of that look. His playing was So creative and perfect for the link between the introverted drummer part of the rhythm section and the extroverted trio of front men. The “Quiet Stone” is massively underrated, but not by the band themselves. As long as they are still around, none of us need grow older gracefully.

  12. Joseph

    I’m a huge fan of Wyman and I feel he’s always passed over because he isn’t a flamboyant bassist. When Bill plays I respect his style and talent and he’s definitely one of the best bassists of all time in my book.