Bass Players to Know: Justin Meldal-Johnsen

Justin Meldal-Johnsen

There comes a time in every fans life when they get wind of their favorite artist coming to town. You hear an advertisement on the radio or stumble upon a billboard and decide that the show isn’t something you want to experience, but something you have to.

I spent a good portion of middle school listening to Beck, singing along to the retro-soul feels and modern experimental sounds contained on Odelay and Mutations. After the release of Midnight Vultures, it was only natural for me to start exercising my rights as a music consumer by begging my father for tickets. I lucked out; tickets were purchased, the show was incredible, and I walked away feeling like I had witnessed an incredible, mind-blowing performance. Justin Meldal-Johnsen held down the low end, acting as both bass player and MD for Beck, yet that barely scratches the surface of his talent and career achievements.

In addition to his long-time residency with Beck, he’s also toured with Nine Inch Nails, recorded with Tori Amos, Macy Gray, and The Dixie Chicks, and produced records by Neon Trees and M83. This award winning producer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist is our latest Bass Player To Know.

So Who Is Justin Meldal-Johnsen?

Being a sought after session player seemed almost inevitable for Meldal-Johnsen. An LA native, his family’s stereo featured all kinds of music; he gravitated towards the bass and was able to mingle with artists around the local scene. After high school, he landed a job as a night-shift janitor at Cherokee Studios. This fortuitously led to working with composer and arranger David Campbell. JMJ met Campbell’s son, Beck, and the two became friends and established a musical relationship. In the mid to late 1990s, he started to make his mark on records with Tori Amos, Air, and Beck, who he also joined on tour in 1996.

As his reputation grew as a session player, he laid down bass lines for artists like Nelly Furtado, The Dixie Chicks, Pink, Garbage, They Might Be Giants, Sara Bareilles, Ima Robot, Jason Mraz, and countless others. Still a mainstay in Beck’s band, he toured with Nine Inch Nails from 2008-2009 and continued to gain notoriety as a writer and producer in LA. Often called upon for his talent in the world of pop and rock, he has produced records for Macy Gray, Paramore, Neon Trees, M83, Tegan and Sara, Young The Giant, and many others.

Let’s Talk Style

Meldal-Johnsen is a jack-of-all-trades and a master of many. While some players have an identifiable tonal fingerprint, such as Jaco or Marcus Miller, Meldal-Johnsen is completely adaptable. He has a keen ear when it comes to tone, allowing the song and production to dictate the instrument of choice. Frequently photographed with anything from a Fender Precision, Jazz, or Jaguar to a hollow body, Gibson Thunderbird or Upright, he can mimic or create just about any sound. Coupled with a vast array of pedals, synths, and effects, the potential for tonal exploration is unlimited and frequently exercised. With a deep understanding of the tools at hand, his knowledge of gear is an asset that has become particularly useful as a session player and producer.

When it comes to playing, his ability to switch between techniques such as finger style, palm muting, picking, or slapping, is just another element of his musical versatility. His harmonic and stylistic vocabulary is as diverse and developed as his arsenal of instruments. He has the drive and aggression to fit into heavy rock and pop, the innate soulfulness to give groove to R&B, and the intention and subtly to support singer-songwriters. While he seems at home in almost any environment, he truly shines in funk-driven pop/rock, where he toggles between catchy lines, driving root notes, and intricate fills.

Where Can I Hear Him?

“Sexx Laws” (Beck: Midnight Vultures)

Beck: Midnite VulturesMeldal-Johnsen brings both rhythmic and harmonic complexity to this track, pushing it along with syncopated root notes and quick dominant-7th inspired fills. He favors the up-beats and provides a funky walk between the chord changes of the chorus, fitting perfectly into the percussive nature of this pop creation. The bass line is energetic, technically exciting, and complimentary to the song’s theme and melody.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Ain’t It Fun” (Paramore: Paramore)

Paramore: ParamoreWhile the bass credit on this track actually goes to Paramore’s bass player (Jeremy Davis), Meldal-Johnsen produced the record helped it land the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Rock Song. His production style with this project is super-charged; it captures the energy of the band with a driving, yet syncopated rhythm section, in-your-face vocals, dynamic breakdowns, thick choir chants, and brilliant synthesizer sounds. The track shows off the best the band has to offer, framing the insightful lyrics with clever marimba-like hooks, over-driven guitars, and an intense groove.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Dynomite” (Ima Robot: Ima Robot)

Ima Robot: Ima RobotA founding member of this outfit, Ima Robot reflects Meldal-Johnsen’s inner punk rocker. His overdriven tone, fierce picking, and simple part is ideal and respectful to the genre. The evenness of his attack combined with the saturation of his tone demonstrates mastery of both technique and sonic shaping.

Listen: iTunes

How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Justin Meldal-Johnsen? 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!

Get daily bass updates.

Get the latest news, videos, lessons, and more in your inbox every morning.

Share your thoughts

  1. Ethan Ricks

    Oh man! Entire records with these songs are good but:

    Beck – Paper Tiger, Diamond Bollocks, Cellphone’s Dead (synth)

    M83 – Claudia Lewis, Raconte Moi Une Histoire, Reunion

    Macy Gray – Every Now And Then, She Don’t Write Songs About You

    Michelle Branch’s record Hotel Paper is a fun pop record with some awesome playing by JMJ and Chris Chaney, among others, and all that live stuff of NIN that you can find on youtube is great too. It’s tough to list because the guy has playing on so many records.