Bass Players To Know: Jimmy Johnson

Jimmy Johnson

Keeping good company is a common theme of Bass Players To Know and our latest feature, Jimmy Johnson, does just that. You’ll find his name listed alongside fellow L.A session cats including Leland Sklar, Tony Levin, Hutch Hutchinson, and Nathan East. Known for playing an Alembic 5-string, he brings a punchy and articulate tone to records by Allan Holdsworth, James Taylor, Randy Newman, and countless others.

So Who Is Jimmy Johnson?

Bass frequencies run deep in the Johnson family. Growing up in Minnesota, Jimmy’s mother was a piano teacher and accompanist, his older brother pursued a successful career as a bass player, and his father served as a longtime bassist with the Minnesota Orchestra. As a teenager, Jimmy was already playing on jingle sessions and by the mid-1970s, established a positive reputation in Minneapolis. He developed a relationship with Alembic basses and GHS in 1976 and from then on, was frequently seen and heard with his iconic Alembic 5-string.

By the late 1970s, Johnson decided to move to Los Angeles to continue pursuing session work. He became a founding member of the fusion and progressive rock ensemble, Flim & The BB’s, and released Tricycle, the first of many records, in 1982. He joined Allan Holdsworth for the recording of Atavachron in 1985 and from then on, was frequently called upon for Holdsworth’s tours and sessions. Johnson also worked in James Taylor’s touring band and joined him on record dates throughout the 1990s.

With an ongoing career and credits including Lee Ritenour, Rod Stewart, Randy Newman, Celine Dion, Neil Diamond, and Kenny Loggins, his clear tone, excellent technique, and melodic sensibilities make him an asset to the busy L.A scene. Often working with accomplished session players such as Steve Gadd, Michael Landau, and Larry Goldings, he provides the bottom end to improvisational ensembles and continues to perform live and play sessions.

Let’s Talk Style

Johnson’s playing style combines the sharp mind of a jazz musician with technical mastery and an unabashed sense of creative whimsy. His attention to arrangement and the overall dynamic movement of a song make him the perfect accompanist—one that is refined and reserved when supporting thoughtful lyrics or cleverly outgoing in an instrumental fusion ensemble. With a keen sense of groove and articulate right hand, he is often found alongside legendary L.A. session drummers. He locks in to the groove that they establish, adds a bit of rhythmic conversation, and moves with them dynamically.

Great tone is a calling card of many session players and Johnson’s doesn’t disappoint. While his tone is distinctively modern sounding, he cuts through a mix with precision, heightened midrange, and the addition of a low B string. It is reminiscent of a particular time and place—aka L.A. in the 1980s-90s. Many of the records tend to have a “shine” to their sound due to advances in recording technology and the sophisticated composition of popular music. His playing and tone certainly fit this style and contributed to the overall aesthetic of the era.

Where Can I Hear Him?

“Funnels” (Allan Holdsworth: Atavachron)

Allan Holdsworth: AtavachronThis track features Johnson as the guider of movement. In a sonic space characterized by lush chords, textural drumming, and lofty guitar leads, he is responsible for defining both the harmony and rhythm with clearly articulated notes and voice leading. He accents the pushed movement of the chords with hints of Latin rhythms and quick embellishments. His supportive yet playful approach spans the range of the instrument and provides essential structure to the piece.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Shed A Little Light” (James Taylor: James Taylor (Live, 1993))

James Taylor LiveAs soon as the band kicks in, Johnson serves as the perfect accompanist—he locks in the groove, follows the movement of Taylor’s bass notes, and simply makes the band sound good. Playing with a slightly busier approach during the bridge, he integrates quick descending octave hiccups to enhance the dynamics without being overly aggressive or taking away from the core elements of the song.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

“Bye Bye Blackbird” (Steve Gadd Band: Way Back Home: Live In Rochester, NY)

Steve Gadd Band: Way Back HomeJohnson shows off his technical ability, dynamic development, and clever musicality in his solo over this standard. Entering with a beautiful descending line, he moves effortlessly around the neck with the precision of a studio player and melodic sensibility of any accomplished soloist. As the tune progresses, he gracefully walks through changes, enforces the groove, and sensibly interacts with Larry Goldings’ organ playing.

Listen: iTunes | Amazon MP3

How about you? What’s your favorite tune or album with Jimmy Johnson? Please share with us in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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  1. Tim Drinnon

    Not to mention that gorgeous solo on Holdsworth’s “Panic Station”! JJ is definitely one of my all-time faves and one of the tastiest bassists ever.

    • bassflower

      Agreed, Tim. you beat me to it. I love love love that solo. Such a sweet build.

    • bassflower

      You beat me to it, Tim. Mine too. So sweet how it builds and then resolve in the end. Love it! Great write up, Ryan!

  2. Keith Crawford

    Listen to the Doc Severinsen version of “Peg”. Flim does an incredible job and a great solo!

  3. hugopharaway

    What a wonderful person is too. I met him on a forum for a company that makes basses and guitars. I took a chance after seeing his name as a member. To my surprise it was Jimmy, humble as can be, easy to talk to along with being a wealth of information. Oh I don’t want to forget one heck of a bass player. Seeing him live is such a wonderful experience. He know how to play, accompany, step up and move into the groove, without over playing.

  4. Sandy Winnerman

    Favorite cut, Fish Magic on Neon by Flim and the BB’s.

    • Glenn Jay

      Yeah, and everything in the Flim and the BB’s catalog. Invention – from Big Notes to INew Pants – Invention!

      • Glenn Jay

        Whoops – not sure what happened there! Please blur your mind past the mess o’ typos.

  5. John

    What does the tune his bottom BASS string????He set the new standard find out what this new note is

  6. A great bassist indeed!

  7. MarkL

    My personal favorite is Arrowhead with Wayne Johnson and Bill Berg (one of the BBs). Some day I will be able to get it on CD. Got to see that group in person back around 1985 or 1986 in Spokane, which is, IIRC, Wayne Johnson’s hometown.

  8. With Wayne Johnson (gtr) and Bill Berg (dr). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXrSm9g27bE

  9. PaulieBe

    So glad Jimmy Johnson got a shout out here. A true original on the electric. Pioneer of the low B string and a uniquely intuitive and fluid bassist/musician. Maybe my top pick in the wildly underrated category. I love his playing across his career but my favorite recording he contributed to is a little known trio record from the early 1980’s with guitarist Wayne Johnson called Grasshopper. And while it is firmly in the post-Pat Metheny mold as an overall trio project, Jimmy is a total original on it showcasing how he came to the game early with a true POV; his subtle but distinctive style is just right there from the gate. A Master.