Monday 1 October 2012

For Once In My Life - Stevie Wonder (1968)

I haven't posted in a while, but I have a few good ones lined up. What better place to start than one of my favourite Jamerson lines, 'For Once In My Life'. As usual, video link is at the bottom.

Verse 1

After the guitar / drum intro, Jamerson strongly establishes the root of the F chord in the first bar. It is also good to note that straight away he introduces rhythmical features that are used throughout (the tied quavers, the dotted quaver followed by a semiquaver). Over the F+, he focuses strongly on the third and sixth, common in Jamerson's lines; also making use of open strings to add fluidity to jumps and position shifts.

In the next bar, after again establishing the F, he chooses to use an Eb as part of his line, creating tension against the sixth, D. After a quick C# passing note, he used chord tones to 'walk' down to the Gm. By now, he has created a habit of emphasising the 'one', often spending at least a dotted quaver on the root note at the beginning of the bar. This idea continues throughout much of the piece.

Over the Gm, he uses a standard Jamerson mix of chord tones, with chromatic passing notes along with the frequently used semiquaver-quaver-semiquaver rhythm. He then climbs from the D, down to the G in the next bar and continues this motion down through the D+, again using chromatic passing notes to smooth out the line. In my opinion, this is a good example of Jamerson's walking bass knowledge creeping into his Motown work.

Over the Gm in bar five, Jamerson makes use of the F (the flat seven). Interestingly, he stays on this when the chord changes to Gm(maj7), only going to the F# right at the end. Despite this 'wrong' note, the rhythmic and melodic theme is strong enough to propel his line along. In the next bar, after walking up to the C9, we see a figure that is used frequently throughtout the piece. The C, D, F, C semiquaver fill can be seen as either the root, second, fourth and second of the C9 chord (making good use of the D, the 9), or as the fifth, sixth, root and sixth of the next chord, F. A movement that Jamerson uses in many Motown songs (Higher and Higher by Jackie Wilson immediately springs to mind, but I'm sure that there are many more), it both ties the chords together and introduces a rhythmical figure that is a key feature of he line.

Another common Jamerson move is the juxtaposition of fast and slow sections, an example of which can be seen between bars six and seven. With longer notes, all scale tones, he climbs easily up to a high F in bar eight. With crotchets on beats one and three, followed by fast semiquaver runs on two and four, the rhythmic choices make this line interesting, whilst adding motion to the song as a whole. He used lots of chromatic notes to tie the chord tones together and, at the end, to walk to a low F.

Build at the end of Verse 1

Although not particularly complicated, these two bars show Jamerson locking in with the Unison line played by the other instruments. The 'galloping' feel used in the first bar add pace and build to the song, before the release in the last bar. The C at the end of bar two acts as a dominant approach to the F in the next bar, another example of walking bass theory in Jamerson's lines.

Verse 2

The first four bars of Verse 2 show Jamerson using very similar rhythmic and melodic movements to the first verse, only varying the line slightly. For example, in the second bar he quickly drops down to a low F, as opposed to staying up high for over a beat in the same part of the first verse. In bars three and four, the chord progressions varies from the first verse, forcing Jamerson to create a new line. The skip up through the Gm7 arpeggio is another commonly used Jamerson move. Over the C9, he places a strong emphasis on the low E (the major third of C9). Whilst still a chord tone, this creates a sense of tension (partly due to the unusually long note length), before being resolved by the chromatic walk up to the G in the next bar. Again, this verse is heavily syncopated, but still with a strong emphasis on the 'one'.

Key Change

Rhythmically, the strong dotted quaver / semiquaver motion propells the line along, driving and building up the the unison line over the next four bars. Jamerson sticks to the root notes of the chords throughout the modulation, only breaking away at the end of the last bar with another of the fifth / major sixth figures that are commonplace in this song.

Cb6 figure in the 12th bar of the Bridge

This fill is a good example of how Jamerson can take simple note choices and construct an interesting and functional line. Rather than emphasising the major sixth, he chooses to 'skip' down the arpeggio (an example of a Jamerson 'drop'), before using an open A natural at the end to lead up to the Bb in the next bar.

Verse 3

Much like the other verses, there is a strong emphasis on the first beat of every bar. In the first bar, Jamerson simply climbs through the chords, using the D at the end to outline the Gb+. He then chooses to highlight the semitone gap between the Gb6 and the G°7. This creates a strong movement and sense of build up to the Abm7 in the next bar. In the last bar, we see one of the few ghost notes in this piece. Through using a ghost note, not only does Jamerson create rhythmic interest, but also acts as a brief bit of tension and resolution against the Db7.

For Once In My Life - Stevie Wonder (1968) - Bass Cover from Chris Axe on Vimeo.


  1. Thanks for all the info Chris! Great playing on your video! Keep up the good work!

  2. Hi Chris - I thought your playing on this was excellent! I'm interested to know what sheet music you used for this, or did you transcribe it yourself?

    1. Hi Andy,

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. For this analysis I used the transcription from the 'Standing in the Shadows of Motown' book. Highly recommended if you do not already own a copy!