Composer & synthesist Anthony Marinelli has shared another detailed sound breakdown, taking a look at the iconic bass sound of Billie Jean, from Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Marinelli explains how a the song’s bass sound, which seems fairly straightforward, actually has a lot going on – giving each note more interest and adding emphasis to key notes.
The Billie Jean bass sound is made with 4 different instruments, all playing at the same time.
Marinelli programmed 3 different synthesizers for the album, which were originally performed by Greg Phillinganes. The 4th instrument is electric bass guitar, originally performed by Luis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson and here demonstrated by Ernest Tibbs.
Another little known fact about the Billie Jean bassline is that Jackson copied it off of a 1981 Jon & Vangelis track, State of Independence.
“I hate to get into this publicly, but Michael stole a lot of stuff,” Thriller producer Quincy Jones said in a 2018 interview. “He stole a lot of songs. State of Independence and Billie Jean. The notes don’t lie, man.”
Here, Germán Laguer demonstrates how, if you slow down the Vangelis bassline and put it in the right key, it becomes the Billie Jean bass:
As Stravinsky reportedly said, “Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”
If anybody was offended by Jackson stealing the bassline, though, it wasn’t Jon Anderson, who sang the original State Of Independence.
“They took the riff and made it funky,” notes Anderson. “Quincy said he’d been recording our song State Of Independence with Donna Summer, and said he had an incredible guy singing backing vocals. So that’s kinda cool, that cross-pollination in music.”
Check out the video and share your thoughts on the Billie Jean bass in the comments!