For countless bassists, there’s nothing better than the late Chris Squire’s hard-driving, sixteenths-heavy bassline on the 1972 Yes classic, Roundabout. It’s a showcase bass riff that flies by so fast, many are content to just listen in awe. For the rest of us, it’s time to get warmed up with one of progressive rock’s most challenging bass guitar riffs.
From the start, Squire sets himself apart from the masses with the searing sounds he coaxed from a combination of Rickenbacker bass, Rotosound strings and his fluent and expressive plectrum technique.
“I always preferred a clean sound as opposed to the boomy, dull tone finger players were getting at the time,” Squire told Bass Player in December ’93. “I use heavy Herco picks and hold them so the pointed side is facing away from my bass and the rounded side extends slightly past my thumb. When I play a downstroke, I hit the string with the side of my thumb. As a result, you hear the initial pick attack and immediately afterwards, a rounder, smoother tone.”
Listening to the isolated bass track, it’s remarkable how much ‘clank’ is in Squire’s tone.
Squire had also re-wired his Rickenbacker 1999 (a rare budget version of the 4001) with stereo outputs, one per pickup. The bridge pickup went to a guitar amp – hence the clear top-end. “Everyone thinks that Rickenbacker’s are very trebly, but in fact, they’ve a lot of low-end, actually. The problem is, the pickups are totally unbalanced, and so it was my idea to start them stereo, so then at least you could pump up the treble end to make it the same level as the bass pickup. There was no other way of doing it."
In addition, Squire over-dubbed his bass track using one of guitarist Steve Howe’s old Gibson ES-150 hollow body guitars. “We mic’d it acoustically and mixed it in with the bass. That’s also what gave it such a bright sound.”
In getting the bassline up-to-speed, the main riff has a swing and bounce that’s critical. The trick lies in your picking technique. To keep the pattern steady and even, make sure the open A on the ‘and’ of beat 3 arrives on an upstroke. At the end of each verse, the band steers through a series of meter shifts. Note how Squire holds fast to a G pedal against the F chord before pulling back onto the main riff. Squire then sets up the chorus with a simple cadence.
Squire’s feel shifts from fluid to mechanical in the chorus, where after establishing his presence with a series of emphatic downbeats, he begins a syncopated study of his Rickenbacker’s lowest offerings. With quarter-note triplets, the bridge riff takes the tune even further afield before returning to guitarist Steve Howe’s tranquil acoustic intro.
As Squire told BP, his long association with Rickenbacker was born out of his admiration for another bass giant, John Entwistle. “I basically copied John Entwistle after seeing the Who at the Marquee. He had a Rickenbacker and I thought he sounded great, so I went and bought one. I think John's was one of the first few that came into the country. Pete Quaife, The Kink’s bass player, had one as well, and I was a shop assistant at Boosey and Hawkes music shop at the time, so I got it at dealer cost – the third one in the country I believe.”
Squire’s Rickenbacker underwent several cosmetic changes over the years. “It was originally Fireglo, but I put this flowery contact stuff all over it when I was playing in a '60s group called The Syn. When that all finished I went to see Sam Lee, a famous guitar repairer, and he peeled that off and rubbed the wood down to get it nice again, but the Fireglo had gone, so he painted it cream. Then I stuck silver paper all over it – went through that period – then took it to Sam again.
“By now, the guitar was only three-quarters of the weight it was, but that was prior to me using it on Roundabout, so maybe that’s why it sounded so different from every other Rickenbacker bass I'd heard, because it had been planed down and re-varnished so many times. The thing about that particular Rickenbacker is that I can put it under my arm and it plays itself, I know it so well.”
Squire’s innovative style and sound have influenced rock’s most imaginative bassists, most notably Geddy Lee of Rush, who performed Roundabout with Yes when they were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2017, and Brian Ritchie of the Violent Femmes. “The first band I really got into was Yes,” Ritchie told BP in May ’06. “After I got Fragile, there was no turning back for me – that was the most free end of the bass spectrum, because Chris Squire was an equal in a group of serious musicians.”