The 20 greatest bass solos of all time – from the fastest ‘lead bass guitarist’ to the only bass solo James Jamerson ever recorded

20 Greatest Bass Solos
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Even in the wake of John Entwistle’s thunderous bass solo on the Who’s 1965 hit My Generation, bass guitar solos have remained pretty rare. We thick-stringers usually have to turn to the worlds of jazz and fusion to enjoy extended flights of low-end fancy.

There are exceptions, however, and tracks that embrace lengthy bass-in-the-spotlight features occasionally bubble into the mainstream consciousness: Bob Babbitt’s improv on Dennis Coffey’s Scorpio and Willie Weeks’ carefully crafted creation on Donny Hathaway’s live version of Voices Inside (Everything is Everything) immediately spring to mind.

There are plenty of ways to play a great bass solo: you can you can keep things short and sweet, or serve up an earth-shaking shred-fest that makes a great song even greater. Here, we’ve included both, and everything in between.

Oh, and if you’re looking for the basslines in particular, do check out our guide to the 40 best basslines of all time.

So, without further ado, here are 20 of the greatest bass solos of all time – all of which are required listening for any bassist…

20. Scorpio – Dennis Coffey (Bassist: Bob Babbitt, 1971)

Having accumulated 25 gold and platinum records, Bob Babbitt is one of bassdom’s most decorated performers. In 1971, just as things began to unravel in Detroit with the imminent departure of Motown to the West Coast, Babbitt got the chance to make a once-in-a-life-time statement on Dennis Coffey’s Scorpio.

Eddie “Bongo” Brown, Uriel Jones, and Richard “Pistol” Allen combined to lay down a monster drum break. Babbitt then joins on bass, building momentum with his groove-based solo, before ushering in the rest of the ensemble.


19. Reach For It – George Duke (Bassist: Byron Miller, 1978)

Byron Miller holds nothing back on this solo from George Duke’s 1978 hit. “I was just a kid when I did Reach For It,” Miller told BP. “I didn’t even know what I was doing. Now I can’t go anywhere without people asking me to play that solo.”

Miller employed a 1972 Fender Precision outfitted with an onboard preamp, but the distinctive bass sound is also due to an Eventide H910 Harmonizer. Listen for the descending triplets and the heavy vibrato-like trills – a Miller trademark.


18. Dance of Eternity – Dream Theater (Bassist: John Myung, 1999)

Fiendishly fast-fingered, but modest and soft-spoken to a fault, progressive metal master John Myung has long been one of the planet’s most admired bass players. The bass break just after the three-minute mark on The Dance of Eternity is right up there for sheer breathtaking speed.

“That was a real high-energy part,” said Myung. “Sometimes you just have to come and play with as much fire as you can from the first note.”


17. Mutiny – Jr Walker and the All Stars (Bassist: James Jamerson, 1966)

Released in 1966 on Jr Walker’s Road Runner album, Mutiny sees Motown’s legendary hit-maker James Jamerson exploit an up-tempo blues before catapulting into the only bass solo he ever recorded.

“The key to my approach was that I didn’t want to solo and I didn’t want to draw too much attention to myself. There was one time I did solo for Motown. That was on a cut called Mutiny. I really took it out, but that was rare for me.”


16. Teardrinker – Mastodon (Bassist: Troy Sanders, 2021)

Fans of Troy Sanders’ deft bass playing with Mastodon will be delighted to learn that there’s a bass solo tucked away in the back end of Teardrinker.

“The guitar players wrote two bridge parts that would be perfect for guitar solos,” Sanders told BP. “I jokingly said, ‘I’ll just put a bass solo on the first one.’ They all liked it, so now we had something that turned from a joke to a bass solo, which I’d never done in Mastodon before.”

Sanders also revealed how he got its cool, silky tone. “It was my custom distortion, which is a Wren & Cuff Elephant Skin, and the old Morley wah pedal.”


15. Our Love – Al Jarreau (Bassist: Nathan East, 1985)

Nathan East's melodic 16-bar solo on Our Love, from Al Jarreau's 1985 concert video Al Jarreau Live in London, has inspired many a bass solo on pop ballads. “Al loved the offbeat nature of having the bass play a solo, so it became an established part of the show,” said East, who used a Yamaha BB3000 5-string. 

“I always like to let people know that bass players can play through changes just like a guitarist. If you listen to truly great soloists, you can hear the changes through the notes they play. I tried to keep that in mind.” 


14. You Can Call Me Al – Paul Simon (Bassist: Bakithi Kumalo, 1986)

Three minutes and 44 seconds into Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al is a two-bar bass break that has confounded as many bassists as it has inspired.

“We were recording that song on my birthday,” said Bakithi Kumalo of the wildly descending bass lick. “There was space to fill, so Paul said, ‘Go ahead, Bakithi, do what you like.’ I just played – and they loved it.”

The second part of the solo is actually the first bar played backwards. Engineer Roy Halee simply flipped the tape over and spliced the two parts together. “People have tried to cop those licks, said Simon. “But it’s physically impossible.”


13. My Summer Vacation – John Patitucci (Bassist: John Patitucci, 1993)

Ever since he first joined Chick Corea’s Elektric Band in the mid-‘80s, John Patitucci’s dexterity on his signature Yamaha six-string bass has become legendary. His free-flowing solo on My Summer Vacation is a great example of the correct scales being employed lyrically against the chords as opposed to just struggling to make notes fit. 

“I’ve always tried to avoid the trap of using every solo to display a particular set of tricks,” he told BP. “I try to make my music about more than just mechanics.”


12. Aeroplane – Red Hot Chili Peppers (Bassist: Flea, 1995)

Flea’s funky bass solo on Aeroplane, plus the euphoric slapped octaves in the verse, has to be the standout from the Chili Peppers’ 1995 studio album One Hot Minute. (And maybe the children’s chorus at the end, which featured Flea’s daughter Clara.)

The bass solo is just pure, unconfined, Flea energy that combines his funky blend of fat bass tones and butt-shaking licks. When the band come back in, it’s a push-everything-to-the-limit sonic overload.


11. Baby – Dirty Loops (Bassist: Henrik Linder, 2014)

If you’re one of the few people who hasn’t seen one of Dirty Loops’ hugely popular YouTube videos, check out their cover of Justin Bieber’s Baby. Yes, Justin Bieber. From a bass perspective, it’s an awe-inspiring display of technique, harmonic sophistication, and lock-step rhythmic accuracy. Yet, it’s the sheer musicality of Henrik Linder’s solo that elevates it above mere shredder status. 

“I never really thought about creating my own style,” said Linder. “But being a trio without a guitar player, there’s a lot of sonic space for me to fill.”


10. Scoop – Marcus Miller (Bassist: Marcus Miller, 1995)

Marcus Miller has had plenty of years to hone his skills as a soloist, but 1993’s The Sun Don’t Lie marked the first time Miller really pushed himself to find his own solo voice. Scoop immediately showcases Miller’s hot thumb-thumping passages and quick fingerstyle licks.

“Whenever you’re really playing your instrument, somebody will say, ‘Boy, you made that bass talk!’ I always loved that expression. After a while I started trying to do it. I’d play bass solos, but I was trying to find something different.”


9. Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses (Bassist: Duff McKagan, 1987)

Michael ‘Duff’ McKagan is best known in bass world for a slinky four-bar solo executed over the intro to their best-known song, Sweet Child O’ Mine. But how did he come up with it? “It just happened,” he told BP. “Really, it’s all a product of what you hear and what you think is right for the part – I’ve never tried to force any sort of bassline.”

Duff also revealed: “I’ll hear the beginning of Sweet Child O’ Mine as a cello line for some reason. I don’t know why that is – I don’t play cello. It would be a neat thing to learn it, but I’m busy right now learning how to play bass!”


8. School Days – Stanley Clarke (Bassist: Stanley Clarke, 1976)

For many bass players, the desire to play power chords on the bass stems from the first choppy intervals of the title track from Stanley Clarke’s School Days. Marrying cutting-edge bass skills with interweaving layers of rocked-up riffing, Clarke unleashes a long, intricate solo of truly epic proportions.

“He was probably the fastest ‘lead bass guitarist’ I had ever seen take a solo!” David Ellefson told BP. “Plus, he had this really trebly, almost banjo-like tone that I immediately sought after.”


7. Addicted to That Rush – Mr. Big (Bassist: Billy Sheehan, 1989)

If you want to hear astonishing bass moments from Billy Sheehan, you could pick anything by Mr. Big, but on Addicted to That Rush Sheehan serves up a shred-fest of muscular riffs, cross-handed tapping and light-speed pentatonic fills, all while trading licks with guitarist Paul Gilbert.

“People might think I’m guilty of being a speedy player, but speed is just one of many tools you can use to create music,” Sheehan told BP. “Concentrate on speed if you want, but make sure you are accurate. If you do it in time, you can get away with absolutely anything!”


6. Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers – Jeff Beck (Bassist: Tal Wilkenfeld, 2007)

She probably didn’t know it at the time, but when Tal Wilkenfeld got onstage with Jeff Beck at the 2007 Crossroads Guitar Festival, she was about to make some serious waves in the bass world. Her solo on Beck’s seminal version of Stevie Wonder’s Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers caught the attention of bass players everywhere.

“I never think too far ahead,” Tal told BP. “You’re constantly responding to the last thing you just played. That’s really my approach to improvisation.” 


5. Norwegian Wood – Victor Wooten (Bassist: Victor Wooten, 1997)

Everybody knows Victor Wooten has monster chops. He can slap, tap, double-thumb, open-hammer-pluck, and wield a few other techniques that probably have even weirder names, but for finger-knotting precision check out his solo arrangement of John Lennon’s Norwegian Wood.

“I was asked by a friend of mine in Nashville to play a solo piece at a John Lennon fundraiser,” said Wooten. “I chose this song for the show, but didn’t work on it until the night before the performance. While working on it I realised how well it fit under my hands. After the show I added some parts and improved the arrangement. I liked it so much that I recorded it on the What Did He Say? CD.”


4. Portrait of Tracy – Jaco Pastorius (Bassist: Jaco Pastorius, 1976)

Trying to pick the essential Jaco Pastorius solo is nigh-on impossible. Consider his six albums as a member of Weather Report, or his sideman role on Joni Mitchell’s Mingus, or his stunning solo album.

Of those, Portrait of Tracy captured Pastorius at his peak of his powers. The solo bass piece – recorded with no overdubs or fixes – is the perfect way to introduce yourself to Jaco’s world of harmonics. Just try playing that final chord!

“Hearing Jaco changed my life,” said Victor Wooten. “He was such a talented composer – that’s something that always came across in his music. He created a whole new sound that us bass players didn’t have before.”


3. Voices Inside (Everything is Everything) – Donny Hathaway (Bassist: Willie Weeks, 1972)

On the song Voices Inside (Everything is Everything) Willie Weeks takes a three-and-a-half-minute solo that’s a seamless melding of groove, melody, and drama, making it one of the deepest on record.

“I remember Donny said, ‘On bass, ladies and gentlemen, the baddest bass player in the country – Willie Weeks!’ I was like, ‘Oh, my god! What am I going to do? I thought, I’d better build slow. There were other nights that the solo was sort of choppy – it didn’t really tell a story. The solo on the record is very simple, but it has a story.”


2. My Generation – The Who (Bassist: John Entwistle, 1965)

Entwistle’s grinding bass tone and rapid-fire solo on the Who’s My Generation redefined what was possible on the bass guitar. In 1965, it was an absolute breakthrough.

“We wanted to feature the sound of a Danelectro bass,” Entwistle told BP. “I kept breaking strings, so I had to keep buying Danelectros. When the store finally ran out, I bought a Fender Jazz Bass, put on some LaBella strings, and used it to cut the final version.” Believe it or not, those were La Bella flatwound strings.


1. (Anesthesia) - Pulling Teeth – Metallica (Bassist: Cliff Burton, 1983)

The late Cliff Burton only had three years in Metallica, recording three albums. The first, 1983’s Kill ‘Em All, is raw, fast, exciting but not as musically accomplished as what would follow… apart from Burton’s amazing bass solo Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth). Based on classical motifs and hugely distorted, the solo stamped his identity firmly on the emerging thrash metal movement. 

“Cliff used his instrument as a melodic force,” Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo told BP. “His approach was ‘I’m gonna play what I feel, and if you don’t like it, screw you!’ And that was the bottom line.”

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49

Nick Wells
Writer

Nick Wells was the Editor of Bass Guitar magazine from 2009 to 2011, before making strides into the world of Artist Relations with Sheldon Dingwall and Dingwall Guitars. He's also the producer of bass-centric documentaries, Walking the Changes and Beneath the Bassline, as well as Production Manager and Artist Liaison for ScottsBassLessons. In his free time, you'll find him jumping around his bedroom to Kool & The Gang while hammering the life out of his P-Bass.