Let’s face it: often, a good song is only as good as its bassline. In fact, there are times when the bass guitar player – so often the under-appreciated middle man or woman of music – steals the spotlight through their mountain-moving low-end activities.
In an age where it’s easy to debate and obsess over the greatest guitar solos of all time, the bassline can often fly under the radar. Yet there is an entire legion of bass hooks that deserve their rightful place in the annals of music history.
The breadth of style in the following list is a testament to both the instrument’s versatility and the creativity of those who wield it. Usually assumed to be a backline instrument, the bassline can be so much more than just a low-end linchpin: the track-carrying grooves of Town Called Malice immediately spring to mind, as does the famously filthy line in Ace of Spades.
From the dexterous fills of Flea and prog-rock rumblings of Geddy Lee, to Bootsy Collins’ slap and Roger Waters’ driving riffs, we present the 40 best basslines of all time, as judged by Bass Player editors.
40. The Doors - Riders On The Storm
(from LA Woman, 1971)
This seven-minute (album) or four-minute (single) song takes everything that was best about The Doors – acid-drenched psychedelia, a threatening blues edge and that era-defining drone – and anchors it all with a rock-solid bassline.
True to the production values of the day, Ray Manzarek’s throbbing keyboard bass is all low frequencies and no mids, adding to its thunderous presence.
39. The Cure - The Lovecats
(single only, 1983)
As a perfect example of the application of the upright bass in modern pop music, the bassline which propels The Lovecats is insanely catchy, based on a nifty fourths-based triad and oozing the sound of wood.
After the first hundred listens or so (this song has been a radio and indie-club staple for 25 years), Robert Smith’s wailed, appropriately feline vocals and the honky-tonk piano may set your teeth on edge a little, but there’s no arguing with the quality of that funky bass part.
38. Rush - Digital Man
(from Signals, 1982)
Geddy Lee is the man when it comes to the bass guitar, as we all know, and when his band Rush hit what was arguably their creative peak in the late-'70s and early-'80s, they simply could not be stopped.
Digital Man may have a theme which has aged a little in the post-internet boom era, but Lee’s twisty, rock-solid bass-line gave the song an edge which the years have not diminished. Geddy alternated between a J-Bass and his trusty Rickenbacker 4001 on the Signals album, and his mastery of the instrument is at its finest during these unparalleled six minutes.
37. Graham Central Station - Hair
(from Graham Central Station, 1973)
Five minutes of a huge, badass bassline from the man who invented the slapping style anchor his band’s debut album, and what hot minutes they are.
Preaching a message of open-mindedness while his bass thumps and preens along underneath, Larry Graham brings his blend of funk and R&B to the table in no uncertain fashion – and if you can play along with him, you’ve arrived as a bass player.
The fact that Larry has played with the finest funk performers on the world – Sly & The Family Stone and some upstart named Prince – reveals volumes about his enduring influence on the world of bass, as on the world of music in general.
36. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Give It Away
(from Blood Sugar Sex Magik, 1991)
Inspired to their greatest heights yet by überbeard Rick Rubin, the Chilis recorded an astounding album in Blood Sugar Sex Magik, still their finest hour by a long shot.
Give It Away was a monster of a single, with a bassline from Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary that more or less made up the whole song with its famous, liquid slide motif and some beautifully dexterous fills.
There’s some chicken-grease guitar and a thunderous drum pattern on top of the bass, of course, not to mention Anthony Kiedis’ rap about tolerance and spreading the love, but this song is Flea’s through and through.
35. The Jam - Town Called Malice
(from The Gift, 1982)
This superb bass part might have been inspired by any number of Motown hits (You Can’t Hurry Love comes to mind), but it’s perfect for this gritted-teeth slab of post-punk angst.
What makes the song so addictive is the jauntiness of the line, contrasted with Paul Weller’s lyrical venom about British life in the Falklands War era.
Only The Jam could pull off such a trick, and it’s gratifying to this day that the public responded with massive enthusiasm, sending the song straight in at No. 1.
34. Charles Wright And The Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band - Express Yourself
(from Express Yourself, 1973)
Bassist Melvin Dunlap probably never thought that two decades after he laid down the unforgettably hooky bassline for the original Express Yourself, the line would become the mainstay of a gangsta-rap anthem.
On the 1973 version, Dunlap’s bass part was also played by a guitar, but when LA rappers NWA sampled the bassline and made it the centre of a new song, also called Express Yourself, they dropped the guitar part and amped up the bass, a joyous Jackson 5-style mid-ranger. Genius, in either incarnation.
33. Bill Withers - Lovely Day
(from Menagerie, 1978)
You’ve probably never thought of Lovely Day as being driven by a bass-line, as it’s well-known for its mellow vocal hooks, specifically the “lovely daaaaaaaaaaay” chorus which closes it.
Well, think again: the song comes complete with a sweet, descending line that adds a funky fill each time it goes down a step and then adds a dexterous turnaround on the way back up.
Writer and producer Jerry Knight played the line, one of the most instantly recognizable of the whole R&B catalogue, and certainly the best-known of any Withers song.
32. Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel - White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)
(single only, 1983)
Inspired by the bassline from Cavern by art-rockers Liquid Liquid, the Sugarhill label’s house band bassist Doug Wimbish created a monster when the line was applied to a strident rap about the perils of cocaine abuse and a primitive drum machine.
Try playing it, go on: you’ll do the Es and the Gs before falling over in the third bar. It’s worth persevering with, however, and then having a crack at the supremely funky bass-plus-horns lick that follows the chorus.
31. Cream - Crossroads
(from Wheels Of Fire, 1968)
Taking an old Robert Johnson blues song, Cross Road Blues, buffing it up and retitling it simply Crossroads, Cream created a legendary entry in the British avant-garde blues canon.
Of course, Eric Clapton is on sublime form throughout this superb song, especially in its original live form from Wheels Of Fire, but it’s Jack Bruce’s domain from start to finish.
Applying his famous deftness of touch and melodic awareness to the blues chords, Bruce showed us all that bass could dominate a composition without being over the top. What a man. What a song.
30. Queen & David Bowie - Under Pressure
(from Hot Space, 1981)
It’s D. And it’s A. And it’s, er, D again! One of John Deacon’s most instantly recognizable basslines ever, the Under Pressure riff was perfectly counterpointed by a piano stab, a weird, live-sounding vocal and guitar and a cheesy rapper from Dallas.
Who knows – the song and its iconic bassline might have slipped into relative obscurity had it not been for Ice Ice Baby, the 1990 mega-hit by Vanilla Ice, who sampled it.
29. Rage Against The Machine - Bullet In The Head
(from Rage Against The Machine, 1992)
The permanently-irked rap-metal quartet RATM’s finest hour was undoubtedly their self-titled debut album, a highlight of which was Bullet In The Head.
It’s the opening bass riff which qualifies the song for immortality: Tim Commerford plays E five times at the 7th fret on the A string, drones the open E string once and then plucks a chord of G# (6th fret, D string) plus D (7th fret, G string), repeating this through the verses.
Playing this without fret-buzz on even the most perfectly set-up bass requires skill which most of us lack, but that’s never stopped us trying, eh?
28. Weather Report - Teen Town
(from Heavy Weather, 1977)
On his first full Weather Report album, Jaco still had plenty to prove, and contributed this iconic track which showcases several of his best moves.
Well, he was the self-proclaimed best bass player in the world – whether plucking those sixteenths in the intro, spiralling up into the midrange, counterpointing the famous horn motif or playing in unison with Joe Zawinul’s sinister, ascending keyboard sequence.
Few people can play this line accurately; even fewer can play it like Jaco did.
27. Michael Jackson - Billie Jean
(from Thriller, 1982)
Louis Johnson’s classic bassline makes Billie Jean one of the late MJ’s best songs, a career highlight that still stands up today. Counterpointing the subtle backing vocals and synth wash, the line drives the song forward as it builds, leading to an understated overall tone which contrasts perfectly with Jackson’s emotional wails about the girl who is, famously, not his lover.
26. Iron Maiden - Phantom Of The Opera
(from Iron Maiden, 1980)
One of those rare songs – a long, multi-sectioned composition that doesn’t outstay its welcome – Iron Maiden’s sumptuous Phantom Of The Opera is, like all Maiden songs, a bass player’s dream.
Bandleader and primary songwriter Steve Harris is a bass player of superb skill and panache, combining his love of '70s prog and punk to form a sleek but melodic approach that was already fully evolved on Maiden’s first album.
The bass solo – a simple figure that moves down a tone for two successive bars before moving back up and repeating – is a thing of sheer beauty.
25. Fleetwood Mac - The Chain
(from Rumours, 1977)
Like this song needs any introduction for bass players… John McVie’s slippery bass riff in A begins the second half of the song, establishing a faster tempo and causing Formula One fans to surge from their seats every time it comes on TV.
The line repeats until the end of the song, surrounded by Stevie Nicks’ layered backing vocals and Mick Fleetwood’s driving (ahem) beat. Unforgettable.
24. Stevie Wonder - I Wish
(from Songs In The Key Of Life, 1976)
Back in the '70s, you could write simple basslines and they sounded cool because no-one had written all the good lines yet.
This applies in spades to Stevie Wonder’s remarkable I Wish – up there with Sir Duke in terms of sheer funkability but somehow even more devastatingly catchy. How on earth did he come up with it?
23. The Clash - London Calling
(from London Calling, 1979)
Paul Simonon was a master of his instrument, although admitting it would have got him thrown out of the 100 Club for not being punk enough. Yet his grasp of reggae and rock made his bass style unique, a fact duly noted on London Calling, with its ridiculously recognizable intro statement.
The lyrics may not stand up too well, but the sheer attitude in the song’s instrumentation and the obvious pop awareness that Joe Strummer and band injected into their songwriting has made it an enduring classic.
22. Sly & The Family Stone - Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)
(from Greatest Hits, 1970)
With Bootsy Collins and Louis Johnson his only 1970s rivals in terms of The Funk, Larry Graham delivered line after devastating line with Sly & The Family Stone.
This ludicrously butt-shaking song kicks off with a simple slap and pop line which drills into your skull and refuses to let go.
After a few minutes of this, you’re dying to play it yourself – and it’s simple enough that you’ll probably nail it, too. But will you have as much funk in you as Larry?
21. Ben E King - Stand By Me
(single only, 1961)
“When the night… has come…” Genius! A 1955 tune given a '60s facelift by Leiber & Stoller, Stand By Me is an all-time soul classic and boasts an intro bassline that, once heard, is never forgotten.
Subtle, unhurried and sweet, the line supports vocal pyrotechnics from King and a swathe of organ and guitar that almost (but not quite) renders it inaudible.
We like to think of it as a metaphor for bass players: strip away the fluff and there we are, holding everything down…
20. Marvin Gaye - What's Going On?
(from What’s Going On, 1971)
When Marvin Gaye stepped up his game from the '60s to the '70s (and by extension, giving the whole of the soul industry a much-needed dose of maturity), he wrote the exquisite What’s Going On album, stuffed full of juicy basslines.
Complementing the lush instrumentation of the title track with a melodic edge rather than merely setting up a foundation, the bass part flows in and around Gaye’s antiwar lament and still feels modern to this day.
19. Ian Dury & The Blockheads - Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick
(single only, 1978)
Too funky for the pub-rock scene and too poppy to be truly funk, the Blockheads had something indefinable, which made them unique.
Which other band would write a trilingual song about non-violence and title it this bizarrely? And which bassist could play so many notes per bar without sounding silly?
Norman Watt-Roy laid down a busy, almost frantic line to accompany Ian Dury’s laconic drolleries, but his bass-line doesn’t sound inappropriate: in fact, it sounds amazing to this day.
18. Metallica - Orion
(from Master Of Puppets, 1986)
With not one but three bass solos – all of them radically different – Orion is the one Metallica song that all bass players must listen to. Cliff Burton, who died a few months after Puppets was released, wrote this instrumental, and it shows.
The song leads off with a faded-in soup of bass notes, laden with chorus, and fades away again after a heavy guitar section to a classical bass motif that is mixed low in order to get your attention.
Finally, Cliff lays down a blistering, distorted solo at the end of the song that most people mistake for a guitar part.
17. Free - All Right Now
(from Fire And Water, 1970)
Andy Fraser’s superbly economical fingerstyle line towards the end of Free’s best-known song, All Right Now, was enough to secure his status as one of the 1970s’ most revered bassists.
Mixed low – you have to strain to make out the chords that end the riff – this classic bit of funk bass is all warm, middy tones: you can almost feel his fingertips on the strings.
Although Free never secured the acclaim they deserved, this song alone guarantees them a place in the rock pantheon.
16. Lou Reed - Walk On The Wild Side
(from Transformer, 1972)
With two tracks simultaneously played on a bass guitar and a double bass, Herbie Flowers’ famous sliding line is known the world over, adding a subtle touch to one of the darkest pop songs ever written.
While Lou Reed sings his cheery tune about transsexuals and ‘head’, Flowers’ fast-moving fingers bring a touch of class to this most satisfyingly lowlife of tunes.
15. Miles Davis - So What
(from Kind Of Blue, 1959)
There are jazz lovers in their nineties who still remember with a shiver the first time they heard So What, the opening song of the most influential jazz LP of all time.
Paul Chambers’ sublime double bass and Bill Evans’ plangent piano chords created one of the finest introductory passages ever, before Chambers took the song up a level with the famous, questioning riff that leads the listener towards the horns. Even after half a century, this is heady stuff.
14. Motörhead - Ace Of Spades
(from Ace Of Spades, 1980)
Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister’s famously filthy bass sound – not, as he revealed to us several years back, the result of any effects, just wide-open mids – isn’t for everyone, but for millions of ’head acolytes the world over it’s nothing less than the sweetest sound ever committed to vinyl.
He’s at his peak on Ace Of Spades, intro-ing the song with that simple, two-note riff and sliding upwards as the guitars join in.
13. The Who - My Generation
(from My Generation, 1965)
After two verses in what is effectively the first punk song ever written, you can hear one of the first ever bass guitar solos. It’s a still-stunning essay in four parts, played on a Fender Jazz by John Entwistle.
It’s not that the solo is unplayable (although it’ll still give you a few problems): the remarkable thing is that it happened at all, in an era when the bass guitar was regarded solely as a supporting instrument. We owe a lot to the late, great Entwistle.
12. Cream - Politician
(from Wheels Of Fire, 1968)
Fusion before the term had been invented, Politician was the sound of Bruce, Baker and Clapton (as well as lyricist Pete Brown) stretching their chops idly in between mega-hits.
Jack Bruce’s bassline walks languidly through this four-minute track, demonstrating – as all his lines do – that class is always effortless and that only fools show off. Listen out for the miraculous tone he delivers, too.
11. Muse - Hysteria
(from Absolution, 2003)
Chris Wolstenholme's fingerstyle precision on the bassline that opens and pins down Hysteria has to be heard to be believed.
Although it’ll take anyone a while to master, composed as it is of multiple high-register hammer-ons, the real challenge while playing it is keeping it clean while the massive distortion it requires threatens to swamp any clarity. Good luck!
10. Jaco Pastorius - Come On Come Over
(from Jaco Pastorius, 1976)
When Jaco wrote his first solo album, he made the unselfish decision to write actual full-band songs rather than just recording a bunch of bass solos – and after the gobsmacking opener Donna Lee you’ll find this song, a laid-back funk/soul workout in which his bassline is prominent but never overpowering.
Catchy to the Nth degree and partially played in unison with the electric organ, this spiralling, zippy line both drives and anchors the song.
9. Yes - Roundabout
(from Fragile, 1971)
Chris Squire did more for the art of the progressive-rock bassline than any other bass player apart from Paul McCartney and Tony Levin, and on Roundabout, he hit an early peak.
The gritty tone of this bassline only enhanced its snappy, fast-fingered qualities, and it’s energising just keeping up with the many changes the line goes through as the song changes form.
Staying on top of the dizzying keyboard and vocal acrobatics, Squire’s fast-moving part is a high point in the early prog canon.
8. The Beatles - Come Together
(from Abbey Road, 1969)
How do you make a song intro out of a couple of bass hammer-ons, some studio echo and a bit of wooden percussion? Like this.
By 1969, Paul McCartney had taken his mastery of the bass guitar to levels that most people could never access, largely by focusing on songwriting and not worrying too much about whether the bass sounded right or not.
In doing so, he made his bass parts – all of them – sound perfect, even when they lacked a real presence in the Fab Four’s wacky old album mixes. This song is, perhaps, the pinnacle of his bass playing.
7. Queen - Another One Bites The Dust
(from The Game, 1980)
A-G-E, E, E, right? Then E-E, E, G, E, A… and repeat. That’s how you play one of the most recognized basslines of all time.
Often touted as the moment when Queen ‘went disco’, abandoning their glam-rock and proto-heavy metal roots, Another One Bites The Dust (or ‘Duster’ as Freddie Mercury actually sings it) was more akin to a funk tune.
Granted, John Deacon didn’t apply slap or pop to the line, but in terms of sheer in-the-pocketness this beautifully warm, clean line has few equals.
6. Led Zeppelin - Ramble On
(from II, 1969)
John Paul Jones had big cojones when he wrote the bassline to Ramble On. First, he stepped all over Jimmy Page’s gorgeous acoustic intro with a fantastic ascending motif in the upper register.
Then he threw in a three-note lick after the first line of the chorus (after “Ramble on!”) which in turn sets up a bar in which he performs very fast hammer-ons, making the bass the focus of the line when there’s plenty going on already – not least Robert Plant’s wailsome vocal.
Maximum respect to him for stamping his presence onto the biggest stadium-folk-blues-rock act of all time.
5. Pink Floyd - Money
(from The Dark Side Of The Moon, 1973)
Roger Waters, never a technician in the classic sense when it came to bass, excelled himself as a songwriter with this world-class bass part – mostly written in 7/4, apart from the bit with the guitar solo, when you can relax because it’s in 4/4.
The extreme clarity of the line – and the hellish cacophony of cash registers against which it appears – makes it a mandatory part for all prog-loving bassists to learn.
However, even if you can’t play it, you can still marvel at the luscious early-'70s production afforded to the Dark Side LP. Dark… so very dark.
4. The Stranglers - Peaches
(from Rattus Norvegicus, 1977)
Two seconds into Peaches and you’ll know what song you’re listening to; five seconds later, you’ll be cursing Jean-Jacques Burnel for his talent and wondering how you can get that tone yourself.
You can use a guitar amplifier, of course, like he did when he was young, ignorant and skint, or you can try a judicious bit of overdrive with plenty of high-mids for that nasty-but-nice punk sound.
30-plus years after its release, Peaches has become iconic on several levels: for bassists, because of that intro; for punks, old and new, because of the song’s perfect blend of perverse attitude and anti-establishment sneer; for musicologists, because it covers so many genres (that’s a reggae drumbeat there, you know); and for lovers of the 1970s because it encapsulates those troubled times so well, with a precise line in sarcasm and a banned sleeve.
3. Stanley Clarke - School Days
(from School Days, 1976)
Throwing everything into the mix and changing the face of bass playing in doing so, Stanley Clarke’s legendary School Days features superfast pizzicato, razor-sharp pops, huge string bends and his usual disregard for convention.
The song remains an object lesson for anyone interested in the inner workings of fusion bass, and a reminder to all of us that no matter how much we think we know about our instrument, there’s always more to learn. A lot more, in this case.
2. James Brown - Sex Machine
Never known by its full title – Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine – James Brown’s ineffable recruitment drive for the funk was driven by the playing of Bootsy Collins and his brother Catfish, whose guitar line accompanies the bass.
The song is Brown’s, of course, but without Bootsy’s vibrant, insistent line, Sex Machine (a provocative title 49 years ago) would have been half the beast it remains today. Truly, nobody plays it like Bootsy plays it…
1. Chic - Good Times
(from Risqué, 1979)
It would be cheap to suggest that Good Times represents Bernard Edwards’ finest playing, as his career was full of moments of pure genius such as this one.
However, the unparalleled bassline in this song is probably his best-known work, and so many of us have learned from it that it’s impossible not to include it in the higher echelons of this list.
Wise indeed is the man who knows that the sum of all bass-centric wisdom lies not in the moshpit nor at the blues club – but at the disco.