“The smallest element can be the basis of a cool riff. That’s pretty much how I wrote Sweet Emotion”: Tom Hamilton reveals the inspiration behind one of the most iconic bass riffs in rock

Tom Hamilton and Steve Tyler of Aerosmith
(Image credit: Getty Images)

With all the ups and downs of his many years with Aerosmith, bassist Tom Hamilton is still very proud of all they’ve achieved, and of the band itself. “There’s no book on how to be in a band like this,” he told BP. “It’s just something you have to learn, and I’ve been lucky enough to have done it for a long time.”

The band's catalog includes enough hits to fill out a set list and then some. And while plenty of fans would show up every night to hear Hamilton's righteous Walk This Way and Sweet Emotion grooves, the soft-spoken bassist would always insist on a rigid practice routine to push his bass playing in new directions.

“One thing I found is that when I'm sitting there playing, it's easy to play something and go past it, thinking it was just a musical belch or something. But the smallest element can be the basis of a cool riff, and that can be the basis of a whole song. That was pretty much how I wrote Sweet Emotion – the bass intro was the first thing that came along.”

Sweet Emotion, from 1973's Toys in the Attic, contains one of the great bass licks of all time. The opening figure is right up there with John Entwistle’s breaks on My Generation, and Jack Casady’s opening on Crown of Creation.

The song basically uses five different bass patterns, together with some transitions. Hamilton plays the iconic opening pattern with his 2nd finger at the 12th fret, smoothly rolling across to the G string. During the verse, he plays the first A on the 12th fret of the A string, and then uses the open string to bounce down to the 7th fret on the D string for the rest of the lick. 

For the slides, Hamilton keeps his left hand in the octave position and slides up to the low A with his 1st finger, his 4th finger landing on the octave. Hamilton says this is his favorite part of the tune – what he calls “the droning thing.” 

Musicians Tom Hamilton and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith perform on the Sunset Cliffs Stage during the 2016 KAABOO Del Mar at the Del Mar Fairgrounds on September 17, 2016 in Del Mar, California.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The heavy interlude riff, which is doubled by the guitars, sounds normal enough to the rock-savvy ear, but it’s subtly sophisticated, and uses three different transition licks. The second time Hamilton slides up to get back to the 12th fret, and the final transition ends on the second F#, followed by a 2/4-bar drum fill.

“That middle riff that comes between the verses was actually inspired by Jeff Beck's Rough and Ready, Hamilton told BP. “We had this crude sound system in our apartment; everyone would latch onto a particular record and play it for days, and Rough and Ready was one of those. I’d get the basic feeling of a record in my head, and then I’d want to spit it back out. I wrote pretty much all of the bass and guitar parts for Sweet Emotion.”

Next up, the bass doubles the guitar part, with Hamilton bending the G on beat four up a little to make the lick more bluesy. The final pattern is a variation of the main riff, but transposed to the key of E.

During the band’s Get a Grip tour in the early ‘90s, Hamilton would play a bass solo that led into Sweet Emotion. “I just started doing it one night, and I got a lot of encouragement from the band, which implied a kind of dare: ‘Wow, that was cool-but do you have the balls to do it every night?’ I was shocked at how hard it was to go up there by myself and play. I can sit in my room before a show and come up with a zillion cool licks, but when I get onstage it's not the same. It was scary, but I decided I had thrown my hook into the water and I'd keep fishing.”

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Nick Wells

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.