The bass is all-too-often seen as electric guitar’s less glamourous and easier-to-play big brother. But anyone who has paid attention to songs with good bass lines such as the Billie Jean bass line, the Under Pressure bass line or ventured down the YouTube rabbit hole of the ‘Best Top 100 Bassline Songs of All Time’, will know that the bass is a powerful, dynamic and exciting instrument with the potential to make a great song a classic.
Bass guitar was my gateway to music. At 11 years old, I asked my Dad what the instrument playing the cool line in The Offspring’s ‘Pretty Fly For a White Guy‘ was. He replied that it was the bass guitar, and so began my lifelong obsession with music and songs with good bass lines.
I saved all my pocket money and purchased a cheap Squire P-Bass (racing green with a white scratch plate, if you’re interested!) and I’ve been playing ever since.
Creating any blog entry that hopes to list great basslines is difficult. There are so many songs with great basslines it’s almost impossible.
My search for the best basslines of all time has taken me through iconic basslines in pop and rock and the best funk bass lines. I have documented my findings here and also included them in this Spotify playlist. Have a listen and keep reading to learn more about each song!
One of the early pioneers of rock bass was the one and only John Entwistle. Entwistle embodies a virtuosity on bass guitar that hadn’t really been seen before 1965. The grooving off-beat rambunctious bass matches Pete Townshend’s guitar and rolls alongside Keith Moon’s drums in such an exciting way.
My Generation reached number 2 in the UK charts on it’s initial release. Rolling Stone named it number 11 in it’s list of the 500 greatest songs ever written.
If you’re looking for an example of Entwistle really pushing the envelope, I would encourage you to also check out his incredible solo from the band’s Albert Hall performance in 2003.
Old School punk rock might not necessarily be the first place you’d look for great basslines, but Rancid’s Matt Freeman is an incredible musician. Maxwell Murder is 1 minute and 26 seconds of pure speed with some epic walking bass. The real jaw drop moment comes at 59 seconds where Freeman puts in a perfectly phrased, high speed solo.
The bass track really cuts through the mix with quite a treble-heavy sound. The use of a pick makes the tone really punchy and facilitates those fast trills in the solo.
It’s hard to pin down a specific CHIC tune as having the best bassline but Good Times is definitely one of the front-runners.
Bernard Edwards employs one of the key foundations of groove in bass playing. ‘Three on the E’, three beats on the bottom E string right on the beat at the beginning of a phrase, just has an ability to make you want to move. It has been used expertly by the likes of Queen and Vulfpeck as well.
The rest of the phrase is melodic and engaging. And as the rhythm becomes more complex towards the end of the phrase, the tension and release created by Edwards as he returns to the E is what gives the song it’s danceability.
Miles Davis was initially part of the Bebop scene in New York, playing the Saxophone at lightning speeds for Charlie Parker. But switching to trumpet, he pioneered a brand new style of jazz in his seminal album ‘Kind of Blue’ released in 1959.
The opening track of the album ‘So What’ is now a pivotal example of Cool Jazz. The track centres around the bass which carries the main melody of the head. The studio recording perfectly captures Paul Chambers making the most of the double bass’ ability to slide smoothly between notes.
There aren’t many lists of great bass players that don’t mention Flea. The Red Hot Chili Peppers bass player has made a huge contribution to music. He put bass and drums at the forefront of the Chili’s music. Not to mention his philanthropic contributions including his co-founding of the Silverlake Conservatory of Music. As well as his appearance in films such as Back to the Future II and III, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Big Lebowski.
Choosing one of the many outstanding bass lines from RHCP’s catalogue is difficult. For me, this is one of the best basslines. The pulsing walking bass in the chorus and the slapping verses really groove and make the song.
Staying on the theme of slap bass, Mark King is a figurehead of the technique. One of the Isle of Wight’s great exports, Level 42 had a string of hits in the ‘80s with King’s unique approach to bass playing.
The key to the feel of the bass in Lessons in Love is economy of the index finger ‘pop’ part of the slap. And a lot of muting in the left hand married with a subtle chorus effect. This makes the slap style a lot more dynamic, lending itself to a more galloping feel.
Leaving the low-end, some bass players have on occasion ventured higher up the neck to play lead bass. One the finest examples of this is Peter Hook’s line on Love Will Tear Us Apart, which was such a perfectly placed line that Ian Curtis chose to mirror with the vocal.
Jaco was a one-of-a-kind virtuoso who played with the likes of Pat Metheny and Joni Mitchell. He also released a number of records under his own name – the most famous of which was The Chicken.
A Jazz-Funk blast where Pastorius lays the groundwork before experimenting with the rhythm and notes. Beneath first-class trumpet and drums, the live version that includes steel drum and punchy trumpet is my favourite.
The great basslines that underpin the coda of The Chain were arguably the best basslines ever. Even before it was utilised as the theme for Formula 1’s global television coverage.
Throughout the song the bass is relatively straightforward, sticking tightly to the drum. But as the band exit the final chorus and the drums shuffle, John McVie kicks in with that instantly recognisable riff and lifts the whole song.
Free are a band whose short career doesn’t really get enough recognition. A fantastic group of musicians, Andy Fraser’s bass work on All Right Now is a perfect counterpoint to Paul Kossoff’s guitar. But the real genius of the piece is during the guitar solo.
It definitely joins the list of songs with good bass lines. It breaks down and lands on a bass-led groove in A – the line is fantastic but it’s the semi-hidden root note in the answering phrase that really showcases Fraser’s attention to technique.
Perhaps not one of the most complex basslines in the world, but definitely one of the best basslines ever. John Deacon’s two notes in that rhythm is nothing short of pure genius. The rhythm of the first note leads perfectly to the second and the little pause before returning to the first note gives a little space, which draws the listener into the phrase and ultimately into the song.
The fact that it’s in the higher register also packs a little more punch when they go into the chorus and deacon ventures to the lower notes.
Billie Jean is a straight walk in the bass but the rhythm alongside the electronic drum kit absolutely makes the song, it has really great basslines.
The bassist in question, Louis Johnson, performed on Jackson’s albums ‘Off The Wall’, ‘Thriller’ and ‘Dangerous’ as well as being a permanent member of his group the Brothers Johnson. He also played alongside the likes of Aretha Franklin, Bill Withers, Stevie Wonder, the Carpenters, Kenny Loggins and Stevie Nicks.
In addition to this iconic bassline, Johnson’s bassline on Jackson’s song ‘I keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)’ has underpinned countless rap tracks.
Johnson’s signature sound came from a unique Stingray bass made for him by Leo Fender and he is widely regarded as one of the Godfathers of Slap Bass. This is where his nickname (arguably the best bassist nickname ever) ‘Thunder Thumbs’ came from, and why he is ranked as Bass Player Magazine’s 38th Best Bassist of All Time.
So there you have it, that was our review of the best basslines ever!
The thing all of these great basslines have in common is that they stand apart from the other instruments. They have their own unique part which allows them to fill the rhythm and the frequencies of the overall sound and creates texture and intrigue for the listener. In all of the songs here, the instrument is so integral that to remove the bass would be to kill the song.
Do you agree? What basslines would you have included in your list of the best basslines all of all time?
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