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Best 70s Basslines: 10 Iconic Riffs That Defined The Decade
List & Guides

Best 70s Basslines: 10 Iconic Riffs That Defined The Decade

From militant funk grooves to post-punk drones and complex riffs, the best 70s basslines inspired generations of players.

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The 70s was the decade in which the bass guitar really came into its own. Developments in funk, prog rock, and post-punk brought the instrument out of the shadows and into the foreground, while radical new playing techniques were pioneered, changing the sound of the bass forever. From Larry Graham’s thumping slap bass to the hypnotic drone of Peter Hook, these are the ten best 70s basslines: decade-defining riffs that made generations of players pick up the bass.

10: PiL: Public Image (Virgin, 1978)

Another late-70s new wave hit driven by a ridiculously simple bassline. Jah Wobble was a relative newbie to the instrument when it came to recording Public Image, but, like a true punk, he wasn’t about to let a lack of technical ability hold him back from making great music. This riff rumbles away without any change for the duration of the track, yet its repetitiveness serves as a perfect bed for John Lydon’s yammering howl, as well as Keith Levene’s shimmering guitar work. The stark, razor-sharp minimalism of Public Image would go on to define Lydon’s post-Pistols group, and obliterated any assumptions that PiL would be a mere Sex Pistols rehash.

9: Herbie Hancock: Chameleon (Columbia, 1973)

Proof that, even in the 70s, a good bassline didn’t have to be played on a bass guitar. Recorded by Hancock on an ARP Odyssey synthesizer, the chunky quack of this unforgettable riff marked a turning point in the history of jazz and propagated a generation of interactions between jazz and funk, helping to creating the jazz-fusion world in the process. On this occasion, the synthesizer lent the song an otherworldly, space-age quality that a standard four-string bass guitar simply couldn’t achieve. The effect is like Soul Train on the Soyuz.

8: Talking Heads: Psycho Killer (Sire, 1977)

Sometimes, three notes is all it takes to make a classic bassline. Tina Weymouth’s refreshingly simple riff provided the backbone to Talking Heads’ debut single, which shot up the charts due to its stripped-back funk feel – as well as an eerie synchronicity with the “Son Of Sam” murders in the USA. Nevertheless, this new wave staple would become one of Talking Heads’ signature tunes and one of the best basslines of the 1970, and will now be familiar to a whole new generation of teenyboppers thanks to Selena Gomez. Check her 2015 hit Bad Liar to see how the same bassline can work just as well in a style, time, and social context completely removed from the one it was conceived in.

7: Heatwave: Boogie Nights (GTO, 1977)

Written by a London-based group with members hailing from Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Jamaica, Ohio, and Lincolnshire, this disco classic was conceived a world away from New York and Studio 54. While Heatwave only had a handful of hits before keyboardist/songwriter Rod Temperton was recruited by Quincy Jones to write tunes for Michael Jackson, Boogie Nights captured the essence of the disco era with one of the best 70s basslines, punctuated by a nauseous auto wah.

6: Joy Division: Disorder (Factory, 1979)

Unmistakable from the first note, Peter Hook’s taut bassline, played on his beloved Shergold Marathon bass, drove Disorder, which would become one of Joy Division’s most enduring anthems. Seldom had the bass guitar been played like this. Rather than adding “oomph” to the low end of the sonic spectrum, Joy Division and Factory Records producer Martin Hannett utilised the droning, nasal qualities of the instrument’s higher registers to create a needling, nagging effect that cut through the mix and buffed the band’s signature sound to an icy sheen. Any track from Joy Division’s debut album, Unknown Pleasures, could be included on this list of the best 70s basslines, but Disorder stands out for its simplicity and sheer breathlessness.

5: Yes: Roundabout (Atlantic, 1971)

Quietly assuming his place in “Best Bassists Of All-Time” lists, Chris Squire’s dextrous fretboard runs and distinctive sound made him a real musician’s musician, and even won Yes some fans from the anti-prog brigade (Buzzcocks, The Members, and Rage Against The Machine have all spoken of their admiration for the Yes bassist). Learning to play the insane riff from Roundabout has become a rite of passage for young bassists, and the song’s gnarly, crunchy tone makes it instantly recognisable. Squire’s influence even goes as far as popularising the use of the plectrum on the bass. This technique was a rarity in the early 70s, but Squire’s use of the pick ushered the humble plastic triangle into the mainstream for rock bassists.

4: Sly & The Family Stone: Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again) (Epic, 1970)

The beginning of the 70s saw a hell of a lot of social, political, and musical change – upheavals reflected within Sly & The Family Stone. Relationships in the band were rocky, but their music was held down by the rock-solid bass playing of Larry Graham. On Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Again) the feelgood, rock-driven rhythm’n’blues of early hits like Everyday People was ditched in favour of a more visceral, militant funk sound, underpinned by Larry Graham’s game-changing new technique: slap bass. Earning its place as one of the best 70s basslines, this is the track that birthed Graham’s “thumpin’ and pluckin’” style. Funk music would never be the same again. Listen to the version re-recorded as Thank You For Talkin’ To Me Africa, which closed out the group’s 1971 album, There’s A Riot Goin’ On, for another perspective on Graham’s fat, slinky, sexy bass sound that would inspire a whole generation of new players to pay attention to the instrument.

3: Lou Reed: Walk On The Wild Side (RCA, 1972)

In a song dealing with the dark, transgressive underworld of New York City, the bassline in this truly iconic song is unusual in its own right. Herbie Flowers, a prolific session musician, laid down a part on the double bass and then overdubbed a high electric bass over the top, resulting in the distinctive sound of Lou Reed’s first major hit after leaving The Velvet Underground. The meandering glissando of that deep, warm double bass was arguably a key element in establishing Reed’s reputation as a solo artist. By the end of the 70s, it is estimated that Flowers performed on over 500 recordings, for such artists as T. Rex, David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Bryan Ferry, but none were anywhere near as memorable as Walk On The Wild Side.

2: Pink Floyd: Money (Harvest, 1973)

This legendary track from Pink Floyd’s seminal The Dark Side Of the Moon is notorious for its unusual 7/8 time signature, making it not only one of the best 70s basslines, but one of the most complex, too. The jarring rhythm doesn’t sit easily in this psychedelic blues track, and is a perfect example of Pink Floyd’s ability to experiment within fairly conventional rock structures. This aspect of their music was referenced in the tongue-in-cheek title of the band’s 1981 best-of compilation, A Collection Of Great Dance Songs – nobody can dance to the Floyd.

1: Chic: Good Times (Atlantic, 1979)

This quintessential disco mega-hit is one of the most iconic songs of the 70s, and it was underpinned by a nimble bassline courtesy of Bernard Edwards. The Chic bassist’s subtle groove is arguably among the main reasons the song never failed to fill the dancefloor at Studio 54. Its use as a building block in early hip-hop (most notably by Sugarhill Gang, for their breakthrough hit Rapper’s Delight) cemented its place as one of the best 70s basslines, while references by Queen, Blondie and countless others turned this great bassline into a truly immortal one.

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