It’s widely accepted that a bassist plays the anchor role in a band. They’re traditionally solid and dependable, but they’re meant to support rather than command the limelight. Down the decades, though, some of the most forward-thinking bassists have ripped up the rulebook to create basslines which can define songs and even alter the course of music. In celebration of this elite four-string fraternity, Dig! salute a selection of groundbreaking tracks built on the best basslines of all time.
20: Muse: Hysteria (2003; bassist: Chris Wolstenholme)
Once described by MusicRadar as “a supernova of 16th notes”, Chris Wolstenholme’s savage, fuzz-laden bassline cuts through Muse’s 2003 hit Hysteria like a particularly malevolent electric carving knife. Indeed, it’s the relentless aggression of his playing which really impresses here. Where many other bassists would have chosen to take their foot off the gas, Wolstenholme keeps on pumping, creating an absolute behemoth of bassline to drive a song which remains a live favourite to this day.
19: Pink Floyd: Money (1973; bassist: Roger Waters)
The Dark Side Of The Moon classic Money is one of Pink Floyd’s most iconic – and accessible – songs, and much of that’s down to former leader Roger Waters’ bassline. Compact and cinematic, the song (which also features clever proto-samples of cash resisters and coins jingling) is built around Waters’ cyclical bass motif, which somehow seems jaunty yet menacing all at once. One of the best 70s basslines, it provides the perfect backdrop for the song, which was always Waters’ baby, as guitarist David Gilmour admitted in an interview. “It’s Roger’s riff,” the guitarist confirmed. “Roger came in with the verses and lyrics for Money more or less completed. And we just made up middle sections, guitar solos and all that stuff.”
18: The Jam: A Town Called Malice (1982; bassist: Bruce Foxton)
The fact that The Jam’s reputation rests on the timeless quality of Paul Weller’s songs is indisputable, but Bruce Foxton’s distinctive bass playing was also crucial to the band’s development. Great examples of Foxton’s versatility are littered throughout The Jam’s catalogue, and the powerful, punchy basslines he worked up for songs such as Down In The Tube Station At Midnight and Pretty Green could easily have made the cut for this list of the best basslines of all time. Ultimately, though, the snappy Motown homage Foxton devised to drive his band’s biggest hit, 1982’s chart-topping A Town Called Malice, remains his greatest achievement.
17: Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On? (1971; bassist: James Jamerson)
Arguably the greatest bassist most people have never heard of, the pioneering James Jamerson was a true session giant who played on over 30 No.1 records during the 60s and 70s. Ultra-versatile in his approach, the South Carolina-born musician laid down seminal grooves for many of Motown’s biggest soul and funk stars, and he’s now cited as an influence by bassists as disparate as Primus’ Les Claypool, Metallica’s Robert Trujillo and modern-day session ace Pino Palladino. Jamerson’s work on tracks such as Stevie Wonder’s For Once In My Life and Four Tops’ Bernadette did more than enough to secure his place among the world’s best bassists, but the supple groove he adds to Marvin Gaye’s socio-political classic, What’s Going On?, is the one that truly seals the deal.
16: Lou Reed: Walk On The Wild Side (1972; bassist: Herbie Flowers)
Another session ace, whose CV also includes work with David Bowie, T. Rex and classical/rock fusion act Sky, Herbie Flowers was hired to perform on the sessions for Lou Reed’s breakthrough album, Transformer, held at London’s Trident Studios. While working up Walk On The Wild Side, Reed was impressed by the dark, resonant tone Flowers coaxed from his upright bass, but the bassist then decided to build on it by adding electric bass a tenth above the original acoustic line. Taking no more than 20 minutes to devise, the rich and jazzy figure which propels Reed’s signature hit immediately entered the annals of the best basslines of all time.
15: Talking Heads: Psycho Killer (1977; bassist: Tina Weymouth)
Tina Weymouth’s hypnotic bassline for Talking Heads’ first hit, Psycho Killer, is now one of the most instantly recognisable riffs in rock history. Indeed, her creepy yet insistent rhythmic metre brilliantly supports this spooky post-punk classic, which reflects the thoughts of a serial killer and coaxes out one of David Byrne’s most strained and neurotic vocals. Later Talking Heads records such as Remain In Light and Speaking In Tongues would find the band excelling with increasingly funky and complex material, but in terms of dynamics and sheer spine-tingling tension they’d already peaked with this stand-out from their debut album, Talking Heads: 77.
14: Iron Maiden: Phantom Of The Opera (1980; bassist: Steve Harris)
Unlike many bassists, Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris has never played a background role, and while he may not be his band’s frontman, he’s very much the leader of the gang. Harris’ hands-on involvement is reflected in his musicianship, as his bass playing is never lacking in vitality, commitment or derring-do. He’s written and performed plenty of parts worthy of inclusion among rock’s best basslines, but his contribution to Maiden’s first truly epic song, Phantom Of The Opera, is one of his most dextrous. In a 2020 interview with Louder, Harris revealed he still thinks of it as one of the best Iron Maiden songs, saying “I remember thinking at the time I had something pretty good with that one.”
13: Fleetwood Mac: The Chain (1977; bassist: John McVie)
Some of the best basslines need a nudge from a different medium to underline their epic status – something that’s certainly true of John McVie’s propulsive motif from The Chain. As it underpinned a track from one of the 70s’ best-selling albums, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, McVie’s bass part was hardly obscure, but it reached a whole new audience when used as the theme tune for the BBC’s Formula One motor-racing coverage from 1978 to 1996, and again from 2006 to 2015. This exposure ensured The Chain became highly recognisable to a UK TV audience, and in 2011 it even became the subject of a Facebook campaign to get the song to No.1 for the start of the new F1 season.
12: Public Image Limited (PiL): Public Image (1978; bassist Jah Wobble)
It’s fair to say that PiL’s debut single came bearing the weight of expectation, given that it represented John Lydon’s return to the fold following the messy implosion of Sex Pistols. Public Image, however, didn’t disappoint. Lyrically, it saw Lydon come out fighting (“I shall not be treated as property”), but its sonic attack was especially captivating. Jim Walker’s majestic, Can-esque drumming and Keith Levene’s harsh, metallic guitar were both crucial to the plot, but Public Image drew its inherent power from Jah Wobble’s bassline – a dub-heavy, subterranean rumble which still astonishes today. A UK Top 10 hit on release, Public Image is now regarded as a post-punk classic, and its success has helped sustain Wobble’s adventurous post-PiL career, which has seen him collaborate with artists as disparate as Sinéad O’Connor, Brian Eno and Ronnie Drew from The Dubliners.
11: Sly And The Family Stone: Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again) (1970; bassist: Larry Graham)
Larry Graham’s oeuvre includes work with everyone from his own Grand Central Station through to Betty Davis and Prince, and he’s also notable for being Drake’s uncle. His reputation, however, rests on his remarkable late 60s and early 70s recordings with Sly And The Family Stone, and for his groundbreaking “slapping and popping” style of playing, which has since influenced just about every bassist with a modicum of funk in their DNA. With that in mind, Graham’s entry among the best basslines picks itself, as his gravity-defying contribution to Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again) is the granddaddy of all slap basslines. The one that started the revolution, it’s been frequently imitated but never bettered.
10: The Beach Boys: Good Vibrations (1966; bassist: Carol Kaye)
Very much a woman in a man’s world, the trailblazing Carol Kaye started out playing guitar on Los Angeles’ jazz and big-band circuit, but became a seasoned session musician by 1960, making a name for herself as one of the most in-demand players of the decade that followed, playing on hit records by a staggering array of stellar artists, among them The Beach Boys, Simon And Garfunkel and The Monkees.
During the peak of Kaye’s years of session work, she became part of a stable of elite LA-based musicians (also including drummer Hal Blaine, guitarist Glen Campbell and keyboardist Leon Russell) which went by a variety of informal names, but has since become known as “The Wrecking Crew”. Isolating her finest four-string moment is nigh-on impossible (not least because her work wasn’t always credited), but her swinging bassline underpinning The Beach Boys’ legendary pocket symphony Good Vibrations is as good an example as any of her fearsome talent, and proof positive that she was not only one of the best female bassists of all time, but one of the best bassists, no gender qualifier needed.
9: Led Zeppelin: Black Dog (1971; bassist: John Paul Jones)
To describe John Paul Jones as simply “Led Zeppelin’s bassist” is to do him a grave disservice. After all, Jones was one of London’s session aces before he even joined the band, and his skilful orchestrations and keyboard work also significantly elevated many of the best Led Zeppelin songs, among them the funky Trampled Underfoot and the epic Kashmir.
Nonetheless, Jones was – and remains – a mean bassist, and he was always equal to whatever task Jimmy Page threw his way, whether asking him to riff like a maniac on The Immigrant Song or show off his soul chops on The Lemon Song. In some cases, Jones’ own riffs also set up the band’s greatest moments, perhaps nowhere more so than on Black Dog, from “Led Zeppelin IV”, on which Jones, inspired by Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud album, devised a brilliant, cyclical riff which biographer Keith Shadwick described as “a clever pattern that turns back on itself more than once, crossing between time signatures as it does”.
8: Red Hot Chili Peppers: Around The World (1999; bassist: Flea)
Rated as arguably the most badass bass player of the past four decades, Flea has recorded countless gravity-defying examples of alt-rock’s best basslines, many of which could easily have made the cut here. However, arguably the single greatest example of his dextrous brilliance is Around The World, from Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication album. Clearly thrilled (not for the last time) by John Frusciante’s return to the fold, Flea is on fire throughout, kicking the track into life with an overdriven, hardcore-strength riff before adding a range of snazzy fills during the verse and underpinning the chorus with a languid, soulful part which really makes the song. By our reckoning that’s three of rock’s best basslines – all rolled into one.
7: The Beatles: Taxman (1966; bassist: Paul McCartney)
Paul McCartney is no stranger to receiving plaudits, but the praise tends to focus on his stellar songwriting talents rather than his musical ability. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that McCartney was no slouch as a bassist, and his inherently melodic style showed that his primary instrument could do far more than simply follow the root note. McCartney came into the sessions for The Beatles’ Revolver album having devised exciting bass parts for both sides of his band’s then recent single (Paperback Writer and Rain), and he worked out another brilliant bassline to support the album’s opening cut, the George Harrison-penned Taxman. Economic, melodic and clearly influenced by Motown supremo James Jamerson, McCartney’s bassline carried much of Taxman’s melodic attack, and it later inspired the punchy motif Bruce Foxton devised for The Jam’s No.1 hit Start!
6: The Stranglers: Peaches (1977; bassist: Jean Jacques Burnel)
Jean Jacques Burnel’s low-slung stance and aggressively melodic playing style set the yardstick for all budding bassists during the punk and post-punk eras, and he remains a hugely influential figure. Most of his best basslines (Toiler On The Sea, Nice N’ Sleazy and Norfolk Coast readily spring to mind) combine strength and agility, yet the riff Burnel is most synonymous with came from his band’s attempts to write a reggae song. Propelling The Stranglers’ lairy signature hit, Peaches, Burnel’s bassline clearly wasn’t the work of Jamaican icon Robbie Shakespeare, but these days it’s so familiar it’s almost a part of the firmament. Even now, hearing the deafening cheer erupt when Burnel lays into Peaches’ opening “der-nur-nur” figure at a Stranglers concert is truly something to behold.
5: The Smiths: Barbarism Begins At Home (1985; bassist: Andy Rourke)
The Smiths are widely regarded as one of the greatest “indie” bands, but Andy Rourke was hardly your standard indie bassist. Though very much a team player, Rourke always tried to insert what he called “a tune within a tune” when working up his part for each of The Smiths’ songs, and his contributions were always intelligent and eminently melodic. He was also virtuosic enough to master any number of styles, and a love of funk and jazz shone through on several of the best Andy Rourke basslines, not least on the Meat Is Murder highlight Barbarism Begins At Home, which was anchored by his nifty, Stanley Clarke-esque riff.
4: Queen: Another One Bites The Dust (1980; bassist: John Deacon)
As rock bands go, Queen were especially fearless when it came to cross-pollinating musical styles, but they hadn’t considered taking on the dancefloor until bassist John Deacon came in with his super-funky bass riff for Another One Bites The Dust: a reflection of his love of soul music and the floor-filling hits of disco-funk pioneers Chic.
However, while the band were pleased they’d been brave enough to write a disco song, they weren’t expecting Another One Bites The Dust to yield global success. Indeed, not only did the track top the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks, it also won a Grammy Award and an American Music Award, and it gave Queen their first sizeable hit on Black music stations in the US. The fact Deacon’s infectious riff has since been sampled by everyone from Grandmaster Flash to Wyclef Jean and Gwen Stefani shows just how great an impact the best basslines really can have.
3: The Who: My Generation (1965; bassist: John Entwistle)
He left the showing off (and auto-destruction) to bandmates Keith Moon and Pete Townshend, but John Entwistle’s bass playing was anything but subservient to his Who bandmates’ flashier performing. The man known as “The Ox” let his instrument do the talking throughout his career with The Who, and his playing was always bang on the money. His best bassline? Surely that’s My Generation, The Who’s signature anthem, which galvanised the band’s original mod following with its design-for-life theme. The song offers Entwistle the opportunity to play both rhythm and lead bass – he initially followed Townshend’s chord changes before bursting into the first bass solo ever to make it onto a rock record.
2: Joy Division: Love Will Tear Us Apart (1980; bassist: Peter Hook)
A bassist who’ll never countenance shrinking into the shadows, Peter Hook’s melodic counterpoint style of playing is one of the most distinctive in all of rock history. The tenacious, Salford-born musician’s contributions to both Joy Division’s and New Order’s catalogues has been immense, so choosing just one of Peter Hook’s best basslines is a tough ask. If push comes to shove, though, his work on Joy Division’s signature hit, Love Will Tear Us Apart, just about shades it. Indeed, his main riff isn’t just instantly recognisable, it’s a thing of great beauty on its own terms.
1: Chic: Good Times (1979; bassist: Bernard Edwards)
Bernard Edwards’ funky yet disciplined bass playing was a crucial element of the pioneering New York City disco-funk outfit Chic, whose evergreen hits Everybody Dance, Le Freak, I Want Your Love and Good Times helped define the sound of the late 70s. From a bassist’s perspective, the latter song surely remains Edwards’ masterpiece. A slinky yet muscular motif which was later sampled wholesale for The Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight, it also inspired John Deacon to create his iconic bassline for Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust and encouraged Nigel Harrison to work up his equally svelte contribution to Blondie’s Rapture. Supremely funky and still as catchy as hell, Good Times is a testament to Bernard Edwards’ genius, and it tops our list of the best basslines of all time with pride.
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