Rock’s Greatest Bass Riffs

It’s time to give the bass its due.

You may not know this, but your intrepid reviewer is also a bass player, and he’s tired of reading about the greatest guitar riffs of all time. With very few exceptions, rock just wouldn’t be possible without the electric bass. So let’s investigate some of the greatest bass parts of all time. These are lines, or riffs, that made a hit a hit, or that inspired thousands of kids to pick up the instrument, or both.

Here, in chronological order, are my picks for the greatest rock bass riffs of all time.

The Animals, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (1965)

Bass doesn’t get more fundamental, and fundamentally important, than this. The bass line pretty much defines the song, and the song (along with the band’s famous version of “House of the Rising Sun”) pretty much sums up The Animals. And the Animals pretty much sum up the British Invasion, which in turn inspired the expansion and longevity of rock music worldwide. See where I’m going here? It’s all about the bass.

Cream “Sunshine of Your Love” (1967)

Sure, Clapton doubles this famous part on guitar when he’s not soloing, but really, who needs ‘im? This is Jack Bruce all the way. I was too young to ever see Cream, but when I eventually did see Bruce play live – with Ringo’s All-Stars – I realized that I’d copped more bass tricks from him than anyone else. And speaking of Ringo…

The Beatles, “Come Together” (1969)

Paul McCartney, the father of melodic rock bass playing. ‘Nuff said. Except I’ll note that this song received the 1969 Grammy for best-engineered recording. George Martin and the band were inspired to studio greatness by Paul’s bass part. Obviously.

Jethro Tull/J. S. Bach, “Bourée” (1969)

“Lead bass” came into its own with Tull’s arrangement of this well-known Bach tune. Of all the jazzy “walking” bass lines that have been put in the service of a classical piece played by a blues-based rock band that would go on to win a heavy metal Grammy, this was the finest. And the chordal solo near the end blew my mind when I first heard it.

Sugarloaf, “Green-Eyed Lady” (1970)

Sugarloaf got a couple of other songs on the charts, but only this psychedelic gem had real staying power. Why? The kick-ass bass part, of course. It’s so much fun to play that bass players often kick into it during jam sessions. And thus is the greatness that is this bass line passed down from generation to generation of unsung four-string heroes.

Lou Reed, “Walk on the Wild Side” (1971)

Bass chords: drug-fueled New York City multitasking at its best.

Bob Marley, “Stir It Up” (1972)

The quintessential reggae bass line, this one turned a simple, happy three-chord pop tune into an anthem for the ages that went way beyond the specificities of its national character.

Pink Floyd, “Money” (1973)

Psychedelic bass heaven, in 7/4 time.

Barney Miller theme (1975)

The opening bars of this jazzy number (written by Jack Elliott, who also composed the bass-heavy theme for Night Court) inspired many a fledgling bottom feeder. Thanks to the bass, this TV theme song was hip in an era when TV theme songs usually weren’t.

Fleetwood Mac, “The Chain” (1977)

Sure, classic disco music had a lot of excellent, prominent bass playing, but it wasn’t till decades later that we could look back and admit that disco – the real stuff, played by actual musicians – was pretty damn good. No, for kids growing up in the late seventies it was this haunting anthem that made the bass a full citizen of the musical universe. The exposed bass line at the end, with the drums and electric guitar creeping in over it, symbolized as well as anything the rumbling angst that seemed to define this band’s very existence.

Elvis Costello, “Pump It Up” (1978)

This one did exactly that for many bass players, proving that you could drive a great pop song with a fast, original and extremely active bass line that no one had ever heard before.

The Police, “Walking On the Moon” (1979)

Sure, the song is only pseudo-reggae, but the bass line helped make it an instant classic. All hail the Stingster!

Pete Townshend, “Gonna Get Ya” (1980)

To most bass players who admire him, John Entwhistle is more of a god than an actual influence – and that’s a good thing. It also partly explains why there are no Who songs on this list. (Entwhistle’s famous fills on “My Generation” are a solo, not a riff.) But Pete Townshend makes his mark anyway with the bass-driven jam at the center of this 1980 classic of over-the-top, theatrical, non-syncopated rock, inconceivable without the bass line.

Interregnum: The 1980s. Musically, I missed most of the 80s. In college, in the first half of the decade, my friends and I weren’t listening to the radio, and in any case, Journey, Van Halen and the like didn’t float my boat. Then, in the late 80s, I was too busy learning to play the bass – or something. I really don’t remember. If there are important rock bass parts from the 80s, feel free to fill me in in the comments section below. Just don’t call me late for dinner.

Green Day, “Longview” (1994)

This one inspired a new generation of bass players, and it’s a helluva lot of fun to play even if you can’t quite get Mike Dirnt’s sharp, clangy sound.

Beck, “Devil’s Haircut” (1996)

The fuzzed-out guitar insists on playing along, but the unforgettable four-note bass line is what makes this song a hit. Four strings. Four notes. Kozmic, man. OK, it’s Beck – probably used a synth bass. It’s still cool.

White Stripes, “Seven Nation Army” (2003)

Goofy and raucous, this song had the first unforgettable rock bass line of the twenty-first century – from a band without a bass player. (One other major rock band didn’t have a bass player: the Doors. But that was because Ray Manzarek played organ, including the bass line. Jazz organ trios don’t have bass players either, for the same reason.) Local H was another two-person band that managed without a bottom-ender, but the White Stripes are the only one that became huge. And this bass line is the reason they’re not a flash in the pan.

And there you have it – my non-definitive, incomplete, subjective, but staggeringly brilliant list of great bass parts. Think about how empty and meaningless your favorite music would be without the bass. And never forget the immortal words of Spinal Tap:

Big bottom
Big bottom
Talk about bum cakes
My girl’s got ’em

See? You gotta have that bottom end.

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6 Responses to “Rock’s Greatest Bass Riffs”

  1. Paul says:

    No Tom Hamilton on “Walk This Way”? Has to be one of the best bass lines ever.

  2. Metalbass says:

    I believe that the greatest bass riffs are Radar Love, Murders in the Rue Morgue (Iron Maiden), and Onslaught (Blues Traveler).

  3. Twomas says:

    I’ve started to create a List of Great Rock Songs Without Bass.
    There are a few great songs that manage without the bass.

    Genesis – I can’t dance
    Lenny Kravitz – American Woman
    Queen – We will rock you
    Prince – When doves cry

    Well… it’s yet to be finished. Rock on!

  4. BassJumper says:

    What about ‘Schism’,’Forty-Six and Two’, or ‘Vicarious’ by Tool, they kind of set the rhythm for the whole songs and they’re pretty dang iconic if you ask me.

  5. BassJumper says:

    Oh yeah and I realize that this song is unpopular but the bass walk makes it a great song to jam to and therefor worth mentioning just to learn if not to put on the list- Zebrahead’s ‘The Anthem’ Check it Out and Play It!

  6. BStringThing says:

    I support the promotion of Entwhistle to divinity. For heavenly inspiration try to play the bass line from “The Dirty Jobs” on the album Quadrophrenia.

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