I have a confession to make: I’m a bass girl.
There’s just something about bass that appeals to me, and second to excellent songwriting, a good bass line tends to put me in favor of a song. There are so many notable bassists out there, many of whom have been recognized consistently over the years for their talents as well as the memorable bass lines they’ve given us. Basslines themselves vary. Some drive the entire song, so prominent that they outshine all the other instruments. Others are solos in the middle of a song that give the tune the kick it needs to go from okay to oh-my-god. Still others are just technically superior and carry the whole song throughout, perhaps not the star of the song, but keeping the groove going strong.
You can easily go online and search for lists of the best basslines and/or bassists, and these lists are usually similar. You’ll probably find Pink Floyd’s “Money” for its lead bass by Roger Waters, or the Who’s “My Generation” for John Entwistle’s excellent bass solo, or “Dazed and Confused” by Led Zeppelin for John Paul Jones’s heavy, ominous thumping. You’ll find a lot of bands mentioned just once for one particular song, maybe two, usually a top hit or single for the group. And depending on where you find your list, the songs included might vary by genre or generation of musician. Metal bass is very different from jazz bass or funk bass, after all.
I intend to keep this fairly simple by looking at some notable bands and their lesser appreciated bass lines, i.g., songs that might not appear on your typical list but which are still fantastic. In order to not complicate things, I’m going to focus on (mostly) well-established “classic rock” artists in the music lexicon (no slight intended to any of the Jaco Pastorius, Carol Kaye, Bootsy Collins, Flea, and Alex James fans out there) and highlight some of their great songs that deserve a little more recognition for the bass work.
1) “Going Mobile,” The Who (1971)
John Entwistle is almost always at the very top of any list of great bassists, or at the very least in the top five. And there’s no doubt that he deserves such accolades. In a band that had so many strong musicians fighting for dominance in every song, he not only held his own, but practically enforced the notion that a bass could be a lead instrument. While he’s usually noted, as mentioned above, for his “My Generation” solo, he is also lauded for his playing on other top Who songs, such as “Baba O’Riley” and “5:15.” But having heard this tune on the radio the other day, I realized how strong a player he truly is even when he’s not fighting for the spotlight. “Going Mobile” might not be his best bassline, but still Entwistle shows off his melodic playing and consistency with aplomb.
2) “Wicked Annabella,” The Kinks (1968)
The Kinks weren’t known for being a bass-driven band although many of their hits had prominent bass lines, such as “Sunny Afternoon” and “Waterloo Sunset,” and later “(Wish I Could Fly Like) Superman.” The band went through its fair share of bassists over the years, but the song in question is by their original bass player, Pete Quaife. In this particular track off the now-celebrated The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, Quaife borrowed from Bach to create a nifty little bass line in the middle of the song which definitely brings the eerie track to another level.
3) “Let Me Roll It,” Paul McCartney & Wings (1973)
Macca is another artist on the top of bassist lists, and when discussing basslines, he’s often noted for the Beatles’ track “Come Together,” although I’m quite fond of his work on “Dear Prudence,” personally. Now this track, from his time with Wings, isn’t particularly exemplary as far as bass lines go; in fact, it’s downright simple. But the reason it’s on this list is because its simplicity and prominence make the song. And it is a fantastic song. The bass line gives it that Motown flavor that complements McCartney’s vocals so well. Another great bass track off Band on the Run is “Mamunia.”
4) “Trampled Underfoot,” Led Zeppelin (1975)
Like Entwistle, it’s hard to choose just one John Paul Jones bass line when almost every Led Zeppelin song could be picked. Most lists feature “Dazed and Confused” for its popularity and the fact that it’s easily recognizable by even casual rock fans. Much like the members of the Who, Led Zeppelin’s members gave off an air of internal competitiveness in their boastful playing, and of course, it was to their advantage. In “Trampled Underfoot,” Jones adds some funky jazz to the mix in this upbeat rocker with great effect. Unfortunately, in concert Jones only played keyboard on the song (on which he is also an exceptionally skilled player), but managed to maintain the bass sound through that arrangement.
5) “Heart of the Sunrise,” Yes (1971)
Prog rock has always been genre full of exceptional musicians, bassists especially. Chris Squire was one of the greatest bassists to ever grace the genre or rock in general. “Roundabout” is typically honored on “best bass lines” compilations since it was possibly one of their most commercially recognizable tunes in a world that still doesn’t give prog its due credit. But for the prog bass aficionado, there’s nothing better than the 10-plus minutes of absolute bliss offered in this alternative offering from Fragile.
6) “Chapter 24,” Pink Floyd (1968)
This is perhaps the most unusual choice I could have made for the list and definitely the most obscure. Pink Floyd is a colossal band in mainstream music, but their roots were all but conventional. While Roger Waters’ bass playing is usually summed up with “Money,” I believe that his earlier work, with Syd Barrett at the helm of the group, was his most interesting and creative. Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the band’s introductory album, is the quintessential ’60s art-rock song and contains a lot of great bass work, often reminiscent of the groovy, hip-London scene like something out of the Austin Powers vision of that era. “Chapter 24” actually features very little bass, but the short burst of bass that follows each verse is like a wave of magic ready to give you goosebumps.
7) “Lost in the Supermarket,” The Clash (1979)
This list concludes with two bands who are almost entirely built on bass. The Clash exemplified the rise of punk at the latter end of the Seventies, and their seminal album, London Calling, is perhaps almost perfect. Although bassist Paul Simonon isn’t usually placed terribly high on most bassist lists, the title track to the album usually ranks high in regard to bass lines. But in reality, that song is just the tip of the iceberg. The album is a bass lover’s dream, featuring many fast-paced bass riffs that are incredibly melodic. It was hard to pick just one track to use as an example, but “Lost in the Supermarket” features some creative ascending and descending combinations.
8) “Strange Town,” The Jam (1979)
In the same year as London Calling, the Jam took the best of the punk and new wave movements with a touch of mod-revival to give us some of the best London R&B of the decade. Unlike many of the other entries on this list, the Jam aren’t quite as established, and in fact only really ever broke through on an underground level stateside. But much like their contemporaries, the Clash, their discography heavily featured bass. Predecessors like Entwistle are evident in the style of bassist Bruce Foxton’s playing, but much like Simonon, the licks also have a distinct reggae, funk, and even a slight prog influence. “Strange Town” is a song to let loose to, and the bass drives your desire to move.
Obviously, there’s not enough time in the day to even touch upon other great bass lines or bassists. I didn’t even touch on other notables like Jack Bruce, John Deacon, Geddy Lee, James Jamerson, etc., and it would take ages to even go over the technical idols in the more niche corners of music and current groove-makers.
But that is where you can chime in. Feel free to share your favorite bassists or bass lines in the comments!