Top 10 Great Bass Lines

May, 2002

Bass players are the unsung heroes of rock and roll. Bass is the harmonic foundation upon which a song is built, yet most bass players toil in anonymity while the singers and lead guitarists grab the spotlight. I had the opportunity to meet the bassist for a prominent 70s rock band and when I told him that I thought he never got enough notice for his contribution to the band, he said "Oh, that was by design. The big hair would go one way and everyone would follow them, and then I could slip off by myself in the other direction". This seems to be the typical demeanor of a bass player.

I for one have always been enthralled with bass lines. When I was around 10, I would listen to the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar and become captivated by the wonderful grooves down at the bottom of the mix. While many a great bass player goes by unappreciated by the masses, there is no denying the importance of their contribution. In light of this, I have compiled my list of top ten bass lines in rock or pop songs, in no particular order. Whether it be for the skill displayed or just the catchiness of the line, these all have stood out for me over the years. Believe me, it is extremely hard to narrow it down, but here we go...

1.  Reflections (Supremes)- The Motown sound owes much of its unique character to the nimble, omnipresent bass lines of James Jamerson, who could be heard prominently on nearly every Motown hit and whose playing redefined the instrument. The hardest task is choosing one example out of countless gems. "Reflections" is one of his best and my personal favorite. The bass quietly and hauntingly wraps itself around the lamenting Diana Ross vocal without ever intruding on it, leaving the listener feeling the heartache oozing from this song.

2.  Funk #49 (James Gang)- The muscular bass groove puts the funk in Funk #49. When I was in high school, I once listened to this song on my brother's stereo with one of the channels accidentally turned off. Joe Walsh's lead guitar was muted, and all I heard was Dale Peters' magnificent bass, slithering its way out of the speakers and into my ears. It was an experience I never forgot.

3.  Low Rider (War)- The energetic, driving bass line is practically the whole song, which works for me.

4.  Good Times (Chic)- Bernard Edward's bass line in this song more than atones for the many sins of the Disco era. In the late 80s, I was staying in a youth hostel in Budapest, Hungary. A live band was playing in the dance club and all I could hear was the bass line to this song, over and over again. Let me tell you, I was loving it!

5.  Ramble On (Led Zeppelin)- The Zeppelin catalog is littered with classic riffs, and not all of them came from Page's guitar. John Paul Jones had many a great bass lick but this is perhaps his finest work. The mesmerizing, lilting, almost melodic, bass line in the verse gives way to a pounding, throbbing explosion of bass riffage in the chorus, an amazing and beautiful contrast.

6.  Forget Me Nots (Patrice Rushen)- In the post Disco 80s, popping and slapping became synonymous with the bass guitar, and the dexterity and ability of the great bass players was showcased like never before. Nowhere will you find a better example of that style than on this song. The bass work by Freddie Washington is simply awe inspiring.

7.  Spirits in the Material World (Police)- Long before he was churning out self-absorbed lite-rock drivel, Sting was the bassist and lead vocalist for the Police, whose reggae-infected sound opened up lots of opportunities for great bass parts, including this one.

8.  Owner of a Lonely Heart (Yes)- Anyone familiar with this band's extensive body of work knows that this song doesn't even come close to being bassist Chris Squire's most impressive work. Still, "Owner of a Lonely Heart" pulled Yes out of techno-rock dinosaur status and into the pop charts, and in my opinion, the catchy, rock solid bass line had a lot to do with that.

9.  Lithium (Nirvana)- Kurt Cobain was usually the force behind Nirvana's songs, but on this one, bassist Krist Novoselic shines. The bass carries the verse, outlining the unconventional chord structure, and then deftly weaves in and out of the menacing power chords on the chorus.

10.  Love Cats (The Cure)- This snappy number had a jazzy dance hall feel to it, pre-dating the retro-swing craze by more than a decade. It features a tasty acoustic bass which is sure to get your toes tappin'. My sister brought it home during her 'new wave' phase and I loved it immediately.

Well, that concludes my top ten. Rock on, my friends, and remember to turn up the bass!


Brian Fife

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