Guitars

Bass Lines with a Beat

I’ve been a bassist for more than a decade now, and I love to hear new basslines in songs – I guess that makes me something of a bassline nerd. In my estimation, what makes a song great is its bassline, and the features of that particular bassline that make it zing will be particularly unique to the song, which grants a lot of variety. I’m not just creating this guide from memory; I’ve interviewed some of the local music greats and have done extensive research about the topic so that you don’t have to. Enjoy this list of some of the top basslines of all time, so strap in, pull out your bass, and play along if you’re so inclined.

The Bassline in a Nutshell

When crafting a great bassline, an artist has a lot of options. Some basslines will heavily feature the bass guitar, while others may use the bass as a way to accentuate the rest of the instruments. How the song is put together heavily falls back on music theory, and even though the bass might not be the most visible doesn’t mean that the bassline isn’t absolutely integral to the performance.

The bass and the drums are there to establish a rhythm for the song, and in most cases, the bassline also ties everything together so that it sounds good to the listener. Often, just the addition of a single note to the tabs of a song can make or break it, and it’s a testament to the bassist’s and the songwriter’s skill that makes a good bassline standout.

Songs With Amazing Basslines

1) Interpol – Evil


I’ve always been a big fan of NYC’s Interpol, and their former bassist, Carlos Dengler, and while it’s been a few years since he exited the band, I still look back on those years as some of the band’s best. This song, which was featured on the album Antics, has a great lead guitar, but it’s Carlos’s bassline that’s undeniably the star of the song. It rings in from the beginning of the track and really picks up throughout the piece’s three and a half minute runtime. One of the best aspects of this bassline is that it has an almost foreboding air to it, which is perfect for a song titled, “Evil.” In fact, if you love a good bassline like me, check out the entire album – Carlos was in rare form throughout just about every track.

2) Ace of Spades – Motörhead


No “great basslines” list would be complete without Motörhead’s Lemmy, who sadly passed away back in 2015. “Ace of Spades” was definitely their most iconic song, and while the hugely famous guitar riff that plays throughout the song is great, it’s Lemmy’s frantic bassline that steals the show for me. As both the band’s lead singer and their bassist, it’s no surprise that the bass parts of the song really shine through and make a big splash. One of the standout features of this bassline is how energetic it is, and if you watched Lemmy play it, all of that power came through in his performances. This is also one of the few hard rock songs where the bassline isn’t drowned out by the lead and rhythm guitar sections, so it should come as no surprise that this is one track that’s favored by bassists around the world.

3) Smooth Criminal – Michael Jackson


Michael Jackson’s basslines are certainly some of the best aspects of his song, and each member the rotating cadre of bassists that worked on his music became legends in their own right. For this particular song, it was Nathan East that had his opportunity to shine. In addition to his songs with Michael, Nathan is famous for providing the basslines for several top acts including Kenny Loggins and George Harrison. For “Smooth Criminal,” East was certainly in rare form having created a frantic-sounding bassline that is as iconic as the song itself. When listening to this one, you may feel the need to get up and move due to the unique sound, which is accentuated by the clicks that you hear as a result of the bass picking.

4) The Barney Miller Theme – Chuck Berghofer


I know, this isn’t a traditional recorded track that many might consider alongside such greats from artists like Nirvana and Michael Jackson, but for my money, you won’t find a more steady and smooth-sounding bassline. While Barney Miller was definitely far before my time, I’ve since become acquainted with the bassy sound of this opening theme. Chuck Berghofer was responsible for the bass aspect of this song, and the song itself was written by TV legends Jack Elliott and Allyn Ferguson. Berghofer himself is a fairly famous bassist that has had an extensive career working with greats like Frank Zappa. For me, the defining aspect of this song is the deep tones that Berghofer used to craft a musical narrative; it just sounds urban and fit perfectly with the theme of the show.

5) Magic Man – Heart


For me, Dreamboat Annie is one of the best bass albums of the 1970s. This is not at all detracting from the amazing rhythm guitar from Nancy Wilson or the awesome lead from Roger Fisher, but Steve Fossen’s basslines just had a lot more of the power that made the album legendary. One of the coolest aspects of the bassline of “Magic Man” is the fact that the bass is played so slowly and deliberately. As a result, the song sounds more deliberate yet punchy. If you look at the tablature for this song, many of the notes fall on the third fret, but it’s the arrangement of these notes that makes them great. Eventually, around the chorus, Fossen lets loose, and it’s this switch up that makes the song really stand out.

6) Boogie, Oogie, Oogie – A Taste of Honey


I’ll admit, when I first started learning the bass, I thought that I could quickly master songs that I had no right even trying. This song, which was released by A Taste of Honey back in 1978 quickly brought me back to my senses. This is a difficult song to play for most, and it has that disco-friendly jauntiness that I’ve come to love. Janice Marie Johnson, who served as the bassist of the band, really crafted an excellent bassline in their 70s hit. She primarily used finger-style for her performance, and it’s amazing how well this song sounds. This is definitely a song that has some high-speed playing, especially since it’s typically played without a pick. As a song from the disco era, I think that it’s often overlooked by modern bassists, which is a real shame.

7) Fast as You – Dwight Yoakam


I know you’re thinking, “Wow. A country song, eh?” but country, as a genre, has some excellent basslines, especially in some of the classics. This song, which is by Dwight Yoakam, has an almost understated bassline and was performed by Eric Baines. This song was originally released in 1993 and served as a major hit from his third album. This is a song that Mr. Baines played finger-style, and the tabs for the piece illustrate that it takes a lot of spidering around the strings to hit all of the song’s various notes. This is also a song where the bassline is very fast and steady, so there are very few pauses for the bassist to take a rest. One of the features about this song that always surprises me is that I usually end up humming the bassline part of the song rather than the lead or even the vocals.

8) Workin’ Man Blues – Merle Haggard and The Strangers


Yeap, you read that right; we’ve got a second country song in this list of basslines. This song, unlike Dwight Yoakam’s, is from an earlier era of country music. In fact, this song was written in 1969, and Taras Prodaniuk, who was Haggard’s bassist at the time, really dropped a bassline that was perfectly in-line with the bluesy styling of the song. While many of the songs that I’ve featured in this guide are fast-paced and flashy, the bassline in this song is somewhat understated, but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t a work of art. The bass in this song works hard to really lay down a good foundation for the other instruments, which was thanks to the numerous instrumentalists that made up the roster of The Strangers.

9) Badge – Cream


Jack Bruce served up this bass performance, which really helped fill out the iconic sound of the song. In fact, even though the bass blends in seamlessly with the overall sound of the song, it would be sorely missed if the section was suddenly removed. For this reason, this part of the music primarily serves to augment the track, which can be a very important role for a bass section. Since Cream was the vehicle of Jack Bruce, it’s impressive that the bassline isn’t more prominent and in your face, but it was his knowledge of sound dynamics that really made this the legendary song that it is. In fact, Bruce is often considered one of the most gifted bassists of all time, and the fact that he often played with greats like George Harrison and Eric Clapton drives this belief home.

10) Hollywood Swinging – Kool & the Gang


This is one of the funkiest tracks from the 1970s, and the whole song feels like it was built specifically around the jaunty and powerful bassline. Robert “Kool” Bell was the bassist on this track, and he still serves on the band to this day. “Hollywood Swinging” came to the airwaves in 1974 and still serves as one of the band’s most mainstream successes. One of my favorite aspects of the song is how iconic the bassline is; in fact, it’s even been sampled by hip hop artists that range from the 1980’s DJ Kool to Too $hort. The note progression on the song is also very quick and frantic, which is perfect for the funk genre.

11) Come as You Are – Nirvana


This is a song that was released during 1992 on the band’s second album, which was entitled Nevermind. Though this is a great all around song, the part that stands out the most to me is the bassline. The bassist in the band, Krist Novoselic, has an amazing bassline that he plays during the entire song. It is not that complicated to play, but it is very memorable, especially if you like Nirvana as a band. This song hit number 82 on the list of the 500 greatest songs since you were born, and it even hit 452 for the best songs of all time.

12) Love Will Tear Us Apart – Joy Division


Joy Division is an English Rock Band that was that made this song and recorded it to be released in June of 1980. The song’s lyrics represent the feeling that the lead singer was having before he committed suicide in May of the same year. After Ian Curtis’ death, his wife had the phrase “Love will Tear us Apart” inscribed on his gravestone. In this song, Algis Kizys played the bass, and it is a very simple bassline that simply repeats over and over again. I find that once you get the bassline of this song down pat, it can easily be played without much effort.

13) Blue Monday – New Order


One of the things that I love so much about this song is the bassline that goes with it. It is a synth bassline that was reimagined from Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real.” It was originally released in the year 1983 as a 12-inch single, and then later in 1985 as a seven-inch single. This song appeared on the band’s second album, which was called Power, Corruption, & Lies. The song is slightly longer than four minutes, but the beat of the bassline is what really stands out as unique. Many of the chords in the baseline are on two frets, which makes it even easier to learn to play.

14) Feel Good Inc. – Gorillaz


Recorded in the year 2005, this song was released on the band’s second album, Demon Days. The bassist for the band is Jason Cox, and during this song, he really stepped up his game a bit. I love the repetitive nature of this bassline, and the reason that it sounds so great is that once you learn to play it once, all you need to do is repeat it to get it down. In the UK, this single hit number two for a while, and in the US it was number 14. In fact, it was on the top billboard list for eight consecutive weeks.

15) Under the Bridge – Red Hot Chili Peppers


I love Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the bassline in under the Bridge is one of the most memorable ones that I can think of. Released in 1992 on the band’s fifth studio album, this one became one of the most recognizable parts of Flea’s bass career. Though the entire set up of the song is great, the video is what caught the attention of the mainstream and brought attention to the bassline that we all love today. After Frusciante’s return to the band in 1998, the fans really brought this song back to the forefront. Having the original four members who wrote the track did it once again.

16) Orange Crush – R.E.M


In this nearly four-minute song, this bassline that you hear is really emphatic and full of expression. As an alternative rock song that was not actually released in the US, it managed to reach the top of the chart in both mainstream and modern rock charts that gave top 50 lists. In fact, the song stayed at number one for eight weeks. As part of the band’s sixth studio album, it was actually released on album in 1988. Mike Mills, who was their bassist though out their time on top, was one of the best-known bassists in the alternative rock genre.

17) Superfreak – Rick James


Rick James, King of the 80s, is one of the musicians that had a bassline in his songs Super Freak, which was released in 1982. Overall, the song hit it big, and it remained on the top 40 charts for 10 weeks in a row, many of those weeks staying alive at the above number five on many of the charts. In fact, it was actually nominated for a Grammy in the year 1982. The bassline is very constant in this song, which makes it memorable.

18) Golden Years – David Bowie


This song, Golden Year, is a very poppy song that has a great arrangement as well as a great bassline that that was recorded by David Bowie in the year 1975. It was originally released as a single version, but in the following year, the full version of the song was released. As the bassist for the song, George Murray, played the rhythmic bassline that we all grew to love. The single was slightly longer in length than the original song, but it was cut to make sure that it kept the attention of the audience.

19) Another Brick in the Wall – Pink Floyd


This has been a great song since it came out in the year 1979. In fact, the bassist Roger Waters actually wrote this song, and it is no surprise that the bassline is epic in the song. The song was designed to be part of a three-part protest song that stood up against the schooling at the time. The three parts are only about eight and a half minutes long, and they can easily be broken down into their own sections. This song was nominated for a Grammy, and on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, it hit number 375.

20) Serpentine Fire – Earth, Wind & Fire


This song is amazing, and it has a great bassline to boot. First released in 1977 by the great band Earth, Wind & Fire, the song soon hit the number one spot on the Billboard Hot Soul Songs. In fact, it spent an entire seven weeks in a row at the top of this list. The song is only about three minutes and 50 seconds, but the funk and disco combo that it brought to your home, made it unforgettable.

Wrapping it Up

If you’re grooving to a song, most likely, it’s not the lead or even the rhythm that’s your bopping your head to; it’s the bassline. For many, this part of the music is just what makes it pop, and a good bassist understands just how to play with the right level of resonance and warmth so that you can groove along. Fortunately, there’s been a wide variety of top-tier bass songs in the last 50 to 60 years of modern music, and you’d be amazed about the sources of some of these classics.

I hope that you enjoyed this roundup of some of the best basslines with a beat. Each of these songs should be considered a legend in its own right and each has something special in its bassline that sets it apart from its contemporaries. Do you have a favorite bassline? Feel free to comment and tell us some of the songs that you consider to be great bassline songs that have that near-perfect beat.

 

Sources

  • Rutherford, T. (2019, March 2). Personal Interview
  • Konc, R. (2018, October 23). Country Music’s Top 10 Bass Lines. Retrieved from http://theboot.com/best-bass-lines-in-country-songs/
  • MusicRadar (2017, August 25) The 30 best basslines of all time. Retrieved from https://www.musicradar.com/news/the-30-best-basslines-of-all-time
  • Daveiannacone The 100 Greatest Bass Songs of All Time. Retrieved from: https://hiddenunderheadphones.com/2014/03/10/the-100-greatest-bass-songs-of-all-time/
  • Soghomonian, Talia (2012, June 8) The 10 Greatest Basslines of All Time. Retrieved from: https://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/musics-mightiest-bass-lines-771115#0C47wJ680D2qK1TU.99
  • (2012, February 23) The Barney Miller Theme By Jack Elliott and Allyn Ferguson; A Living, Breathing TV Theme. Retrieved from: https://arnoldfabervibeman.wordpress.com/2012/02/23/the-barney-miller-theme-by-jack-elliott-and-allyn-ferguson-a-living-breathing-tv-theme/

 

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