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Rock’s Greatest Bass Riffs

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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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About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is a Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Culture, where he reviews NYC theater; he also covers interesting music releases. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he visits every park in New York City. And by night he's a part-time working musician: lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado, a member of other bands as well, and a sideman.
  • Anon

    Another one bites the dust

  • zyga

    And Primus?

  • Muzza

    Interesting list.

    What about;
    ‘Stuck In The Middle’ by Stealers Wheel?
    ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’ by Jet?
    ‘Sympathy For the Devil’ and ‘Live With Me’ by the Stones?
    ‘Living On A Prayer’ by Bon Jovi.
    ‘Foreplay’ (and pretty much anything else) by Boston.
    And if you haven’t heard of them, check out the bass playing in Kula Shaker’s stuff.
    Just my $0.02…

  • wetherman

    fell in love with a boy joss stone

  • ferryman

    And you left out Deep Purple�s Rosa�s Cantina… What a horrific crime.

    Lemme demonstrate: Rosa’s Cantina by Deep Purple.

    I rest my case.

  • A7xMaiden

    The Dope Show – Marilyn Manson

  • Bob

    Where’s under pressure???

  • raven

    how do you not have Man in the Box with Alice in Chains / Mike Starr bassist? or Rooster?

  • mark

    a great article and certainly some great bass lines. another one to consider is “sweet emotion” by aerosmith – a great riff

  • lachlan

    What about the bass line from “Hysteria” by muse?

  • KL Newman

    Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Fallettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” should be on this list as Larry Graham was inventor of the slap bass technique.

  • craig

    Love your article, I would include geddy lee of rush, Steve Harris of iron maiden Ross capitulation of journey.

  • Greg

    This list really upset me by the major bass riffs that were omitted. I don’t know all of the musicians, so I’ll just list the songs:
    My Girl by the Temptations
    Billy Jean and Thriller by Michael Jackson
    Good Times by Chic
    Paranoid and Are You Ready by Grand Funk Railroad
    Who Knows by Band of Gypsies (Jimi Hendrix)
    Cold Sweat by James Brown
    Hollywood Swingin’ by Kool and the Gang
    There are many other great bass lines not played by bass guitars (the theme to Peter Gunn, Flashlight by Parliament-Funkadelic and Superstition by Stevie Wonder as examples), but those above should definitely be given their due.

  • RchDwkns

    Seven Nation Army hasn’t got a bassline, It’s the sound is actually created by running Jack White’s semi-acoustic guitar through a DigiTech Whammy pedal set down an octave.

  • whadda

    Seven Nation Army doesn’t have a bassline. it’s completely on guitar.

  • Travis

    What about Pink Floyd’s “Money”?

  • Chris

    I would have included either One Of These Nights or Hotel California by the Eagles. Nice to see mention of The Chain from Fleetwood Mac though. One of the all time best simple bass parts. I also second Ramble On by Zeppelin.

  • GaryR

    Great list, I think I prefer crossroads to sunshine as a bassplayer, allthough its not really a riff, just a great bass line..

  • Hal

    Gotta love Jack Casady’s bass work… his dive-bombing riff in “Let Me In”, and his bass chords on “Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil” are among my favorites.

  • jbharly

    not to put people to the side as much of these are truly great bassist but check out the godfather of bass stanley clark

  • Abe

    Christopher Wolstenholme from Muse has some amazing bass riffs. Check out Hysteria, Futurism, Citizen Erased(when the bass riff starts), Stockholm Syndrome(the base riff at the end), Hyper Music.

    Also check out Crying Lightning by the Arctic Monkeys.

  • harpo787

    I’m surprised by the lack of mention of Geezer Butler from Black Sabbath (I did see someone mentioned him in the comments). As mentioned in the Classic Albums DVD for Paranoid, they often sought to have songs driven by the bass.

  • Riley

    Where in the hell is for whom the bell tolls? Cliff Burton is the single reason I started to play bass.

  • wally

    well you can play it on bass, even though it was originally guitar

  • wally

    im thinking your forgeting nirvana ‘come as you are’

  • Charles Bronson

    As a bass player, its really stupid to limit yourself to only rock music from decades other than the 80’s. That’s like a drummer never using his snare.

  • Sugabeat

    Queen!!! Don’t forget John Deacon!
    Under pressure, invisible man, another one bites the dust, was it al worth it, and many more!

  • Jariba

    wtf, why isnt rush or maiden or anyone of the classic greats up there but freaken green day is, this thing freaken sucks

  • michael mcmanus

    no j.j.burnel? simplistic hear everywhere riffs like “peaches”to the complexity of “genetics” shame on you

  • RJ

    Hey 103 John Martin: Don’t be so shy, I would DEFINITELY add Grand Funk Railroad’s “I’m Your Captain.” Mel Schacher’s work on that song is ridiculous! Also, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Metallica, with the brilliant Cliff Burton on bass.

  • Civilian war riot

    what about primus

  • JD

    Wanted to add my two cents in tho I’m not sure how it’s going to go over. I wanted to point out that Victor Wooten did an amazing job with his solo in “Sinister Minister”. That song just floors me every time I listen to it.

  • gabe

    I would add The Damned’s “History of the World Part One” and “Neat Neat Neat”: Paul Gray and Captain Sensible. “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and many others from Joy Division/New Order from Peter Hook. Also “Barbarism Begins At Home” from Andy Rourke of the Smiths.

  • hi,
    thanks for the list!
    an inspiration for the guitar/bass lessons I give.


  • Po

    Re: above, Argue the toss about the music style

  • Po

    Stratus – (Billy Cobham) by anyone who can hold it together properly, with the drummer (whoever it may be)

  • Richie

    How could Hysteria by Muse not be on this.

    Listen to the first few seconds of that song and the base will bring orgasm to your ears.

    Also Futurism by Muse has an amazing bassline as well.

    Listen to them and I promise the base will hypnotise you.

    I’m sure you will agree that they should be on the list once you have listened to them.

  • Leaux

    I apologize for and withdraw the phrases “real bass player” and “not a bass player,” which are too personal. I should have just said “here are five of my favs.”

  • Leaux

    If some real bass players out there can’t come up with fifty better than mine, I’ll be surprised.

  • Leaux

    Ok, re: my comment that “This guy is not a bass player,” let me just cite five, and there are many, many more:

    1)Free: All Right Now
    2)Who: My Generation
    3)Jethro Tull: Bouree
    4)Mayall/Larry Taylor: Off The Road
    5)Zep: Heartbreaker

  • Leaux

    This guy is not a bass player. Too many omissions to mention.

  • What about Adam Clayton with U2s’ “New Years Day”? What A Drive!!

  • Katie

    Good collection. However, you missed Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire”. That bass is effing EPIC.

  • charles briscoe

    Here are two more who did solid work: Noel Redding and Felix Pappalardi

  • charles briscoe

    of all the really good bass players i’ve heard the work of joe osborn (aquarius/let the sunshine in) always blows me away. what a talent. the list of work he did is as long as your arm. nokie edwards of the early ventures did good work too.

  • Bill

    Doesn’t anyone know Donald “Duck” Dunn????

    What a bunch of dweebs……

  • Sting’s ‘Walking on the Moon’ Bassline is a simple but class line I think, among many other’s he came up with.

    Anyone into ‘flashy’ Bass Playing? Check out the album ‘Road Games’ by Allan Holdsworth with the amazing ‘Jeff Berlin’ on Bass.

    Rock solid when needed but then he goes off on a crazy tangent. Its absolutely manic in parts and all perfectly controlled.

    The album is sorta heavy ‘Jazz Rock’ I suppose you could call it. Let’s not even mention the guitar – that you won’t believe if you haven’t heard Holdsworth before.

    Drums are 10 out of 10 aswell from a guy called ‘Chad Whackerman’ – he was only 19 or so when it was recorded in ’84.

    Takes a bit of getting used to, many people I know either love it or hate it.

    The neighbours mightn’t like it :). guitanorak

  • Brian

    Great pics here of course. But while there is so many to name all based on opinion and popularity, I would have for sure added ‘Red Hot Chile Peppers’ (Under the Bridge). Great riff by flea. If you’re really interested in base playing and would like to dig into the great old underground, be sure to check out a player named Victor Wooten. His bleend of funk, soul and super-fast licks will blow your mind. Check him out on youtube. Happy holodays to all.

  • DuWayne

    Great ear my friend. I love every song on your list. I am a rock bassist. However at this time I can’t get Malcom Foster’s work on the Pretenders album Learning To Crawl out of my mind. His lines on My City Is Gone perfectly underscores Chrissie Hydes’ laments of the degenerative change she sees in her hometown. In the pocket with percussion it sets the mood for a clasic song. A great listen.

  • Dustin

    I agree with what you said about John Entwistle, but I still think that a song like “The Real Me” or “Dreaming From the Waist” deserves mentioning because they weren’t solos; they were basslines.

  • chris

    You forgot the BEST riff of all time

    Dazed and Confused by Led Zeppelin
    John Paul Jones is without a doughbt the best bassit ever.

  • some1

    I think one great bass riff is from Christopher Wolstneholme from MUSE with Hysteria.

    That is a great bass riff

  • Vig

    What about “Walking on the moon” by the Police? Absolutely simple yet brilliant!

  • John Martin

    Great list, but I might add “I’m Your Captain” by Grand Funk Railroad

  • Mike Watt.

    The Minutemen.

    End of story 🙂


  • thumbed

    Fishbone – Bonin’ in the Boneyard

    Easily one of the sickest bass lines ever.

  • GMoney Maker

    Kudos Mike the Bass Player –

    Absolutely no disrespect intended, but yall need to check out Maxwell Murder on …and out come the wolves. Then tell me what you think a great bass riff is. That is the definition right there.

    I mean, I love Entwhistle and The Who but everyone who thinks they’re a bass player NEEDS to listen to that riff. PERIOD.

  • This may date me, but the best is “Peter Gunn” by Henry Mancini-it was also used on the Sopranos

  • Mike The bass player

    dude any true bass player would have at least one of fleas and or matt freeman aka best bassist evr on there especially detroit

  • Ok, it’s not a riff, it’s just a slide. But what a slide it is! Chuck Berghofer opens “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'” (Nancy Sinatra) with a great slide on his string bass.

  • AndyBL

    To help fill in the 80’s vacuum (and the mid-sized) US bias; you cannot discuss recognisable bass riffs in the 80’s without Ceremony, This Charming Man and Fool’s Gold. How did you miss these man?
    1- Primo Place, Primo Bass. You cannot have any kind of Bass talk without Peter Hook of Joy Division-New Order, and any riff talk of JD-NO talk without ‘Ceremony’ (top of the pile), and the whole range from ‘Transmission’ to ‘Thieves like us’.
    2 – Andy Rourke for the bass playing on the guitar-bass-combo riff that is ‘This Charming Man’ as well as most of ‘Strangeways’, but right out to to Heaven knows I’m miserable now, Cemetry Gates etc.
    3 – Stone Roses – Fools Gold, classy, funky and cool. Ignited loads of sh!t going on deep into the 90’s as well.

    On a more Rock track, must be some Iron Maiden riffs out there – their bass player was good but did he riff/lead it?

    Great to see so much talk about Bass though, good list & comments. Personally, going back, way back my hero was Chris Squire (but he never had that many popular/memorable riffs) as well as Lemmy (I’d loved him from Hawkwind to Motorhead) but he played it as a guitar so maybe his counts more as guitar riffs.

    Not Only But Also…
    best goddamn bass INTRO ever – Smoke on the Water
    best song about bass – Addicted to Bass – Puretone (Drum’n’bass it maybe, but v. v. cool).

  • EFC1878

    BFAD, not sure Fool’s Gold is a bass riff. I think it’s John Squire. I remember an interview with producer John Leckie saying Squire played the whole thing in one go with no sampling. Mind you, there are so many excellent riffs in that song that we could be talking about different lines.

  • BFAD

    The Stone Roses – Fools Gold!

    Mani had the slinkiest, funkiest groove-aholic bassline; it still melts butter…

  • EFC1878

    Jon, thank you for an interesting, well-written article but in missing out on the 80’s you’ve missed out on the superb Peter Hook’s work with Joy Division/New Order. Listen to Transmission’s opening, New Dawn Fades or his, ahem, interpretation of Ennio Morricone in the biggest selling 12″ disc of all time Blue Monday.

    Mani (Gary Mounfield) put down a couple of classic riffs/lines on the opener and closer of the first Stone Roses album – I Wanna Be Adored and I Am The Resurrection.

    Finally, you could pick out virtually any Yes song featuring Chris Squire to catch some amazing playing but a personal favourite is the fast-paced bass riff in the manic instrumental break in Perpetual Change.

  • ummm

    Umm 7 Nation Army doesn’t have a bass on it. Jack is playing the riff on guitar using a pitch shifting pedal to drop it an octave.

  • chester

    ooh I forgot Live With Me off Let It Bleed too…

    And yes of course it’s all about opinion. Mine is that generally less is more (with the bass) and some of those guys really should pick up a lead guitar 😉

  • Ryan Collins

    I can understand those listed are not the be all end all because the web page would simply get too long to read. But failure to include a few of the greatest rock bass players of all times simply amazes me.

    First, Geddy Lee of Rush. Have you ever listened to him? I’m not talking about the screechy vocals. His bass playing is nothing short of excellent. And he sings and plays keys. Pure talent.

    Next up, John Paul Jones. Simply put, the monster of a rock band Zep was would NOT have happened without him. His jazzy style coupled with Page’s blues style made for a sound that was never equaled.

    Another great player forgotten, Chris Squire of Yes. Where to begin with this thumper? His complicated yet funky bass lines for an Art Rock are unrivaled. Most likely this guy was forgotten because he plays Art Rock, which is black sheep brother in the Rock family.

    So many other players too that have written great bass lines that I believe out do the listed songs. It all boils down to one thing…opinion. And we each have our own.

  • chester

    Anything from this list

    Bill Black Mystery Train (OK it’s a double bass, but it drives the song). As does the double bass in Domino by Roy Orbison but I don’t know who it is.

    Guns Of Brixton – Paul Simonon (and later Fatboy Slim)
    Jumpin Jack Flash – Bill W
    Blitzkrieg Bop – Dee Dee Ramone


  • Here’s a few more:

    Life’s an ocean – The Verve

    Ramble on – Led Zeppelin

    Stay Away – Nirvana

  • mark allums

    I am having a brain spasm at the moment, so I am a little vague here, but: the bass line on that U2 song, whatsthename, on Achtung, Baby, I think. I don’t think of U2 as a great band for bass lines but that one song… Also, any list that fails to mention Geddy Lee or Doug Pinnick (King’s X) is too short.

  • chuck downfield

    Mystery Achievement & Space Invader – Pete Farndon (Pretenders).

    Actually, both of the Pretenders first two albums feature fantastic bass riffs!

  • John

    Wilton Felder-“I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5.

  • Steve

    Also Dale Peters of the James Gang.

  • i agree, absolutely nothing NOTHING can beat “for the love of money” by the O’Jays

    Those of you who are too young will recognize it as the opening to Donald Trumps’ TV show “The Aprentice”

    Period-end of statement

  • Steve

    You can’t leave out Jack Casady and White Rabbit.

    My favorite bass players, being of a certain age, are Casady, Entwhistle, and Bruce. Each has a distinct approach to playing that sets them apart, regardless of the notes played. I also feel that Tiran Porter (Doobies) and Pete Cetera (Chicago) never got the recognition they deserved from the music press. Chicago’s first album is simply awesome.

  • mkmk

    David Essex – “Rock On”

  • Scott from NoDak

    Here are some great bass riffs that weren’t mentioned:

    Once In A Lifetime – Talking Heads
    I Saw Her Standing There – The Beatles
    Rain – The Beatles
    Analog Kid – Rush
    Flashlight – Parliament (does it have to have been done with a guitar?)
    Last Chance on the Stairway – Duran Duran
    Another One Bites The Dust – Queen (overplayed…yea, but you couldn’t get that riff outta yer head)
    I Love A Long Goodbye – Sloan
    Last Train To London – ELO
    Running To You – The Cars

  • Dan

    Going further into the vault; “Living in the U.S.A.’ by the Steve Miller Band (Tim Davis?). But the most prolific, and very influential, has to be Carol Kaye.

  • Give me a couple of more weeks to recover from heart surgery and we’ll see Jax… we’ll see

  • “No More Tears” Ozzie
    Nuff said?

  • Jax

    Jet – Are You Gonna Be My Girl
    Pure bass awesome

  • Since you’re looking for riffs, I would have to add:
    Sweet Emotion seems like an obvious one
    Rotten Apple by Alice in Chains
    Whipping Post, the Allmans
    Shining Star, EW&F
    Jeremy, Pearl Jam
    Freewill, by Rush. Sure the guitar does it too, but so what?
    Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) come on, you gotta have Larry Graham on the list…
    I could go on and on….

  • jim marr

    lets not forget about Tiran Porter of the Doobie Brothers.
    Takin’ it to the Streets has a great bass riff.

  • ghdggh

    where’s geddy lee???

  • Spittman

    One of my favorite bass songs is “NIB” by Black Sabbath.

  • Hypnotized by Fleetwood Mac

  • You’re missing:

    Dazed and Confused – Led Zep
    I Will Survive – Cake
    If You Want me to Stay – Sly and the Family Stone
    Sir Psycho Sexy – RHCP

    Great list, though!

  • LimoZeen

    Steve Harris of Iron Maiden — any song.

    You mention you missed out on most of the 80’s, and IMHO your list is serverely limited due to this anomaly.

    Go listen to any Iron Maiden album from any decade and then come back and redo the list.

    UP THE IRONS!!!!!

  • John Paul Jones …. The Lemon Song … enough said

  • John Wilson

    Bass Theology…big dang church you have here..

    I’ll add “Roam” by the B-52s.

  • steve

    entwhistle; 5:15

    jaco; teen town, black market

    lesh; scarlet begonias

  • chuck downfield

    I agree with all of the afore mentioned (I just added many that were missing from my Ipod “bass riffs” playlist) and I recommend the following masterpieces…

    – How Many More Times, Song Remains The Same – JPJ

    – Heart Of The Sunrise – Chris Squire

    – Sympathy For The Devil – Bill Wyman or was it Keith Richards?

    – Hot ‘lanta & Whipping Post – Berry Oakley

    – Sparks – John Entwhistle

    – Anything by Geddy Lee, including but not limited to Cygnus X1, YYZ, Driven

    – The theme song from Seinfeld!


    Pete Farndon of the Pretenders, his bass playing is so prominent, it frames the song to allow the guitaris t and vocalist to do whatever the hell they want to, and if you remove the basslines from the tracks on the first two albums, the songs have almost no coherence.

  • And hell, you know who else was a good bassist? Mel Scheaffer (sp?) of Grand Funk railroad. He carried the band pretty well. The live version of T.N.U.C (spell that backwards) is a prime example of wailing rockin’ bass holding it together.

    Another thought that just popped into my head. I’ll shut up go to bed now….


  • OK, riff vs. groove….it is a question. My above mentioned Chris Squire track is a case of a riff turned into some groove. Good choice with JT’s Bouree. And Floyd, of course. We can alter My Genereation (riff oriented) to “My Wife”. Entwistle carries the load on that song.

    Ugh! Technicalities….But all above choices are great. Might as well throw in some Jaco Pastorius works while we are at it…

    me again,

  • John Entwistle (the Who) ‘My Generation’
    Chris Squire (Yes) ‘the Fish’

    And give credit to the bassist on Pete Townsend’s “White City’ album with the song singing about how We gotta judge the judge…

    just a thought at 2am.


  • mikey2gunz

    PIXIES, planet of sound.

    Kim Deal hangs it out to dry

  • stanman

    what none from the south?Berry Oakley jezz.John
    paul Jones best rock player.Jaco is still the man.

  • One I’ve always loved, too, is “Is This It?” by The Strokes.

  • Eric Y., you’re not the first one who noted the Townsend/Entwistle thing, and actually if you read the article carefully I didn’t say Entwistle played the part on Empty Glass – I know he didn’t, I just meant to use the mention of that album as a way to bring Entwistle into the discussion – but the way I wrote the section was confusing, my bad. All props to Tony Butler.

    “Old Days” has a good bass part, but I wouldn’t have thought of it as having a particularly memorable “riff.” (The song’s famous “riff” is a guitar melody, the bass just plays along.) YMMV of course!

    A lot of great bass players don’t get recognition in lists like this because there isn’t a particular part that stands out. Gary Tallent of the E Street Band comes to mind. Listen to “Point Blank” for an awesome bass part.

  • Eric Y.

    The above being said above …

    I will have to throw out a few bass players and their songs I have admired through the years — and hopefully I post more as time comes.

    Bass players:
    Tony Levin — Mainly Peter Gabriel’s bass player –
    Song: Secret World – US

    Peter Cetera: Bass player and singer for Chicago
    Song: Old Days … I never thought I would say this, but his bass on this song is amazing. Again, I am NOT a formally trained musician — or even a musician in general — but, given that — I still feel that I can recognize a great song and bass line when I hear one. Thoughts???

  • Eric Y.

    I pulled out my Empty Glass vinyl — Am I showing my age? — and checked the liner notes. John Entwistle is not mentioned is not mentioned anywhere on the liner notes.

    (In that regard, no bass player is mentioned for the songs “And I Moved” and “Keep on Working” — so it is still open as to if John Entwistle played on these songs as I stated above … 😉

    Regarding my statements as to John Entwistle playing on Empty Glass, I guess I was thinking about Roger Daltrey’s McVicar album where Entwistle appears on a few songs.

    So, it must assume that Tony Butler — who is an amazing bass player in his own rights — was the bass player Pete’s Empty Glass’s “Gonna Get Ya (Anyway)” and not John Entwistle.

  • Eric Y.

    Regarding Pete Townshend, “Gonna Get Ya”, Tony Butler (of Big Country fame) is the bass player, not John Entwistle. (At least according to the CD liner notes.) Tony played bass on all songs, save “And I Moved” and “Keep on Working” – which if I recall correctly – were the songs Entwistle played on. But I will have to check my vinyl copy to verify. FYI: Entwistle’s name is not listed in the CD version liner notes …

  • Joshua

    Get the Funk out – Pat Badger (Extreme)
    Killer Bee Hop – Stu Hamm
    Peace Sells But Who’s Buying – Dave Ellefson

  • Great suggestions!

  • David Dell’Anno

    How about adding Rock Me by Great White, Another Bites the Dust by Queen, and My Sharona by the Knack

  • pop n slap

    BON JOVI… Alec John Such is a genius…Living on a pryaer is the ultimate bass line

  • Maria

    Maybe someone metioned it but Iron butterfly In-a-gadda-da-vida has the most awesome bass part ever! And it goes the whole way through for like 20 minutes.
    I am a budding bassist and that song is an inspiration!!!
    bam bam ba ba ba ba bam bam bam ba
    o.k so not the best representation but it is trully amazing.


    Won’t argue with your list, I love all of the riffs.

    For the ’80’s there was Pete Farndon of the Pretenders, (take the bassline out of Brass in Pocket and it loses it’s urgency) albeit for too short of a time.

    Bruce Foxton of the Jam, Nelson of New Model Army, Youth of Killing Joke, Klaus Flouride of the Dead Kennedys, David J of Bauhaus, not to mention all the skinny tie new wave Brit bands, bass was front and center in a lot of ’80’s mussic, but the best stuff was seldom on the radio.

  • I seriously considered “Smoke on the Water,” and it’s true the bass drives the song, but the famous riff is generally considered a guitar riff. Really I’d consider it a guitar-and-bass riff, so maybe it could be included because of that… decisions, decisions. I am putting together a “Rock’s Greatest Bass Riffs, Part 2” piece, by the way.

  • Rob

    One that I’m surprised doesn’t get mentioned is the bass riff in Smoke on the Water. The guitar riff is one of the most famous in rock, but the stinkin bass is what drives the song.

  • Rob

    Let’s give credit where credit is due…. Chic’s Good Times (which begat Another one Bites the Dust AND Rappers Delight).

  • AES

    How could you forget the classic “Rapper’s Delight”? by The Sugar Hill Gang. It’s probably hard to find someone who doesn’t at least recognize that bass line.

  • JR

    Aerosmith – “Sweet Emotion”

  • You handle riffs…i’ve been pondering a study on Players, we will see.

    Sweet. The lack of articles about great bass playing is being remedied!!!

  • jaz

    Good thinking , Jon.

    You handle riffs…i’ve been pondering a study on Players, we will see.

    oh yeah, to big Al…

    Neal Young > Jack White

    nuff said

  • Hey, Al, what have you got against Neil Young’s one-note guitar solos?

    I am happy to admit that my category for this article is a little vague or shifty-eyed. And there’s been so much food for thought in the comments that I may end up doing a follow-up piece.

  • Jon, I certainly would not doubt your love for Entwistle. But maybe that’s a question of how your parsing out your categories. If the nominal category is “rock’s greatest bass riffs,” that might be something different than “most influential.” Could be that some of the greatest players get less imitation because young players are intimidated to even TRY to play like him.

    Whereas a lot of guitar players go around trying to sound like Neil Young, cause his crude, undeveloped half-assed squawling would likely be a lot easier to imitate than would be a serious guitar player like Hendrix or Richard Thompson.

  • Well, I’m not intending to discount his work at all – I’m about the biggest Who fan you can find. But I’m going from personal feelings and general experience on this. If you ask a bass player (at least, a bass player over 35) about his/her influences, as a general question, you would find some of them including Entwhistle, for sure. But if you asked them to specifically think about their own style and technique, and what bass players really informed their own playing to a large degree, I think most of them would probably not talk about Entwhistle. Of course that’s a totally nonscientific impression – I could be wrong, it would be interesting to do a real study, but then, there are more important things for scientists to be doing I guess.

  • Chaos, I tell ya! I’m sure it’s not quite your intent, but that seems like you’re discounting his work because he was too good.

    I would dispute the chaos theory as well. Most players probably couldn’t much emulate Entwistle very well because they simply don’t have the high technical ability. But if you COULD try to emulate Entwistle, it would depend on what you thought that would mean and how you took it.

    Entwistle was famously the quiet one, and wasn’t trying to take over a stage with splashy displays running over top of the other instruments. Keith Moon on the drums might have been accused of that from time to time, but not Entwistle.

    Now, Entwistle was just so good that he would have not been a good fit and would have overwhelmed a lesser group of players. Hey, Entwistle wouldn’t have worked as a member of the Kinks – but neither would Eddie Van Halen for much the same reason, as good as he does with Kinks covers. One style doesn’t fit all.

  • A quick one on Entwhistle: Al Barger, if you read the article you’ll see that I discussed Entwhistle as an overall “bass god” rather than someone who came up with specifically seminal bass riffs. If I’d remembered “The Real Me” I would have included it in my list, but I stick to my guns on the general point I was making, that it’s a good thing most people don’t emulate his style, because how could you? Phil Lesh was the perfect bass player for the psychedelic noodlings of the Grateful Dead, but he sure isn’t a bass player to emulate (unless you’re in a Dead cover band, of course.) Same with Entwhistle in a completely different style, of course. The guy uses all four fingers on his right hand, for gosh sake. And they move so fast you can’t even see them. And he plays so many notes. He was the perfect bass player for The Who, and a musician like no other. I even wrote a tribute song for him when he died. (When I get around to recording it I’ll post a link!) But I consider him to be basically (no pun intended) a one of a kind. Pro bass players need to absorb a bit of every style, of course, but if up-and-coming players modeled themselves after Entwhistle, we’d have chaos.

  • Absolutely agree about David J, El Bicho — brilliant basslines and completely overlooked. His work built Bauhaus songs. Partial to Stigmata Martyr for its simple driving bassline that defines the assaultive, crazed nature of the song. Most of his stuff was like that — simple but fierce. He’s why I play bass.

    Also got to give props to Peter Hook (Joy Division) for redefining bass as a lead instrument in rock. Everything he did was also simple but amazing.

    Sorry my comments are more about about certain bass players and their army of riffs rather than just particular ones…here’s a couple basslines I think are definitive in their genres (and because you guys need more girls mentioned here) 😉

    Patricia Morrison, Lucretia, My Reflection (Sisters of Mercy)
    Kim Deal, Here Comes Your Man (Pixies)

  • Wait- stop the presses! Holy crap, I just noticed that there’s no John Entwistle up in here. What kind of foolishness is that? How about props for “The Real Me” perhaps?

  • Outstanding list and commentary. I am, of course, especially pleased to see props for the White Stripes. This also, though, reminds me to put in a plug for Graham Maby’s bass for Joe Jackson, particularly “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” which was also the basis for the bass of “Steady As She Goes” by Jack White’s Raconteurs.

  • Eric

    One of the other great McCartney bass riff is “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” on Abbey Road.

  • Beck’s bass riff on “Devil’s Haircut,” incidentally, is a sample. It’s from “I Can Only Give You Everything” by Them with Van Morrison.

  • Daryl

    Wow. I’m not the ONLY person in the entire universe who appreciates John McVie as a bassist. I think I can sleep easier tonight.

  • You forgot to mention the bass riff under Billie Jean by Michael Jackson, which he copped from somewhere else, I think it was invented on the song called Black is Black or something.
    That riff is the most copied riff in bass history.

  • here is my take. I am primarily a guitar player, but have a bass as well. There are very few riffs I know that I have committed to memory, and so are my highest praise. They are as follows, in no order

    Led Zep > Ramble On
    Bob Marley > Stir it Up
    Van Morrison > Into the Mystic
    Cliff Burton (Metallica) > anathesia

    the reason why I bought a bass was to learn that Cliff Burton song. I miss him, he was a bass god to me.

  • Anthony Jackson’s part in the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money”? I’d think that would be on everybody’s list.

    Damn! How’d I forget that?

  • jaz

    El Bicho nails the flip side of the presented Coin.

    Part of “hip” is contextual…I tend to think that it’s when something becomes a “trend”…but the real cool is always there…no matter the form or style…

    what’s real, transcends

  • JR

    Did I miss someone mentioning Anthony Jackson’s part in the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money”? I’d think that would be on everybody’s list.

  • What a surprise that someone named “jaz” would have that as the Answer to the question of “what is hip?”

    However, you can throw context out the window because if that don’t fly somewhere, it’s the place and not the tune that is the problem. Some sort of bad confluence of mojo, like being built on top of sacred grounds. I hope I don’t find myself in such a location, otherwise it’s a one-way ticket out of Squaresville, daddio. [snap snap snap] I’m late for bongo practice. See you kats on the road.

  • JR

    I don’t think the bass parts in “Bouree” and the Barney Miller theme qualify as riffs either; though they are both great bass lines.

    I suspect “Bouree” doesn’t sound very impressive to someone with a jazz background. Fortunately I wasn’t a jazz snob when I discovered Jethro Tull.

  • Would like to throw in John Paul Jones on Dazed and Confused

    This is one I probably would have put in the article if I’d remembered it. Not a riff but definitely a memorable and classic bass part – basically a slowed-down walking bass line, really makes the song. Classic.

    I also forgot about “Roundabout” – definitely didn’t mean to slight the great Chris Squire! I even saw Yes back then – but my time of listening to Yes occurred, and ended, way before I picked up a bass.

    jaz, thanks for all the links. That Trujillo track is a blast. As far as Les Claypool – yes, I am a Primus fan, but I couldn’t think of one specific riff that really jumped out for me… “Tool” – I might have included both those songs if I’d remembered them…

    About Geddy Lee – definitely one of the most amazing bass players ever, but I could never get into Rush in spite of the incredible musicianship. I always found their music too over the top and, I don’t know, sort of full of itself.

  • jaz

    And the riffs find the Answer…at least partially… hip/cool/down/whatever is all about being contextual…what is fly in Compton don’t play in Peoria.

    your mileage may vary

  • duane

    No questions, jaz. That nails it.

  • Dan

    This ain’t rock but, “fly me to the moon” -sinatra.
    Frank insisted on recording al-natur-owl. Maybe he was right to do so considering the dynamics of live performance are captured exquisitely by this up-right bassmaster.

  • jaz

    Duane asks a quintessential question in quip form…., so as a quid pro quo…

    Here’s my Answer.


  • Dan

    I see duane already beat me to “Roundabout”. Good call duane!

  • duane

    What is hip?

    Tell me, tell me, if ya thinks ya knows.

  • jaz

    OMG…Thin Lizzie!

    Jailbreak, or the infamous “the Boys are back in town”…great riffs.

  • Dan

    Jon, I like your list. My musical periphery is narrow, although there’s a lot of things I like that I can’t put name to. Anyway, the fun is… adding to it of course. These are in that same kind of “popular and influential to the masses” groove:

    “if you want me to stay” -sly and the ‘stone
    It’s “jiggy”, and compells one to move their body at the joints.

    “other side” -chili peppers
    the gradual cresendo of driving base accompanied with “plaintiff wail” of harmonizing hook line.

    “Roundabout” -yes
    bass virtuoso does all he can in confining parameters of popular song.

    “closer to home” -GF railroad
    the boys were working up a sweat when they recorded this popular record.

  • jaz

    El Bicho, my links cleared, check the Trujillo clip…massive stuff, and not one I’ve previously mentioned, but he’s right up there with the top of this generation’s players with Claypool.

    Duane brings up good ones, as always…the Free tune is definitely an all time great in any genre, and one that had slipped my mind.

    Jon, when you can..check the clips I’ve linked…and you might see what I mean about great riffs arising from great players too copious to list…I’m interested in your opinion of them as another bass player.

    To keep it all in mainstream stuff/radio tunes does help to narrow things down.

    Examples – Geddy Lee: Limelight, Lemmy:Don’t Believe a Word…yet you can goo deep, such as the difference with Entwistle between the well known riff in “My Generation” to the genius of the lesser known “Boris the Spider”.

    geez…now I’ve got that Free tune stuck in my head!!!

  • duane

    Chris Squire Roundabout.

    Jack Bruce Politician.

    Andy Fraser of Free All Right Now.

    John Entwhistle The Real Me.

  • jaz

    heh..good choices, El bicho

    and ya won’t see my other names around any more…even this one will be rare, if ever seen again after this thread

    hopefully the links i put in will clear soon

  • Your tastes are too distinct and your heroes too well known around these parts, my friend (pardon the familiarity). It was my first sighting of jaz, and rather than wait for D’oh to second your picks, what with the looser restrictions around here, my inquiring mind wanted to know.

    Glad to see the Flea mention and sorry for the sidetrack, but I’d like to give a shout out to two of my favorites who usually don’t get a lot of attention in these sorts of matters.

    David J from Bauhaus/Love and Rockets. His line from “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is a perfect encapsulation of the goth sound. It’s reminds me of JPJ’s D&C line.

    Eric Avery from Jane’s Addiction. His work on “Summertime Rolls” is winderful.

  • jaz

    Jon…my next comment is probably flagged as spam, but I fit a few more examples in it (when it comes up you will see)

    My point in mentioning Pl;ayers as opposed to riffs in songs folks heard on the radio is that the “greatest” riffs are usually in stuff NOT heard on the radio…deeper cuts in albums…or even stuff that never heard the light of the airwaves

    In the forthcoming comment, I touch on both TooL bass players, and the monster riffs they generated, as well as Robert Trujillo…a true hero on the 4 string in so many ways…I also mention Flea and Bootsy Collins to cover the Funk.

    All I’m trying to say is that there’s a lot more than what hit the radio…and not to denigrate the “pop” stuff…there’s so much more out there for those who like the low notes….

    ya will see when the waiting comment posts…

    and El Bicho…ya, some may go “d’oh” in a gonzo kind of way

    these are my real initials…

  • Nice list. I’d replace PF’s Money with One of These Days.

    what does it say about current bass players, when “the first unforgettable rock bass line of the twenty-first century” was played on a guitar with in a lower octave rather than on bass.

    jaz, I dig your mentions and wonder if it will make the writer exclaim, “D’oh!”

    Would like to throw in John Paul Jones on Dazed and Confused. I would put that head-to-head against any track in terms of immediate recognition. And its simplicity surely inspired kids to pick up a bass.

  • jaz, your picks are all excellent, but you’re on a slightly different tack – my picks aren’t about the best or most virtuosic bass players – although I can see you agree with me about some of the players on my list being tops (e.g. McCartney). My “greatest riffs” tend to be what I see as those bass parts, in the context of particular hit songs, that have the most overall musical fame or influence. Certainly, players like Geddy Lee as players were/are as influential as you say.

    I’m sure even within my own narrow idea of what this list was about, I’ll think of others I missed.

  • jaz

    ooops, realised I was too fast on the Entwistle bit, my apologies, Jon did give the Spider his due.

    but the rest stands…still loads of great Players and riffs not mentioned.

    but better for me to toss them out for inclusion than shred a fine Post for no good reason…

    low notes for life!

  • jaz

    Robert Trujillo from Infectious Grooves, Suicidal Tendencies…and now unfortunately Metallica…still…a real live mutant on the 4 string.

    BOTH the bass players from TooL

    original flavor here slow, deep groove just behind the beat, off time and tasty…

    the new guy is in this link, yes the opening riff is a bass, as well as the groove…good luck figuring it out fellow Players…

    And we’re not even touching the real Funk players…Flea and Bootsy Collins smoke the list in the original post…

    again, all subjective…but there’s some samples of things most might not be aware of

    thanks for touching the Subject, Jon…keep rocking!

  • jaz

    OK …time for another ex-bass player to sound off, because as good as the article is, you missed quite a lot.

    NO mention of Entwistle? for shame!

    Top four stringers, and the best riffs from same, are purely subjective…but allow me to submit them and a sample to show what’s been overlooked.

    Geddy Lee smokes anything on the list during his worst day…a peef of Entwistle, and second only to Jaco Pastorais in virtuosity.

    Lemmy the Father of all things speed…and changed everything by fretting chords and strumming with a pick.

    Les Claypool the riffs in the song linked too blow away all on this list, and this guy is prolific as well as drenched in talent on the bass.

    more in next comment

  • A few years back I was at a city wide music festival in Strasbourg. There were like ten official stages, but there were tons of unofficial stages and set-ups on just about every corner and alleyway. I must have heard “Seven Nation Army” a dozen times that night…or at least the bass part.

    Great freaking song. Great freaking bass line.

    I’d add the whole second side of Abbey Road as one long amazing bass performance by Paul

  • Thanks, DJ. I saw the Stripes live once, and in spite of all Jack’s bounding about the stage and switching between guitar and piano, the set got a bit boring after a while. Despite their great songs and great energy, I think they needed a bass player!

  • Great article, Jon.

    The riff to “Seven Nation Army” is one of the eternal, all-time cool riffs in the history of the universe. It took me awhile to come around on the Stripes because Jack’s voice grated on my nerves (it still does on occasion, but I have since done a 180 on this and the Stripes). This song, this riff, was my turning point.