Guitar riffs get all the attention, but strewn through rock and roll’s rich history are spectacular bass riffs that are just as memorable. From Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” to The Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” the oft-under-appreciated four-string has powered the engine in countless classics. For the purposes of this feature, we’ve steered clear of jazz riffs – which warrant a consideration all their own – and instead focused on rock and roll, with a smattering of funk. Starting from that premise, below are 10 songs that feature unforgettable bass lines.
“Come Together” – The Beatles (Paul McCartney)
This Beatles classic started out as a campaign song written by John Lennon for controversial ’60s figure Timothy Leary, who had thoughts of running for the governorship of California. Lennon’s efforts failed as a campaign song, but during the Abbey Road sessions, Paul McCartney suggested that The Beatles slow the track down and give it a “swampy bass-and-drums vibe.” “I came up with that bass line, and it all flowed from there,” Sir Paul later told Rolling Stone.
“Money” – Pink Floyd (Roger Waters)
Roger Waters came up with the unforgettable bass riff that drives this Pink Floyd classic, which had the unusual characteristic of being composed mainly in a 7/4 time signature. “It’s Roger’s riff,” David Gilmour told Guitar World, in 1993. “Roger came in with the verses and lyrics more or less completed. We just made up middle sections, guitar solos and all that stuff.” Gilmour went on to point out that, while a 4/4 progression was used for his guitar solo, the band “made the poor saxophone player [continue to] play in 7/4.”
“Tommy the Cat” – Primus (Les Claypool)
Primus’ style has been variously characterized as thrash-funk, progressive metal and, in the words of MTV, “post-punk Rush spiked with the sensibility and humor of Frank Zappa.” What’s indisputable is that Les Claypool is a mad scientist of slap-bass, and never more so than on this early Primus classic. For a time, the song became so popular among Primus fans that, in concert, Claypool would introduce all the band’s other songs with the words, “This next song is not ‘Tommy the Cat.’”
“The Real Me” – The Who (John Entwistle)
Of all the amazing bass performances turned in by John Entwistle, this Who song from 1973’s Quadrophenia album ranks at the top. Remarkably, in a 1996 interview, Entwistle revealed that his famous bass part was done “first take.” “I was joking when I did that bass part,” he told writer Ken Sharp. “The band said, ‘Wow, that’s great, that’s great!’ I was just messing around. They just loved the song. I was sitting on top of my speaker cabinet playing a silly bass part and that’s the one they liked.”
“Under Pressure” – Queen and David Bowie (John Deacon)
Confusion has reigned regarding who came up with the famous bass line for this Bowie/Queen collaboration. In 1982, bassist John Deacon told a Japanese publication that Bowie had written the riff. Bowie, however, has always maintained that the bass line was written before he became involved. The truth seems to be that Deacon himself came up with the riff during sessions for the Hot Space album, but he subsequently forgot it. Fortunately, drummer Roger Taylor recalled how the figure went, and rest is history.
“The Lemon Song” – Led Zeppelin (John Paul Jones)
Recorded by Led Zeppelin in the midst of their second tour of America, “The Lemon Song” was a “live-in-the-studio” song that dripped with sexual innuendo. Much of its power derived from John Paul Jones’ stunning bass performance, which evidenced a funk influence that had been undetectable in his previous Zeppelin sessions. Remarkably, Jones subsequently revealed that he had improvised the lines as the song was recorded.
“Give It Away” – Red Hot Chili Peppers (Flea)
Hard to believe, but many radio station programmers at first refused to air this colossal Chili Peppers hit, citing “lack of melody” as a reason. Guitarist John Frusciante and bassist Flea created the main riff and the memorable bass line during their tenure in the side project, H.A.T.E. (featuring members of Fishbone). Anthony Kiedis’ hard-hitting vocal was directly inspired by Flea’s bass. “I was so struck by Flea’s bass part, which covered the whole length of the instrument’s neck, that I jumped up and marched over to the microphone, my notebook in tow,” he later said.
“Walk on the Wild Side” – Lou Reed (Herbie Flowers)
The famous bass line in this most famous of Lou Reed songs was played by session bassist Herbie Flowers. Flowers actually came up with the idea of using twin, interlocking bass lines – one played on acoustic bass and the other on electric. Flowers later claimed, probably jokingly, that he suggested the overdubbed second bass part so that he would receive double pay for the session.
“Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” – Sly and The Family Stone (Larry Graham)
This 1969 classic is rightly regarded as one of the greatest and most influential funk songs of all time. The engine that propels the track is Larry Graham’s slap-bass performance. Graham himself pioneered the technique, which has since become a mainstay of modern funk. Everyone from Flea to Bootsy Collins to Les Claypool owes a heavy debt to Graham for perfecting this percussive and rhythmic style.
“Sunshine of Your Love” – Cream (Jack Bruce)
The monster bass riff (doubled on guitar by Eric Clapton) that anchors this Cream classic was sparked by a Jimi Hendrix Experience performance that Jack Bruce and Clapton attended in 1967 in London. Bruce immediately went home and composed the riff, and later he and poet Pete Brown penned the lyrics during an all-night session. Coupled with perhaps the best example of Clapton’s renowned late ’60s “woman tone,” the riff remains a thunderous landmark in rock history.
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