Bass riffs might not be the first thing that comes to mind when listening to rock music, since so much of a rock song is centered around the guitar. But if you stop and think about it for a while, you’ll discover that there are quite a few bass riffs that also serve as the driving force behind a song, and surely some that you didn’t even realize were bass riffs to begin with. We’ve previously done Top 10 lists of the best rock bassists, but now it’s time to take a look at the best bass riffs. Some of the entries are obvious, but some are included not because of the particular bassists technical abilities, but rather as an illustration of how a simple bass riff can be enough to create a hit song.
1. Geddy Lee - “YYZ” by Rush
Pretty much any song by Rush could have been on this list. Rush bassist, keyboardist, and singer Geddy Lee has come up with quite a few intricate bass lines over the years. Keep in mind that Geddy doesn’t simply play bass - he sings lead vocals at the same time. Not an easy feat by any standards. But Geddy’s finest moment must be the instrumental “YYZ” from the band’s 1981 Moving Pictures album.
2. Cliff Burton - “Orion” by Metallica
Cliff Burton was as much an innovator for the bass as Jimi Hendrix was for the electric guitar. There are many songs from the first three Metallica albums that could have ended up on this list, but the Master of Puppets instrumental “Orion” is Burton’s master piece. Burton had such a melodic approach to bass playing that at times you won’t realize that it is actually a bass guitar you’re hearing.
3. Flea - “Around the World” by Red Hot Chili Peppers
When it comes to the Chili Peppers, there are so many songs that could qualify to be on this list. Bassist Flea has a knack for writing funky, and melodic bass lines, like for example “Give it Away,” and “Suck My Kiss.” But one song where Flea really gets to shine is the opening track from the band’s 1999 album Californication. Flea’s distorted bass intro hits the listener like a punch to the stomach, before John Frusciante comes in and doubles the riff on his guitar. What’s really cool about Flea is that he doesn’t play a riff the same way twice. Just listen to the bass riff during the verses that sort of follow Anthony Kiedis’ vocal melody (actually, it’s most likely the other way around.) Flea makes subtle changes to the riff with each pass. It keeps the song sounding more organic, and less repetitive, and no doubt makes it more fun to play.
4. John Entwistle - “My Generation” by The Who
This list would not be complete without The Who bass wizard John Entwistle, aka Thunderfingers. Entwistle would approach the bass as a lead instrument, much like Cliff Burton that we mentioned earlier. Take a listen to “My Generation,” and the awesome bass solo by Entwistle. In 1965 he set the standard that all rock bassists have aspired to ever since.
5. Paul McCartney - “Come Together” by the Beatles
The intro and verses to the Beatles “Come Together” center around Paul McCartney’s laid-back bass line. McCartney talked about the song in Barry Miles biography Many Years From Now: “I laid that bass line down which very much makes the mood. It's actually a bass line that people now use very often in rap records. If it's not a sample, they use that riff. But that was my contribution to that.”
6. Roger Waters - “Money” by Pink Floyd
Leave it up to Pink Floyd to come up with a rocking bass line in 7/4 time! Perhaps the most brilliant part about “Money” is how Roger Waters was able to match the coins and cash register sounds in the beginning of the song to the bass line.
7. Tom Hamilton - “Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith
Aerosmith bassist Tom Hamilton only has writing credits on a handful of the band’s songs. But that doesn’t matter much when you consider that he is responsible for one of the most memorable riffs in the band’s 40 year career. The main bass riff to the Aerosmith classic “Sweet Emotion” is instantly recognizable by any rock fan, and it’s the backbone for the entire song. Ever since the release of “Sweet Emotion” on the band’s 1975 album Toys in the Attic the song has been a live favorite among fans. Another cool Tom Hamilton bass riff not to be forgotten is that of “Janie’s Got a Gun” from 1989’s Pump album.
8. Noel Redding - “Fire” by The Jimi Hendrix Experience
It can’t have been easy to be Jimi Hendrix’s bass player. No matter what you did you would always be in the shadow of arguably the best guitarist to ever walk the Earth. But Noel Redding was certainly an accomplished musician in his own right. For example, listen to “Fire,” from The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut album, Are You Experienced. During the verses Noel’s bass simply double Jimi’s guitar, but during the chorus Jimi’s guitar takes a rare step back in the mix, letting Noel’s funky walking-bass riff do the talking. It’s probably not a coincidence that Red Hot Chili Peppers, whose music is often based around Flea’s bass lines, chose to cover this song on their Mother’s Milk album.
9. Jack White - “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes
Jack White came up with the main riff for what was to become “Seven Nation Army” during a sound check while on tour with The White Stripes in Australia. The riff isn’t played on a guitar, White use a Whammy pedal to lower the notes a full octave, to emulate a bass. “Seven Nation Army” would become the song that took Jack and Meg from being an obscure garage band to sold out shows all over the world.
10. Mike Dirnt - “Longview” by Green Day
Here’s an example of a fairly simple bass line that sounds really cool. Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt came up with the instantly recognizable riff that forms the basis of the song from Green Day’s mainstream breakthrough album Dookie. The verses are nothing more than Billie Joe Armstrong singing over Mike’s bass line - sometimes guitar isn’t even necessary!