10 Powerful Basslines from Popular Music

Feb 19, 2020

Over the last few weeks we’ve spent some time exploring some of the parts that go into making an iconic song. We started by exploring some of the most iconic guitar riffs of all time. We followed that up with a few of the most incredible piano parts found in modern popular music.

But there is another aspect to modern popular music we haven’t touched yet: the bassline.

A great bassline is the heart and soul of a great song – forget those guitar solos and piano melodies; it’s the low-end that really gets people tapping their toes!

In celebration of the power of the baseline, we’ve rounded up a list of some of the all-time classic lines. No one can really crown one single bassline as king, but we’re certainly going to have some fun with our favourites!

Riders on the Storm – The Doors

This sprawling song, which is a whopping 7 minutes on the album, and still long as a single at 4 minutes, takes everything that was incredible about The Doors – a psychedelic bent, a threatening blues edge, and that era-defining drone – and anchored it with an iconic rock-solid baseline.

Acting as the stand-in for the titular storm, Ray Manzarek’s throbbing keyboard baseline is all low frequency and no mids, adding to its ominous and thunderous presence.

Give it Away – Red Hot Chili Peppers

Off what is usually considered their greatest album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, “Give it Away” was a monster single for the band. The single is driven by Michael “Flea” Balzary’s baseline with its unique and instantly recognizable liquid slide motif and some wonderfully dexterous fills.

There is an incredible guitar part and drum patter laid over the bass, and of course, Anthony Kiedis’s rap about tolerance, but this is Flea’s song to its very core.

Under Pressure – David Bowie & Queen

One of the most recognizable basslines ever recorded, “Under Pressure’s” bassline is also remarkably simple. It was also perfectly counterpointed by a piano stab, a weird, live-sounding vocal part and guitar, and, of course, a cheesy rapper from Dallas.

Who knows? This song and its baseline for the ages may have slipped into relative obscurity had it not been for “Ice Ice Baby,” the 1990 mega-hit by Vanilla Ice, who sampled the song to so much controversy.

Maybe, but we kind of doubt it.

Billie Jean – Michael Jackson

One of the things that made this song an instant classic, one of the late MJ’s most iconic songs, and a career highlight that still stands today is undeniably that incredible bassline by Louis Johnson. A subtle counterpoint to the backing vocals and synth wash, the bassline drive the song and story forward as it builds, leading to the equally subtle tone which contrasts perfectly with Jackson’s emotional denial that the woman is, famously, not his lover.

The Chain – Fleetwood Mac

If there was ever a song that needed no introduction for bass players, it’s probably “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac. It takes a few moments for it to really kick in, but John McVie’s slippery and sliding bass riff in A starts in the second half of the song, bringing a faster and more exciting tempo with it.

The line goes on the repeat until the end of the song, surrounded completely by Stevie Nick’s Layered backing vocals and Mick Fleetwood’s drums. Simply unforgettable.

Ace of Spades – Motörhead

Motörhead isn’t for everyone. That said, for countless fans and bassists, Ian “Lemmy” Kilmister’s famous bass sound – not, as he revealed several years ago, the result of any specific effect, just wide-open mids – is nothing short of the sound of sweet bliss!

Lemmy is no doubt at his peak with “Ace of Spades,” giving us a simple, two-note intro riff, and sliding upwards as the guitars join in on the fun.

My Generation – The Who

Two verses into what is arguably the very first punk song ever written, you can hear what might be one of the first ever bass guitar solos ever recorded. It’s a stunning essay in four parts, played on a Fender Jazz by the ever-iconic John Entwistle.

What’s most surprising about this bassline solo isn’t that it’s unplayable (though you may still have a few difficulties with it), but that it happened at all. At the time, the bass guitar was generally regarded as simply a supporting instrument, not something to have a solo. Bassists everywhere owe a lot to the late, great John Entwistle.

Another One Bites The Dust – Queen

A-G-E, E, E, E. And then you go E-E, E, G, E, A. Then repeat.

That’s all it takes to play one of the most recognizable basslines of all time.

Often regarded as the moment Queen “went disco,” dropping much of their glam-rock and proto-heavy metal roots, “Another One Bites The Dust” actually has more in common with a funk tune thank disco. Sure, John Deacon didn’t add in slaps or pop to the line, but in terms of “in-the-pocketness” this beautifully warm, clean, and simple line has few equals.

Money – Pink Floyd

Roger Water would be among he first people to admit that, when it came to the bass, he was never a technician in the classic sense. But he certainly excelled himself as a songwriter with the world-class bass part in “Money.” Mostly written in 7/4, you can relax a bit when you get to the solo, which is in 4/4.

The extreme clarity of the line – and the clash and clang of cash registers against which it plays – makes this tune mandatory learning for any prog-rock loving bassists.

Good Times – Chic

It would be disingenuous to claim that “Good Times” was Bernard Edwards at his finest simply because his career was chalk-full of moments of pure genius just like this one. That said, the unmatched bassline of this tune is probably his best-known work, and with so many young bassists learning from it it’s impossible not to include it on this list!

“Wise indeed is the man who knows that the sum of all bass-centric wisdom lies not in the moshpit nor at the blues club – but at the disco!”

Did we miss your favourite bassline? With so many to choose from, it’s hard to nail down the best! Tell us your favourite basslines to listen to and play in the comments!