Choosing the Top 10 Best Bass Lines is an impossibility. What makes it “the best,” anyway? Is it the hardest to play? The catchiest? The most innovative?
We’ll try to include the best bass lines that cover as many of these categories as we can. We won’t make everybody happy. We might not make anybody happy, but for what it’s worth to you, a professional bass player since the 80s will be compiling the list.
Whether you’re already familiar with the following bass lines or this will be your first introduction, we hope you’ll enjoy our list of the top ten – and again, these will be in no particular order since they can be ranked in any number of ways.
Teen Town— Weather Report, Played by Jaco Pastorius
Why not start with the greatest player of all time? Jaco did things on the bass no one thought possible. In “Teen Town,” Jaco did something quite rare— he created a bass line that is technically complex and stuffed to the gills with music theory knowledge, but at the same time, it’s listenable.
Someone unfamiliar with the bass can listen to the snaky sixteenth-note lines and enjoy the melody. Oh, also, the bass has a melody, which is unusual and terrific. Sure, bass players worldwide hear it and want to quit, but only because “Teen Town” is legendarily tricky stuff.
“Birdland” gets an honorable mention here, not because it’s incredibly complex, but because it’s so recognizable, and hearing only a few notes of it can lift your mood. Try it.
Freewill— Rush, Played by Geddy Lee
Prog-rock gods have given us some great basslines (I’m looking at you, Chris Squire from Yes), but arguably none better than Canadian trio Rush.
In “Freewill,” Lee plays a punchy, syncopated line that moves through weird time signatures because it’s Rush, but like Jaco, he’s not playing only the hardest stuff he can think of. He lays down a line that complements what the rest of the band is doing while still being incredible.
Once the song goes into 12/8 for the guitar solo, Lee’s driving, a serpentine eighth-note line is one of those that music store employees have to hear amateurs play every day. Whenever a bass line inspires new artists, who could argue about its greatness. Lee also gave us “YYZ,” which hews a little closer to, “Check out what I can do and you can’t.”
Another One Bites the Dust— Queen, Played by John Deacon
When it first came out in 1980, “Another One Bites the Dust” did two things— it made some Queen fans feel like the band had sold out for some disco-pop success, and it made every human being on the planet hum the bass line.
While not technically complex, John Deacon’s line— built out of only four pitches— is one of the more recognizable pieces of Western music. The same goes for the even simpler line from “Under Pressure.”
Freddie Mercury turns in an outstanding vocal performance, and Brian May’s guitar work is stellar on “Another One Bites the Dust,” but be honest— have you ever noticed? Probably not, because the bass line might be the textbook example of “iconic.”
Come Together— The Beatles, Played by Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney is the undisputed king of playing melodic bass lines that add to a song rather than pull focus from the rest of the band. He’s also incredibly innovative. The bass line from “Come Together” is rumbly and recognizable, but it’s also weird in a terrific way.
Big intervallic leaps and throwaway triplets don’t seem like quintessential parts of a great bass line but leave it to Paul to make it work. It’s not the toughest bass line ever played, but it’s not super easy, either. For his more melodic lines, there’s “I Saw Her Standing There,” which is quick, all over the place, and somehow doesn’t distract.
Rio— Duran Duran, Played by John Taylor
Another god of melodic bass, John Taylor, has served as the foundation of Duran Duran since the band formed in 1978 (minus the four-year break he took from ’97 to ‘01). In “Rio”— arguably the group’s best single—Taylor plays a funky line that pulls the song’s feel away from disco, but it’s also imminently singable, which is odd for a bass line.
Taylor plays sixteenth notes, throws in some slaps, and is just all over the freaking place in this song. The measures at the end of the verses where he takes a breath and plays a whole note are so effective— when he comes back in on the chorus with an entirely different but still jaw-dropping bass line, you know you’re hearing greatness. Oh, and he sings while playing it. Impressive.
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic— The Police, Played by Sting
Playing a whole-tone scale on the verses of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” Sting sets us up to think this will be a lazy line throughout, but he gets a little busier heading into the chorus where he and drummer Stewart Copeland merge some syncopated rhythms.
Yet another great practitioner of the melodic bass line, Sting opens up in the chorus with syncopated sixteenth notes that give the tune a distinct islands feel, and the unfettered joy you hear coming from your speakers is solidly rooted in that bass line.
The version on 1981’s “Ghost in the Machine” is the one we all know, but this final product is a far cry from the first recording, which Sting made about 45 minutes after he wrote it. Literally. The bare-bones recording shows that it’s a great song, but it also makes glaringly apparent how much of the version we all know depends on Sting’s bass line.
Money— Pink Floyd, Played by Roger Waters
Say what you want about Waters (some Floyd fans love him, some not so much), but the 7/4 bass line he played on “Money” ranks up there with the most recognizable bass lines ever. Consisting of quarter notes with just a couple of eighths thrown in, the line is technically simple, provided you can play in 7/4, a decidedly stutter-step feel of a time signature.
It’s the catchiness of the line that makes it great. “Money” gave us another bassline that people absentmindedly hum. The fact that it drives the song so superbly makes it all the better.
The Chain— Fleetwood Mac, Played by John McVie
You’ll have to start the song after the halfway point to get to the good stuff, but it’s not like “The Chain” is a bad song at the beginning. It’s Fleetwood Mac, after all. Anyway, this song was spliced together from riffs and lines each band member created, so it’s no surprise that bassist John McVie’s contribution was an epic bassline.
If there exists a checklist for a great bass line, it might come from this one. Driving eighth notes in a minor key? Check. Some syncopation thrown in for good measure? Check. Rhythmic propulsion of the rest of the band? Check. A hook to hang the song on? Check.
Good Times— Chic, Played by Bernard Edwards
Can you think of a single person who’s never heard this bass line? Even if she can’t identify it, your grandmother has heard in “Good Times” or behind “Rapper’s Delight.”
Bernard Edwards created a bass line that grooves like crazy, is busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest, and pretty much dares the listener not to shake SOMETHING when listening to it.
One of the best things about this bass line is the spaces between the notes. Edwards will lay out here and there for a beat and a half, letting everything else in the band have their own spaces to explore. Also, it’s one of those instantly recognizable lines, too.
Walk on the Wild Side— Lou Reed, Played by Herbie Flowers
This one is actually played on two basses, although there are ways to reproduce it live on one. And it’s also not a hard line to play. But if there’s a two-measure riff that defines the music of the 1970s, it’s the bass line from “Walk on the Wild Side.”
Herbie Flowers played the upper notes on electric bass and the lower ones on an acoustic, so the sound is distinctive. The slides from one note to the next are the things that catch the listener’s ear, and the simplicity of the line, coupled with tasty snare drum brushwork and the “Doo, de-doo, de-doo” backing vocals, make for a beautiful groove.
Yes, we left Entwistle out. And Burton. Stanley Clarke and Les Claypool are missing, too. Honestly, you could fill this list solely with Rush songs. It is nigh impossible to include everyone’s favorites, so we’re sorry if yours didn’t make it. Ultimately, we are here to pay homage to the bass lines that have made so many great songs that much more memorable.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.