Hang around musicians long enough, and you will hear a joke or two about bass players. Though often the butt of jokes, without their bottom-end, music would not move us in quite the same way.
People always remember a charismatic lead singer. Fans swoon over rip-roaring lead guitar licks. As for the bass player? Well, they get relegated to the back of the stage. But a bass line has the power to make a good song great. We’ve compiled 10 famous bass lines in appreciation of these unsung heroes. Come groove along with us.
Lou Reed – Walk on the Wild Side
Lou Reed’s biggest hit, 1972’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” is one of the most recognizable bass lines in rock and roll and hip-hop history. This notoriety is due to A Tribe Called Quest sampling “Walk on the Wild Side” on their iconic 1990 single “Can I Kick It.”
Bass player Herbie Flowers, who played with iconic acts such as T. Rex and David Bowie, used two separate basses to get the sound you hear on “Walk on the Wild Side.” The primary bass is an acoustic stand-up bass. Listen closely, however, and you can hear an electric bass ascending to a higher octave while the stand-up descends. The results were legendary.
Freddie Hubbard – Red Clay
When Freddie Hubbard joined fledgling CTI Records in 1970, jazz was undergoing a sea change. The trumpeter had prior success on Blue Note and Atlantic Records with his brand of hardbop, but as the 60s came to an end, jazz began fusing with rock and soul. Hubbard took note, and Red Clay became the standard for 70s jazz.
Ron Carter deserves the credit for the groove “Red Clay.” A legend in jazz circles, Carter played on 2,221 recording sessions over his career. His bass playing on “Red Clay” serves as the funky anchor that allows the rest of the players to explore experimental solos without fear of sending the song off into the ether.
James Brown & The Famous Flames – I Got You (I Feel Good)
People can’t help but dance when “I Got You (I Feel Good)” starts playing. The groove is infectious, and when coupled with James Brown’s waling delivery, audiences were left powerless to do anything but shake it. “I Got You (I Feel Good)” would become a top ten hit in 1965 and the biggest hit of Brown’s storied, fifty-year career.
Thanks in part to its placement in film, television, and advertising throughout the latter half of the 20th century, “I Got You (I Feel Good)” has managed to outlast even the extraordinary long career of Brown himself. Due to its famous bassline, “I Got You (I Feel Good)” served as a precursor to the 70s funk explosion.
The Breeders – Cannonball
Initially formed as a side project by Pixies bassist Kim Deal, by 1993 the Pixies had broken up. In turn, The Breeders became Deal’s main project. With grunge and alternative music sweeping the nation, The Breeders released their slinky, supercharged single “Cannonball” to unexpected chart success.
Despite her notoriety as the bassist of the Pixies, Deal isn’t playing bass on “Cannonball.” Josephine Wiggs was enlisted as The Breeders’ bass player and wrote the simple bass line that opens the song. The simplicity of Wiggs’ bassline is immediately recognizable to alternative rock fans and is a classic representation of grunge ethos.
Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell – Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell had a string of hits in the mid-60s, but none are as enduring as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” The song has all the benchmarks of a classic Motown tune: great songwriting, stunning vocal performances, and a masterful bass line.
James Jamerson isn’t a household name, though you have heard him play. As part of the Funk Brothers, the Motown Records house band, Jamerson played bass on nearly everything from Motown between 1963 and 1968. Jamerson’s playing on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” highlights his talent for writing bass lines that sound like conversations with the rest of the melody.
Queen – Another One Bites the Dust
Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” is a perfect example of what happens when a band lets their bass player write a song. The John Deacon penned number is a simple, danceable composition that topped the charts, sold millions of records, and has since become an immediately recognizable entry in the band’s canon.
John Deacon co-wrote quite a few of Queen’s biggest hits, including the equally infectious and bass-heavy “Under Pressure.” None of these hits stack up to “Another One Bites the Dust” though, as its plodding bass line provides the track with rhythm, melody, and a menacing attitude. It’s a masterclass in composition and space – a surefire dancefloor hit.
CHIC – Good Times
With the bass line to “Good Times,” CHIC’s Bernard Edwards single-handedly changed music history. “Good Times” topped the Billboard Chart in 1979 and could be heard in Discos across the country, but more importantly, the bass line became the basis for Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”
Credited as the first song to bring hip-hop to a mainstream audience, the effect of “Rapper’s Delight” on modern music cannot be overstated. With Edwards’ recognizable bass line serving as their anchor, Sugarhill Gang laid the groundwork for the hip-hop genre. Their effort would help usher the genre from underground phenomenon to mainstream acceptance.
Buzzcocks – Why Can’t I Touch It?
Bouncy, dancefloor-ready anthems probably aren’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think about punk rock, but Buzzcocks’ “Why Can’t I Touch It?” might go a long way in changing that stereotype. The song, the b-side to their single “Everybody’s Happy Nowadays,” has become a staple at hipster dance parties.
Buzzcocks and “Why Can’t I Touch It?” serve as a stepping stone for punk and independent music, bringing rhythm and melody to the forefront of their songwriting. Though the band would barely make it into the 80s, their influence reverberated throughout the decade, and their mark on the pop-punk genre remains today.
Tom Tom Club – Genius of Love
Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” bass line is immediately recognizable, though you might not know exactly which song you’re hearing. Though Tom Tom Club had Top 40 success with “Genius of Love” in 1981, the song has become iconic primarily due to its second life. Through the 80s, “Genius of Love” was tirelessly sampled by hip-hop producers. Then in 1995, Mariah Carey had a worldwide hit sampling the song in her single “Fantasy.”
We have Tina Weymouth to thank for this timeless groove. Her bass composition for “Genius of Love” would be enough for a special place in conversations surrounding bass, but as a founding member of the Talking Heads, she also played iconic bass lines on classics like “Psycho Killer” and “Once in a Lifetime.”
Commodores – Brick House
It doesn’t get much funkier than the Commodores’ “Brick House.” Though the band is primarily remembered for their lead singer Lionel Richie’s smooth vocals on ballads like “Easy,” they could let it all hang out with Ronald LaPread on the bass.
The funky, gold-standard bass line of “Brick House” came together accidentally. During a technical issue in the recording studio, LaPread started jamming alone on an improvised bass riff. Pretty soon, the whole band joined in. When their producer heard the resulting jam session, he suggested the band shape it into a song. Later that year it would reach #5 on the Top 40 charts.
10 Famous Bass Lines Conclusion
While casual listeners might not know the names of famous bassists, they can certainly recognize their bass lines. Without these memorable and melodic contributions to music, we would never experience the propulsive rhythms that call us to dance — or their contributions to exciting new genres. Now go ahead and shake your groove thing.
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.