Experienced musicians will tell you that the bass guitar player is the crucial element of the band and often holds the song’s rhythm to an equal or greater degree than the drummer.
If you’ve ever experienced a live jazz or rock show, you may have witnessed the drummer go out on outlandish solos while the bass guitar kept the song’s rhythmic framework tight.
Basslines do not only hold the song in place rhythmically; if they’re catchy or technically challenging, they can create an unforgettable melody and live on in our ears and minds. Fans will spend their lives trying to learn the most difficult bass parts.
Bass guitar is important because it fills many essential roles in a composition. It gives a necessary low-end tone that offsets the guitar, vocals, keys, and drum parts. Bass parts help hold the tempo of a song and can carry rhythms alone or work in conjunction with drums and guitar to trade rhythms. Bass guitars can be used to create both rhythmic tension and flow.
Bass players are the undervalued foundation of the band. Beloved bass players like Charles Mingus, Jaco Pastorius, Paul McCartney, John Entwistle, Bootsy Collins, Carol Kaye, Les Claypool, and John Paul Jones have set the standards for the instrument by building and defining their respective genres of jazz, funk, classic rock, and alternative rock.
Modern bass players continue to entertain us with proficiency and eccentricity, such as Thundercat, or versatility and a uniquely feminine approach, such as Esperanza Spalding.
Michael League of Snarky Puppy demonstrates how to be a phenomenal instrumentalist on bass guitar, but also how to be a team player, as he weaves his way through large ensemble pieces without overbearingly pursuing individual attention.
Techniques such as hammer-ons and -offs, slapping, popping, tapping, pizzicato, and how a bass guitar player composes and utilizes unique time signature changes, chord expressions, solos, or six-string bass, are what makes the parts difficult.
These harder songs tend to gain the love of fans and provoke lifelong attempts by fans at mastering their favorite players’ techniques.
Here are five of the hardest songs on bass guitar:
Jaco Pastorius is a jazz fusion bass guitar legend known for his funk style and innovative harmonics and solos. In Teen Town, by Weather Report, an early jazz fusion treat, Jaco Pastorius plays the bass guitar like a chatty friend at the start of the song. Throughout the song, the bass guitar continues to carry the conversation. The listener can hear chaos, call/responses, and drama, which is exactly what you would expect to hear from conversations in a place called Teen Town.
The bass guitar part in Teen Town is one that new bass players strive to learn. It takes time and practice to nail down the melodic complexity and swiftness of the bassline, but it’s a bass part that players feel compelled to know.
#4 – Roundabout by Yes
Chris Squire from Yes is one of the original influencers of bass rock sound. The bass guitar part in Roundabout is one of the pillars of this influence. Bass guitar players will tell you that the bass guitar riff from Roundabout is a riff every bass player should know as they build their repertoire.
The riff is fun and recognizable, and it’s a fan-favorite expression of classic rock bass guitar style. The tone of the guitar includes more high- to mid-range than is expected of bass guitar parts, and this unique tonality defined the Yes sound in the early 1970s.
Fans love when a songwriter can take the song in many unique directions but somehow make all the sections work together. That songwriting technique is used in Roundabout, and the bass guitar plays an integral part in helping with the direction and tone changes, which adds another layer of challenge (and deserved respect) to the bass guitar part.
#3 – YYZ by Rush
Geddy Lee drove the Rush sound of the 1970s with his driving bass guitar style and created some of the most iconic bass lines ever. Rush also pushed the progressive rock sound of that entire decade, in part because of Lee’s influence on bass guitar.
The exciting and challenging rhythms of all the instrument parts in YYZ catch listeners in the first bars. Within the first 30 seconds, it is well-established that all players had to work so hard to execute the rhythms of this song in unison.
As the song plays on, the listener realizes that the bass part matches the lead guitar rhythms note for note and continues to hold the rhythmic melody as the lead guitar takes longer notes.
This isn’t often a part or role reserved for the bass guitar in music, so it’s both an extreme challenge for the player and a treat for bass guitar fans. It’s fun to listen to every part in this song, but it’s clear to the ear that the bass guitar carries YYZ.
John Paul Jones created a beloved electric bass style for the rocking Led Zeppelin sound. The bass guitar is clear and present in the mix of The Lemon Song by Led Zeppelin, which gives listeners full ease to hear John Paul Jones showing off signature moves throughout. Many feel this bass guitar part in The Lemon Song represents an apex in electric bass guitar playing in rock music.
John Paul Jones leads the way with his own melodic bass guitar lines that fit perfectly around the guitar part. The song features one of the most technically challenging and luscious expressions of bass guitar, and many Led Zeppelin fans feel this was John Paul Jones’ most funky bass part he ever recorded.
Les Claypool is a bass guitar legend. He defined the Primus sound with his slap bass techniques in the 1980s, and he is known for making some of the weirdest and most beloved bass guitar expressions of all time. Les used chordal strums and a slap/pop groove to create the ultimate riff for Tommy the Cat.
Writing a good song is about telling a story or taking the listeners on a journey. In Tommy the Cat, Les also used the bass guitar as one of the key storytellers of the song. In the first half of the song, each time the song changes mood or direction throughout the sections, it’s the bass guitar that takes us there, and the vocals and the rest of the parts soon follow.
Les Claypool’s signature style redefined the role and prominence of bass guitar for Primus and alternative rock, and Tommy the Cat is a perfect representation of this style and sound.
The Bottom Line
It is difficult to narrow down a list of the hardest bass guitar songs from so many incredible selections. Honorable mentions include other songs from bands on this list, like Primus and Rush, and songs from the legendary bands that were excluded, like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica.
Bass guitar parts can range from a simple, rhythmic placeholder to a front-and-center star of time signature manipulation and storytelling. The songs on this list were truly defined by the technique, composition, and style of the bass guitar players and parts.
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.