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The 25 greatest basslines of all time

(Image credit: ngel Cruz / EyeEm / Getty Images)

We asked you what the world’s greatest bassline was, you voted, and by the power of the democratic process, we can now reveal the winner.

But first, what do we mean by the greatest bassline ever? Can there be such a thing? What this list tells us is that there is no one style that dominates the polls. There is pop, there’s rock, and disco, too. 

We have metal in there, bass deployed in compositions that are far removed from the jazz-fusion as practised by Jaco Pastorius, who, no big surprise, made the cut. 

How can we appraise a James Jamerson bassline on the same axis as Cliff Burton? Sure we can – it’s all about bass serving its function, bringing melody into the rhythm section, underpinning the groove, and it takes all sorts.

That our top two slots were taken by the same player might raise some eyebrows, but then, when you get there, of course, that’s exactly who you would expect…

25. The Chicken – Jaco Pastorius

The master of jazz fusion bass guitar, Jaco Pastorius, in his natural environment, running rings around an old Pee Wee Ellis jam on the Bass of Doom, his home-hacked fretless his tool for jimmying open the door to all-new possibilities for the world of bass guitar.

Maybe this should have been higher in the list, folks? But it makes a great starting point, a walking, strutting work of jazz funk that's cerebral when you write the notes on sheet, yet spiritual when you hear it performed. Pastorius in laid-back jam mode is bass guitar as spectacle. It looks so easy, but...


24. Rio – Duran Duran (John Taylor)

A hyper-kinetic bassline, Rio was described by John Taylor as being a love letter to classic rhythm sections who inspired him and drummer Roger Taylor. It’s Duran Duran’s finest hour, maybe British pop's too.

As it has to be with pop music, everything is in lockstep, bolted together, engineered first then tested before taking flight. It has to be; the syncopation here is frightening, and you’ve got some massive hooks to land for the song to work. 

In the video above, Taylor explains how they put the song together and his approach. In paying homage to great rhythm sections of yore, the Taylors became one themselves.


23. Ain't No Mountain High Enough – Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell (James Jamerson)

A James Jamerson masterclass in tone, feel and space. Jamerson’s best work is often found in what he chooses not to play, his discpline and restraint only serving to strengthen the fundamentals on which the song is built. Maybe that is the failsafe mark of a great player; the songs they play on are all great.

This, of course, is a soul standard, life-affirming, and everything serves the vocals as it should, but check out the isolated track above to see just how much space is in here, and the righteous note choices supporting the melody. Jamerson’s tone? It’s quintessential Motown, woody, warm, all thump, all soul.


22. Tommy The Cat – Primus (Les Claypool)

Expert angler, stoner, winemaker, bass player... Les Claypool is the polymath’s polymath, a man of our times. No one plays like he does. When Primus toured with Rush, it might have been Claypool who was in awe of his hero, Geddy Lee, but Lee was in turn inspired by the Primus man’s effervescent style. 

He’ll strummy chords, tap, hit harmonics and scatter well-aimed ghost notes all over his playing, and nowhere does this vision come together clearer than on Tommy The Cat. Its wacky, slap-happy bass groove will require an expert thumb and zero fear.


21. The Chain – Fleetwood Mac (John McVie)

The bassline that we are talking about here doesn’t appear until the track turns on its heels towards the end, making The Chain feel like one of the most Janus-faced compositions in rock history. Yet somehow it works, the tension of the first half released in the second. 

Perhaps this is all to do how the song was composed, in bits, fractured and pieced together. McVie’s bassline is simple, foregrounded, quite possibly recorded on the Alembic Series 1 he was using around that time, and it’s one that every aspiring bassist should learn – if only to upset music store employees when you go in and try out a bass.


20. Phantom Of The Opera – Iron Maiden (Steve Harris)

The New Wave of British Heavy Metal was gathering momentum when Iron Maiden released their debut and Phantom Of The Opera gave it the ambition and scope that it deserved. As Steve Harris describes it, it was progressive, and it remains one of Maiden’s best moments. 

Seven-minutes of hectic feel changes and melodic grandstanding, it showcases Maiden’s taste for the theatrical. Harris’s approach then is as it is now, to set his Fender P-Bass through a cranked amp and tickle it fast and precise, an unerring fingerstyle that is brutally efficient and, here, points the guitars where he wants them to go. Harris is the bass player as maestro.


19. Teen Town – Weather Report (Jaco Pastorius)

When you break down the Teen Town bassline and take one phrase at a time, and keep it slow, it could almost seem within reach. But listening back to the recording, at full-tempo, and it’s an act of bravura genius that really only Jaco Pastorius can pull off. 

Sure, many can play it, just as many can play Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption, but Pastorious inhabits this piece, popping all around it with his ’62 Fender Jazz – the bass of doom – and changing for keeps how we look at the bass guitar. Pastorius’s playing here is a paradigmatic shift for the instrument, fretless, unbound, and visionary.


18. I Want You Back – Jackson 5 (Wilton Felder)

Crystalline pop perfection, a Motown hall-of-famer, and still a dancefloor staple 50-odd years on, I Want You Back has a lot to recommend it. But Wilton Felder’s bassline is the glue that holds it all together. It’s the melody. It’s the rhythm. And it’s impossible to get out of your head.

Felder was equally well known for his saxophone playing. The Jazz Crusaders were his main concern. But as a session player, pinch-hitting on his Fender Telecaster Bass, he delivered some superlative performances with Donald Byrd, Joen Baez and Marvin Gaye. None could touch this, though.


17. Hysteria – Muse (Chris Wolstenholme)

A supernova of 16th notes, Chris Wolstenholme’s fuzzed-up bass really cuts through Hysteria. Here, as he often is, Wostenholme provides Muse with their sense of gravity. 

When Bellamy et al are taking things extra-terrestrial, his playing roots Muse in a rock tradition that could be traced back to the big beasts – Deep Purple and all that jazz.

They key to this is its unrelenting nature. Some bassists could have scaled it back, but Wolstenholme fully commits, head down in the pocket, and it makes for a super-kinetic experience that makes it a such a set-list perennial.


16. For Whom The Bell Tolls – Metallica (Cliff Burton)

The bassline to For Whom The Bell Tolls is best savoured live. It’s where they really let Cliff Burton cut loose with buzzsaw bass and wah pedal, a tradition respected by Jason Newsted and Rob Trujillo but scarcely with the sort of animalistic charisma of Burton.

A standout track, Burton’s descending chromatic riff articulates a sense of pure dread – this, after all, is inspired by Hemingway’s unsparing war writing – and there’s nothing more exhilarating in a heavy metal song. The use of bass distortion and wah widens the impact of Burton’s playing, like a dirty bomb irradiating the rest of the song with menace.


15. Come Together – The Beatles (Paul McCartney)

Come Together is a triumph of George Martin’s production, of surrealist lyricism, and a bassline that’s so louche and insistent that you can pin a whole song on it. 

The Beatles had an uncanny ability to balance light and shade, the pop songs for children of all ages and subversive end-of-the-sixties jams. Inspired by Timothy Leary’s marijuana conviction, Come Together is very much the latter. 

All of Paul McCartney’s basslines are essential source texts for how to play the instrument. His note choices and ability to walk under the song without leaving his post is unmatched in popular music, but this is the acme of his blues playing.


14. Orion – Metallica (Cliff Burton)

Metallica had been building towards something like this for a while. They had served warning with Cliff Burton’s bass solo on Kill ‘Em All, Anasthesia, and then the cold horror of Ride The Lightning’s epic instrumental, The Call Of Ktulu. But Orion is where their songwriting abilities fully blossomed, and where they finally found the forum for their visionary bassist Cliff Burton and his prodigious creative appetites.

Orion is a rare beast, an eight-and-a-half-minute instrumental that never loses our interest. For the most part, Burton parks his aggressive bass style in lock-step with the riff before being let loose to orchestrate a mid-section that elevates bass playing to the quasi-orchestral. Truly magisterial, and a high-water mark for heavy metal.


13. Under Pressure – Queen & David Bowie (John Deacon)

When you have David Bowie joining Freddie Mercury on the track, you need something special, and it comes via another John Deacon riff that would be as recognisable to bass guitar as Smoke On The Water is to guitar playing.

As with guitar riffs, it is the simplicity that makes it work, an insistence that allows everything to be build on top, a taut pop-rock track that spirals into operatic grandeur. 

Another number one penned by Deacon – or was it? This is one that’s entered legend, with Bowie or maybe Roger Taylor helping Deacon to arrange it. Either way, this is another bassline that has entered the pop-cultural ephemera, its reach extended by others sampling it.


12. Schism – Tool (Justin Chancellor)

This is a song that is so typically Tool, gamed out from start to finish, with the theme and the title of the track seemingly informing the composition, with a carefully crafted succession of alternating time signatures. 

It never sits still. If the primary function of the bass guitar is to give the song its groove – especially in rock/metal/etc – then, here, Justin Chancellor has taken the notion to its avant-garde extreme. 

It sounds almost flamenco-like, Chancellor’s treble-heavy clank making those legato hammer-ons really pop out. It’s an alien approach, typical of him, that unseats the listener, promising that all bets are off.


11. Money – Pink Floyd (Roger Waters)

Money is the textbook example of the bassline as guitar riff. In a parallell universe, it could have been David Gilmour who wrote it and played the riff on his Stratocaster. But this is a Roger Waters joint, sending the riff an octave down where the low-end makes the groove airtight and lends it an authority and inertia that couldn’t be achieved on guitar.

Money is the most immediate song on The Dark Side Of The Moon, the bassline is easy enough to play, but it is tricksy in context, played mostly in 7/8 and reverting to 4/4 for Gilmour’s solo.


10. Good Times – Chic (Bernard Edwards)

Relentlessly sampled, quoted, and replayed to the point that is woven into pop-culture's DNA, Bernard Edwards’ Good Times’ bassline is the ne plus ultra of disco ‘lines, its tempo and groove a case study in what will make people move under the lustrous spell of a glitterball. 

Without it, hip-hop’s evolution would have been stunted, and so much more besides. The 110bpm parallels with John Deacon’s work on Another One Bites The Dust is testament to its reach, that its pure funk gravity was enough to pull orchestral rock titans into its orbit. 

Yet no matter how ubiquitous it has become, when you hear it, it’s time to dance, play air bass, and perhaps wonder how we could inject that much invention into a rhythm part.


9. What's Going On – Marvin Gaye (James Jamerson)

Again, it's James Jamerson’s plump, rounded Motown tone, his feel, his sense of rhythmic propriety and melodic sensibility places him at the summit of any ‘Best in Bass’ conversation. 

His discography is incomparable – but the session for Marvin Gaye’s 1971 cris de coeur is the stuff of legend. It’s a legend in which Jamerson was seconded fresh from an evening’s revelry at a club, plonked in a chair in Motown Studio A to subsequently deliver his take while lying on his back like an upturned tortoise. 

Dave Van DePitte, who wrote out the parts, watched on as Jamerson relaxed into the part, relaxed it into being. Only the true greats have such instant access to their best performances.


8. Ramble On – Led Zeppelin (John Paul Jones)

The mellow, rounded thunk of John Paul Jones’ 1962 Fender Jazz Bass helps cement Ramble On as one of Led Zeppelin’s finest moments on record. It’s a loose-leaf acoustic jam that is given purpose and emotional heft by Jones’ supporting Plant’s vocal and filling out the melodic ideas proferred by Page’s choice of chords. 

The tone is classic Jones – the Jazz, the flat-wound strings, playing through a scooped Acoustic 360/361 bass amp. It’s a sumptuous tone, from an amp that was rocked by all the greats – Dave Brown, John McVie, Jaco, Ron Blair… 

Listen to Jones isolated Ramble On bassline and you’ll be chasing a vintage 360 on Reverb. Expect to pay around a grand. It'll be worth it.


7. My Generation – The Who (John Entwistle)

The nihilism of youth, the energy, the need to tear it all up, My Generation was the Who at their most compustible. There’s not a huge leap from the freewheeling anarchy of My Generation and the Stoogies. 

What makes Entwistle’s bassline so noteworthy here is its participation in this anarchy. Bassists hold it down, not tear it up. Yet here is Entwistle doing both, playing call and response with Roger Daltry. 

The whole band do, with the clatter of the riff working around Daltry’s verse, but Entwistle takes what is effectively a bass solo whenever there’s even a whiff of dead air, space to cause a little more havoc. Of all the bassists here, Entwistle – arguably – is the most exhilarating.


6. Roundabout – Yes (Chris Squire)

Another track on which Chris Squire should split his royalties with credits with Mr. Rick N. Backer . . . But in all seriousness, the upfront funk-thunder that bubbles up after the iconic intro is some delicious 4001 bass clank, and it gives Roundabout body, depth and a groove not too dissimilar to the Miracles’ Love Machine.

Listening to the isolated bass track, and it’s remarkable how much teeth and steel is in Squire’s tone. There’s a a sprinkling of fret buzz fairy dust that that serves as a pseudo-octave up. It’s a lithe groover, with a robotic cadence that complements the newly hired Rick Wakeman’s mellow keys.


5. Lessons In Love – Level 42 (Mark King)

Lessons In Love sees Mark King’s righteous chops and his songwriting nous intersect at the summit of his abilities. It was written in King’s loft in Streatham, where he had a reel-to-reel eight-track, and where the band were under the gun for the record company. 

Polydor needed a single. They wrote it and it went to number one, and right there you can see the financial rationale behind the old joke that King’s right thumb was insured for big money.

Written in the ‘80s, a decade that rewarded largesse, King goes all in with a punishing slap motif that is all thumb, all the time, an a propulsive springboard for the the melody.


4. Another One Bites The Dust – Queen (John Deacon)

Here, John Deacon threw the band for a loop, write something on his own steam and giving Queen their biggest-selling hit. This being pop-rock perfection, with a borderline disco feel, the simplicity is all important, with Deacon hitting the first beats of the bar with a staccato low E and finishing it with a 16th note that tees up the next. A lot of the the movement is between the notes.

Elsewhere, Deacon cleared the decks, musically speaking, taking the splash off Roger Taylor’s drums, leaving the track as a two-hander between his plimsoll shuffle and Freddie Mercury’s kinetic vocals – the operatic showman goes rap – with Brian May offering funk guitar background accompaniment. Majestic.


3. The Real Me – The Who (John Entwistle)

Legend has it that John Entwistle tracked this bassline in one take, that he was just fooling around.  When you listen to his part isolated in the mix, you might even be forgiven for thinking that it was for the wrong song, but somehow it works, an alchemy that guilds a song that’s among the finest the Who ever wrote.

In the Who it was lead vocals, lead guitar, lead bass, lead drums. Entwistle’s part – sparse, intermittent, volatile – gives The Real Me a sense of danger, a disorientating, quicksilver appeal, wholly in tune with the song’s theme of split personalities and the search for identity.


2. Freewill – Rush (Geddy Lee)

Freewill is a prime example of Geddy Lee's melodic sensibility and restraint sweetening an entire composition. Rush are celebrated for what they bring to the table intellectually – in playing around with time signatures, key changes, they appeal to the brain. But their sense of humanity allows them to similarly capture the heart. 

A stand-out track from a stand-out album, 1980’s Permanent Waves, Freewill was written quick, and finds a sense of adventure as it progresses out of straight 4/4, maintaining the illusion that it’s a straight pop-rock song – that’s the emotions we’re feeling – and yet listen to what Lee is up to, that’s some sleight of hand.


1. YYV – Rush (Geddy Lee) 

Geddy Lee has spoken before of his efforts to augment his game, adding funk patterns and more rhythmic je ne sais quois, playing with his fingernails in a pseudo-flamenco style. As a band, Rush never sat still, chasing new sounds and avenues of songwriting. 

But first and foremost, Geddy Lee is a phenomenal rock bassist, and on YYZ, he lays down a tour de force of rock bass with a progressive jack-in-the-box line that sits square in the awkward pocket of 10/8, flattened fifths jarring the song to life, before opening out to the anthem and set-list staple that it would become. It all came from a jam between him and Neil Peart.

For those just learning the instrument, this is one of those to place up there on the to-learn list, something to build your chops towards. If you can play along in lock-step with this, you’ve made it as a player, and 18.19 per cent of you say it is the best bassline of all time.