The best bass lines of all time. Is there a way to make a list that will please everyone? Probably not, though there have certainly been bass lines over the course of history that have awed and inspired both bassists and music enthusiasts more than others.
From the Motown stylings of James Jamerson to the rough and rugged tones of Cliff Burton, let's take a look at the many times throughout history where bassists took center stage and delivered pure, low-end ecstasy. Here's the 30 best bass lines in musical history (in no particular order).
Hysteria - Muse
Though it certainly doesn’t have the same historical icon status as many bass lines on this list, Chris Wolstenholme laid down what might be the best bassline in modern years in Muse’s 2003 hit, “Hysteria.”
It deserves its place on the list for several reasons.
For starters, Chris dialed in an absolute powerhouse bass tone. Secondly, for a standard, forward-driving rock song, it’s incredibly precise and complex, offering a relentless, driving pulse for Matt Bellamy to sing atop.
Give It Away - Red Hot Chili Peppers
The iconic bassline in "Give It Away" is a prime example of Flea's distinctive funk mastery, earning it a well-deserved spot on the list.
It offers the infectious energy that only Flea could muster up, all with a unique combination of slapping and popping techniques.
Flea's bassline is not only a supporting element in this Red Hot Chili Peppers track, but a driving force that shapes the entire character of the song; giving it that heavy, funky vibe that made the band famous in the first place.
Money - Pink Floyd
Roger Waters' bass work in this iconic 1973 track was and still is one of the most creative and innovative bass lines in popular music. Even when it comes on today, you know you have to buckle up for a long ride through the psychedelic sonic landscape of Pink Floyd.
One of the most distinctive things about this bassline is that it’s in 7/4, making it sound just ever so much more complex and unpredictable than your average rock track.
Waters' bass playing is not just about providing a rhythmic foundation but providing a melodic centerpiece for the rest of the band to complement.
Ramble On - Led Zeppelin
The bass guitar in "Ramble On" by Zeppelin flows like water, blending intricacy and intimacy, and no one could have done it quite like John Paul Jones.
As the songs moves into the chorus and he hits that very first three-note lick, he sets himself for a series of fast-moving hammer-ons, taking focus away from Jimmy Page’s usual insanity and Robert Plant’s wailing vocals.
It’s one of the most magical basslines to come out of the late ‘60s.
Billie Jean - Michael Jackson
“Billie Jean” is one of the most iconic Michael Jackson songs to ever hit the airwaves, and who knows if it would have been such a hit if it wasn’t for Louis Johnson and his instantly recognizable bassline.
The thumping riff drives the song forward from start to finish, acting as somewhat of a counterpoint to Jackson’s emotive vocal lines. It revolutionized the use of bass riffs in pop music, serving as the central element in the track.
Under Pressure - Queen and David Bowie
Who knew that playing only two notes over and over again could equate to one of the most iconic basslines of all time? Well, John Deacon probably did, and years down the line, so did Vanilla Ice.
This bassline stands out for its simplicity, offering a repetitive backbone for Bowie and Freddie Mercury to riff over.
Come Together - The Beatles
“Come Together” blends all of the best of the Beatles, including psychedelic lyrics, innovative George Martin production, and a riff so satisfying that the band decided to build an entire song around it.
The song rests on the darker side of the Beatles’ song catalog, as aside from their lighthearted, family-friendly tunes like “Yellow Submarine” or “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Come Together” deals with the conviction of LSD king Timothy Leary.
The bass musicality of Paul McCartney has become somewhat of an indispensable reference for those looking to master the instrument. As compared to most bassists, he’s able to navigate carefully between a skillful selection of notes and soft, seamless playing.
Of course, in this track in particular, it’s his blues playing that show his true mastery.
My Generation - The Who
“My Generation” epitomized The Who at their most volatile, as following a few minutes of what some might call the invention of punk, we’re graced with one of rock n roll’s earliest bass guitar solos.
The solo takes place in four segments, and is skillfully executed on a Fender Jazz bass by none other than John Entwistle.
Though not many would refer to it as a technically difficult bass solo, it was a crazy thing for it to exist at the time, especially because in the late ‘60s, the bass guitar was predominantly viewed as a supporting instrument.
Bassists from all walks of life owe a considerable debt to John Entwistle.
Roundabout - Yes
The funk-infused bass line that emerges after the iconic intro in "Roundabout" is a testament to Squire's mastery of the 4001 bass, imparting a deep, rich groove that became the pinnacle of prog-rock bass.
The tone has a robust yet metallic quality with just a slight bit of fret buzz, akin to what you might get from an octave pedal, giving it a unique flavor like no other. Even throughout the acrobatic keys and vocals, Chris Squire was able to keep up with the many changes like no one’s business.
The Chain - Fleetwood Mac
If you’re a long time bassist, this song definitely doesn’t need an introduction. The same thing goes if you’re an F1 fan, as the second-half of the song, where John McVie’s rubbery bass line comes in, was the staple intro for almost a decade.
While the Fleetwood Mac bass guitar line might be a bit repetitive, moving its way throughout the song without any major changes, it provides a sense of tension and release that brings “The Chain” to a peak and close in the most inspiring manner possible.
Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) - Sly & the Family Stone
With endless ‘70s funk bands to rival, including Parliament-Funkadelic, The Meters, Ohio Players, and many more, Larry Graham from Sly & the Family Stone had quite a bit to do to stand out from the rest.
With "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," he delivered the pioneering slap and pop technique to kick off this pure, groundbreaking groove.
Graham's bassline is so much more than a supporting element, it's a dynamic and rhythmic force that drives the entire song.
Sex Machine - James Brown
James Brown's iconic funk anthem, "Get Up (I Feel Like Being A) Sex Machine," is often recognized for its influential sound. However, the unsung heroes behind its distinctive groove are Bootsy Collins and Catfish, his brother.
Though Brown wrote the track, it was Bootsy's assertive bass line and Catfish's guitar playing that shaped the song.
Without Bootsy's contributions, "Sex Machine” definitely wouldn’t have the same presence it does on modern dance floors today.
Phantom of the Opera - Iron Maiden
Steve Harris of Iron Maiden may not have ever been the frontman of the band, though he unequivocally plays the group’s leading role.
He has a way of coming up with lively, daring bass lines that set the aggressive tone for the band, and although he has crafted and performed numerous basslines worthy of being classified among the best in rock, his contribution to Maiden's epic "Phantom Of The Opera," is, to me, one of his most memorable.
I Wish - Stevie Wonder
Trying to craft hit basslines in the ‘70s was a lot more alluring, as not many great ideas had already come into existence like they have now.
When Stevie Wonder’s "I Wish" hit the charts, rivaling the funk appeal of "Sir Duke," he somehow managed to create something both irresistibly catchy and timeless. Of course, it was Nathan Watts that we truly have to thank for this hit, as he was the unsung session bassist for the entirety of Songs in the Key of Life , as well as 30+ years of Wonder’s career.
Walk on the Wild Side - Lou Reed
Before playing on Lou Reed's groundbreaking album, "Transformer," Herbie Flowers had played with heavy hitters like T. Rex and David Bowie.
As the legend goes, Reed and Flower were in the studio working on the track "Walk On The Wild Side," when Reed became inspired by the deep, resonant tones produced by Flowers on his upright bass.
As a bit of call and response inspiration, Flowers took it a step further by playing his electric bass a tenth above the original acoustic line. In less than an hour, Flowers’ rich and jazzy bass tones became the defining element of Reed's signature hit.
Digital Man - Rush
Geddy Lee is one of the most widely acclaimed bassists of all time, and during Rush's creative zenith in the late '70s and early '80s, he was untouchable.
While the theme of "Digital Man" may seem a bit outdated to TikTok era Gen Z’ers, Lee's intricate and rock-solid bass guitar part injected the song with a timeless edge that remains just as strong as the years go on.
Alternating between his trusty Rickenbacker 4001 and J-Bass on Signals, Geddy's bass mastery is evident in this extraordinary six-minute anthem.
Smoke on the Water - Deep Purple
Whether you grew up learning to play guitar or bass, you’re most likely one of the 50% or more that decided to learn the iconic riff from "Smoke on the Water" by Deep Purple first.
The riff, despite its simplicity, is one of the most universally recognized riffs of all time. For many, it has become a musical milestone, and for that reason alone, it deserves a spot on our list.
Lessons in Love - Level 42
"Lessons In Love" shows Mark King at the peak of his abilities, from his songwriting prowess to his formidable musical skills. Written in King's Streatham loft with his reel-to-reel eight-track, the song was actually a product of pressure from his record company, Polydor, which said they needed a single ASAP.
Who knew that under that kind of pressure, King would be able to craft a track that would climb to number one with incredible speed. What’s so great about this track is that he fully commits to that ‘80s-style slap, driving the song forward with an incessant force that serves as the foundation for the melody.
Good Times - Chic
Bernard Edwards' "Good Times" bassline isn't just a groove, it's integral to disco DNA. It’s a line that’s been sampled and replayed so much it's practically the pop-culture mascot with its own disco ball fan club.
Without it, hip-hop might never have gained speed with tracks like Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Even iconic players like John Deacon couldn’t resist the gravitational pull from disco, citing it as an inspiration for “Another One Bites the Dust.”
Sure, it's everywhere, like that friend who never leaves your couch. But admit it, when you hear it, you can't help but get down, and there’s something to be said about that.
Lemon Song - Led Zeppelin
Though he is nothing short of a musical wizard, John Paul Jones of Zeppelin didn't often get to unleash his full brilliance on their recordings.
It was often Page and Bonham who went off the rails, and someone needed to be there to keep things from spiraling into a chaotic, Grateful Dead-style jam session.
However, every now and then, Jones said, "Hold my bass," and took charge.
Enter 'The Lemon Song.' Jonesy owned this track with his Jamerson-inspired bass runs, and after three minutes of bluesy rock, the rest of the band steps back and hands Jones the spotlight. Then, for more than two mind-blowing minutes, he never seems to break a sweat.
Sloop John B - The Beach Boys
Though you might not recognize the name Carole Kaye unless you studied music in school or you’re a total music nerd, you’ve likely heard her play at some point in your life. Some say that she played on more than 10,000 songs from the 1960s on, many of which became integral tracks in western culture.
One of those tracks was the 1966 Beach Boys hit “Sloop John B,” which became an instant sing-along with Americans across the country, thanks to its overlapping harmonies, folky lead vocals, and, of course, its ultra-fun bass line, which keeps the energy up from beginning to the end.
For Whom the Bell Tolls - Metallica
The bassline in "For Whom The Bell Tolls" is like fine wine – it was best enjoyed with friends in person.
This is because it was on stage that Cliff Burton got to unleash his inner bass beast with his buzzsaw bass tones and wah pedal combo. Even though Jason Newsted and Rob Trujillo continued the tradition of heavy, driving bass lines, they never quite seemed to match Burton's wild side.
This descending chromatic riff offers a heavy metal punch with a sonic expression of pure dread unlike any other Metallica track out there.
London Calling - The Clash
Paul Simonon could slay the bass like no other. Of course, he had to keep the facade on that he didn’t care how good he was, as they might've kicked him out of the 100 Club for his lack of punk .
Even so, he used his hybrid reggae rock wizardry to set his bass style apart from many other bassists at the time, especially on "London Calling."
While the lyrics on the track might be far from Shakespearean, the sheer attitude packed into the music turned it into a rebellious classic.
Love Will Tear Us Apart - Joy Division
Ditching the sub-frequencies, Peter Hook decided to take a wild ride up the neck to play lead bass for his funky escapade on "Love Will Tear Us Apart."
And sure, why should it only be guitarists who have all the fun up there?
Apparently, the bass line was so inspiringly spot-on that Ian Curtis thought, "Hey, I want in on this action," and paralleled with his vocals, creating a musical bromance that endured rock history.
Thela Hun Ginjeet - King Crimson
Tony Levin is widely regarded as one of the most influential bassists of the modern era, and his impact on progressive rock and jazz, as well as his keen ability to move from genre to the next without missing a beat, also made him one of the most sought-after touring and session musicians after his time with King Crimson.
The bass part on Thela Hun Ginjeet is absolute insanity, combining speed, technique, and rhythm, not to mention a killer mid-heavy tone. Learn the bass line, and you’ll have essentially learned what feels like three different songs.
Seven Nation Army - The White Stripes
It’s hard not to feel like a Viking warrior about to step on the battlefield when the opening riff from “Seven Nation Army” comes on. With a little bit of spring reverb, a rubbery, slightly driven tone, and a simple, forward-driving riff, Jack White created one of the most iconic bass riffs of the early 2000s.
Ironically enough, the studio version wasn’t played on a bass at all, but actually a semi-acoustic Kay Hollowbody guitar with an octave-down Digitech Whammy bar.
Longview - Green Day
“Longview” was written before Green Day became a household name, and before that metallic, mid-range-forward bass tone became a staple of pop punk.
It perfectly captured the essence of the track, which Billie Joe Armstrong so gracefully noted was about being “bored, lonely, and homeless.”
Apparently, Mike Dirnt, Green Day’s bassist, wrote the song while tripping on acid, and forgot it by the next morning. The famous bass line that punk fans know and love today was what Mike and Billie struggled to piece together from the wild night before.
Teen Town - The Weather Report
In his debut Weather Report album, Jaco Pastorius strutted onto the scene with something to prove, and boy, did he prove it. This iconic track offers what is basically a resume of his bass techniques on steroids.
For years down the line, he wouldn’t be shy about claiming the title of “best bass player in the world,” and from the slapped intro 16ths to jamming in sync with Joe Zawinul's jazzy, haunted house-like keyboard sequence, this song was all the proof he needed.
To this day, trying to play this line accurately is like attempting brain surgery with chopsticks. And playing it like Jaco? Well, that's reserved for the chosen few, if any.
What's Going On? - Marvin Gaye
I know that someone out there was seething at the end of their seat, as I was nearing the end of this list without a song from one of the best bassists of all time - James Jamerson. However, here we are, and though there are certainly hundreds of great lines to explore, it’s his playing on Marvin Gaye's 1971 masterpiece, where Jamerson's bass style reached mythical proportions.
As the story goes, Jamerson was fresh from a night of revelry at the club when he plopped into his chair at Motown Studio A and laid down his bass part laying down on his back.
A Town Called Malice - The Jam
Though this bass masterpiece could've taken inspiration from the Motown hit factory, it decided to cozy up with post-punk teen angst, adding a jaunty rhythm to an otherwise frustratingly rebellious song about being British during the Falklands War.
It’s the bass that made this song such an earworm and catapulted it straight to number one.