Bassists are arguably the least heralded musicians of rock, pop, funk and soul – more so even than drummers, if that can be believed – yet their work is the very foundation of their genres. Drummers like good bassists like bassists like good drummers. And as any studio producer will tell you, if the rhythm section is tight and at full-tilt, not a whole lot can go wrong.
I have no particular interest here in flash. These basslines, and their players, drove their songs with sinuousness and insistence and struck home with never-ending memorability. These are basslines for the ages; place them in a capsule and shoot them off into space…
BRUCE FOXTON: “DOWN IN THE TUBE STATION AT MIDNIGHT”
Extraordinary box pattern topped with ringing harmonics pull this song out of the station from the very first note, then segue into a great walking pattern in the refrain. Plus…Foxton just flat-out has a stage presence every bassist should have.
“PAPA WAS A ROLLIN’ STONE”
Stark, disciplined minimalism. An eighth-note hi-hat and this simple three-note line – performed by the legendary but unheralded (and usually uncredited) bassist for the Funk Brothers – laid the bottom for the entire song. (See also: “Bernadette”; “Standing in the Shadows of Love.”)
“PIGS (THREE DIFFERENT ONES)”
A rare Gilmour stand-in on bass for Pink Floyd. This is a dark, fretless masterpiece with its tension-filled vibrato, slides, descending hammer-offs and general percolation during the verses.
ROGER WATERS: “MONEY”
Essential. Legend has it Waters devised this bassline not on a bass but on a six-string guitar which is completely to be believed – it’s built around a basic barre chord. Played in 7/4 time then switches to 4/4 in the guitar solo.
TINA WEYMOUTH: “AIR”
This could as easily have been “Psycho Killer,” “Mind,” “Cities,” or “Artists Only,” all of which would be worthy of inclusion here. But this esoterically bouncy bass line is as weightless and feels as effortless as the song’s subject matter itself.
PAUL McCARTNEY: “RAIN”
God, too many choices here to represent the master who forever transformed electric bass. But for one single, signal performance I’m going with this octave-smashing serpent of a deathless bassline and its iconic quarter-notes then ringing triplets in the choruses. (Hear it isolated here.)
TONY LEVIN: “ELEPHANT TALK”
Played not on a bass but on the bass-like Chapman stick, here in one of its very first uses. This is what our forebears might have guessed music in the 21st (let alone late 20th) century would sound like. From 1980 and still ahead of its time.
STING: “THE BED’S TOO BIG WITHOUT YOU”
Give the Police credit: They didn’t just play reggae, they internalized it. This warm, snaky bassline is worthy of anything that has come out of Jamaica (mon). See also: “Walking on the Moon”; “Message in a Bottle.”
BOB BABBITT: “BALL OF CONFUSION”
You could play this bassline nearly the world over and get at least 50% recognition. Performed by an unheralded studio musician who also played on “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours”; “War”; “Tears of a Clown”; “Mercy Mercy Me”; and “Band of Gold.” Little known fact: He also played on Alice Cooper’s “Go To Hell.”
EUGENE WRIGHT: “UNSQUARE DANCE”
This jazz classic from 1961 is most famous for its 7/4 time, but listen to how beautifully the simple standup bassline propels the song with its insistent counterpoint to percussion and piano.
COLIN MOULDING: “ROADS GIRDLE THE GLOBE”
From one of the more unsung of rock bassists. The heaving, breathing opening sounds like something almost organic — like murky asphalt bubbling on a summer day.
“TWO HEARTS BEAT AS ONE”
Look past Bono’s theatrics to hear this powerful bass line propelling an early-’80s hit single. At the beginning of U2’s career, Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen had it going on (musically).
It wasn’t enough that Deacon played the incessant, driving funk of “Another One Bites the Dust.” He also slammed two notes together to create an immortal (and infamously sampled) bassline.
The slides and syncopated eighth notes in the verses really carry this whole riff, leaving Clapton’s guitar scratches to essentially act as the accompaniment. See also the proto-metal riff of “Sunshine of Your Love.”