Like I always say, rock and roll is all about bass and kick drum. While the kick delivers that thump to your chest, the bass outlines the chord structure, defines the groove and often adds melodic counterpoint. But quite beyond music theory, a great bass line totally kicks ass!
There are so many great bass lines in rock, soul and funk that putting together a short list of my favorites was daunting. So, in the spirit of March Madness, I put together a Best Bass Lines bracket to determine a Final Four. I just started listing great bass lines until I got to 64, so this was far from a comprehensive field.
My editorial compatriot, Phil Childers, was a voter and my lifelong friend and music maven Todd Johnston of Grayling, Michigan also voted. There were a lot of tough calls, but we whittled it down to the following Final Four. Make sure to check out the full bracket below. I’d be thrilled to get an email from you on email@example.com with your vote for the ultimate international champion. Hard to pick a winner — all these bass lines have thumped their way into the eternal subconscious of late-20th century American popular culture.
“Another One Bites the Dust”
Queen – John Deacon, bass
John Deacon’s signature bass line in this Queen hit is so good it’s pretty much the whole song. They dress it up a bit here and there, but Freddie Mercury just vocalizes over the relentless cadence of this catchy little figure. It’s also close to my heart as a Detroit Lions fan, since it was the de facto theme song of the 1980 team that started out 4-0 (and predictably missed the playoffs).
“I Want You Back”
Jackson 5 – Wilton Felder, bass
The late Wilton Felder played this most grooviest of bass lines on a track that still packs the dance floor at wedding receptions across America (and probably the world). Felder was the house bass player for Motown when the label relocated to Los Angeles in 1972. The basic figure is simple and catchy, and he really breaks it down as the tune progresses.
Yes – Chris Squire, bass
The late Christopher Russell Edward Squire was the first guy I saw play a Rickenbacker 4001 bass (pictured above). As legendary as the Fender Precision and Jazz basses are, nothing beats the iconic shape of the 4001. Yes epitomized the era of progressive rock, and Squire and his mates display mind-blowing musicianship on this track. Noodly and virtuosic, this can hardly be called a bass line – it’s more like a magnum opus.
Steve Miller Band – Gerald Johnson, bass
Gerald Johnson laid down this iconic classic rock classic. While the tune is better known for the “pompatus of love – whee-whoo” bit, how many uncles in home-brew garage-party bands jammed for hours on dun-dun, da-da-dun-dun, da-da-dun-dun, da-da-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dun-dun? You know you just counted the duhs (I’m pretty sure it’s eight).
Each voter also got to pick an honorable mention that might not have made the field:
Click the images below to see the entire field of 64!