What comes to mind when you think of the word “iconic?” It’s a subjective term these days, right? One that I feel gets thrown around far too much in today’s mainstream culture. So, when sitting down to tackle a list of music’s most iconic basslines, I found myself asking this very question.
Iconic can mean different things to different people. Especially when we are talking about music. A musician may give a completely different perspective on what basslines they consider essential versus what a typical music fan might say.
With that in mind, here’s a short list of what I consider to be some of the most iconic basslines in music. I’ll be pulling from a variety of different genres spanning over generations that range from unsung heroes to household names.
We can of course talk all day about which bassist has the most blindingly brilliant technical chops (and there are certainly plenty of those players on the list) but that to me doesn’t necessarily equal an iconic bassline.
How this list was put together
After spending a bit of time head scratching, I decided that each bassline would be chosen based on one simple element. Is it instantly identifiable?
Meaning as soon as you hear it, whether it be blasting from stereo speakers in your car or from somebody plucking along by themself in a music store, would you recognize what’s being played?
Because this list is limited to a relatively small number, there are plenty of choices I couldn’t fit on here. Say what you want about what made the list. I’m confident that each and every one of these will be stuck in your head at some point.
My goal here is to adopt the perspectives of both musician and non-musicians alike in hopes of exposing some of you out there to something you haven’t heard before.
For the rest of you, may this article be a window to a new perspective on some old classics.
I’m a producer, composer, multi-instrumentalist, and music educator with over 15 years of experience in the music industry.
Though guitar is my primary instrument, I’ve always had an affinity for the unsung hero that is the bass player and just how important their role is in the context of a band.
From the low key players staying in the pocket and serving as a support role to blindingly brilliant virtuosos who can give any lead guitar player a run for their money.
This list is a celebration of the players who’s contributions have pushed the envelope and moved music forward in one way or another.
Alright let’s get into it. (In no particular order)
My Name Is Mud – Primus (Les Claypool)
Author, winemaker, fisherman extraordinaire, and master bass player, Les Claypool is truly the modern definition of a renaissance man.
Pulling from influences ranging from King Crimson and Rush to Black Sabbath and XTC, his self-taught fretless antics have shown us time and time again through projects ranging from Primus and Sausage to The Fearless Flying Frog Brigade and Oysterhead that nobody plays the way he does.
Though I’m sure a large number of rabid Primus fans will reference “Tommy the Cat” as Claypool’s magnum opus, it is the hypnotically dark “Mud” that first made its impression on yours truly.
Its wildly syncopated, bowel churning bass groove burrowed a hole deep inside my subconscious early on courtesy of Claypool’s expertly percussive thumbing combined with drummer Tim Alexander’s supportive percussive foundation laid out.
I challenge you not to sing the riff immediately after hearing this one. “Buh-Doon-Buh-Doon-Buh-Doon-DOW-Buh-Doon-Buh-Doon-Buh-Doon-DOW!”
Under Pressure – Queen (John Deacon)
Instantly recognizable in more ways than one, Queen bassist John Deacon churned out the signature riff to the Mercury/Bowie duet that would later be known as the “Smoke On The Water” for bass players.
… And also as “Ice Ice Baby” for better or worse. Hey, I was into it as a kid. Not gonna lie.
So, what makes this bassline work so well? In so many words, it’s Deacon’s minimalist approach. His use of repetition, space and just two little notes set the listener up in a way to almost instantly remember the riff after hearing it. As if Deacon is training you to remember to come back for seconds with the line’s cleverly catchy and stripped down approach.
Not only is this bassline the song’s strongest hook (in my opinion) but simultaneously, it also serves as the much required foundation for all the accompanying arrangements to pile on top of. If the structural integrity of his thick round tone wasn’t present, you’d feel the absence.
The end result being a journey of sorts that ventures from the depths of straightforward pop simplicity to scaling the blistering heights of operatic majesty. Epic!!!
The Pot – Tool (Justin Chancellor)
From the instant you hear it, you know what it is… “The Pot,” taken from the quite stellar 10,000 Days album is a track that in my opinion, is a bit more divergent compared to some of Tool’s previous offerings in that it just might be their most accessible song.
Sure it’s got all the rhythmic acrobatics, spacious atmospherics, wild dynamic shifts and monolithic power chords you’d find in a typical Tool track (not to mention, the endlessly satisfying signature wail of Maynard James Keenan’s).
What makes this one stand out for me however was the tuneful quality of the song. “The Pot” seems to step a bit away from the Fibonacci-centric perspective that went into their previous offering “Lateralus” and incorporates a slightly more straightforward song structure that doesn’t shy away from the massive hooks found within.
The first of which being Justin Chancellor’s melodic and driving bassline that kicks everything off and serves as the song’s reoccurring theme. What stands out in particular to me is his clever use of space and syncopation as it’s applied to a riff absolutely drenched in pedal point. Think Master of Puppets on peyote.
Roundabout – Yes (Chris Squire)
Most guitar players will cite the classically tinged guitar passage in the beginning as the first thing that comes to mind when anybody mentions “Roundabout,” the 1971 opus from prog rock titans Yes.
In all fairness, that makes plenty of sense considering it is literally the first thing one hears when they drop the needle. Valid. I shan’t contest this.
That being said, what struck me immediately upon hearing it for the first time was just how upfront in the mix that bass guitar was. Wow! It was awesome! Initially, I confused Squire’s frenetic yet incredibly precise hammer on’s as being an electric guitar riff due to just how aggressively he was playing.
His energetic attack combined with how prominent his levels were within the song’s sonic image seemed to solidify this misconception in my head for a while until I noticed Steve Howe’s contributions to the song after revisiting with a more critical ear.
Squire’s tone is equal parts snarling and warm providing enough low end to support while having just enough bite to cut through the melange of keyboards, drums, vocals and yes, guitars of both the acoustic and electric variety.
A thoroughly satisfying romp this one. One that will perk the ears of bass players and music fans alike.
Ramble On – Led Zeppelin (John Paul Jones)
John Paul Jones’ melodic, full-bodied lines that decorate Jimmy Page’s more straightforward acoustic passages make “Ramble On” one of Led Zeppelin’s most memorable moments on their sophomore record Led Zeppelin II.
Jone’s tone is full, round and steady. Producing a trance inducing hypnotic effect that works double duty as providing melody and a sonic foundation for Robert Plant’s softer sung verses in conjunction with Page’s delicate strumming.
Any listener will instantly hear how the bass fills out nicely within the confines of its sonic and harmonic structures.
The way this line is laid out is brilliant to me as well. I particularly love the way Jones dances around with his use of duration for each each note he plays and making it sound so effortless as he jumps back from fuller sustained notes to a barrage of sixteenths towards the end of each phrase.
If you listen, you’ll notice how the notes get more and more subdivided towards the end.
For Whom The Bell Tolls – Metallica (Cliff Burton)
“Wait, that was bass!?” That was the first thing I said after learning the ominous descending chromatic pattern lurching over James Hetfield’s thunderous opening riff wasn’t coming from lead guitarist Kirk Hammett but by the late great bass genius that was the mighty Cliff Burton.
Even to this day, I get chills each time I hear it in all of its evil, fuzzed out glory.
Sometimes, the best way to stand out as a bassist in a metal band is to sound like lead guitar I suppose. It certainly got my attention as a lad and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who knows Metallica that doesn’t recognize this signature bassline.
Side note: This song pairs extremely well with zombie themed horror/comedies.
Sex In A Pan – Bela Fleck/Victor Wooten
Victor Wooten is in my mind (and no doubt in countless other’s who’ve heard and seen him play) as the epitome of what it is to be a true musician.
He’ll undoubtedly grab your attention with his dizzying tapping and thumbing techniques if the situation calls for flash but can also always seemingly effortlessly bring things back to a solid, unwavering groove.
There are plenty of players out there that are entertaining to watch as they unleash a flurry of notes at their disposal but can fall short in things actually sounding musical and memorable.
Victor is the best example I can think of that embodies both technical mastery and still play with so much feel and personality. He can bombard you under a mountain of notes if he wants to but if you close your eyes and listen, you’ll still hear good music.
“Sex In A Pan” which was first introduced to us by Wooten as part of the excellent jazz/bluegrass/fusion brigade that is Bela Fleck and the Flecktones is a great example of how he bridges these two sides of his playing.
As soon as you press play, you’ll hear how alive the music feels as Wooten playfully jumps back and forth from tapping to slapping and everything in between all while anchoring around a groove made out of teflon.
The song’s main theme, which is one I guarantee you will be singing to yourself at some random time throughout your day after listening, is a funky, dance inducing ear worm. It’s a melody that always seems to be floating around in my subconscious that usually flies out of my mouth as I’m doing the dishes.
Gimme Some Lovin’ – The Spencer Davis Group (Muff Winwood)
This bassline is like a dance floor dinner bell calling out to all the party people in the room to get them limbs a failing. Honestly, I’d be surprised to hear if anyone out there didn’t inadvertently move while this one is playing.
It’s not even a question of whether you like this song or not. The vibe is so strong that you really don’t have a choice but to obey to the groove.
Led predominantly by Muff Winwood, the song’s intro kicks off with an energetic and infectious riff that embodies support, great round tone and driving rhythm.
Similar to the aforementioned “Under Pressure,” what makes this bassline stick out in our memories is once again, its simplicity. The use of repetition here (only one note this time folks) creates a strong hypnotic groove with stellar tone and great feel. And as soon as those keys hit? Woah baby!
Speaking as a musician who analyzes absolutely everything he hears, the best music is the kind you don’t have time to think about because you’re too busy feeling it.
Judas – Esperanza Spalding
After covering a number of some older classics, I think it’s an appropriate time to give credit to something a bit more current that deserves your attention. Don’t worry, I think you’ll hand it over willingly if you haven’t already.
From 2016’s Emily’s D+Evolution, jazz heavyweight Esperanza Spalding returns with the absolutely captivating “Judas.” Another testament to Spalding’s immaculate technique, inventive songwriting and gorgeous phrasing.
Teetering somewhere between jazz’s harmonic sophistication and funk’s head bobbing pulse, “Judas” signature theme grooves hard! Incorporating the old adage of “It’s the notes you don’t play that are just as important as the ones that you do play,” Spalding injects plenty of space in-between her notes as she walks down her neck in lock step fashion with the drummer’s disco-like groove.
It’s probably the single coolest use of chromaticism I’ve heard in a really long time. Truly a breath of fresh air to this writer’s ears. This bassline is single-handedly responsible for me buying the album. Seriously, I literally just did it.
Dean Town – Vulfpeck (Joe Dart)
Rounding things out with another modern offering, the relentlessly groovy “Dean Town” released by mutant funk outfit Vulfpeck is an exercise in precision and plucking as bassist Joe Dart’s nimble finger approach burrows it’s imprint into your subconscious.
While this song is an explosion of notes, the song’s main theme is a music fan’s ear worm. Technical yet memorable, things go from a straightforward stream 16th notes fluttering around the tried-and-true 1-5-6-4 progression to suddenly leaving orbit at the 0:51 mark.
Things get busy for sure and in more ways than one. Yet while this description could give the impression that said performance runs the risk of becoming a forgettable musical run on sentence, there’s an undeniably hummable quality about the line throughout that runs until the 1:27 mark. It is something else altogether when the motif is then accompanied by guitar and keys soon after.
It seems that this one has struck a chord with music fans as well regardless if they play or not.
It was reported by a fan (and friend of mine) who saw them play this one at their sold out show at Madison Square Garden that they witnessed the entire crowd singing the bassline note for note.
If that’s not iconic, I don’t know what is.
So, there you have it! Like I said, this is a very short list and I know that by now, you’re probably saying to yourself “Really? You didn’t include ‘so and so’ on this?” And I totally get it.
For this particular list, I wanted to have an eclectic blend of players who’s contribution has made some kind of impact whether it’s a mainstream staple like Queen or someone more under the public radar outside their niche like Esperanza Spalding.
My hope is that if one of these players is new to you that you will take a chance and dig in to what they offer and maybe, just maybe, you’ll discover a new artist or genre to get into.
Who did I leave out that you think absolutely must be on this list? Be sure to drop a comment and let me know.