20 MARVIN GAYE
What’s Going On? (from What’s Going On, 1971)
When Marvin Gaye stepped up his game from the 60s to the 70s (and by extension, giving the whole of the soul industry a much-needed dose of maturity), he wrote the exquisite What’s Going On album, stuffed full of juicy basslines. Complementing the lush instrumentation of the title track with a melodic edge rather than merely setting up a foundation, the bass part flows in and around Gaye’s antiwar lament and still feels modern to this day.
19 IAN DURY & THE BLOCKHEADS
Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick (single only, 1978)
Too funky for the pub-rock scene and too poppy to be truly funk, the Blockheads had something indefinable which made them unique. Which other band would write a trilingual song about non-violence and title it this bizarrely? And which bassist could play so many notes per bar without sounding silly? Norman Watt-Roy laid down a busy, almost frantic line to accompany Ian Dury’s laconic drolleries, but his bass-line doesn’t sound inappropriate: in fact, it sounds amazing to this day.
Orion (from Master Of Puppets, 1986)
With not one but three bass solos – all of them radically different – ‘Orion’ is the one Metallica song that all bass players must listen to. Cliff Burton, who died a few months after Puppets was released, wrote this instrumental, and it shows. The song leads off with a faded-in soup of bass notes, laden with chorus, and fades away again after a heavy guitar section to a classical bass motif that is mixed low in order to get your attention. Finally, Cliff lays down a blistering, distorted solo at the end of the song that most people mistake for a guitar part.
All Right Now (from Fire And Water, 1970)
Andy Fraser’s superbly economical fingerstyle line towards the end of Free’s best-known song, ‘All Right Now’, was enough to secure his status as one of the 1970s’ most revered bassists. Mixed low – you have to strain to make out the chords that end the riff – this classic bit of funk bass is all warm, middy tones: you can almost feel his fingertips on the strings. Although Free never secured the acclaim they deserved, this song alone guarantees them a place in the rock pantheon.
16 LOU REED
Walk On The Wild Side (from Transformer, 1972)
With two tracks simultanously played on a bass guitar and a double bass, Herbie Flowers’ famous sliding line is known the world over, adding a subtle touch to one of the darkest pop songs ever written. While Lou Reed sings his cheery tune about transsexuals and ‘head’, Flowers’ fast-moving fingers bring a touch of class to this most satisfyingly lowlife of tunes.
15 MILES DAVIS
So What (from Kind Of Blue, 1959)
There are jazz lovers in their nineties who still remember with a shiver the first time they heard ‘So What’, the opening song of the most influential jazz LP of all time. Paul Chambers’ sublime double bass and Bill Evans’ plangent piano chords created one of the finest introductory passages ever, before Chambers took the song up a level with the famous, questioning riff that leads the listener towards the horns. Even after half a century, this is heady stuff.
Ace Of Spades (from Ace Of Spades, 1980)
Ian ‘Lemmy’ Kilmister’s famously filthy bass sound – not, as he revealed to us several years back, the result of any effects, just wide-open mids – isn’t for everyone, but for millions of ’Head acolytes the world over it’s nothing less than the sweetest sound ever committed to vinyl. He’s at his peak on ‘Ace Of Spades’, intro-ing the song with that simple, two-note riff and sliding upwards as the guitars join in.
13 THE WHO
My Generation (from My Generation, 1965)
After two verses in what is effectively the first punk song ever written, you can hear one of the first ever bass guitar solos. It’s a still-stunning essay in four parts, played on a Fender Jazz by John Entwistle. It’s not that the solo is unplayable (although it’ll still give you a few problems): the remarkable thing is that it happened at all, in an era when the bass guitar was regarded solely as a supporting instrument. We owe a lot to the late, great Entwistle.
Politician (from Wheels Of Fire, 1968)
Fusion before the term had been invented, ‘Politician’ was the sound of Bruce, Baker and Clapton (as well as lyricist Pete Brown) stretching their chops idly in between mega-hits. Jack Bruce’s bass-line walks languidly through this four-minute track, demonstrating – as all his lines do – that class is always effortless and that only fools show off. Listen out for the miraculous tone he delivers, too.
Hysteria (from Absolution, 2003)
Chris Wolstenholme's fingerstyle precision on the bass-line that opens and pins down ‘Hysteria’ has to be heard to be believed. Although it’ll take anyone a while to master, composed as it is of multiple high-register hammer-ons, the real challenge while playing it is keeping it clean while the massive distortion it requires threatens to swamp any clarity. Good luck!