Isolating the tracks of your favourite song can sometimes feel a bit counter-intuitive. After all, do I want to eat the individual parts that go into making a delicious sausage? Absolutely not. However, when isolating the bass track of an iconic tune, it feels a little bit different. That’s because, given the shadowy nature of bass players and their continual placement at the bottom of the traditional band pile, you provide a service in highlighting just how integral they are to make good songs great.
Throughout music history, the bass guitar has been the foundation upon which the best songs were built. Forget the spotlight-stealing lead guitarist with hair flowing in the wind like a million-stranded cape, chuck the flagrantly ostentatious lead singer who is devout only to his own ego in the bin and even rubbish the perpetually sweating drummer in back — bass is the instrument without which the whole house would come tumbling down.
Rush’s Geddy Lee may well have become the ultimate bassist with his noodling hands and impressive ability to improvise lines on the spot, but even he can admit that the instrument doesn’t have the greatest image. “Back in my day, nobody chose to be the bass player,” Lee says, reflecting on his own decision to pick up the bass guitar ahead of the other, perhaps more impressive instruments afforded to rock bands.
“You were always a guitarist, and somebody said, ‘Well, we need a bass player,’ so they had a vote and you became the bass player. That’s how I became a bass player: I was voted in,” recalls Lee, negating any ideas of a love story with his instrument. “I think that was pretty common for the period, because everybody wanted to be Jimi Hendrix; everybody wanted to be Eric Clapton; everybody wanted to be Jimmy Page.” However, those artists would simply be floundering in the treble of turbulent water without the landmass of bass providing a perfect swell to surf into shore.
When you isolate a host of classic basslines, you can truly feel the power of the instrument, how it instructs the rest of the band, how it lays down brick after brick of musicality and provides solid ground from which the more extrovert instruments can launch from. Below, we’ve picked out ten of the greatest isolated bass tracks of all time for your enjoyment.
10 best isolated bass lines:
‘YYZ’ – Geddy Lee, Rush
Rush’s esteemed percussionist, Neil Peart, explained to CBC that although their favoured song ‘YYZ’ was about airports, it was the functional side of things that appealed to them; it was “the bustling part, the very emotional part of it, you know, re-greeting each other, and all the laments. That was a conscious thing, to try to weave in some of the moods of airports into the song.” It’s a unique proposition for a song.
Without needing to use lyrics, the band still managed to achieve what they set out to do and create that feeling of reunion without saying any words. This is truly a testament to their incredible skillset, and that feeling is remarkably reached with Geddy Lee’s bass alone — proving he’s one of the best to pick up the instrument with every single plucked note.
‘Dear Prudence’ – Paul McCartney, The Beatles
On ‘Dear Prudence’, Paul McCartney enacts more blissful moments as he delivers a powerful bassline that underpins the predominantly Lennon-penned song. McCartney starts the track with a singular and determinedly plucked note before moving into the song’s iconic bop. The bassline inhibits both the track’s trance-like nature and the captivating melodies.
The track’s playful appeal may feel like it comes from Lennon’s refrain but, in fact, it primarily lands on the bassline of Paul McCartney to take it to its known heights. Listen below to Paul McCartney’s isolated bass track and marvel at his underrated genius.
‘Psycho Killer’ – Tina Weymouth, Talking Heads
Whether you’re watching an old live performance, the Talking Heads’ classic concert film Stop Making Sense or just listening to their records; it’s hard to deny the sheer excitement one feels when you hear Tina Weymouth’s iconic bassline for the Talking Heads landmark song ‘Psycho Killer’.
The song’s presence as a perennial party starter cannot be excused. It’s not hard to see how this track is capable of transforming a crowd into a sweating, heaving mass. While we’re sure Byrne’s delivery is important and the rest of the band’s contribution to the song is vital, the song utterly hangs on Weymouth’s bass.
Those first iconic notes will be heard up and down the country in indie clubs every night and will signal to those on the dancefloor that they’ve got a good night ahead of them. In fact, it’s Weymouth who can be seen as the party starter for the band’s entire catalogue, driving the songs infectious groove with her bass and propelling the group and their audience into a state of pop delirium.
‘Ramble On’ – John Paul Jones, Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin may well be one of the most revered rock bands of all time, equipped with not only the guitar stylings of Jimmy Page but the sincere talent of Robert Plant and the pulsating percussion of John Bonham.
They arrived with a bang on their debut but their sophomore album contained a memorable track ‘Ramble On’. Co-written by Page and Plant, the song drew its influence from the fantasy novel by J.R.R Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings. Though it may well feature as a song the band members would rather forget, it’s one of their most beloved tracks.
It was probably one of those rare times when Jones shared the same amount of appreciation as Page for his winding bass style, which Michael Madden once described as like a “Garter snake” playing. Like every song, Jones played his part, sincerely giving Page’s solos a boost and quietly asserting Led Zeppelin as rock heroes.
‘Pinball Wizard’ – John Entwistle, The Who
On The Who’s records, and without an audience, where the band are free to manipulate their sound, the band’s bassist John ‘the Ox’ Entwistle was unmatched. The bassist on ‘Pinball Wizard’ is intent on implementing his own unique style to every piece he performed. He brought a heavy dose of style with him on every venture, and while he may have acted aloof, really, he was just in the zone.
The isolated track below from the band’s iconic number, ‘Pinball Wizard’, sees Entwistle in mercurial form. The track is taken from their 1969 rock opera Tommy, and the lyrics offer a glimpse of their main protagonist Tommy Walker in the middle of one of his legendary gaming sessions. It’s one of the band’s most beloved songs, and it simply wouldn’t be possible without Entwistle running the show from behind.
The archetypal bassist, Entwistle was as stoic as he was stylish and delivered in bucketloads whenever he was asked.
‘Guns of Brixton’ – Paul Simonon, The Clash
When The Clash released their seminal album London Calling, they delivered a plethora of punk tunes. But bassist Paul Simonon wrote the song for one of those unthinkable punk necessities; the money. The musician picked up his bass and began writing the track because he needed the cash, revealing that “you don’t get paid for designing posters or doing the clothes”, when speaking to Bassist Magazine in October 1990, “You get paid for doing the songs,” he added.
If there was one song to define the figure of Simonon, then this is it. Deeply influenced by reggae thanks to his birth and upbringing in south London’s Brixton neighbourhood and imbued with a menacing tone of danger, ‘Guns of Brixton’ is a cult favourite that deserves more praise. But perhaps what deserves the most credit is Simonon’s bassline. It’s a fearsome piece of playing which, while a little simple for the musically talented around us, was enough to capture the minds of its audience and transport them to the depths of south London’s cowboy scene.
Below, you can revisit Simonon’s isolated bassline from ‘Guns of Brixton’ below.
‘Money’ – Roger Waters, Pink Floyd
Known for commanding the studio when a song of his was at play — when Roger Waters and Pink Floyd came to record ‘Money’, Waters was once again on hand to dish out some advice. Gilmour was asked in 1983 where the song’s famous time signature had come from, and he duly replied: “It’s Roger’s riff. Roger came in with the verses and lyrics for ‘Money’ more or less completed. And we just made up middle sections, guitar solos and all that stuff.”
“We also invented some new riffs – we created a 4/4 progression for the guitar solo and made the poor saxophone player play in 7/4. It was my idea to break down and become dry and empty for the second chorus of the solo.”
The track may well be famed for its use of tape loops and the iconic cash register intro, but we like to experience the song stripped back and how we might hope Waters first composed the song, on his bass and his bass alone—before taking it to Pink Floyd for the final finishes. It’s a reminder of the crucial moments that hide beneath songs. When they’re tracks that are as textured, complicated and dense as this one, listening to an isolated track reveals a different personality to the song.
‘Welcome to the Jungle’ – Duff McKagan, Guns ‘N’ Roses
Working alongside the primadonnas of Slash and Axl Rose must’ve been hard for Guns ‘N’ Roses’ Duff McKagan, but somehow he pulled through and delivered classic pieces. “I’ve discovered that I did work harder with our drummer (Steven Adler),” he once recalled, “and came up with the right fills for songs like ‘Out Ta Get Me’ or, ‘My Michelle’ or ‘Welcome to the Jungle’. We didn’t overplay them. So, listening back now, I’m stoked with myself as a young kid. I think to myself, ‘Oh, you did the right shit there!”
Even though we know McKagan once said, “If you wanna play bass in a band so you can show yourself off, thinking you’re gonna be in the spotlight, then it’s a wrong instrument for you”, we’re going to put him under that spotlight and let you revel in chords that were the works of the genius that was Duff McKagan, in ‘Welcome to the Jungle’.
‘Ace of Spades’ – Lemmy Kilmister, Motörhead
So we may have spent most of this article telling you about the intricate ways a bass guitar can build a background from which to let music spring forth; for Lemmy and Motörhead, the bass guitar was always front and centre. No better is this seen than on their landmark track ‘Ace of Spades’.
What many remember about Lemmy, among a few things, including his head tilted upwards to his microphone as he sang, was his Rickenbacker bass guitar, strapped onto him like a machine gun. What was truly the turning point for Motörhead would be Lemmy’s signature sound with his bass. Previously he played the guitar, so naturally, when he started Motörhead as the bass player, he would play it like a guitar.
According to bestbassgear.com, Lemmy would only use the rear treble pickup, with all the dials turned to ten. For 30 years, Lemmy used a model 1992, Marshall Super Head. Novices of rock n’ roll may wonder how he got that gritty sound of his bass; these days, guitar players may decide to use distortion pedals. Lemmy, however, simply let the tubes of his analogue amp heat up — catch some of the fire below.
‘Killing in the Name’ – Tim Commerford, Rage Against the Machine
‘Killing In The Name’ has had one hell of a life since Rage Against The Machine first unleashed it onto the world in 1993. The track quickly became the band’s signature song and tackled societal issues revolving around those in power abusing their position and confronting racism fiercely and directly. The song even alludes to the history of US police’s links to the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists; it could easily have been written in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breanna Taylor and countless others by the police in 2020.
The fact that Rage Against The Machine shared this as their debut single encapsulates the attitude of everything they stood for when it was released way back in 1992. Thankfully, the band’s attitude has not waned in the slightest over the years, and they remain one of the great voices of reason who don’t plan to stop standing up to injustice anytime soon.
Commerford’s isolated bass puts the track through a completely brand new lens and it is still guaranteed to send shivers down your spine.