In the era of classic rock the bass player had a lot more power than most people realized. Despite looking like just an easy version of guitar, the low end of the band always help propel a great song forward, either finding a groove with the drummer or bringing a more rhythmic edge to what the guitars are doing. There have been plenty of guitar solos that you can sing from memory, but this is just a little taste of what happens when you go to the low end of the musical spectrum.
The 1970s are filled with songs with iconic bass lines. Just about every Motown album ever released from the Jackson Five to Stevie Wonder to all the other greats are fueled by bass lines that are Hall Of Fame worthy. The Motown bass lines will be looked at in a separate article. This one just focuses on a handful of great bass lines from classic rock artists.
# 13 – The Chain – Fleetwood Mac
After Rumours set the world on fire, there’s hardly anything from the record that could be considered underrated. As the Chain starts off haunting and foreboding, the real bite to the song comes courtesy of John McVie, with his bass line being a warning of what’s to come before Lindsey Buckingham’s guitar explodes into a frenzy for the final section of the song. Fleetwood Mac had become a full-on pop band, but there’s an attitude in this song that has one foot always trailing back into the blues.
# 12 – Silly Love Songs – Wings
Not every bass player is concerned with making your bass sound catchy in every song. You have to serve whatever the songwriter gives you, but after you’ve been in one of the biggest bands in the world, you have a little more wiggle room. Since Paul McCartney was already writing classics outside of the Beatles, “Silly Love Songs,” has one of the best bass lines of his entire career, weaving in and around the changes and, dare I say, adding some disco to the mix as well. When it comes together, it’s quirky, catchy, and full of heart…like all silly love songs should be.
# 11 – Sweet Emotion – Aerosmith
When Aerosmith was cutting Toys in the Attic, everything seemed to be going smoothly until they were one song short. Coming in with a spare riff he had lying around, Tom Hamilton practically hypnotizes you with the opening of “Sweet Emotion,” as the rest of the band creates an almost psychedelic haze around him. For all of the great rock and roll tunes Aerosmith had, there was always a swing to it, and you can’t have swing without something this steady holding it down.
# 10 – Ramble On – Led Zeppelin
By the time John Paul Jones came into Led Zeppelin, he had already been a veteran of the session scene, arranging different masterpieces behind the scenes. He knew his place in the band though, and you can practically sing the verses of “Ramble On,” favoring the higher notes on the neck before Bonzo comes roaring back in for the choruses. There’s a little bit of folk here and there and just a dash of the Motown sound for good measure, but it never stops being uncut rock and roll.
# 9 – Roundabout – Yes
Ah yes…we now come to the song that launched every To Be Continued meme. In all seriousness though, the entire journey that Yes takes us on in “Roundabout,” would be a shell of itself without Chris Squire’s bass, from the nasty as hell riff that everyone can groove to flying off the handle when the song turns a corner into what is essentially a samba groove. Prog rock may fit its own niche audience in rock and roll, but for a song like this, practically no style is off the table if the music still kicks butt.
# 8 – This Year’s Girl – Elvis Costello
It was never really that important to be a virtuoso in the punk or new wave scenes. This was about being the antithesis to something like prog rock, but no one told Bruce Thomas that, making this song bounce along while Elvis Costello is stuck playing chords most of the time. Even though the music was still geared towards pop, the mindset was still about playing for your life, and the bass in this song feels like every single note could be his last.
# 7 – NIB – Black Sabbath
When Black Sabbath were first starting out, everything came back to the blues, and you can really hear it with Geezer Butler. Before NIB properly starts, the intro of the song gives Geezer a bass solo that feels like someone like Eric Clapton if he decided to pick up a four string instead. The second that he turned on his distortion and wah pedals though, the early days of hard rock were over and things were going to get a lot more heavy.
# 6 – Closer to the Heart – Rush
When it comes to great bass lines in rock and roll, you can pretty much put Geddy Lee in a whole list by himself. Although he treats his bass more like a lead guitar some of the time, the way he locks in on Closer to the Heart is difficult to even comprehend some of the time, like during the breakdown where he matches Alex Lifeson’s picking part note for note. Rush may have been out there even by prog standards, but it takes a certain level of genius to cram this much music into just 3 minutes.
# 5 – American Girl – Tom Petty
For any good rock and roll music, it all comes back to the heartland, and Tom Petty was the kind of 24k rocker that we all needed in the late ‘70s. Right around the turn of punk rock, the sound of Ron Blair’s tuneful bass coming in at the intro of American Girl felt like a ray of sunshine that was cast over the rock scene. The Sex Pistols and Ramones may have been talking about the more self destructive side of rock and roll, but there was no shame in having the same rock and roll dreams as the Stones either.
# 4 – London Calling – The Clash
The end of the ‘70s marked a new age in rock and roll, and the Clash arrived right in the middle of it with London Calling. For all of the pointed lyrics coming from Joe Strummer, the real attention grabbing section is Paul Simonon’s bass part, bouncing all over the chord changes in the verses and having one of the single greatest intros for a bass guitar in rock history before the vocals come in. Strummer may have brought the fire, but Paul’s bass kicked down the door to your mind and made you pay attention.
# 3 – Peace Frog – The Doors
Most of the Doors’ glory years seem to be reserved for the Summer of Love era of the band. They found their swagger in the ‘70s though, with the bluesy sounds of Peace Frog being driven by Ray Neapolitan’s bass guitar. Ray Manzarak may have taken over bass duties with his low end keyboard when they played it live, but the entire appeal of the song is just how juicy this lick sounds locking in with John Densmore.
# 2 – The Real Me – The Who
There’s a strong case to be made that John Entwistle was the real lead guitarist in the Who. As Pete Townshend held everything down most of the time, the bite of the Ox was always pushing the momentum forward, and “The Real Me,” is practically his opportunity to grandstand, flying up and down the fretboard to create almost laser sounds with his bass guitar. Townshend may have been the heart, and Keith Moon might have been the muscle, but John was the pulse that took every classic song to a whole different level.
# 1 – Money – Pink Floyd
Considering how much is on the bass player to hold down the groove most of the time, it’s a miracle if you find something that grooves in an odd time signature. Set in 7/4, Money is basically a quirky version of the blues, with Roger Waters leading the charge with his hypnotic bass line, which was so good that David Gilmour got in on the action too for most of the verses, essentially just playing the bass line. Since the whole song comes down to how money brings out the nasty side in all of us, it would make sense that the bass line would feel slightly off as well.
Greatest Rock Bass Lines Of The 70s article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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