Ten Great Fender Bass Rock Riffs
By Jeff Owens
Rock bass begins with Fender, plain and simple. The revolutionary Precision Bass® (1951) got everything rolling, and the 1960 introduction of the Jazz Bass® added even more momentum to the proceedings. Ever since, rock musicians everywhere have been putting Fender basses to truly memorable use, and more than a few of them have proven to be masters of that indispensable rock device, the riff.
Whether a song contains a short but memorable bass riff—or two or three or four in some notable instances—or whether a whole song is one big exercise in artful low-end riff-ery, fine Fender examples abound throughout the history of rock. So many examples, in fact, that the 10 selections below only take us from the birth of rock through the late 1980s. We’ll just have to cover the decades since in a separate list.
Now, please do keep in mind that we’re talking about rock music here, and believe us, it was tough to boil it down to only ten. It’s a big bass world out there, and we’ll be offering other 10-great-bass lists that expand the scope to other genres and subgenres, such as Motown pop and R&B, jazz, funk and more (James Jamerson and Jaco Pastorius could each have top 10 lists all their own), so stay tuned for that.
In the meantime, have a look at this chronological list of great Fender bass moments in rock, and by all means join the conversation and tell us what other ones you can think of …
1. “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” (Elvis Presley, 1957). Bassist: Bill Black
“(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” is a swingin’ pop classic penned by two-man hit factory Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in 1957, and while there’s a good chance you’re not too familiar with it, let the record show that it’s been done by everyone from Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly to Led Zeppelin and Queen to Brian Setzer and Cee Lo Green. For our purposes here, we refer to the best-known version—the 1957 Elvis Presley rendition heard and seen (sort of; we’ll explain in a sec) in that year’s Jailhouse Rock, only one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll films ever made.
The song begins our list because as far as we know this is the first and only time a Precision Bass (or any bass guitar, for that matter) was clearly heard on a record all by itself in the decade of the instrument’s introduction. “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” begins and ends with a solo Precision Bass line that demonstrates what the instrument really sounded like in the 1950s—all big and thick and punchy and profoundly revolutionary. What’s more, this really is one of the first bass riffs, as opposed to the standard-pattern plunking that underpins much original rock ‘n’ roll. Granted, as bass riffs go it doesn’t get much simpler than “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care,” but that’s not to take away from the perfectly phrased groove with which the great Bill Black delivered the line (although some say Presley himself played the part). As for the song’s poolside cinematic appearance in Jailhouse Rock, the astute observer will note an upright bass there in the cabana with Elvis and the boys, but make no mistake—that’s a Precision Bass you’re hearing, as sure as Elvis is the King.
2. “My Generation” (The Who, 1965). Bassist: John Entwistle
The Who is ensconced in a London recording studio in October 1965, and 20-year-old Pete Townshend has come up with an anthemic little stomper clearly destined to be their biggest hit yet. Naturally then, the group decides that the way to go mid-song is a bass solo—something that has never really appeared on a rock ‘n’ roll record before.
This wasn’t just any bass player, though. Midway through “My Generation,” a perfectly snarling, stuttering, swinging distillation of youthful antiestablishment angst, John Entwistle fires off a fleet-fingered fusillade of four breathtaking solo bass runs. Thrilling in its effect and just the sheer unexpectedness of it all, Entwistle’s performance at a stroke re-defined the possibilities of the instrument for new generations of players.
Entwistle reportedly went through three Danelectro Longhorn basses during the first few attempts to record the song because he kept breaking their strings at the daytime sessions or during club shows at night (the Who was then gigging around London nearly every night). These were specialized strings for which replacement sets simply weren’t available, and as Entwistle himself later recalled, “I thought, ‘F— it’ and went and bought myself a Fender Jazz Bass and a set of La Bella strings, and played the solo with that.”
There it is, then—when you hear “My Generation,” one of the greatest rock anthems ever, you’re hearing a Jazz Bass. Sunburst finish, tape-wound strings, serial number L89716. A Fender bass moment that will never die and will never get old.
3. “Dazed and Confused” (Led Zeppelin, 1969). Bassist: John Paul Jones
The perennially understated Jones—Zeppelin’s secret weapon in many ways—certainly supplied ’70s rock bass with a treasure trove of fine moments. For sheer tastefulness and percolating dexterity, think “Good Times Bad Times,” “Ramble On” and “The Lemon Song,” to name only three among dozens (and let’s not forget that it was he who authored the tortuous riff in “Black Dog”).
Our pick, however, goes to the descending Jazz Bass intro riff Jones artfully employed to seduce us all in to the escalating psychedelic frenzy of “Dazed and Confused,” the Jake Holmes-penned folk-rock number that Zep interpreted so intensely on its 1969 debut album. A spine-tingling moment, Jones’ riff is unmatched both for disarming simplicity and utter shiver-your-timbers spookiness. If the first ten bass notes don’t make the hairs on your arms stand up, we wouldn’t rule out some sort of neurological problem …
4. “Money” (Pink Floyd, 1973). Bassist: Roger Waters
By the early 1970s, Pink Floyd could look back on several years as a psychedelic favorite of the London underground, but the quartet had yet to chart a major hit in the five years or so since original leader Syd Barrett checked out of the band, literally and figuratively, in the late ’60s. A few artfully atmospheric albums later, Floyd releases ambitious 1973 concept album The Dark Side of the Moon, which earns them stadium-filling permanent-charting world-dominating status and features an enormous hit that starts with the cha-ching-ing sound of a cash register and manages to groove infectiously in 7/4 time, as if.
“Money” was penned by Waters, who by then had honed his busy and Rickenbacker-y early bass work into sparing and Fender-y James-Jamerson-meets-Aldous-Huxley grooves in which each perfectly placed note anchored the swirling power and delicacy of the group’s entrancing sound. And just leave it to the Floyd to top the charts with such a creature—sonically offbeat and lyrically cynical though it is, “Money” is solidly anchored by a clever and instantly identifiable Waters Precision Bass riff that swings irresistibly in odd time—a truly rare feat in rock.
5. “Pump It Up” (Elvis Costello & the Attractions, 1978). Bassist: Bruce Thomas
Here’s the thing about Bruce Thomas: All those great Elvis Costello songs from the 1970s, most of them from the 1980s and a couple albums’ worth from the 1990s, are Elvis Costello songs because of Elvis Costello, true, but you better believe a lot of them move as infectiously as they do because of Bruce Thomas. As half of one of rock’s fiercest rhythm sections ever, Thomas drew on influences both seminal (i.e., Jamerson, Dunn, McCartney, Rainey, Porter, Entwistle) and unexpected (Evelyn “Champagne” King, Nathan Watts with Stevie Wonder and Rutger Gunnarson with Abba) to infuse what started out as a lean, mean post-punk outfit—Elvis Costello & the Attractions—with some of the most melodic and powerfully propulsive rock bass ever.
Perhaps the best-known examples of this is the surging Precision Bass riff with which Thomas starts 1978 hit “Pump It Up,” the group’s feverish double-entendre ode to … well, Google it when you have a minute. The riff (heard in F#, B and E) is dynamite all by itself, but then Thomas shifts gears and tears through the choruses like you wouldn’t believe, and you realize that this guy has a lot in reserve that he’s not even deploying yet. “Pump It Up” came from This Year’s Model, Costello’s second album but his first album with the always-formidable Attractions, and everything Thomas played on from there on out constitutes a rich wealth of fascinating Fender bass work.
6. “London Calling” (The Clash, 1979). Bassist: Paul Simonon
There is just something so huge and scary and apocalyptic about the bass riff that Paul Simonon used to lash together the slashing staccato guitar chords that begin “London Calling.” And another thing: Anyone who contends that the Clash bassist was long on requisite punk looks and short on actual chops at the time can go jump in the Thames, because his ominous Precision Bass riff, combined with the martial rhythm (the song’s lack of a backbeat is pretty unnerving) and desperate lyrics, induces the shivers every time and makes “London Calling” one of the groups finest moments.
Simonon’s riff is big and dark and threatening—everything is not OK, and this is definitely not cheerful, bubbling Britpop bass. This is the way the ’70s ended, with marching rather than dancing, and the kicker comes with an ending that ups the unease and paranoia not by sensibly resolving or fading, but by disintegrating in chaos. A perfect musical match of brooding mood to brooding message, all rendered in one chilling bass riff.
7. “YYZ” (Rush, 1981). Bassist: Geddy Lee
There were signs that “YYZ” was coming. First, there was that dizzying little bass break about six minutes into “La Villa Strangiato” from 1978’s Hemispheres. It was only a few seconds long, but it was basically impossible to play. But you tried anyway, and as soon as you could kind of fake it OK, Rush puts out Permanent Waves in 1980, and now you have to learn the torturous intro to “The Spirit of Radio” and that hyper solo section in “Freewill.” Fine. Also basically impossible to play, but fine. So wouldn’t you just know that as soon as you could kind of sort of fake your way through that, Moving Pictures comes out in 1981 and resets the bass bar impossibly high, because now you have to learn “YYZ.”
A dazzlingly kinetic (and oddly funky) instrumental, “YYZ” is four-and-a-half minutes of unbelievably fast, dexterous bass riffing that makes “La Villa Strangiato” look like “Louie Louie.” By the time Geddy Lee dug out his black ’72 Jazz Bass to record the song (and the rest of Moving Pictures), there was no doubt that he was rock’s finest bassist in the Bruce-Entwistle-Squire tradition, but this “YYZ” thing, this was just nuts. There’s the 5/4 intro with the tritone and the light-speed unison runs at the end, the fiendishly intricate main theme, those three light-speed solo bass breaks that you can pretty much forget about, the deft riffing beneath the Holdsworth-y guitar solo, and God knows what Lee is doing in that devilish descending bass riff right before they return to the tritone phrase at the very end. Monster playing by one of the greatest rock bassists ever, and even if you figured out any of the riffs in “YYZ” only kind of sort of halfway correctly, you still learned a lot.
8. Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Iron Maiden, 1984) Bassist: Steve Harris
Hands down, Steve Harris owns the concept of the furiously galloping bass line, which is as much a staple of Iron Maiden’s swashbuckling identity as Bruce Dickinson’s operatic tenor, the triple-guitar lineup and perpetually decaying band mascot Eddie. And while Maiden is certainly the beloved elder states-band of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, plenty of non-metal players should note that the enormous catalog of fleet-fingered Harris bass mastery, in which he deftly and seamlessly calls on punk, prog, metal and classical chops at will, is a truly fine education in the instrument regardless of genre.
We can think of lots of Maiden classics full of Harris bass majesty—“The Trooper,” “Run to the Hills,” “Wrath Child,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” “Aces High” and about 50 others all leap to mind Errol Flynn-style, but if you had to explain Steve Harris to someone with one song, we suggest “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” A 13-minute-plus epic from 1984’s Powerslave, “Rime” is a Harris tour de force, and while it’s actually not one of the galloping ones, all that bionic riffing and the haunting “Moonlight Sonata”-like bass section in the middle demonstrate that while this is a band with huge guitars and drums (and a jetliner-flying fencing champ out front), it’s the guy with the Precision Bass—strung with flats, no less—who’s driving things here.
9. “Blood and Roses” (The Smithereens, 1986). Bassist: Mike Mesaros
This one is all about context. On the surface, the mid-1980s were pretty bleak as far as compelling rock bass goes. This was, keep in mind, the age of A-ha, the Pet Shop Boys, Erasure and the Thompson Twins, et al. Big lashing, smashing guitars, bass and drums had all but disappeared, and whatever bass you did hear probably came from a keyboard, like the Yamaha DX7s everybody was busy dinking around on back then. Bleak times.
So thank God for the Smithereens, who came blasting out of New Jersey with 1986 debut album Especially For You. With big lashing, smashing guitars, huge drums, electrifying bass and smartly noir-ish lyrics about girls and loneliness and cigarettes, it was the polar opposite of what was popular at the time. The album’s centerpiece was the darkly magnificent “Blood and Roses,” itself beginning with and writhing around a darkly magnificent Precision bass riff from Mike Mesaros, one of the best bassists whose name you don’t know. In one of that year’s few shining moments of real bass, “Blood and Roses” hit the college charts for a while and reassured those who were paying attention that big lashing, smashing guitars, huge drums, electrifying bass and smartly noir-ish lyrics weren’t dead, they’d just gone back to where the best rock comes from in the first place—underground. In New Jersey.
10. “Sweet Child O’Mine” (Guns N’ Roses, 1988) Bassist: Duff McKagan
GNR’s first and only number-one hit, and one of the all-time great guitar riffs even though the original lineup dismissed the song’s composition as practically an afterthought. Nonetheless, one of the most soaring moments on musically ferocious and surprisingly sentimental third single “Sweet Child O’Mine” comes during the intro, when Duff McKagan busts out a majestically melodic little bass passage that’s really quite unexpected (not many number-one hits have majestically melodic little bass passages in them). One can only speculate how many budding bassists in the late 1980s began their educations on the instrument by learning this riff. Indeed, if you’re not quite ready to tackle the aforementioned “YYZ” or “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” from earlier in the decade, “Sweet Child” ain’t a bad place to start at all.
A musically adventurous bassist, the lanky McKagan proved most adept at working his Seattle punk roots into Guns N’ Roses’ swaggering, abusers-welcome brand of hard rock. His prominent bass sound—from a mid-’80s Japanese Fender Jazz Bass Special—is clearly heard all over monster 1987 mega-hit Appetite For Destruction, especially the intro phrase in “Sweet Child” cited here and the wild ascending and descending lines from the “you’re-in-the-jungle-baby” middle section of “Welcome to the Jungle.”