Now, this is a subject that creates a certain amount of debate and, at times, controversy. I, too, am going to join in that discussion. But, before we go any further with this, let me just explain something about this list from my point of view.
The bass provides a rhythmic foundation to the music. A great bass player creates and provides that steady pulse that is the heartbeat of the band. He works with and across the patterns of the drummer, both working as a team to provide that foundation.
- What You Won’t Find Here
- You Hear The Rest Of The Band
- A Variety Of Styles
- Ace of Spades by Motorhead
- Come Together by The Beatles
- What Is and What Should Never Be by Led Zeppelin
- Roundabout by Yes
- Saraswati at Montreux (feat. Mohini Dey & Dave Weckl)
- Good Times by Chic
- So What by Miles Davis
- Dreaming From The Waist (Live) [Explicit] by The Who
- Digital Man by Rush
- Ramble On by Led Zeppelin
- Are You All About the Bass?
- Hardest Songs to Play on Bass Guitar – Conclusion
What You Won’t Find Here
So, on this list of the hardest songs to play on bass guitar, you are going to find bass lines in songs, some of which are not so hard to replicate. We can all do that. But, also parts that are hard to get to sound like they should. As they were created.
Therefore, you are not going to find frustrated lead guitarists who have ended up playing bass and screaming up and down the fingerboard. You are going to find musicians and their work. Work on the bass. Working with the drummer to create the heartbeat that makes it all work.
Bands can play without guitars, they can play without keyboards, and sometimes even the drummer himself. But, take the bass away? You’ve got a train crash.
You Hear The Rest Of The Band
You can hear the bass, but there’s more than just hearing it. You can ‘feel’ it. But still, the bass and the player tend to fly under the radar. Often the “quiet one.” No histrionics or overdone pretense, just doing his job. Yet, some songs are ‘made’ because of what the bass did.
A Variety Of Styles
We are going to look at a few songs with famous bass lines. On the face of it, some of these choices might not seem “hard” to play. It might be easy to play the notes. It often is.
But, trying to make them sound just like the originals is a different story. That is because when you hear the original, that is what the bass should be doing.
All about the bass…
We will see studied work, and harmonious work, and there will be some that fly along a bit. But always in the context of the music, not for the ego of the bass player.
There will be bass playing that has a huge impact on the song. Tracks where the bass pops in and out, creating the rhythm with its entry. Let’s get started with…
Ace of Spades by Motorhead
Bass by Lemmy Kilminster
This might cause a few raised eyebrows in some quarters, judging by what I said in the introduction. However, this is one instance where someone thrashing around on a bass guitar works.
To begin with, he had a no-nonsense, full-on, “in-yer-face” sound and style. A bit like him in many ways. He had his traditional Rickenbacker 4001 but used a 4004 occasionally. He was also known to occasionally use a Gibson Thunderbird, but his “Rickie” was his favorite.
Lemmy only used the treble pickup at the bridge and whacked it up to ten. This was usually played through a 1992 Marshall Super Bass Head (nicknamed ‘Murder One’) and Marshall cabinets. He played with a pick most of the time as well, but this had to be nylon to give it bend and flexibility.
Then he was ready to let rip. If you have never heard the isolated bass track, it is worth a listen. Some can play a few bars of it without breaking up. Others might be able to keep up for a minute or so. But, to play nearly three minutes at that pace and in those rhythms and never lose it once? Quite amazing.
An interesting addition is to revert to what I said in the beginning. He may be playing at a frantic pace, but he is playing with the ferocious drumming of Phil Taylor. That is why this track works so well. An incredible rhythm section working its socks off. And, don’t forget Lemmy is singing as well.
Certainly, one of the hardest bass lines to play from start to finish and get it right.
Come Together by The Beatles
Bass by Paul McCartney
“Oh, that is an easy bass line.” I have heard people say that before. Playing the notes is not so hard if you use the right fingers on the fretboard. However, making it sound like it should is something else altogether.
It is a coin toss. Which is the most instantly recognized bass line ever? The choice is probably this or John McVie of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” Although, you have to wait until over halfway through “The Chain” for John to do his thing. This hits you in the first bar. “Come Together” wins.
Good Or Not?
Paul McCartney has often been an underrated bass player over the years. I have to admit to being guilty of thinking like that as well. But, he has created some excellent work. He can play bass lines that complement the ‘pretty tunes’ that he had a hand in writing.
Looking back at his work with The Beatles from Rubber Soul on, he was creating bass lines that no one else did, or probably could. His work on this track made the song in many ways. Even when he changes towards the end into a straight four with Ringo, it adds something. Leaving the riff behind, it is great, creative, melodic, and thoughtful playing.
A Song Maker
It is a bass line that does all it should do and more. It sets the tempo and the rhythm of the song. Ringo is being creative around it, but still, they are in the same groove.
As soon as John starts his verse with the instantly recognizable “Here Come Old Flattop,” Ringo goes with the bass line and joins the rhythmic foundation. But, it is still the bass line that is carrying the music.
As I said, the notation isn’t difficult if you are using the right finger patterns. But, making it sound like it does when McCartney plays it is not easy. It has something that so many bass players I hear today haven’t got that you can sum up in one word. Discipline.
It works so well, and for some, it is so hard to play because the bass line stays where it is supposed to be. I have heard people play it, and they just have to start improvising and adding their own pieces. All that does is ruin the rhythmic integrity of the music.
The ability to stay disciplined and put the song first is why this can be a very hard song to play on the bass for more than a few people.
What Is and What Should Never Be by Led Zeppelin
Bass By John Paul Jones
So, what is special about this? Our first visit to Zeppelin’s legendary ‘musician.’ I call him that because he contributed so much by playing so many instruments. But, it is his bass playing we are looking at on this song.
If there ever was a better driving rhythm section than John Paul Jones and John Bonham anywhere at any time, I have never heard them. Those two were something else as individuals and something else again when they were together.
The Best Of Both Worlds
John Paul Jones can take songs and bass lines that came from two or sometimes three different directions. Thus altering the whole context of the song. This is a track where if you take the bass line away, it becomes quite ordinary. With it in, it is a Zeppelin special.
The First Phase
Underneath the verses is some melodic and harmonic playing. Not overdone, just adding to the musical content under Plant’s voice. Creative and quite busy but never getting to the front of the mix. Some notes he dampens, others he lets ring out. Clever stuff.
The Second Phase
Bonham lets rip, and JPJ sits with him, adding counter-rhythms and filling notes but also leaving some interesting ‘half-spaces.’ It is heavy and pounding but not too much.
The solo from Page plays out the same. The opening is like the verse with complementing patterns underneath his guitar. Then, we break into the next section, which sees them go again as per the chorus.
Finally, The Third Phase
A complete change of style was led by Jimmy Page with his phased guitar. And then, the explosion of drums and bass. He never compromises Page’s riff, which is vital to that ending which is showing a demonstration of that word ‘discipline’ again.
Again, a song where you can learn the notes, but the hard part is getting it to sound right. A classic bass guitar performance and one which made me think about what I was doing.
Roundabout by Yes
Bass by Chris Squire
A question I have often been in discussions about is who was the best progressive rock band. There were some great bands, of course. King Crimson, ELP, and Rush, but for me, it is Yes. I haven’t included Pink Floyd because their genius surpassed being categorized into any genre.
When it comes down to it, the choice is probably between Rush and Yes. My choice would be… Yes, because of the keyboards, which gave them an extra dimension. Tony Kaye and then Rick Wakeman took them to heights no one else could reach.
The Questions Carry On
So, given they are the best two, then who was the best bass player, Geddy Lee of Rush or Chris Squire of Yes? That also goes to Yes’s bassman, Chris Squire.
Were Yes the first prog-rock band? Probably. Listening to Rush, you can hear the ‘Yes’ influences in what they were doing. And some of the ways Geddy plays, you can certainly hear Chris Squire.
I have therefore chosen a song from Yes, “Roundabout,” which demonstrates the quality of Chris Squire. But, it also allows you to hear little bits of Geddy Lee that were to come.
Indeed he was. At the time, bass playing had never quite reached these heights. He could be wild and quick in his playing. But at the same time, sensitive and with a classical feel to his style.
Yet, he was able to ‘dig in’ with another great musician, drummer Alan White, and create some serious stuff. We can hear plenty of it on this track.
The track came from the band’s album, Fragile, released in 1971. This was also the first album where Rick Wakeman began to show what he was going to contribute in the years to come.
“Roundabout” starts quite sedately with Steve Howe in a classical frame of mind. But then, Chris’s growling pitbull of a Rickenbacker threatens to bite your hand off. He has got the bridge pickup working overtime as it growls away with Alan White’s great drumming.
And, if you think that is frantic, wait until the pair of them are hammering away under Steve Howe’s guitar solo and Rick’s organ piece. It is a virtuoso bass performance that would be almost impossible to replicate. You can only take the theme and try to get as close as you can.
What Guitar Did He Use?
His favorite guitar was a Rickenbacker 4001S, also called the 1999. That was the ‘mono-only’ version of the 4001. But, it was wired to be in stereo, and he used two amps and sets of cabinets.
So far, we have mostly covered the hardest songs to play on bass guitar from modern rock and pop genres. But let’s take a look at something different. For those that appreciate jazz fusion and a bass player that uses a slapping technique when it is required, then this is special.
Saraswati is from India, and in this performance are working with drummer Dave Weckl. In this track, they combine most of everything that you might expect. But, whilst the music has set and defined patterns, there are freedoms allowed for the individual instruments.
They manage to combine jazz improvisations and harmonies with rock. And then, they add some serious funk and just a little bit of rhythm and blues.
On the bass is Mohini Dey. She is small in stature, and the bass she plays seems bigger than her. But she fairly sets it alight. She can complement the guitar and violin parts with tasteful harmonics and style. But, when her turn comes, away she goes.
Dave and herself are holding the whole thing together through some complex timing patterns. This shows a high standard of musicianship from both of them. However, she is not one of the “hey, look at me – aren’t I good” speed freaks.
She can play faster than most if need be; you can hear it, especially during her break. But, it is always in the context of the song. In this style, in my view, there is no one better than this young lady.
Good Times by Chic
Bass by Bernard Edwards
There have been some very good bass players who have contributed great things to the disco scene. One of those is certainly Bernard Edwards. It has been rather difficult to choose just one track that represents his ability.
He has cut across various inter-related genres and dropped into them with ease. However, I have chosen this track, probably one of the best-known songs he worked on. It is also one of his best-known performances. It forms a basis for anyone wishing to develop this style of playing.
They All Contribute
I will take issue with some commentators who insist that the best bass players are all playing ‘disco.’ And that is where the real greatness lies. Answered simply, I would just say ‘rubbish.’ There are great bass players across all genres, as we shall see from my next choice.
All contribute in their various ways, disco and its rhythmic requirements for the bass are just some of many that make up the whole.
A Class Act
Edwards is a class act and has given us some great examples over the years. He can create bass lines that sit in a groove and add so much to the overall sound. And, of course, in the case of ‘disco-based music,’ which is essential for dancing, that is important.
This is a track that a bass teacher could play to a student and then put away for a few years. It shows very clearly what is possible. But, it also sends a message that you need some good technique to play it. And that comes with a few years of experience.
Not Just The Notes
As is the case with just about all bass work, it’s not just about the notes. You can learn those. It is about how, and in some cases, when you play them, creating the feel with the drummer.
That is one important thing you always get with Bernard Edwards. One reason he is rated as one of the best. And it is why this is one of the hardest songs to play on bass guitar.
So What by Miles Davis
Bass by Paul Chambers
If you want to kick back, relax, and listen to a track from one of the greatest albums ever released, this is your chance. The album Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, released in 1959, is revered to this day. And most jazz aficionados say it is the best jazz album ever made.
“So What” is the opening song on the album and sets the tone perfectly. For me, it is an interesting track in many ways, but especially from a bass point of view.
The Best At That Time
Paul Chambers didn’t get to work with Miles Davis by accident. He was the best at the time on his cultured double bass. On this track, he opens it all up with pianist Bill Evans. It is easy and sublime as the pairs swap notes.
But then, Chambers changes his pattern and takes in a riff that will lead us to the horns. From the initial key of D, you can ‘feel’ Chambers taking us up, but Eb is still surprising the first time you hear it. Perhaps even more so when they revert to D after 8 bars.
Over sixty years have passed…
And this is still some serious stuff. Once again, the notes are not that difficult to play, albeit on your Fender Precision rather than a double bass. But making them sound like Chambers does, with that ‘feel’ he creates with the piano. That will take some doing.
Before we get to the final track on my list of the hardest song to play on bass guitar, there are a couple of tracks that simply must have a mention.
Dreaming From The Waist (Live) [Explicit] by The Who
Bass by John Entwhistle
John Entwhistle certainly wasn’t what you would call a predictable bass player. In fact, he hated the terms bass player or bassist. He was a bass ‘guitarist.’
This track shows he could play in a range of styles. He would hold the song together for a while but then realizes that with Moon’s drumming, that was a waste of time. Let Townshend do it while he goes off to paint crazy pictures through his riff making.
One of the most innovative of the 60s and 70s players, he bucked the trend in many respects. This track is one of the hardest songs to play on bass guitar.
Digital Man by Rush
Bass by Geddy Lee
Some people’s favorite, of course. Not mine, but he can certainly play, as this track demonstrates. The bass weaves around at times but keeps its solid rhythm. A good example of his quality and, again, a very difficult bass line to play.
Ramble On by Led Zeppelin
Bass by John Paul Jones
Let’s finish this look at some of the most difficult bass lines to learn by returning to who was, for me, the best of them all. To a young bass player who got within five or six feet of him when he was playing at a pub in West London, he was mesmerizing.
He did things that the others didn’t. Even the ones with ‘big’ reputations. I suppose, in some ways, that still applies today. On “Ramble On,” he created his patterns underneath the vocals. Playing his repetitive line that was in its own way melodic to create a unique musical sound.
With just him and Page, he had to do something, and he did it.
Where Genius Meets Genius
In this particular song, when it is time to let go, he does. His playing sits in between and perfectly in time with Bonham’s thunderous drumming.
And he does this at some speed. The accents infused with root to fifth bounces in a stunning example of what bass and drums can do. And, I am tempted to say, you try and learn it as it sounds here. Of course, you won’t be able to because you won’t find another John Bonham to go with you.
Nevertheless, even with a great drummer, it is not going to be easy to get the sound. Not only the patterns, notes, and timings but to hold your discipline in the midst of it all.
Are You All About the Bass?
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Hardest Songs to Play on Bass Guitar – Conclusion
Some good examples in my book. Of course, we will all have our own ideas. Ideas about who the best players were, and what songs are the hardest to play on the bass.
I have tried to choose bass parts that fit within the songs, doing what the bass is supposed to do. But, parts that are very hard to recreate and make sound the same. In my opinion, of course.
As I say, we will all have different ideas, but that is good. Nothing wrong with different views. What we can all agree on is that it is the instrument that holds it all together. Without the foundation of the bass, there is going to be a problem.
Until next time, it’s all about the bass.