Bassists don’t often handle song intros, but there have been some very memorable ones in rock history.
Rock guitar players have it good. They can walk into any party and turn heads by playing the first few notes of a song—from what seems to be a million-song catalog with recognizable guitar intros. Just the first two or three seconds of an opening riff can transport a listener into a world of memories, while at the same time give the player instant gratification for being the instigator of boundless joy.
When it comes to bass, there is a wealth of great, iconic intros in the R&B realm. In the rock world, however, we stand in the shadow of our guitar-playing brethren for intro glory.
It seems to me that many of the best-known bass intros in rock history start off songs that are not necessarily the loudest, most high-energy numbers, but rather more mysterious or laid-back affairs.
The following list includes what I think are some of the great bass intros in rock history. And most can be easily played by a beginner or intermediate player, which makes them even better! There are some obvious ones like “Another One Bites the Dust” or “Livin’ on a Prayer” that were excluded, only because I feel they’ve already received their time in the sun.
“Dancing in the Moonlight” – Thin Lizzy
The poetry and effortless sexy cool of lead singer/songwriter/bass legend Phil Lynott goes way beyond the singing and classic rock-star swagger of his powerful stage performances. Lynott’s bass playing is filled with authority and creative ways to approach tried-and-true rock ’n’ roll concepts. The bass intro for “Dancing in the Moonlight” is a simple, mostly pentatonic hook in the key of G that takes us from Em to C to G.
“New Year’s Day” – U2
From the band known for some of the most iconic, arena-filling, delay-soaked guitar intros in rock history comes a song with a very somber bass intro. The chord outline of the riff is Abm, B, and Ebm. And Adam Clayton is simply outlining the chords by playing the first four eighth notes of each measure using the following pattern on all the chords: root, root, 3, root.
As we all sit in our studios and bedrooms trying to come up with the next great opening bass line worthy of an arena, it’s a humbling lesson to hear how haunting and blindingly effective the harmonic and rhythmic simplicity of this line is. The dull sound of the not-so-bright strings played with a pick—through what sounds like a miked Ampeg—is full of soul.
“Naughty Naughty” – Danger Danger
Unless you were a fan of commercial, melodic hard rock in the late ’80s, this 1989 gem from Danger Danger may have slipped past you. The opening track on the band’s debut album starts with a great bass hook that’s not even accompanied by drums—just a clean-sounding Spector played with a pick and without much processing.
The band’s leader, principal songwriter and bassist, Bruno Ravel, separated Danger Danger’s musicality from a lot of their contemporaries with this great opening statement. The riff is basically a Gm idea that moves through Bb to land on C, where Bruno uses a major third to almost give the line a mischievous, playful feel. As the song goes on, the bass line is doubled by rhythm guitar in order to reinforce the commercial appeal of the riff. This slinky and fun bass riff is one I often break out at soundchecks to test my gear, and it usually turns a head or makes someone crack a grin.
“Keep the Faith” – Bon Jovi
This song always lives in the shadow of “Livin’ on a Prayer,” one of the best-known bass-intro riffs in rock history from the same band, but this riff absolutely deserves to be heard and learned on its own merits. Like many of bassist Hugh McDonald’s lines, it is rooted in a bouncy, Motown-style of playing.
The line is in Gm and has a similar movement to “Naughty Naughty” by moving to Bb and C while repeating the top notes of the pattern between every chord change. This riff makes for a great dexterity and string-skipping exercise as well.
Stay tuned for more iconic bass intro riffs next month, and please be sure to comment with your own favorites!