10 Must Know Funk and Soul Bass Lines

Bass players often stay in the background and are out of the spotlight. We can go as far as saying that most of the time, they are undervalued or brushed aside. That is true if you’re listening to anything but funk or soul!

But the truth is far from that. 

The bass is one of the most important instruments in an ensemble. It is the backbone of every song you ever listened to. It is the instrument that you dance to. The bass is the driving force behind all the groovy songs you like.

Soul Bassist Larry Graham
Picture - Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

I want you to think about the grooviest song you know…Yeah, its bass line is the first thing that comes to your mind, right?

That is the power of a good bass line. 

As the legendary soul session bass player, Carol Kaye once said “The bass is the foundation,” and “Whatever you play puts a framework around the rest of the music.” This sums up well what is the bass’s role and how important it is.

In soul music, the bass is not overlooked or undervalued at all. Among other styles, soul and funk are the two bass-heavy genres. The bass lines are the main parts and driving forces behind the songs.

We know that it is hard to come up with only 10 songs that define this style, but we tried to gather the 10 MUST-KNOW Soul and Funk Bass Lines of All Time, in no particular order.

1. The Jackson 5 - I Want You Back

All the songs on this list are considered “classic” bass lines, but the song we’re starting with is the ultimate “classic” bass riff. It is The Jackson 5’s very first national single released in 1969, “I Want You Back”.

It features one of the most melodic and unique bass lines, not in soul music, but music in general.

Fun fact, contrary to popular belief, the bass player on this song was not James Jamerson, it was saxophonist Wilton Felder playing the bass. He was best known as the founder of “The Crusaders”.  

2. Sly & The Family Stone - Thank You

Next up we have another song released in 1969, “Thank You” by Sly & The Family Stone. This song is an iconic, must-know song for every bass player.

It was the first recorded song that featured the “slapping” technique. Larry Graham came up with this technique when he was playing in his mother’s band.

They did not have a drummer so Larry had to come up with a way to keep the groove going.

He started to mimic the bass and snare drums and voila, came up with the slap technique, or as he called it the “thumpin’ and pluckin’ ” technique.

3. The O'Jays - For the Love of Money

This song has one of the most memorable bass lines of all time. Anthony Jackson composed and played this bass line for O’Jays 1973 release, “For The Love of Money”. It was nominated for a Grammy and in 2016 inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

This bass line is unique because it features Anthony Jackson playing a percussive line with a pick through a phaser effect.

4. The Brothers Johnson - Stomp

Next up we have “Stomp” from the Brothers Johnson band. This group had the legendary Louis Johnson on bass.

Stomp is one of their most famous songs, reaching number one on the dance single charts. It also featured a thunderous bass solo by Louis Johnson.

He was best known for his work with this band and his collaboration with Michael Jackson. 

5. The Temptations - Papa Was A Rolling Stone

This song was released by Motown recording act “The Undisputed Truth” but later was covered by “The Temptations”. The later version became a number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 1972.

The 12-minute long jam has a smooth bass line that every bass player should know. It is not challenging like Stomp or Thank You, but it’s groovy for sure.

6. Bill Withers - Use Me

Bill Withers was known for his groovy and catchy tunes and “Use Me” is no different.

It has a nice open feel to it that lets bass players groove their way around. The repeated bass line fits in well with the band’s complex guitar, piano, and drum parts, creating a unique and groovy mix.

This song became Bill Whiter’s second-biggest hit reaching the top of the Billboard charts.

7. Stevie Wonder - I Wish

It is a known fact that one of the best bass players in the music industry is Stevie Wonder’s left hand. His synth bass riffs are some of the grooviest and tastiest bass lines you can hear in modern recorded music. 

“I Wish” was the lead single from his 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life which also won Album of the Year at the 1976 Grammy Awards.

Most of the bass lines on this album are played by Stevie Wonder. But on this song, it is Nathan Watts playing the groovy bass line.

8. The Staple Singers - I'll Take You There

Next up we have a true soul classic. This 1972 song was released on Stax Records and it features their infamous Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.

The bass line was played by Alabama bassist David Hood. The whole song is based on the bass line which gives its “feel-good” vibe.

Check out the unique bass melody in this song. It comes in the middle of the second verse as a surprise. It fits perfectly.

A must-know bass line for every soul-loving bass player out there!

9. Ben E. King - Stand By Me

Stand By Me is the only song on our list that features a double bass instead of an electric bass. 

The main bass riff is one of the most recognizable bass lines ever recorded.

This song was also included on Rolling Stone’s list of  500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was also inducted into the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress, as a “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” song.

10. The Temptations - Ain't Too Proud To Beg

Last but not least, we have another Temptations song, “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”. It was released in 1966 on the Motown record label and reached number one on the Billboard R&B Charts.

This song features the legendary Funk Brothers with James Jamerson on bass.

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