When it comes to dance music, nothing gets a crowd moving like an iconic funky bass line. The low-frequency vibrations from a thumping bass guitar get folks out on the dance floor or moving around the kitchen while making dinner like nothing else.
Funk was a musical style that evolved from a base of jazz and blues, undergoing further refinement in the mid-1960s to emerge as a stripped-down, highly percussive, bass-driven style of music with virtually no melody or other standard embellishments.
Some funky bass lines are so compelling they have been sampled time and again by the next generation of musicians to create new riffs, instigating copyright issues for musicians and publishers but keeping dance floors full from Miami to Minsk.
So let’s settle in and listen to the ten funkiest bass lines of all time.
10 The Beatles: “Drive My Car”
The Beatles are not usually spoken of as a funk band, but all the band members were huge fans of American soul and rhythm and blues music, which inevitably surfaced in some of their self-penned songs.
This record, a single off the album Rubber Soul, was written mostly by Paul McCartney, with John Lennon contributing lyrical content, and recorded in late 1965. Paul gets his groove on with a dive-bombing bass line that drives the song forward as well as his car.
The refrain “Baby, you can drive my car” was incorporated with a nod and a wink, as it was an old blues euphemism for sex.
Probably played on McCartney’s famous Hofner violin bass and placed prominently in the mix by their producer George Martin, this bass line was near the dawn of funk and heavy metal as musical styles and influenced future generations of musicians in both genres.
9 James Brown: “I Feel Good”
When James Brown released “I Feel Good” as a single on King Records in October 1965, it marked a shift in American popular music as “funk” came on the scene as a recognized musical style. Funk was an outgrowth of both blues and jazz, defined by a de-emphasis on the melody and chord progressions and a strong focus on the rhythmic groove of the bass line, usually played by an electric bassist.
“I Feel Good” was driven by Brown’s distinctive vocal stylings and the popping bass line from bassist David “Hooks” Williams. The single version was recorded at Criteria Studios in Miami, Florida. Since its release, the song has been licensed for many film and television uses in everything from the soundtrack to The Big Chill to an episode of The Simpsons.
It was James Brown’s highest charting single, peaking at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
8 Sly and the Family Stone: “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”
By the time Sly and the Family Stone, a band of black and white musicians from San Francisco, released this record in 1969, funk was in full bloom on the charts and on the dance floor.
Sly and the Family Stone had previously placed several records on the charts, but “Thank You” was a breakthrough hit for the band and reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in February 1970.
From the harrowing lyrics of “Lookin’ at the devil / Grinnin’ at his gun / Fingers start shakin’ / I begin to run” to the innovative “slap bass” riff from bass guitarist Larry Graham, this recording was a major creative leap for both the group and the funk genre.
“Thank You” has been sampled many times, among them for Janet Jackson’s signature hit “Rhythm Nation,” for which Sly Stone received a production credit.
7 The Soul Machine: “Twichie Feet”
“Twichie Feet” was a somewhat obscure 1968 instrumental single written by Leon Haywood, a soul and funk musician from Houston, Texas. However, the signature bass line has been sampled dozens of times.
While the record itself didn’t sell on the initial release, perhaps because the intended audience wasn’t quite ready to get that funky yet, the sampled bass line riff and guitar track have lived on in a multitude of additional recordings.
Artists, producers and music critics regularly proclaim “Twichie Feet” one of the seminal recordings of the early funk era.
6 Commodores: “Brick House”
Before Lionel Richie was a smooth-crooning, easy-listening, million-selling solo artist, he was a member of The Commodores, a group of musicians who met as students at the Tuskegee Institute, a renowned predominantly black college in Alabama.
In a 1977 studio session, the bass player Ronald LaPread came up with a bass line he kept repeating over and over until the other band members joined in, with Lionel Ritchie on saxophone.
Another band member, William King, supplied the lyrics. The eventual title of the song was “Brick House,” an explicitly graphic ode to a solidly-built woman with the measurements of 36-24-36. Or 91cm x 60cm x 91cm for those not in America, but it just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
The record was a massive hit for the band and peaked at number #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in late 1977. “Brick House” has been used for various films and television episodes and is regularly voted into “All-Time Funk Classics” listings.
5 Aretha Franklin: “Rock Steady”
The “Queen of Soul” got her groove on in the studio with this track, “a funky and low-down feeling,” driven by the rumbling bass line from ace studio bassist Chuck Rainey.
The track was not in her usual style of gospel-influenced soul music but more in the rhythm and blues genre, with Franklin receiving the writing credit. She also played piano on the track, which charted at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 in October of 1971.
The single was lifted from the album Young, Gifted, and Black, establishing Aretha Franklin as a leading American recording artist. “Rock Steady” was one of the first and most successful singles of her legendary career in the gospel, soul, and rhythm and blues musical styles.
4 The Gap Band: “You Dropped a Bomb on Me”
The Gap Band was a rhythm and blues outfit from Tulsa, Oklahoma, with regional success before this single, which dropped a bomb on the dance floor and the national Billboard Hot Black Singles chart, where it peaked at #2 in 1982.
The massive success of the record led to it being included on many film soundtracks about the disco era and being played at sporting events like American football games, where many teams play a snippet over their public address systems after the home team scores a touchdown.
Along with the monster bass-driven riff, the song was one of the first big hits to take advantage of synthesizer technology, with the whistling sound of a bomb dropping used in the recording before the first verse.
While the song had absolutely no connection with politics or terrorism, it was effectively blacklisted after the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York. Unfortunately, many radio stations in the U.S. removed the song from all playlists indefinitely.
3 Herbie Hancock: “Chameleon”
Better known as a jazz musician, Herbie Hancock came up with a huge funk hit in 1973 with “Chameleon,” a 15-minute original off his influential jazz-funk album Head Hunters.
Recorded in several studios in the San Francisco Bay area, Head Hunters was an artistic triumph for Hancock, who brought his version of jazz-funk music into the popular mainstream. The record had great compositions and a creative band of talented musicians who could (and did) push Hancock into new territory in the studio.
The album does not use any guitars at all. Hancock opted to use keyboards instead, primarily the Yamaha Clavinet, which takes on many of the musical parts that would otherwise have been played on a guitar. Synthesizers were fairly new at the time, but Hancock was a veteran musician with the confidence to try new instruments. The signature bass line in “Chameleon” was not played by a bass guitar but by Hancock himself on an early ARP Odyssey synthesizer. This distinctive bass line has since been sampled by many other musicians for their compositions.
Head Hunters was the best-selling jazz album in history until 1976 when it was passed by George Benson’s Breezin’. It was added by The Library of Congress to the National Recording Registry, which collects culturally, historically, or aesthetically important sound recordings from the 20th century.
2 Cameo: “Word Up”
With the signature lyric of “Wave your hands in the air like you don’t care,” there was no stopping “Word Up” when it was released as a single in 1986. The record peaked at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was presented with the Soul Train Music Award for Best R&B/Soul Single of the year.
The infectious bass-heavy groove was written by band members Larry Blackmon and Tomi Jenkins and filled dance floors worldwide. From Germany to New Zealand, folks got their groove on, and the record also became a favorite of exotic dancers worldwide for its sheer attention-grabbing danceability.
Many cover versions of “Word Up” have been recorded and released, everything from metal versions with a guitar solo to a version by Mel B of the Spice Girls to a successful hit version for the British girl group Little Mix in 2014.
1 James Brown: “Cold Sweat”
James Brown was born dirt poor in the countryside of South Carolina to teenage parents in a small one-room wooden shack. He began his career in local talent shows and gospel music, gradually moving into rhythm and blues and building a reputation as an electrifying live performer.
He formed backing bands of top musicians and drove them to perfection—in the studio and on stage. He performed a punishing live schedule of up to 300 nights a year in nightclubs and auditoriums, mainly in the southern United States. They didn’t call James Brown “the hardest-working man in show business” for nothing.
By 1965, after the success of the million-selling Live at the Apollo album and numerous television appearances, James Brown and the Famous Flames had captured the attention of music fans and promoters alike. They had a new style of music that got the name “funk” for its emphasis on the bass line and the percussion rather than the melody and rhythm of the song.
By 1967, James Brown had distilled his vision for what funk music should sound like, and the result was “Cold Sweat,” a seven-minute bass and drum track with percussive horns and a drum solo with virtually no melody. The track left behind the standard 12-bar blues foundation Brown had been using and moved into new and uncharted territory.
With bass guitarist Bernard Odum and legendary drummer Clyde Stubblefield driving the track forward, “Cold Sweat” was a number #1 hit on the Billboard Rhythm and Blues chart and influenced other musicians profoundly. According to studio producer Jerry Wexler, these musicians either couldn’t figure out what Brown was doing or were so inspired they immediately tried to do something similar themselves.
“Cold Sweat” left a huge footprint on popular music and has been repeatedly sampled over the decades by many producers and recording artists, from Public Enemy to DJ Shadow and many others.