12 Amazing Soul Basslines (With Sound and Tabs)

bass player playing soul bassline on 4-string bass

For the smoothest grooves ever played, we have to go back in time to the late 60s and early 70s. Here, we find some of the most awe-inspiring soul bass lines of all time.

It was common for bassists in the Motown era to do session work, often without getting the credit that they deserved. Thus, I decided to write this list of 12 amazing soul basslines to honor their hard and impressive work.

I`ve chosen 12 different artists to keep the list diverse. I also go into detail about what makes these soul bass lines so great. Thus, my hope is that you can both find some new music with great bass work to listen to, as well as let the legendary names on this list inspire you as a bass player.

12. Wilson Pickett – Mustang Sally

  • Bassist: Tommy Cogbill
  • Year: 1966
  • Tempo: 110
  • Key: C Minor

“Mustang Sally” features a simple but effective bassline by Tommy Cogbill.

The syncopated bass makes the verse of the song feel both groovy and lively. Dunn also throws in small variations into it which keeps the line interesting throughout the song.

“Mustang Sally” is thus a great example of how it`s possible to both hold down a simple groove and add melody to a bassline in the same song. The challenge lies in writing a groove that fits the song and allows you to be flexible with what you play, which Dunn nails on this track.

11. Marvin Gaye – I Heard It Through The Grapevine

  • Bassist: James Jamerson
  • Year: 1967
  • Tempo: 115
  • Key: Ab Minor

Playing the bass as smooth as Marvin Gaye sings is a tall order. Yet, on “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” James Jamerson does just this. He also showcases why he is considered one of the greatest bass players of all time.

The bassline works in harmony with both the vocals and the rest of the instruments. Yet, it has a distinct groove that does not sound like anything else that is going on in the song.

Jamerson`s line is thus a great example of how much the bass can add to a song. He made the vocals come to life through articulation and pauses. At the same time, the bass works together with the drums to provide a fitting rhythm, and the organ to provide harmony.

On top of it all, the bassline sounds like a unique riff of its own that is guaranteed to get stuck in your head. It`s hard to do everything right as a bassist, but this is an example of Jamerson doing exactly that.

10. Sam and Dave – Soul Man

  • Bassist: Donald Dunn
  • Year: 1967
  • Tempo: 113
  • Key: G Major

There are few basslines that are as fun to play as Donald Dunn`s line on”Soul Man”.

It`s upbeat, it`s groovy, and most of all it just feels good when you manage to play it right. What`s impressive is that the main groove can also be packed into 1 bar. Yet, it never feels repetitive nor boring, nor does it ever feel over the top or intrusive.

Another impressive part of this song is how well the bassline leads into the chorus. Both the chorus and verse groove starts off with an 8th note G which creates a sense of continuity. As a result, the 8th note groove that follows in the chorus sounds as smooth as anything I`ve ever heard.

9. Tower Of Power – What Is Hip?

  • Bassist: Rocco Prestia
  • Year: 1973
  • Tempo: 102 BPM (Plays like 204)
  • Key: E Major

The most intense soul bassline on this list comes from Rocco Prestia`s groove on “What Is Hip?”

He starts off with a fast 16th note bassline consisting of repeated E notes. After letting the song build for a bit he starts adding more melody to it. This both creates a noticeable sense of progression to the song, while making the bassline feel like an experience of its own.

If you are looking to test your skills, “What Is Hip?” thus makes for a great challenge. It will test both your plucking speed and your fretting skills and is among the hardest bass tabs on this list.

8. James Brown – Super Bad (Parts 1 & 2) 

  • Bassist: Bootsy Collins
  • Year: 1971
  • Tempo: 120 BPM
  • Key: D Major

“Super Bad” by James Brown is one of many reasons why Bootsy Collins is considered a legendary bass player.

The main groove is centered around jumping up an octave, and then switching it up with 2 different fills to follow it up. This keeps the bassline consistent while adding the perfect amount of variation to it.

As the song progresses, Bootsy switches things up to a completely different groove. Yet, he manages to keep up the feeling of the song, and after 15 years of playing bass, I still don`t understand how.

7. Otis Redding – Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay 

  • Bassist: Donald Dunn
  • Year: 1968
  • Tempo: 104 BPM
  • Key: G Major

What amazes me about Donald Dunn`s bassline on “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay”, is how lively it is.

This is because the song is calm and laid back, and I`m sure most bass players would come up with a much simpler bassline for it. Dunn on the other hand decided to spice things up, and the result is a groove line that suits the song exceptionally well.

The bassline also moves up in register towards the later parts of the song. This creates a sense of progression and intensity, which ensures the song never feels stale.

6. Sly and The Family Stone – Fun

  • Bassist: Larry Graham
  • Year: 1968
  • Tempo: 118 BPM
  • Key: Harmonic E Major

Who knew a staccato 8th note groove could be as interesting as on “Fun”.

Not only does the bassline jump all across the fretboard which makes for a funky groove. It also makes some clever harmonic jumps, using the major 3rd, tritone, and minor 6th in the same bar. Yet, Larry Graham manages to do this without sounding too dissonant. Rather, he makes the song feel even more upbeat.

“Fun” is a great reminder that rules are meant to be broken. Advanced and intermediate bassists who are able to make creative decisions when writing basslines can take songs in a whole new direction. Here, Graham demonstrates exactly how to do just that.

5. Stevie Wonder – I Wish

  • Bassist: Nathan Watts
  • Year: 1972
  • Tempo: 120 BPM
  • Key: Eb Dorian

Similar to “Fun” by Sly And The Family Stones, “I Wish” showcases the power of well-placed 8th notes.

Nathan Watts` bassline provides a smooth backdrop to Stevie`s vocals and the horn section. At the same time, it makes for a catchy and melodic lick in its own right.

The bassline strikes a nice balance between scale notes and chromatic accents. Thus, it is a great display of how a rhythmically straightforward line can still be vastly interesting due to its melodic elements.

4. Aretha Franklin – I Say A Little Prayer

  • Bassist: Jerry Jemmott
  • Year: 1968
  • Tempo: 138 BPM
  • Key: G Major

One of Aretha Franklin’s biggest hits is a cover of Dionne Warwick`s “I Say a Little Prayer”. Her version of the song features a smooth and groovy bassline played by Jerry Jemmott.

While the bass groove is fairly simple, it also manages to fit the feeling of the song perfectly. The bass works as the driving force behind the increased intensity from the verse to the chorus. Right after, it makes the transition back to the verse sound seamless.

Thus, this song is a perfect example of how great basslines are not always about complex grooves. Sometimes less is more, and “I Say A Little Prayer” is a perfect example of why.

3. Jackson 5 – I Want You Back

  • Bassist: Wilton Felder
  • Year: 1969
  • Tempo: 102 BPM
  • Key: E Major

The bassline on “I Want You Back” is not just an iconic soul groove, but one of the most recognizable basslines of all time.

Personally, I also think it is one of the most clever basslines ever. Wilton Felder plays a 4 bar groove that feels like 4 distinct, yet connected parts. The end result is an instantly recognizable bassline that surely played a big part in turning this into Jackson 5`s biggest hit.

Felder doesn`t stop delivering after the intro though. The bassline in the verse is incredibly melodic and groovy. It also incorporates the second part of the intro groove with slight variations, making the song sound cohesive. In other words, this is a bassline that did it all and did it right.

2. Grover Washington Jr, Bill Withers – Just The Two Of Us

  • Bassist: Marcus Miller
  • Year: 1981
  • Tempo: 95 BPM
  • Key: Db Minor

“Just The Two Of Us” is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard.

In addition to the amazing vocal performance, celestial steel drums, and beautiful saxophone leads, it also has an amazing bassline. While the song is progressive and there are many different instruments taking up space, Marcus Miller is always playing a groove that fits well with everything else that’s going on.

From the melodic bass intro to the deep and funky chorus groove, to the laid-back sustained notes in the verse, this bassline is pure goodness through and through.

1. The Four Tops – Bernadette

  • Bassist: James Jamerson
  • Year: 1967
  • Tempo: 110 BPM
  • Key: Eb Minor

I will never forget the first time I heard the bassline on “Bernadette”.

The short vocal line in the chorus followed by the bass fill made me think: “That`s amazing, why isn`t everyone doing that?”. Turns out that everyone isn`t James Jamerson and that fitting a bassline of this kind into a song is easier said than done.

That part alone could land this song a spot on this list, but the bass just keeps impressing throughout the song. It adds the perfect amount of groove to it throughout and changes things up in a natural manner. Especially noteworthy is the lick that leads from the verse to the chorus which connects them seamlessly.

Ian Partanen

BassOx Founder. Passionate bassist for 15+ years across a vast selection of genres, currently into indie-rock and hip-hop. Bachelor's degree in Musicology from the University of Oslo.

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