Top 11 The Who Bass Lines (The Best of John Entwistle)

john entwistles bass guitar hanging on wall

The Who`s basslines have a lot more melody to them than your run-of-the-mill bass grooves. This makes sense as John Entwistle used to play the french horn, which is a significantly more melodic instrument than the bass tends to be.

He also improvised a lot, resulting in Entwistle`s basslines always sounding different when played live. This made him an endless source of inspiration, as there is always something new to learn from him.

Thus, there are many good reasons why he is considered one of the greatest bass players of all time. To showcase some of his best work, I thus decided to make this list of the best The Who bass lines.

I`ve included songs from various epochs and kept the list as diverse as I could. This way, I hope to show all facets of what made him so great, and why all bassists can draw something from listening to John Entwistle’s basslines.

11. Go To The Mirror!

  • Album: Tommy
  • Year: 1969

Mainly featured for its catchiness, “Go To The Mirror!” has a bassline that is bound to get stuck in your head.

The main groove of the song works in unison with the guitar. They both play a riff that consists of 5 fast 16th notes followed by a slower lick. This gives the riff an interesting and unique rhythm that is vastly different from most rock songs out there.

This song is thus a great example of Entwistle sticking to a groove, in order to keep the song catchy and cohesive.

10. Heaven & Hell

  • Album: Who`s Missing (1987 Compilation album)
  • Year: 1970

Heaven And Hell is a perfect example of Entwistle serving the song while adding the perfect amount of complexity to the bassline. This makes sense when we consider that Entwistle wrote this song himself.

This song starts off with a melodic bass lick over sustained guitar chords. Then, the bass holds down a groove that makes great use of slower quarter notes while retaining the intensity of the song. Afterward, it does a little chromatic ascent and descent that leads the song smoothly back into the verse.

The highlight of the bassline comes during the guitar solo. Here, Entwistle brings out such a complex and dynamic line, that makes one wonder whether the bass is backing up the guitar or vice versa.

9. Substitute 

  • Album: Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy (1971 compilation album)
  • Year: 1966

“Substitute” is a great display of how Entwistle was able to write basslines that adapted to changes within a song.

The chorus, could not be any simpler. Here, he plays D quarter notes for 8 straight bars. However, he becomes a lot more groovy during the verse, playing a line that breaths a lot of life into it. For the pre-chorus, he adds a small lick to an otherwise straightforward line that creates build-up towards the chorus.

While not the most technical bassline on the list, it is one of the most impressive ones in terms of songwriting. Basslines don`t simply come down to keeping it simple or going all out. Rather, on “Substitute” Entwistle shows finds the perfect sweet spot in between, which ground the song perfectly.

8. Sodding About

  • Album: The Who Sell Out
  • Year: 1979

This short instrumental piece has one of my favorite bass interludes of all time.

For the main bassline of the song, we get a deep groove. It makes great use of octaves towards the end of it that both add suspense and make it lead smoothly back into itself.

The highlight of the song for bass players though comes at 0:25. Here, the Drums and Guitar stop up to give room for the bass to shine. John Entwistle uses this opportunity to play a mind-blowing 8-bar interlude. Not only is it melodically and technically impressive, but he has such as heavy bass tone on this track that it`s impossible to not be blown away.

7. Doctor, Doctor

  • Album: A Quick One
  • Year: 1966

Behind Roger Daltrey`s high-pitched vocals, “Doctor, Doctor” features a simple, fast, and groovy bassline.

The main groove only consists of 5 notes: G#, G#, C#, D# anf F#. However, the quarter to 16th note pattern that they are played in makes for one of the grooviest basslines on this list. This is further helped by John always having Low action on his bass, which makes for a rattling tone that suits the track well.

Entwistle dials it back in the chorus and switches to playing straight root notes. This helps establish this part as the chorus in an otherwise chaotic song. As an added bonus, it leads perfectly back into the main groove and makes it sound all the more impactful when it returns.

6. 5:15

  • Album: Quadrophenia
  • Year: 1973

If there is one John Entwistle bassline I just can`t stop myself from playing from time to time, it is 5:15.

After a beautiful into with sustained high notes, the band enters together with John playing a groove that is bound to get stuck in your head. Not only does it work well on its own, but it also blends perfectly with the brass section.

The bassline also has a lot of short and sweet fills in it, and it remains melodic as it deviates from the main groove. This in combination with the overall arrangement of the song keeps “5:15” an interesting listening experience throughout.

5. Sparks

  • Album: Tommy
  • Year: 1969

Another short and sweet instrumental shows the versatility of The Who as songwriters. It also has a bassline that is equally impressive as it is unorthodox.

The two-minute version of the song starts off with an insanely catchy bass riff that works perfectly with the sustained guitar chords underneath it. Then, it switches to a more progressive rhythm, which Entwistle keeps interesting by switching between doubling the guitar and playing an 8th note groove.

Given the song’s short span, this keeps it interesting and engaging throughout. It consists of two main riffs, but by switching up the bass groove, it feels more like 4. “Sparks” is thus a great showcase of how the bass can breathe new life into riffs that would have otherwise felt too repetitive.

4. My Generation

  • Album: My Generation
  • Year: 1965

There was no way “My Generation” wasn`t going to make this list.

The fast ending to the bass solo and the triplets at the end of the verse groove show why Entwistle deserved the nickname “Thunderfingers”. A less talked about highlight is also the bassline during the drum solo, which switches between a walking bassline and a more straight rock groove.

Furthermore, I need to mention just how well this song is put together. The verse and the bass solo are centered around the same theme of 2 bars of rest and 2 bars of instrumentation. This makes the solo feel like a fitting part of the song, rather than just random showboating.

3. Eminence Front

  • Album: It`s Hard
  • Year: 1982

“Eminence Front” is the perfect example of a bassline going from 0 to 100 real quick.

For the first 2 and a half minutes of the song, the bass is either resting or playing sustained low notes. Then, it comes in with one of the grooviest lines you will ever find in a rock song.

In “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin the drums come in at the perfect spot after waiting 4 and a half minutes. As a result, the drum beat sounds like the most amazing thing in the world. This song is the bass equivalent of that.

2. Won’t Get Fooled Again

  • Album: Who`s Next
  • Year: 1971

While some can`t help but think of the intro to CSI Miami when they hear “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, I can`t help but think of the bassline.

At 0:32 the bass comes in with 3 slides, signaling that the song is about to kick off. Then, as the vocals enter Entwistle plays a line that makes great use of octave jumps and chromatic ascents. This makes for a groovy and melodic line that makes the verse sound both cohesive and interesting.

As if that wasn`t enough, the bass takes on an even more melodic role during the chorus. During it, the bass plays an upbeat and dynamic line that moves from the top of the fretboard, and eventually all the way back to a low E. To have the bassline move this much while keeping the chorus catchy is not something most bassists would be able to pull off.

1. The Real Me

  • Album: Quadrophenia
  • Year: 1973

“The Real Me” could have easily been on my list of the hardest bass tabs. Not only it is a well-crafted line, but one that is guaranteed to impress anyone if you are able to play it. “I went back to the doctor” several times, when I tried to play it as a complete beginner, that`s for sure.

It kicks off with a short bass solo that sets the tone for what to expect from the song. Then, as the verse begins Entwistle switches to a deep and groovy chromatic line. However, it doesn`t take long before he moves back up to the higher register during the chorus and plays some incredibly fast fills.

Towards the crescendo of the song, the line between chorus and bass solo gets blurred. While instrumentally, we are still in the chorus, the vocals take a step back while Thunderfingers takes a step forward.

This way the song somehow manages to end on a high note, despite staying intense from begging to end. It`s also a major reason why this is my number one The Who bass line, and why its ranked among the best rock basslines of all time.

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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