20 of the Hardest Songs to Play on Bass Guitar (With Videos)
If you’ve been playing bass for a while and you feel like you’re ready to take on some challenging songs, then here’s my list of 20 of the most difficult songs to play on bass guitar.
Some of these songs certainly changed and pushed the boundaries of the bass guitar as an instrument.
Of course, it would be impossible to make a definitive list of the hardest songs to play guitar, but I think you will agree that this is a worthy selection.
Let’s get started!
1. Rush – YYZ
The top of the list would have to be the great Geddy Lee from Rush. Not only is this song action-packed with amazing bass skills, but the song was nominated on the Grammys in 1982 for the Best Rock Instrumental award. Granted it fell short, nevertheless, it was a great runner-up.
The song itself consists of a high tempo and requires a very high skill to be played perfectly. Taking note that the guitar and bass are almost in unison with their notes on multiple parts of the song, gives you an idea of how hard the song is on bass. Since shredding on a guitar with a guitar pick can be considered easier than shredding the bass with your fingers.
2. Metallica – Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)
You can not have a list without mentioning Cliff Burton. Metallica plays a huge role in the music world. The song was first played on March 5th, 1983 in San Francisco and is the first instrumental track to be performed by the band.
At first, the song may sound kind of slow and one would think automatically it is easier. That is not the case since having all that distortion from the bass, it is really hard to give the listener a clear sound of the notes and deliver a perfect performance of this piece. Of course, it gradually builds up as it goes on, and has a wicked bass solo which is quite difficult to master.
3. Primus – Jerry Was A Race Car Driver
You might see Primus a few times on this list, and for good reason. Their influence spans more than we can imagine. Les Claypool is the magician behind the bass and has been the pioneer behind some of the greatest basslines in all of history. The song was released in 1991 as their first single from the album “Sailing the Seas of Cheese”
To the common listener, this track might seem weird at first, or even out of tune. But that is exactly the magic behind this piece. The bass required is a 6-string. In the first part of the song, you can hear a lot of tapping involved. As it goes on, you hear the transition into a more hardcore playstyle. The bass then incorporates a lot of slapping and tapping to create a truly iconic bassline. A challenge for any bass player.
4. Rush – Freewill
Geddy Lee makes the list again with his bass skills. He is also one of the composers of the song, alongside Alex Lifeson. The song came out in 1980, as part of their album “Permanent Waves”. It is described as a “cerebral but remarkably radio-friendly” song.
Diving into what makes this song so difficult on bass and in general would be the constant shifts in time signatures. Including 13/4, some small parts with 15/4, and the chorus switching from 3/4 to a single 16th note in the first beat to triplets in the ongoing two beats. It grows increasingly complex as it progresses. A very high skill level and understanding of music time signatures are required to master this piece.
5. Led Zeppelin – The Lemon Song
Led Zeppelin’s song “The Lemon Song” was released in 1969. The song features rapid triplet hammer-ons and pull-offs played by John Paul Jones. The track is an interpretation of Howlin’ Wolf’s original recording of the song “Killing Floor.”
The bass uses Led Zeppelin’s signature sound which is harder to play on account of the wide-range ambiance. Led Zeppelin wanted the bass guitar to be very clear over the riffs and drums, so they used an octave effect with fuzz settings to get an even deeper yet still clean tone. The bass guitar is very difficult to play. The song uses several open strings that are played quickly, which is very hard for a beginner. The bass player has to be good at playing with their fingers on the fretboard because of the style used throughout the song.
6. Primus – My Name Is Mud
Primus’ “My name is Mud” was the third single off the album “Sailing the Seas of Cheese” released in 1991, and reached #6 on Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Tracks. It is notably one of their most popular songs. Les Claypool makes the list once again.
The bass in the song consists of a bass riff and bass fills throughout the song. Les Claypool uses slapping and popping techniques to achieve a unique bass sound. For any slap bass enthusiasts out there, this is the ideal training ground to push your skills and improve. The song’s style is very funky and shows technical prowess so I have no doubt this will be fun and challenging at the same time for anyone trying to master it.
7. Yes – Roundabout
The bass line to “Roundabout” is widely regarded as one of music’s most iconic bass lines. The song was originally released in November 1971 as a single from “Fragile”, the band’s fourth studio album.
Although the song consists of four chords, the bass is more versatile throughout the track as it includes four different bass lines and also incorporates bass chords. This makes it a challenge for anyone trying to master this piece. Chris Squire starts the song with a bassline that sounds similar to a simplified form of 5ths on bass guitar. This phrase is repeated many times throughout the song. Needless to say, it is a fan favorite for most bass players.
8. Muse – Hysteria
Hysteria is a song by British rock band Muse, released as the third single from their fourth studio album “Absolution” in 2003. The bassline of this song has been considered as Chris Wolstenholme’s magnum opus.
The bass is made by a heavily distorted guitar signal going through a bass effect. Few of the notes are played with an open E string and the song is consistent in the tempo throughout. Complete mastery of this track requires dedication from beginning to end. Learning to play this on your bass, you immediately see that you have to be smooth and steady to get from start to finish.
9. RHCP – Aeroplane
Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea tweeted that he was listening to Bootsy Collins’ 1976 album “Stretchin’ Out in Bootsy’s Rubber Band” and that bassline came to mind when he wrote “Aeroplane”. Let’s face it, no bass list of any kind is complete without mentioning Flea and RHCP.
The bass riff to “Aeroplane” is a funk bass line played in eighth notes, centered around the second note of each beat. In the bass riff, there are three bass notes every beat: a quarter note followed by two eighth notes. Bass players typically play on the downbeat (with their thumb) and off the beat (with their fingers), giving them a “bouncy” feel. Every Flea bass line can be fun but they are also difficult, so if you’re up for the challenge, give it a shot.
10. Tool – Schism
The song “Schism” by the band “Tool” is a bass-heavy song that uses bass as a tool to construct the song’s musical composition, basslines, and riffs. The track was released on January 15, 2001, and was the first single and music video from their third full-length album, “Lateralus”.
The bass gives the song its core foundation, without it, the song would sound empty to many listeners. It’s a bass-heavy song, so bassists need to focus on basslines and build them around the guitar riff. To give it a try you would need to find a way to deliver musical composition in basslines through key signature changes and tempo, which are marked by the drummer. Anyone looking to push their skills should thank Justin Chancellor for this amazing piece.
11. Primus – Tommy The Cat
The song was released on Primus’ third studio album, “Tales from the Punchbowl” in 1995. The track is very bass-centric, and bassist Les Claypool wrote much of it at his home on a four-string bass tuned to an open E minor chord.
Les Claypool uses a pick for this song. You can also note that the bass line changes every two measures and the bass itself is heavily distorted. The bass in the song consists solely of bass notes, with no chord voicing whatsoever. It also features many chromatic runs spanning across two octaves, as well as extended techniques like snap pizzicato and slap-pop.
12. Victor Wooten – Classical Thump
Probably one of the more difficult pieces on this list is Victor Wooten’s “Classical Thump”. The song was composed and recorded by bassist Victor Wooten himself. It was originally released as track 1 on the album “A Show of Hands”, which was later released as part of the album “Life’s Stories” (2004).
The bassline is played with the thumb of the right hand, with the bassist using their left to fret notes on the E string. The bass guitar does not follow any particular time signature throughout most of its duration but instead uses a 5/4 riff in some sections and improvisation in others which presents a syncopated bass line. We all know who Victor Wooten is, and this list would not be the same if he was not featured in it.
13. Petra – God Fixation
The song was released on the album “Beat the System”, which was released in 1984. The bass line was recorded by Louie Weaver, while Petra’s leader and songwriter, Greg X. Volz played keyboard bass during the song’s mixdown.
The bass riff consists of two notes; an open A-string for each chord (except for the D chord in the bass line). It can be played with a pick or fingers, but tends to sound better when played with fingers. There are two main parts of the song, the bass part which repeats throughout most of the song, and there is also an organ bass pedal that happens during certain parts of the song. And note that the bass is in drop D tuning.
14. Primus – Hamburger Train
“Hamburger Train” is the seventh track off of Primus’ third studio album, “Sailing the Seas of Cheese.” The song itself is an instrumental bass composition that features bassist Les Claypool playing several bass parts throughout.
The song begins with the bass riff, and the bass chords are repeated underneath it. Alternatively, you can play the track by alternating between two notes played at different octaves since one note has a higher pitch than the other. The first step of learning this bass line is to memorize it. The bass line has two sections. The first section (measures 1-8) is not difficult to memorize because the bass line only alternates between one note for each beat. The second section (measures 9-16) will take bass players more time because it alternates between two bass notes on every beat of the bar.
15. Viraemia – Disseminated Intravascular Coagulation
The song was released on the album “Terminal” in 2011. The bass plays a very big role in this song, that’s the reason why it makes the list. It enhances the already dark atmosphere of the song’s nature.
The bass in the song holds bass notes that are very clean and well defined. The use of bass in deathcore is often criticized for being too ‘nebulous’ or ‘bloated’. But Viraemia’s bassist, Aaron Guilmette, uses bass notes to create a bassline and bass composition, instead of just using bass as a low-end sound to boost the overall bass volume. The song’s composition is very chaotic, with many different bass lines throughout each chorus, filling in bass gaps, and bass solos.
16. Weather Report – Teen Town
This composition was originally written by Joe Zawinul and released in 1976 on their album called “Black Market”. It is one of the bass masterpieces by Jaco Pastorius.
The bassline in this song is a bass solo, and it shows how good bassists were during the early days of jazz fusion. The bass in the song consists entirely of bass guitar riffs. The bass guitar part in the song is notable for its complexity and uniqueness, which has made it one of the most widely sampled bass riffs in history. The bass is difficult to gauge and needs to be played much more aggressively, especially at the beginning. This song must be played as if it were a bass solo because of the bassist’s prominent role in the song.
17. Cannibal Corpse – Frantic Disembowelment
The song was released in 1993 on the album ‘Tomb of the Mutilated’. The bass was recorded by Alex Webster. There is no bass track in the song since bassist Alex Webster recorded it with a pick. He wanted his bass parts for this album to sound like “two lead guitars”.
The bassline for this song is played in 6/4 and features fast 16th notes, especially when there are sixteenth note triplets. A bass slide has been used in this line when there are sixteenth note triplets. It is a worthy challenge for anyone to master for sure. For those of you who are into death metal, will find this task difficult but fun to learn and progress with your bass skills.
18. Jaco Pastorius – Chromatic Fantasy
The track was released in 1976 on bassist Pastorius’ debut album “Jaco Pastorius” and bass players such as Victor Wooten and Stanley Clarke regard it as a particularly difficult song to play. That says a lot about this particular masterpiece.
Although short, the entire song is filled with bass scales throughout. This requires very fast fingers and dedication to master. It is an extremely high tempo for any beginner to try. I would recommend you to give this piece a shot if you want a true challenge. It will take you a long time to master it, but it will surely benefit your bass skills in the long run.
19. Michael Manring – Helios
Michael Manring is an American bassist known for his fluency in multiple musical styles. The song “Helios” is a bass composition piece by Manring, and was composed especially for bass. The song represents the sun in the heliocentric model of the Solar System, as well as a solar deity from various mythologies.
The bass in the song consists mainly of bass guitar and bass synth, with the use of slapping and tapping. It is a very challenging piece. With lots of different elements implemented in the song itself, like syncopated bass lines, bass riffs, bass runs, bass slides, and bass tapping. Anyone who masters this particular song earns the right to call themselves an expert.
20. Graham Central Station – Pow
Hip-hop bass lines are often overlooked but can be some of the most interesting and grooviest bass lines you’ll ever hear. The song was released in 1973 and was the only song on the album to have a bass solo section. The bassist, Larry Graham, is considered by many to be one of the most influential bassists in music.
The bass consists of a bass riff with a bass drum accompaniment. The bass line does indeed add to the song by giving a rhythm, strong beat, and even some dissonance. He adjusts his bass playing style to match what the drummer and guitarist are doing at a particular time to build up to another bass riff or solo. If you like funky music then this is the song for you.
The list certainly contains a lot of challenging songs to play on bass. There are songs from all genres included so that should expand your skillset. I hope you enjoy playing these songs. As for the difficulty level, you should use it as a means to move forward and advance your play style. There are plenty more difficult bass songs out there to explore, but this is just my take on the matter!