I’ll never forget the first time I brought a Big Muff to a gig with my old high-school band. It was an all-ages matinee, probably a six or eight band affair during a time when MySpace, at least to me, indicated a musical aesthetic as much as a fossilized social network. Snakebite piercings, gauged ears, asymmetrical haircuts, gym shorts, breakdowns, mosh parts, that sort of thing. Anyway, I wasn’t having it. The music I heard at all-ages shows back then was just too damn clean. So I rebelled. I distorted my bass. Became obsessed with noise, tried to make the ugliest sound I could. And it had exactly the opposite effect as I’d intended. This marked the first time anyone had stopped me after a show to ask me about my rig. But enough of my ramblin’.
These nine songs are a handful of my favorites where great (if unconventional) tones collide with solid playing and a good song to form an elusive trifecta of musical brilliance. You won’t hear a lot of flashy playing, but I think you’ll hear something equally impressive: virtuoso listening. Each player on this list combines a unique distorted bass sound with an effective bass part that elevates each song to be more than the sum of its parts.
Sonic Youth - “Youth Against Fascism”
Kim Gordon deserves the Lifetime Achievement Grammy for her decades of service navigating SY guitarists’ Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo’s twisted alternate-tuning, drumstick-in-the-strings sheets of noise. With only four notes and heaps of fuzz, she builds the harmonic exoskeleton supporting her bandmates’ prepared guitar scraping. This is the song that made me want to plug my 80s Squier Jazz Bass into a Big Muff, crank it up, and let ‘er rip.
The Jesus Lizard - “Nub”
There’s something to be said for efficiency. With a cheap Memphis J-Bass copy and a Rat distortion pedal running into solid-state Traynor and/or GK amplifiers, The Jesus Lizard’s David Wm. Sims, intentionally or not, dialed in my favorite overdriven bass sound. What it lacks in low end, it makes up in crude, grunting tone that locks-in with Mac McNeilly’s syncopated four-on-the-floor drum pattern, and matches the tone of David Yow’s howling vocal, who sounds like he’s about to throw up at any moment. And then there’s the riff.
This Moment in Black History - “Pollen Count”
This song by Cleveland’s own This Moment in Black History has everything you need: a killer riff, great distorted bass tone, and a bass solo. Bassist Lawrence Daniel Caswell pushes amplifier technology to its limit. What you hear is a dimed SVT on the verge of catching fire being punished by an Epiphone EB-0 and a boost pedal, which is itself cranked to eleven, all through an 18” speaker. Like a punk Geezer Butler, LDC isn’t afraid to bend the strings or play chords, and embraces rumbling dissonance while still serving the groove.
Mclusky - “To Hell With Good Intentions”
Who needs to play a riff when you can get it done with one note? It’s hard to think of a bassline simpler or more effective than “To Hell With Good Intentions.” What it lacks in outward sophistication, it makes up in fine detail - the slight bend on every other note is full of nothing but attitude, and this tune is a great primer on the importance of note length. The distorted bass is prominent in the mix and bassist John Chapple allows each note to speak fully, resting just in time to let the snare drum come through. This is How To Be A Rhythm Section 101, folks.
Rush - “YYZ”
And now for something completely different, this famous Rush instrumental proves that sometimes you just need to play all the notes, in odd time-signatures, and quickly. Sporting the most memorable riff to ever be transcribed from Morse Code and Geddy Lee’s growling fingerstyle playing, this song makes me want to grab my Jazz Bass, buy a set of Taurus bass pedals and an Oberheim synth, set the metronome to 5/4, and disappear for a few weeks.
Shellac - “The Admiral”
Honor the riff. Only the riff. And nothing but the riff. Shellac can be a tough pill for some folks to swallow, but Bob Weston’s clangy, edge-of-breakup bass tone has spawned legions of imitators, turning Travis Bean basses, 70s Traynor amps, and Electro-Voice EVM-15L speakers into collectors’ items. As masters of restraint, Shellac milk every deceptively simple riff for its total worth, implementing subtle variations and clever arrangements, keeping their otherwise minimalistic tunes chock full ‘o surprises.
Frodus - “Red Bull of Juarez”
Now that’s how you start an album. On 2001’s And We Washed Our Weapons In The Sea, DC-area spazz-punks Frodus traded their chaotic, octave chord-laden, claustrophobic post-hardcore attack for wide open spaces populated by rolling, overdriven basslines, and fractured arpeggiated guitars. This musical restructuring created an opening for bassist Nathan Burke to fill with his melodic playing, still locking in tight with drummer Jason Hamacher, in what might be the heaviest punk rock rhythm section of the early millennium.
Big Business - “Hands Up”
Seeing Big Business open for High On Fire at the Grog Shop in 2005 or 2006 (whenever it was) was a musical awakening that completely changed the way I thought about the bass guitar. Jarred Warren’s chordal approach to the instrument reminds me somewhat of fingerstyle bluesmen in the way he combines rhythm and lead playing so that the bass guitar covers both harmony and melody. While they’re often lumped in with one-note-per-minute pentatonic riffin’ doom bands, Big Business are in fact the CEOs of their own brand of heavy rock music.
Melvins - “Night Goat”
Despite having a revolving door of bassists, principal members Buzz Osbourne (guitar) and Dale Crover (drums) recorded the bass on the Melvins’ 1991 breakthrough album, Houdini. “Night Goat” is a sludgy, punishing dirge anchored by a decimated fuzzy bassline that makes maniacally evil use of the tritone. It’s enough to make you queasy.