The Ox. Thunderfingers. These are just some of the names for rock music’s greatest bass player, John Entwistle.
Although during his time with the Who before his death in 2002 at age 57, Entwistle was (understandably) overshadowed by the bombastic, in-your-face nature of the Who. Smashed guitars, on-stage antics, flipped drums, Townsend’s guitar swagger, Daltrey’s’ on-stage attitude and ability to sing and perform as if it was the last concert he would ever play and (at the time) Keith Moon’s manic drumming and own whirlwind personality, were some of the obstacles in the way of Entwistle’s personality and musicianship.
While he might not have been the face of the Who, Entwistle was no slouch with the bass guitar and pen, writing more than 25 tunes for the band, and singing lead on most of his compositions.
The Who were musical pioneers during their time as the famous 4-piece, Daltrey, Moon, Townshend and Entwistle. The band transformed from quasi-proto punk band in the early 1960s in England to intelligent songwriters who, like the Beatles, were pushing the limits of what was possible musically and what could be captured on record. Taking on social issues, storytelling in music and complex, very layered arrangements.
Over all these musical changes, John Entwistle adapted and changed, too.
Entwistle could play simple root-focused bass lines like on “
Townsend also commented that Entwistle’s tone was akin to an organ. Entwistle’s tone and sound was so rich with overtones and harmonics. A note was simply a note in Entwistle’s hands. It was a myriad of sounds that covered a broad range of the musical spectrum that filled rooms and filled the role of a large orchestra (see the interview above).
Amidst the sheer technical ability and transformation to bass guitar, Entwistle was a musician. He wasn’t guns out all the time. He knew how to fall back and serve as a role player but also knew how to fill extra sounds and mimic other instruments with a bass guitar.
1. “My Generation” – My Generation (1965)
No song has been so synonymous with rebellion and angst as the Who’s ‘My Generation’. Additionally, there hasn’t been a bass guitar break so iconic or so instantly recognizable.
“My Generation” made this list for 2 reasons. The first reason is that this bass line – all of it – showcases John’s ability to toggle between a lead and supportive role. For the majority of the song, John is following Townsend’s chord changes and the articulation on them. Townsend’s guitar hits are short, abrupt and drive the song forward. Underneath Townsend is John’s bass line that matches Townsend’s terse guitar work in duration and in chord changes, only moving between 2 chords: G and F and later A to G and then A# to G# through to the outro.
The other reason why this John Entwistle’s iconic bass break at the 54 second mark. The breaks happen in bars of 2 over a total of 16 bars with the bass break consuming bars 3 and 4 of the back-and-forth. Entwistle opens the song up the first break with a bent note with a bent
Each bass break is unique but follows some common themes. First, each break makes extensive use of triplets that dance in and around the G and F chord changes.
Second, Entwistle makes extensive use of bent notes. How the notes are being bent are likely unique to Entwistle’s style which he broke down in a 1985* bass guitar workshop. Assuming his bending technique hasn’t changed since the ‘60s, it’s safe to figure that the notes are being bent with his index and or middle fingers.
Beyond the breaks, Entwistle returns to following Townsend and the rest of the band through the outro chord changes through A to G and A# to G#. What’s also worth observing is that Entwistle continues to outline the chord changes as Moon closes out the song with a drum solo and Townsend stops following the chords and instead matches Moon with a flurry of strokes and sounds to close out the song. It’s in this instance that Entwistle assumes the role of a bassist and less of a bass guitarist, as he referred to himself as.
Hear the whole song below:
2. “Boris the Spider” – A Quick One (1966)
The first major Entwistle composition has become a cherished fan favorite since it first experienced its first live performance in 1966.
‘Boris the Spider’’s bass part isn’t so much about Entwistle’s technical ability as it was tone and power. The studio recording of ‘Boris’ showcases Entwistle’s beefy, gritty Precision bass tone underneath Townsend’s shaky, top-heavy guitar, marching along with staccato eighth notes.
Let’s look at the intro riff first. The two bar pattern is begins at a D on the 5th fret and descends downward to the low F on the E string. After that first bar, the second bar rebuilds the introduction’s momentum with a gently crescendoing eighth-note run on G:
‘Boris’ is structured like a typical rock song: introduction, verse, bridge and chorus. After the introduction, we enter the verse section, which consists of 8 bars broken into 4 two-bar patterns, all of which are built around staccato eighth-notes:
The first two bar pattern begins with D on the A string, then jumps to A# on the G string, then A to G on the D string. The second bar of that pattern returns to an idea established during the introduction: gently crescendo-ing eighth notes. The difference this time is that the building note is not a G, but a C on the A string.
The second, third and fourth patterns follow a similar suit. The first part of the two bar pattern alternates eighth note runs before going back to a slowly raising eighth note pattern.
It’s also worth noting that the first bar of these two bar patterns approximately mirrors the vocal melody that Townsend is using while singing the lyrics.
Next comes the chorus section, a reprise of the introduction of the song.
The other part worth noting is the bridge of the song. The bridge on ‘Boris’ is starkly different than the other parts of the song up to this point. The bridge makes hammer ons it’s focus, as if to build an effect of uneasiness and create an effect as if building towards a musical resolution. This pattern is also shown in how Townshend and Entwistle gradually get louder and more aggressive as they chant ‘creepy crawly’.
Entwistle is hammering on and off of F# and G during the duration of the bridge.
Hear the whole song below:
3. “Sparks” – Tommy (1969)
“Sparks” is one of the instrumental songs off the Who’s 1969 album, Tommy. A powerful instrumental and snapshot of the 1960s psychedelic rock scene in the United Kingdom and United States.
Over the span of three minutes and forty-six seconds, the Who demonstrate how far they have grown as musicians since their 1965 “My Generation”. “Sparks”, one of a small handful of instrumentals on the 1969 album, Tommy, incorporates backwards guitars, timpanis and progressive songwriting, crossing through and tying together many different musical ideas into a single song.
As far as bass players are concerned, “Sparks” holds another example of John Entwistle’s bass playing prowess.
Like the songs mentioned before, the most enjoyable part of the “Sparks” bassline is that first and foremost it’s just that – a bassline. During the introduction of the song, Townshend hammers down a simple chord progression crossing through E, D and A and through the changes Entwistle is right there matching his changes with a low open E serving as the basis for bouncing in between an octave E on the seventh fret of the D string and a turnaround every 4 bars going all the way over to the high G on the fifth fret of the D string.
This is the foundation of the “Sparks” bassline. The line is rhythmic, nearly matching the strumming pattern of Townshend’s guitar playing throughout the entire song. With the exception of a few shine-through moments like Entwistle’s solo at the 1:03 mark and shortly after around the 1:45 mark where the song begins to wind down before building back up with Moon’s timpanis and floor toms.
Perhaps the definitive John Entwistle song that has earned it’s place in the mandatory listening pile for all bassists, “The Real Me” is Entwistle’s bass playing at its finest.
The song’s bass line is so unique and so standout that even during a Who concert where the camera focuses primarily on Daltrey and Townshend, your ears can’t help but focus on Entwistle’s playing:
The introduction of the song belongs entirely to Entwistle with the rest of the band playing support to only a handful of well placed, piercing notes before building to Daltrey’s entrance with a two-bar ascending groove starting on the high F on the 13th fret of the E string:
While Entwistle lays down his line in the first few bars of “The Real Me”, Townshend fills the empty space with power chords underneath Moon’s upbeat rock groove.
Even when Daltrey makes his entrance into the song, Entwistle’s bass line doesn’t take a backseat. The bass line continues to power through, bouncing between the upper and lower register of the instrument creating a very interesting call-and-response effect between Daltrey’s vocals and Entwistle’s bass playing by completing the third and fourth bars of each musical phrase:
In most Who songs, the chorus belongs to Daltrey and Townshend. It’s the point in the song when Daltrey encourages the audience to join him in the song and Townshend sets the formwork to make it happen. Entwistle is usually left supporting Townshend and merging with Moon on drums. Not on “The Real Me”. During the chorus, Entwistle’s bass line goes into overdrive. Entwistle is working independently of the rest of the band, crafting his own winding melody around the horn hits and Daltrey’s vocals only to meet the rest of the band on the fourth bar of the musical phrase for a “musical period” of sorts to conclude the passage:
The bass line during the chorus is littered with Entwistle’s trademark sixteenth-note flutters and embellishments, short ascension and descension of notes and booming tone.
Upon entering the second verse, Entwistle returns to the same idea from the first verse but with a varied bass line. The same idea is there, turning to the upper register of the bass during bars one and two and completing the third and fourth bars of the musical passage in the lower register, but the fills are much more varied and the conclusions to musical passages deliver much more finality to the idea.
The bridge starting at 2:11 is the first portion of the song where Townshend comes into focus as the main attraction. Entwistle and Townshend join together for a short time to give Daltrey a stage to lead the band into the last chorus of the song. Even as Townshend breaks away for a brief solo a few bars into the bridge, Entwistle continues to play Townshend’s rhythm part into the chorus where, again, he revisits themes established earlier in the song but with small changes to differentiate this part of the song from choruses prior.
The outro of the song, once again, belongs to Entwistle. The bluesy line winding and swerving around the upper and lower register of the bass captures your ear and holds it until the end of the song. Once again, Entwistle holds the melody during this portion of the song and, at the very least, your attention.
Hear the whole song below:
5. “Baba O’Riley” – Who’s Next (1971)
John Entwistle could balance subtlety and bombastic rock bass playing better than anyone in his time. While his contemporaries fell into either one category or the other, Entwistle was always more than met the eye and ear.
This is no more apparent than on the song “Baba O’Riley” off the Who’s 1971 Who’s Next? Listening to the studio version of the song, the listener might believe that Entwistle is only playing singular root notes that match the chord changes outlined by Townshend and the rest of the harmony:
However, if you were to listen to an isolated version of that same bass line from that same studio recording, what’s really going on is actually much more:
Notice how much more is going on in Entwistle’s bass line when you strip away the rest of the band.
The song is overwhelmingly a Daltrey-Townshend song. “Baba O’Riley” is an anthemic rock tune that gained its popularity and ability to be remembered as one of rock music’s great works is it’s powerful guitar sound and feel and soaring, sing-along vocals. It’s not a song (on the surface) for bass players or drummers. It’s a song for guitarists and singers.
However, despite this reality, Entwistle still managed to make the song his own as we heard above and embedded in one of pop music’s iconic songs a bass line that often goes unnoticed, but itself carries a massive weight with a subtle touch.
Entwistle doesn’t enter the song until about a minute into the song. When he does, Entwistle returns to his space as a role bass player: purely support underneath the rest of the band and to serve as a liaison between Moon’s drumming and Townshend’s guitar playing. Entwistle is matching the chord progression laid out by Townshend for the majority of the song. The elegance of Entwistle’s playing here is that while still serving as a role player, he’s able to put his own unique touch to the song and his own part that without it, the final result would be very different.
It’s the subtle fills and extra harmonizations by bouncing between octaves and other chord tones that make this bass line a standout Entwistle bass line.
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Few musicians can change the way players view an instrument. John Entwistle was one of those players. The contributions that John Entwistle made to bass guitar both in practice and what is possible are seemingly immeasurable. While one could muse on and on about the way Entwistle changed the instrument forever, perhaps the most apparent contribution to bass guitar was to use the instrument as a lead instrument and pioneer the bass solo. Prior to Entwistle, bass was a supportive instrument that sat in the background and worked with the drums to support the instruments in the obvious musical forefront: the guitar and the frontman. Entwistle changed that starting with a terse little solo that came and went for a few seconds during ‘My Generation’.
Generations of bass players credit John Entwistle as one of their biggest influences and models for the instrument – and for good reason. It was Entwistle who took bass out of the background and showed the world that bass can be a cool instrument with the edge, bite and appeal of a guitar player. He showed the world that bass guitar had legs. It could walk to the front of the stage, tear it up for a few bars and then walk back next to the drums and continue to support the band. It’s that duality that John Entwistle created and subsequent bassists elaborated on and refined for future generations of bassists.