The magic of bass riffs: 10 examples with just 4 notes

Less is sometimes more, and this also applies to the world of music. The world of bass guitar playing in particular hides a wealth of creative possibilities in modest simplicity. Surprisingly, you only need four different notes to create an unforgettable and instantly recognisable bass riff. Yes, you read that right. Just four notes can create an unforgettable bass riff that can set the tone for an entire song. With just four notes, you can create moods, build tension and tell stories. Let’s explore the art of creating a masterful bass riff with just four notes.

1. “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson

By analysing the bass line of “Billie Jean”, you can see that simplicity can lead to greatness. Bassist Louis Johnson uses a combination of just four notes – F#, C#, G# and A – in a catchy repetition to create an irresistible bass line. The rhythmically pulsating bass riff creates a hypnotic loop that carries the entire song and contributes to its distinctive character.

2. “My Sharona” by The Knack

The characteristic bass riff of “My Sharona” is created with just four notes – F, G, A and B. This shows the effectiveness of the shift in emphasis on the timeline. It begins with F, then rises to G, followed by two consecutive A notes and ending with the B. The bass line often remains silent while the guitar solos, then returns with a rhythmic bang, resulting in rising and falling dynamics.

3. “You Give Love A Bad Name” by Bon Jovi

Alec John Such, Bon Jovi’s bassist, uses a simple but powerful bass riff in “You Give Love A Bad Name”. Just four notes – C#, E, B and F# – create an unforgettable catchy tune. The riff begins quietly and discreetly during the intro, but quickly gains prominence throughout the song as it lays a foundation for the melody of the vocals.

4. “Settle for Nothing” by Rage Against the Machine

Tim Commerford of Rage Against the Machine shows how four notes can create a powerful bass riff in “Settle For Nothing”. He uses A#, F, C and G to build a riff that powerfully expresses the song’s human rights struggle.

5. “Soulman” by The Blues Brothers

Donald “Duck” Dunn has created a striking bass riff for “Soulman” by The Blues Brothers, with the notes E, G, A and Bb. It’s a simple but effective bass riff that perfectly complements the soulful character of the song.

6. “Thriller” by Michael Jackson

The creative play with the four notes C#, A, E and F# defines the bass line of “Thriller”. The rhythm and melody of this bass riff become an integral part of Michael Jackson’s epochal hit.

7. “Chic Cheer” by Chic

Bernard Edwards, the bassist of the band Chic, created a ravishing, four-note bass riff for “Chic Cheer”. He uses the notes E, A, B and D to create an infectious and danceable bass line.

8. “Set It Off” by Audioslave

Tim Commerford once again demonstrates his ability to create a powerful bass riff with just four notes – A, E, G, D. “Set It Off” is proof that simplicity and repetition can lead to an unforgettable bass line.

9. “Dragon Attack” by Queen

With simple G#, D#, C# and F# notes, John Deacon from Queen has created a catchy bass riff for “Dragon Attack”. The riff is catchy, rhythmic and perfect for a rocking song.

10. “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” by The Temptations

The bass line in “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” by The Temptations, created by the notes E, G#, D and C#, is a perfect example of how four simple notes can create an energetic dynamic in a song.


It’s amazing what you can achieve with just four notes when you use them creatively. As the songs above show, a simple four-note bass riff can define a song and shape its character. Although they may be simple, bass riffs are a fundamental part of a song and can significantly influence mood, atmosphere and rhythm.