I was a big fan of Bon Jovi when I was in third and fourth grade. I made my own Bon Jovi t-shirts with black spray paint. I watched and re-watched their music videos. I spent a lot of time trying to decide if New Jersey was better than Slippery When Wet. (On the strength of the song “Bad Medicine,” my nine-year-old brain ultimately concluded that New Jersey was, in fact, superior.)
But by the time I hit middle school, Bon Jovi was considered “soft” and I abandoned them for the psychedelic rock of the 60s and 70s my friends were beginning to listen to. I didn’t think about Bon Jovi much after that, but when I did, they weren’t kind thoughts.
About two years ago I was browsing in a record store and “Livin’ On A Prayer” came on the radio. I remember thinking, “ugh, I have to listen to this for the next four minutes.” Though I tried to ignore the song and continue shopping, I began getting drawn into the bass line. The more I listened to it, the more annoyed I got. I wasn’t annoyed because the song was bad. I was annoyed because the bass line was so good. I was annoyed because it meant that in the near future I would once again be buying a Bon Jovi album.
The bass player on the recording of “Livin’ On a Prayer” (and most of Bon Jovi’s recorded output) is studio veteran Hugh McDonald. The liner notes credit Alex John Such as the bassist, but he was literally only the “face of bass.” Such did not record with Bon Jovi, but was the official member of the band because he looked the part. He appeared in videos and promotional photos and toured with the band, though accounts of his actual bass playing are less than flattering. Because his appearance, and perhaps age, was not in line with the band’s image, McDonald was with the band only in the studio. In the mid 90s, Such left the band and McDonald replaced him full time, though he is still considered only an “unofficial” band member.
Despite the shady dealings with their bass players, I have developed a steadfast, uncompromising love for the bass line on “Livin’ On A Prayer.” The verses feature an immediately recognizable bass hook. The pre-chorus has a simple, supportive, driving groove. The chorus has an understated, but intensely melodic line that becomes the secondary focus of the song during that section (the vocals being the primary focus). In short, from beginning to end, this song has so many of the things we look for in a bass line.
The song kicks off with the bass hook, a one-measure ostinato in Em. The riff is essentially a half-measure pattern repeated with octave displacement on the “and” of three. The staccato eighth note on beat three makes the line bounce forward and is a key component in making the song groove. Try playing the riff without the staccato—it is a much flatter, less dynamic line.
Eventually the guitars and keyboards introduce a C-D-Em chord progression, but the bass hangs onto the riff without changing.
When the verse begins, the bass continues to play the same hook, with the only variations coming at the end of each eight-bar phrase (at the first and second endings). Again, the chords eventually move through the C-D-Em progression, but McDonald does not alter the line to fit the changing harmony.
As the pre-chorus arrives, McDonald keeps the straight eighth note feel, but he finally changes chords with the rest of the band. The chord progression is simply a condensed form of the progression heard in the verse (C-D-Em), but now the bass line is mostly repeated root notes. A few tasteful slides give the line some expressive character, but the real purpose here is to move away from the groove of the verse and make the song begin to drive a little more. Also, note the quick R&B bass pattern McDonald throws in at measure 21.
As cool as the opening bass riff is, and as supportive as the bass line on the pre-chorus is, the chorus is the fun part of the song. Here, McDonald keeps the straight eighth note groove, but now with anticipations on the “and” of two every other bar (whenever it goes to C). The line is a mix of scale and arpeggio patterns. The Em and D chords have ascending scale motion. The G chord is arpeggiated down the triad. The C has a lower neighbor, then an ascending chromatic passing tone to lead into the D chord. McDonald has come up with such a great way to connect the chords. He uses familiar patterns to create a superb melodic line, but he keeps the song driving and stays out of the way of the vocals. Catchy though the vocals are, the bass is what makes the chorus move.
As the song continues, we get the obvious repetition of verse, pre-chorus, and chorus. McDonald doesn’t vary the line too much when sections return, though he does incorporate subtle embellishments that maintain the structure of the line while keeping it fresh.
The last chorus modulates up a minor third, and the bass pattern simply shifts up three frets. It is here that most of the embellishments occur. McDonald knows the song is about to fade out so he gets a little looser and begins to experiment a little more with the line.
The bass line in each section of the song seems to have its own distinct personality. There is the memorable bass riff of the verse, the driving bass line of the pre-chorus, and the melodic bass line of the chorus. And as nice as all three are, it is the chorus bass line that never fails to draw me in.