Bassline Breakdown: Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone”

Let’s talk about hooks.

Put simply, a hook is any musical idea that’s meant to catch the ear (hence the name). When you hear a really great song for the first time and can’t stop humming that one catchy guitar riff or vocal line from it: that is that song’s hook, the part you remember first and the thing that draws you back to it time and time again. It’s most often associated with pop music (after all, how do you make a song “catchy””?” A great hook!), but hooks are all over the place in rock, punk, techno, country- just about every genre that’s been popular in the past half-century is lousy with hooks. It’s easy to see why, too: just as a storyteller benefits from a strong central concept to draw audiences into their stories, a musician benefits from a instantly appealing musical idea to keep a listener’s attention and help them better remember their songs.

It’s probably unsurprising that the lion’s share of hooks come courtesy of a vocalist or lead instrumentalist. Broadly speaking, people tend to gravitate towards brighter, sharper timbres, and I don’t blame any songwriter for delivering a hook with a flashy guitar riff or buzzing synth line- it’s proven and it works. But every now and then, a bassist gets a chance to deliver a totally killer hook, and Golden Earring’s “Twilight Zone”, in my opinion, has one of the very best.

It’s a bit of a stretch to say the hook in “Twilight Zone” is properly a “bass hook”, since it’s technically introduced as a guitar riff in the opening of the song. Personally, I view this as a set-up. It’s lining up a shot, and starting 3 minutes and 10 seconds into the song, bassist Rinus Gerritsen knocks that shot out of the park. It’s a pretty simple musical phrase, so I’m going to try to really put it under a microscope here to see why it’s so darn memorable, and why it feels particularly well-suited to the bass.

(If you don’t already know this song, I recommend listening to it here before reading the next section.!)

The first few notes of the phrase are in a steady eighth-note pulse: B, D, E, D, B. The next two notes are a sixteenth-note and a dotted eighth-note (D and E, respectively), then a D eighth-note leads back into the beginning of the phrase. Put another way, it’s two repetitions of B-D-E-D in an eighth-note pulse, with the E being played slightly earlier on the second repetition. What this does is create a sort of stuttering feel to the bassline: instead of a steady rhythmic groundwork, it feels like the bassline is always tumbling towards that second, rushed E note. It’s a very simple pattern with just one simple disruption, so the ear zeroes in on the pattern and starts anticipating that little stumble, with a little rush of dopamine each time we correctly predict where it will be. It’s not at all complex (I learned to play it in about 30 seconds), but it’s just interesting enough to grab your attention and keep it. As for why this works so well on bass, I think it’s because of the fact that the bass has a bit more rhythmic punch to it that the guitar does. When the guitar plays the phrase, it’s more to establish the melody as a motif that the bass will later repeat. When the bass plays it, there’s greater rhythmic weight to it, so the slight rhythmic inconsistency pops out more. It’s the ideal instrument to play the phrase on- it brings out the most memorable aspect of it, and the straight 4/4 drumbeat also helps it really pop, even after the hi-hat hits get a little more dynamic to spice things up. By the time the ear fully adjusts to the bassline, a guitar solo has kicked in to keep things interesting, but the bassline is still what really jumps out (This is also helped by the mid-heavy, aggressive tone Gerritsen employs here)

The bass hook in “Twilight Zone” is yet another great example of how much you can do with such a simple idea. Even something as basic as a 1-bar phrase with three different notes can, given the proper framing and musical context, become an earworm listeners end up humming all day.

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