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Radiohead's "Airbag"
Colin Greenwood's Complete Bassline
Bass Player Magazine
Published May, 2008

Radiohead, I've noticed in conversations, is one of those bands that people either really get, or just don't. I was firmly in the latter category until my good friend Mike Keneally practically dragged me by the neck in the summer of 1997 to see them on the OK Computer tour. I left stunned by the power of the melodies and the songs, the strange combination of hi-tech and lo-tech timbres, and how the utter simplicity of their parts combined to make such a rich, majestic whole. When I bought the record the next day, it wasn't because of what I heard the bassist doing.

Meanwhile, Keneally (disclosure: I'm his bassist) wanted to cover the album opener, "Airbag." Since I already liked it, and it seemed so simple, I sat down to play along with it. It sounded like a series of random R&B licks, and I didn't think much of the specifics. But every single time I played something other than the actual part, it sounded wrong.

I listened more closely. Though it appeared as if the bassline was just repeating itself over and over, it wasn't; similar riffs appeared in slightly different parts of the bar throughout the song, and the rest periods shifted. Frustrated, I transcribed it, and then played it again. Suddenly it was grooving like a Motown record distilled through a techno-warp filter, and I started to get how the lo-fi austerity of Colin Greenwood's bassline was driving the whole track, even though the bass part contained more rests than licks.

"Airbag" works because of its inherent contrasts. While guitarist Johnny Greenwood and singer/guitarist Thom Yorke are up in the sky, creating lush, echoing textures of whole notes held through bars, bassist Colin Greenwood and drummer Phil Selway are firmly on the ground, employing a primitive rock groove with a twist: sometimes one or the other of them simply stops playing, even in the middle of a phrase, and then begins again. Generally Selway is driving while Greenwood darts in and out, but sometimes it reverses. The stop-start nature of Radiohead's rhythm section is now a trademark of their sound, having appeared on several records since then, but it was born on this track, and it stands as a harbinger of where they were headed.

Radiohead has cited in interviews that the original inspiration for this approach was DJ Shadow, a sample/turntable artist from the San Francisco area. In that vein, the drums were recorded, then sampled, and then cut to pieces and rearranged digitally until the final track existed (this was 1996, mind you). As for the bass, Greenwood reportedly played the actual parts, left the gaps, and meant to fill them in later, but never quite got around to it. The quirky randomness of the part became the part, as he played it pretty much note for note when they did it live.

The track was recorded in late 1996 at the historic English mansion of St. Catherine's Court, where Greenwood played a '73 Fender Precision through some assortment of Ampeg gear, either a classic-head/8x10-stack rig or a B15 combo. It's a super-dark, thick, old-school tone, so much so that, if you eliminated everything below 250hz in master EQ, the bass disappears completely. Furthermore, the highest note on the track is C# on the 3rd fret of the A string, and it happens once.

Let's get into what Greenwood actually does. There's only three sections to the tune: intro, verse, and chorus. The verse is where he first appears, eleven bars into the song, introducing the E-G-E-G-A motif employed throughout. It works under the traditional line-cliché chord patterns in the verse, and he keeps the rhythm pretty consistent. But things get interesting in the chorus, where he continues the same motif against B7, and then against F#min, where it really shouldn't work (G natural in the bass against an F# minor melody with a G# in it?), but the tension pays off and resolves in the tonic of Bar 26.

(Click here to see a PDF of the full transcription.)

He keeps at it in the Re-Intro at Bar 28, where the drums and bass swap roles for the first time, with Selway suddenly pulling out and Greenwood continuing the same motif under a two-chord pattern (F/A to A). From this point on, with all motifs and harmonic content essentially established, Greenwood starts mixing it up. Try reading through Verse 2 with a false sense of security and you'll miss the subtle rhythmic changes (Bar 39, Bars 43-45) that give the groove its strange edge.

For the guitar solo groove at Bar 51, he inverts the rhythm of the motif - starting it on the last sixteenth-note of beat 2 as opposed to beat 4 - and mixes in little variations and fills, all in the lowest six notes of the instrument's register. This powerful shift propels the tune forward into the final chorus, where he puts it all together, combining all previous motifs and adding new ones (Bars 69-72 are a great example).

Then, the big payoff: The breakdown and outro groove (Bars 73-88), where Greenwood channels a classic R&B riff, cuts it into stop-start techno-pieces, and finally plays it continuously through ten riveting bars. For a closer, he actually comps the tune's intro changes (Bars 89-96), straying from the main motif for the first time in the song just seconds before it ends.

Admittedly, this is not your typical Bass Player Magazine full transcription choice. But this opening track from an album often cited by critics as one of the top ten records of the '90s has the Greenwood/Selway signature retro-techno stamp on it, and set the course for the rhythm section of one of today's most appreciated popular bands. And Greenwood, though operating in a thoroughly modern context, noted in a 2001 interview with UK's that his roots are like many of ours: "I'm really more of a soulboy. Bill Withers and Curtis Mayfield, those are the people who informed me in playing the bass. That combination of rhythm and melody."

Even on a track as anti-roots as "Airbag," it shows. And it grooves.

Reprinted with permission from the May, 2008 issue of BASS PLAYER. For subscription information, please visit

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