Parkinson's disease (PD) is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects the whole basal ganglia (BG). Various techniques have been used to study BG physiology and pathophysiology. Among these, extracellular single unit recording remains of particular importance. An impressive number of studies of BG electrophysiological activity have been carried out, both in non-human and in human primates, but the data collected show many omissions and disparities. BG activity has been well defined in the physiological situation, but remains far from clear in the Parkinsonian and virtually unexplored in the dopamine (DA)-replacement situation. This paper provides a brief synopsis of (i) recording techniques and (ii) BG electrophysiological activity in normal, Parkinsonian, and dopamine-replacement situations. We have restricted the data used to those obtained in BG structures of human and non-human primates. Only single unit recordings have been reported and four electrophysiological characteristics retained: mean firing frequency, firing pattern, periodic oscillation, and response to both passive and active movement. We have attempted to summarize (i) the commonly accepted characteristics of each BG structure in the three situations, (ii) discrepancies that exist, and (iii) missing elements. Then, the main successive theories aimed to explain the role played by BG in motor control are presented and discussed in the light of the most recently obtained results using the latest technological advances.