Four mighty strings, 50 mighty players. Common wisdom holds that the bass player is the “quiet one” in a band, playing essential parts of a song that you don’t necessarily notice. Not the case with the 50 best bassists, who have carved out signature sounds and played as many memorable licks as the guitarists.
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Best Bassists Of All Time: 50 50 Legendary Bass Players You Need To Know
50: Mel Schacher (Grand Funk Railroad)
A bit of revisionist history here: Grand Funk Railroad’s bassist, Mel Schacher, was the best musician in the band, bringing the gonzoid style of Detroit punk into the mainstream. And he was loud; throwing the bass upfront like few before him.
49: Esperanza Spalding
Esperanza Spalding is arguably one of the few modern players who are doing the most to advance the art of bass. Having recently stepped out of the purely jazz world, the singer and bassist has moved into a pop/R&B/progressive realm of her own devising.
48: Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth)
Kim Gordon’s instantly recognisable bass sound was one of three equal reasons why Sonic Youth were among the most innovative guitar bands of the past few decades. She was equally good at grounding the improvisations or jumping right into the fray.
47: Gail Ann Dorsey
A Philly native who moved to London to play jazz, Gail Ann Dorsey played with a roomful of luminaries including Gang Of Four and Tears for Fears, and recorded an eclectic solo album that employed Eric Clapton and Nathan East as sidemen – all of which qualified her to become the longest continuously serving bassist (or musician, period) that David Bowie ever worked with.
46: Bill Wyman (The Rolling Stones)
The quietest of the quiet ones, Bill Wyman may invariably be the last guy you noticed in The Rolling Stones, but he was the consummate bassist in the sense that he knew how to support the songs without getting in the way. Without any flashy solos, Wyman remains underrated, but listen to any of the basslines on ‘Shattered’ or ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’ and tell us you haven’t missed him since he’s been gone.
45: Nick Lowe
Albeit better known as a producer (Elvis Costello, Graham Parker, The Damned), Nick Lowe not only knew how to play fluid, often sophisticated basslines in a hard-driving rock’n’roll context but mastered how to make them sound killer on record. Look no further than his solo work or with pub rock supergroups Brinsley Schwarz, Rockpile and Little Village. Pity that he’s largely gone off bass playing in recent years.
44: Mike Watt (The Minutemen, fIREHOSE)
As co-founder of the Minutemen, Mike Watt and his cohorts made unabashed virtuosity fun again; and through his group fIREHOSE and solo years, he’s remained one of the most adventurous musicians in the indie world. Not to mention a few years kicking butt in the reunited Stooges.
43: Dave Pegg (Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull)
Both of the bands Dave Pegg played in, Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull, have a history of remarkable bassists (take a bow, Ashley Hutchings and the late Glenn Cornick). But Pegg stands out for his dexterity, his swing and his ability to ignore any folk/rock boundaries.
42: Joey Spampinato (NRBQ)
As the longtime bassist for the cult bar band NRBQ (New Rhythm And Blues Quartet), Joey Spampinato embodied that band’s tight-but-loose mindset. Usually playing fretless bass, he had no problem putting walking jazz basslines into their most straightforward pop tunes and rocking out during their jazz numbers. After catching Keith Richards’ ear, Spampinato played on his solo record Talk Is Cheap.
41: Kasim Sulton (Todd Rundgren, The Blackhearts)
Kasim Sulton jumped in the deep end by joining Todd Rundgren’s prog-rock band Utopia, during their most complex phase, at age 20. Since then he’s been Meat Loaf’s musical director and been both black and blue – with long stints in Joan Jett’s Blackhearts, Hall & Oates and the Blue Öyster Cult. Sulton is also one of arena rock’s MVPs and a damn fine singer too.
40: Bruce Thomas (The Attractions)
No slight meant on his solid Imposters replacement Davey Farragher, but Bruce Thomas’ work on all the Elvis Costello & The Attractions albums was the stuff of greatness – fluid, inventive and always in three or four places at once. Too bad he could do everything but get along with the frontman.
39: Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead)
Grateful Dead’s bassist always sounded exactly like what he was: an experimental composer who learned bass for the sake of joining a rock band. Not for him to be the grounding force in the jams. Lesh was more a catapult to parts further out.
38: Mike Rutherford (Genesis)
Perpetually overlooked in Genesis, Mike Rutherford came up with one of prog’s most lyrical basslines on ‘In That Quiet Earth’, from their Wind & Wuthering album. He was no slouch in the poppier tracks, either; try the beautiful (and extremely difficult) fretless part in ‘No Reply At All’.
37: Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads, Tom Tom Club)
Along with her husband and eternal rhythm partner, Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth was largely responsible for infusing new wave with the concept of groove as one of the founding members of Talking Heads. As one of the greatest female bassists of all time – and just bassists, period – Weymouth is part of the reason why a group of cerebral East Coast art students were able to do the definitive cover version of an Al Green’s ‘Take Me To The River’.
36: Cliff Burton (Metallica)
Cliff Burton followed the same template as Black Sabbath’s Geezer Butler, but as a speed-metal bassist, he found it absolutely necessary to play a whole lot more. His too-short time in Metallica gave all future metal bassists (including his Metallica replacement, Jason Newsted) plenty to borrow from.
35: Meshell Ndegeocello
Her early 90s work set a soul revival in motion and established Meshell Ndegeocello as one of those mavericks who could build something original and modern out of the soul tradition, incorporating pop, rap and reggae into the mix. She also happened to play with the Stones in her spare time.
As if a precursor to his wide-ranging solo output, Sting blended funk, punk and reggae in The Police. While he largely moved on from playing bass during his solo career, you can always revisit the atmospheric bassline to ‘Walking On The Moon’, which remains a thing of beauty.
33: Victor Wooten (Bela Fleck And The Flecktones)
With Bela Fleck and as a solo artist, Victor Wooten took the Stanley Clarke style of fusion bass and upped the ante with more sounds, more flash and a more daring style. Often described as the second coming of Jaco Pastorius, the Grammy-winning bass master is rightly beloved by the jam-band crowd and beyond.
32: Percy Heath (The Modern Jazz Quartet, Miles Davis)
The Modern Jazz Quartet’s founding bassist, Percy Health also recorded seminal work with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. When you think of the stately, elegant sound of an acoustic jazz bass, it’s his work you probably have in mind.
31: Jerry Scheff
You could call him the man who played with Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison when they both went Vegas (he’s the mainstay of the TCB band and the studio bassist on LA Woman), but don’t forget that Jerry Scheff is also a session player extraordinaire, having appeared on record with Dylan, Costello, The Monkees and many others.
30: Chuck Rainey
This oft-recorded master was the answer to 70s Los Angeles’ prayers. A cool jazz musician who could play rock if it was sophisticated enough, Rainey wound up doing an equal number of jazz (Eddie Harris, Quincy Jones), rock (Nile Lofgren, Dave Mason) and soul sessions, (Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin), and was largely the reason Steely Dan’s Walter Becker moved over to guitar.
29: Louis Johnson (The Brothers Johnson)
Louis “Thunder Thumbs” Johnson’s affinity for smoother R&B with jazz overtones made him Quincy Jones’ bassist of choice and his pioneering slap bass landed him on Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and Thriller albums. He also scored a number of 70s hits with his brother George as part of The Brothers Johnson.
28: David Hood (The Swampers)
Having toured in Traffic and most recently in The Waterboys, David Hood was the mainstay of the fabled Muscle Shoals rhythm section The Swampers. A master of slinky laidback funk and one of the most open-minded musicians around, Hood’s signature groove can be heard on everything from The Staple Singers’ ‘I’ll Take You There’ to Clarence Carter’s ‘Snatching It Back’.
27: Charlie Haden
As one of the most exploratory jazz bassists out there, Charlie Haden expanded the sonic possibilities of double bass beginning with Ornette Coleman’s landmark album The Shape Of Jazz to Come. He also had productive stays with Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny, and played selectively on rock sessions, including the closing track ‘Ramshackle’ on Beck’s Odelay.
26: Bernard Odum
Everybody who played bass with James Brown arguably deserves a place on any list of greatest bassists, but Bernard Odum was the bassist on two of funk’s most seminal texts, ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag’ and ‘Cold Sweat’, thus earning himself the title as one of the most influential bassists of his time.
25: Aston “Family Man” Barrett (Bob Marley & The Wailers)
As one of the first key players to join Bob Marley & The Wailers (and still with the group now), Aston Barrett laid the groundwork for all reggae to come. Along with his brother Carlton Barrett, who played drums for The Wailers, the duo were one of the tightest rhythm sections on record. The history of groove would be far poorer without ‘Trenchtown Rock’.
24: Les Claypool (Primus)
Hailing from the Geddy Lee school of thumping-bass, Les Claypool has cultivated a list of musical credits as wildly eccentric as he is. As the frontman and bassist in Primus, Claypool is responsible for bringing the groove to thrash metal and alt.rock with his infamous Rainbow bass and forming more side projects than humanly possible, most notably with Police drummer Stewart Copeland and Phish frontman Trey Anastasio for the supergroup Oysterhead.
23: Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane)
Jack Casady’s four-decade conversation with Jorma Kaukonen in Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna has never been less than eloquent. And his one appearance with Jimi Hendrix on ‘Voodoo Child’ answers the question, ‘What if Hendrix had played with a bassist who was better than just alright?’
22: Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath)
Geezer Butler is one of the great riff-meisters in rock, the main writer of a lot of Black Sabbath’s music and a creator of the heavy-metal bass template: play only what’s absolutely necessary but play it like there’s no tomorrow. While others quietly supported the groove, Butler turned the bass into a blunt instrument.
21: John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin)
He was the riffmaster in Led Zeppelin, the solid grounding to Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s wild energy, the driving force behind ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Misty Mountain Hop’, and the main reason why the Page/Plant reunions, good as they were, just weren’t Zeppelin.
20: Bootsy Collins
Bootsy Collins got kicked out of James Brown’s band for being far too trippy, then became a key bass player in the P-Funk universe for pretty much the same reason. One of the greatest bassists of funk, he made ‘Super Bad’ one of Brown’s defining hits.
19: Donald “Duck” Dunn (Booker T And The MGs)
Booker T And the MGs’ bassist may be the least flashy player on this list of the best bassists of all time. Though he was a big guy, you could barely see the Duck’s fingers move on the strings, even when he was playing with rockers like Neil Young or Eric Clapton. But he always kept it moving, and his time was always tight.
18: George Porter, Jr (The Meters)
The Meters’ founding bassist is also the most prolific member of his circle, leading countless spinoff bands and playing on notable sessions (including David Byrne’s Uh-Oh album). The landmark groove of ‘Cissy Strut’ was just the beginning, and Porter, Jr, is one of the greatest bassists who embodies New Orleans’ slinky approach to funk.
17: Bob Babbitt
James Jamerson’s less-celebrated Motown successor deserves inclusion here. Though he began recording much earlier, Bob Babbitt really shone during Motown’s psychedelic era, where he brought some Hendrix consciousness into the later Temptations records. He also played with Hendrix – albeit posthumously, on the studio-created Crash Landing.
16: John Wetton (King Crimson, Roxy Music, Asia)
Perhaps the most versatile bass played in all of prog rock, John Wetton could do the blazing virtuosity of Larks Tongues-era King Crimson as well as the song-oriented approach of Asia. But he earns immortality for doing both at once with Roxy Music, especially on the live album Viva!.
15: Geddy Lee (Rush)
Any mid-to-late Rush track evinces how Geddy Lee could do fiendish complexity while still rocking hard enough to drive a power trio (watch him talk to uDiscover Music about his time with the band. Instrumental tracks like ‘YYZ’ and ‘La Villa Strangiato’ tend to have Lee’s greatest licks, but don’t forget that he was usually doing all this while playing keyboard parts with his feet.
14: Lemmy (Motörhead)
As one of the greatest bassists in hard rock, Lemmy played the bass with more attitude than anybody, with a grisly tone that defied you to think of the bass as a support instrument. Half the times you think you’re hearing lead guitar on a Motörhead record (including the intro to ‘Ace Of Spades’), it’s really Lemmy wailing away.
13: Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus was an innovator in jazz and one of the more adventurous bassists in any genre. Any bassist who hasn’t absorbed ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ or ‘Haitian Fight Song’ hasn’t explored their instrument properly.
12: Jack Bruce (Cream)
The whole idea behind Cream – a rock band consisting of three guys who could play circles around each other – wouldn’t have worked if the bassist wasn’t such a master improviser, always thinking like a lead player. Impressive as Jack Bruce’s own parts were, he also gets credit for the leads he pushed Eric Clapton to play.
11: Bill Black (Elvis Presley)
As part of Elvis’ original trio (which didn’t include drums during the Sun Records stage), Bill Black brought the essential cool of a slapback bass into 50s rock’n’roll. See the bass intro to ‘My Baby Left Me’ as irrefutable proof. Later, he became one of the first rock bassists to lead a combo under his own name.
10: Willie Dixon
Willie Dixon is so renowned as a songwriter that his importance as one of the best bassists of all time often gets over overlooked. He was key to Chess Records’ electric blues sound, playing on many of the Muddy Waters classics he wrote, not to mention the most seminal Chuck Berry tracks.
9: Ron Carter
He’s officially the most recorded bassist in jazz, with credits in early CTI fusion and modern benefits and soundtracks, but Ron Carter would still make the list of greatest bassists if he did nothing more than play in Miles Davis’ “Second Great Quintet”, where he and Tony Williams were a rhythm section for the ages.
8: Larry Graham (Sly & The Family Stone)
Larry Graham bridged the eras of funk by laying groundwork with Sly & The Family Stone then reappearing decades later as a key Prince collaborator, leading the fine band Graham Central Station in the interim. But no bassline defines funk better than that perfectly nasty one on Sly’s ‘Thank You (Faletting Me Be Mice Elf Again)’.
7: James Jamerson (The Funk Brothers)
The funkiest of The Funk Brothers, James Jamerson put the swing into countless Motown classics before finally getting an album-sleeve credit on Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’. Nobody ever did more with one note than Jamerson on ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’.
6: John Entwistle (The Who)
The quintessential “quiet one”, John Entwistle could also be the noisiest one when the time was right. The Who’s ‘My Generation’ was one of those times. How many 60s bands had an iconic bass solo in the middle of their defining song?
5: Chris Squire (Yes)
Chirs Squire’s basslines in Yes were full of melodic imagination, and often the song’s main instrumental hook (see ‘Roundabout’. But check out his wah-wah extravaganza on the deep track ‘On The Silent Wings Of Freedom’ for one of prog rock’s great kick-it-out moments.
4: Stanley Clarke
Stanley Clarke was bass virtuoso with a canny sense of riffs and grooves, plus a few great tricks like that finger-strum trademark. Probably not the first bass player to record a side-long bass solo (on Return to Forever’s 1978 live album) but perhaps the first to perform one you’d want to hear twice.
3: Carol Kaye
Putting the bottom end into The Wrecking Crew, Carol Kaye played the indelible parts on ‘Midnight Confessions’, ‘River Deep – Mountain High’, The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ and an estimated 10,000 other tracks. Female bassists stopped being pigeonholed as a novelty the minute she picked up the instrument.
2: Paul McCartney
Paul McCartney made a trademark out of the supple, lyrical bassline more than any rock player before or since, and that’s on ‘Paperback Writer’ alone. As one of the best bassists in history, he played both lead and rhythm, and did it all ridiculously well – a trademark of everything The Beatles did.
1: Jaco Pastorius
Jaco Pastorius used every minute of the short time he had to expand the technical and dramatic possibilities of the bass, giving his various clients – Joni Mitchell, Pat Metheny and even Ian Hunter – more than they bargained for. Despite his overlooked status, Pastorius regularly introduced himself as the greatest electric bass player in the world, and we’re not going to argue.
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