“The bass is the foundation,” session legend Carol Kaye once said, “and with the drummer you create the beat. Whatever you play puts a framework around the rest of the music.”
A great bass line, whether it’s Paul McCartney’s hypnotic “Come Together” riff, Bootsy Collins’ sly vamp from James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” or Tina Weymouth’s minimal throb on Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer,” is like a mantra: It sounds like it could go on forever, and it only feels more profound the more you hear it. Guitarists, singers, and horn players tend to claim the flashiest moments in any given song, while drummers channel most of the kinetic energy, but what the bassist brings is something elemental — the part that loops endlessly in your head long after the music ends.
Bassists are often overlooked and undervalued, even within their own bands. “It wasn’t the number-one job,” McCartney once said, reflecting on the fateful moment when he took over the four-string after Stu Sutcliffe exited the Beatles. “Nobody wanted to play bass, they wanted to be up front.”
And yet the instrument has its own proud tradition in popular music, stretching from the mighty upright work of Jimmy Blanton in Duke Ellington’s orchestra and bebop pioneers like Oscar Pettiford to fellow jazz geniuses like Charles Mingus and Ron Carter; studio champs like Kaye and James Jamerson; rock warriors like Cream’s Jack Bruce and the Who’s John Entwistle; funk masters like Bootsy and Sly and the Family Stone’s Larry Graham; prog prodigies like Yes’ Chris Squire and Rush’s Geddy Lee; fusion gods like Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius; and punk and postpunk masters like Weymouth and the Minutemen’s Mike Watt. The alternative era brought new heroes on the instrument, from Sonic Youth’s intuitive Kim Gordon to Primus’ outlandish Les Claypool, and more recently, a fresh crop of bass icons — including Esperanza Spalding and the ubiquitous Thundercat — have placed the low end at the center of their musical universes.
As with our 100 Greatest Drummers list, this rundown of the 50 greatest bassists of all time celebrates that entire spectrum. It’s emphatically not intended as a ranking of objective skill; nor does it assign any one set of criteria as a measure of greatness. Instead it’s an inventory of the bassists who have had the most direct and visible impact on creating, to borrow Kaye’s term, the very foundation of popular music — from rock to funk to country to R&B to disco to hip-hop, and beyond — during the past half-century or so. You’ll find obvious virtuosos here, but also musicians whose more minimal concept of their instrument’s role elevated everything that was going on around them.
“You grab it, slide around on it, and feel it with your hands,” Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea once said of his signature instrument. “You slap, pull, thump, pluck, and pop, and you get yourself into this hypnotic state, if you’re lucky, beyond thought, where you’re not thinking because you’re just a conduit for this rhythm, from wherever it comes from, from God to you and this instrument, through a cord and a speaker.”
Here we pay tribute to 50 musicians who have found that same exalted state via the bass, and changed the world in the process.
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Survey the sounds that have defined the vanguard of hip-hop, jazz, R&B, electronica, and beyond during the past decade-plus — including records made by Kendrick Lamar, Janelle Monáe, Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, Erykah Badu, Childish Gambino, and more — and you’ll land on one name again and again: Thundercat. Born Stephen Bruner, the bassist grew up in a musical family and landed a gig early on with thrash-punk veterans Suicidal Tendencies. From there he’s evolved into a larger-than-life musical superhero: a staggeringly proficient player who combines a deep love of classic funk and fusion with influences ranging from yacht rock to nu-metal and neosoul. Whether in his own playfully eccentric songs or in one of his countless guest appearances, his signature six-string sound — fat and buttery, but with plenty of bite — always shines through. “You can do all kinds of things with your instrument outside of its surface purpose,” he told Interview in 2013. “My bass is my crutch, but the best crutch I could have.”
Prior to joining Guns N’ Roses, Duff McKagan had barely touched a bass. He was an ex-guitarist and ex-drummer who had come up in Seattle’s early-Eighties punk scene, and the combo of his background and his raw approach to playing gave Guns N’ Roses songs like “It’s So Easy” and “You Could Be Mine” a rough edge. To learn the instrument, McKagan binged on the bass lines of Prince (“I loved that R&B rhythm,” he once said), Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, the Clash’s Paul Simonon, Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, and, most surprising, Barry Adamson of the postpunk group Magazine. “In Magazine, those bass lines were so pronounced, he had the chorus pedal on the bass,” McKagan once said, referring to a device that gives the instrument a glassy, almost hollow sound, “and that’s really where I grabbed the chorus pedal for Guns.” That secret weapon helped McKagan push his bass to the forefront on Appetite for Destruction and the Use Your Illusion LPs, equaling the musicality of Slash and the grit of Axl Rose, making him an integral part of the band’s sound, and hard rock in the Eighties and Nineties — even if he’s unaware of his influence. “I don’t know where I’m rated,” he once said. “I don’t pay attention to that. I’m really so just all into my craft.”
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Kim Deal was working as a receptionist at a doctor’s office in 1986 when she read a Boston Phoenix newspaper ad saying a band was looking for a “bassist into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul, and Mary.” She may have been the only one to show up, but her sugary singing voice and punk-rock bass chops made her the perfect fit for the Pixies. Try to imagine Doolittle’s opening track “Debaser” without her throbbing bass part at the beginning, or “Gigantic” (one of the few Pixies songs she wrote) without her hypnotically simple line — it propels the whole song. Deal chalks up her effectiveness as a bassist to her distinct lack of needless flash. “Some people cannot do that and will not do that, especially ‘real’ bass players,” she once said, reflecting on the simplicity of her part in “Where Is My Mind?” “They want to help push every little moment; they want to be involved. They won’t just pedal through something.”
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The singer-songwriter movement of the Seventies called for backup musicians who could anchor ballads and midtempo rockers while never distracting from the singer or the song. Toward that goal, the likes of James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Carole King, David Crosby, and Graham Nash regularly rang up Leland Sklar. “We understood that we were supporting them and accompanying them,” Sklar says of L.A. studio players of the era. “We weren’t pushing ourselves behind them, but we still crafted an identity.” Sklar’s understated, nonflashy but melodic bass can be heard on many Taylor classics (“You’ve Got a Friend,” “Handy Man,” “Your Smiling Face”) as well as on Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” and all of Running on Empty, and Gene Clark’s cult classic No Other. In the Eighties, his bass became an integral part of Phil Collins’ records, heard on “Don’t Lose My Number,” among others, and Sklar even funked it up on the Weather Girls’ dance-club anthem “It’s Raining Men.” No wonder Crosby has called him “the best player in the world.”
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Though they come from different scenes and generations, Peter Hook has always been the Keith Richards of the bass — a groove master cranking out the definitive riffs of his era, with plenty of outlaw mystique. In Joy Division and New Order, he redefined the instrument for the postpunk Seventies and Eighties, and generations of arty kids have tried to copy his melodic pulse in “She’s Lost Control,” not to mention his badass slouch. Like so many Manchester musicians, Hook saw the Sex Pistols and instantly decided to start a punk band. His bass became the lead instrument in Joy Division, driving doom-y classics like “Transmission” and “No Love Lost.” He credits singer Ian Curtis for making him play high on the neck, for his distinctive tone: “My excuse for playing high was that I couldn’t hear the bass when I played low — our amps were that bad — but Ian liked it.” As Joy Division evolved into New Order, with dance-floor hits like “Age of Consent,” he became the era’s most-imitated bassman. As Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood said, “Hooky played a lot of stuff up high and got great tones up there — so I’ve always been one to move up and down on the neck a lot.” Always a louder-than-life personality, Hook has written three hilarious memoirs and — perhaps not unrelated — is not on speaking terms with the rest of New Order.
Take in any one performance by Esperanza Spalding and chances are you’re only hearing a fraction of what she can do, from crooning old-school standards to performing boldly futuristic originals that draw equally on smooth R&B and gnarly prog rock. Her virtuosic and consummately versatile bass playing is the engine that drives it all. She’s the rare player who can pluck out a super-funky cover of a song by her late friend Prince, anchor a band with her lithe electric lines, or hold her own onstage with master improvisers like Wayne Shorter, Terri Lyne Carrington, Jack DeJohnette, and Joe Lovano. Starting as a violin prodigy, Spalding found her way to the bass by accident in high school. (“It’s like waking up one day and realizing you’re in love with a co-worker,” she once said of picking up the instrument.) Since then, she’s evolved into one of the bass’s most visible 21st-century ambassadors, picking up four Grammy wins along the way. In a 2018 interview, Carrington, a drummer and Spalding collaborator, reflected on why it was unfair to compare Esperanza to jazz-bass virtuosos of the past. “Bringing a more feminine aesthetic into the music is mandatory at this point. Because [Fifties and Sixties jazz legend] Paul Chambers didn’t get around the instrument the way she does,” Carrington said of Spalding. “So she’s not digging in as hard; it gives her a kind of fleeting emotion that is beautiful.”
Joseph Makwela practically invented South African bass. He was the heartbeat of the Makgona Tshole Band, who were Johannesburg’s version of Motown’s Funk Brothers or L.A.’s Wrecking Crew — the house band who played on countless hits in the Sixties and Seventies, creating the sound of mbaqanga. Makwela had the first electric bass in South Africa — he bought it from a white guy who imported it after seeing the Shadows live. In the racist oppression of the apartheid era, Makwela took that second-hand bass and completely remade South African music. He inspired players like Bakithi Kumalo, who anchored Paul Simon’s Graceland. “Joseph Makwela was the first person I saw playing an electric bass,” Kumalo told Bass Player in 2016. “He played melodies up high, which was a big influence when I picked up fretless.” His aggressive yet buoyant style defined the mbaqanga groove on classics from the Mahotella Queens’ “Umculo Kawupheli” to Mahlathini’s “Ngicabange Ngaqeda.” The Makgona Tshole Band reunited in the Eighties, when the world finally discovered mbaqanga via Graceland and the pivotal compilation The Indestructible Beat of Soweto.
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Few musicians in any genre have put radical theory into musical practice quite like Mike Watt, who founded the Minuteman in San Pedro, California, during the late Seventies with singer-guitarist D. Boon and drummer George Hurley. “He wanted the bass way up front and the drums, too,” Watt said of Boon. “He wanted it like a redistribution of wealth … I was into that. Also it galvanized this idea in my head that any time you get more than one guy playing together in an ensemble, you try to make a conversation, an interesting one.” Taking that democratic maxim to heart, Watt helped rethink punk music from the ground up, creating short, sharp songs that incorporated funk, jazz, folk, blues, and even rap into their sound. Watt could hold his own with any bruiser on the hardcore scene — check out the thunderbolt attack that opens 1982’s “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs.” As heard not just in the Minutemen, but also in Watt and Hurley’s next band, Firehose; Dos, a reflective duo with his fellow punk bass pioneer and onetime wife Kira Roessler; the reunited Stooges; and his own taut groups up to the present day, Watt’s always been at his best when pushing the bass to the forefront — much like one of his early heroes Jack Bruce of Cream — playing joyful, frenetic parts that reflected the hyper-loquacious personality of one of punk’s most tireless lifelong evangelists.
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Tony Levin has contributed his unmistakable style to everyone from John Lennon to David Bowie to Cher. But he’s best known for his work with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel, who calls him the “Emperor of the Bottom End.” Levin’s done more than anyone to make the Chapman Stick famous, playing the sleek, tapping-oriented guitar in Gabriel hits like “Shock the Monkey.” The Emperor got his start as a 1970s session guy — that’s him on Paul Simon’s Number One smash “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.” He hooked up with Gabriel as soon as the artist quit Genesis, and has remained a crucial part of his music ever since — you can’t imagine “Big Time” or “Sledgehammer” without him. When Robert Fripp was reviving King Crimson after a seven-year hiatus, he recruited Levin for the classic Eighties lineup that made Discipline. (He holds the record as Crimson’s longest-serving bassist.) Levin plays soulfully on two of Bowie’s greatest late ballads, “Slip Away” and “Where Are We Now?” He invented “Funk Fingers,” a gadget for his percussive approach. He also keeps exploring the Stick with his project Stick Men, in tracks like “Not Just Another Pretty Bass.” “I’d venture to say that the way I heard Oscar Pettiford playing jazz bass … is similar to the way I would, much later, try to formulate rock and pop bass parts,” Levin said in 2013, reflecting on the origins of his unusual style. “It’s not so easy to describe exactly what it is, but, in simple terms, it’s finding just the right notes and playing them with just the right feel.”
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George Porter Jr.
Nothing exemplifies groove quite like the rhythmic interplay between Meters bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, a relationship that required extreme tightness to evoke the laid-back party atmosphere of their New Orleans hometown. Thanks to his long tenure in one of popular music’s funkiest groups, Porter held down the low end on classic cuts like “Cissy Strut,” “Funky Miracle,” “Just Kissed My Baby,” and “Hand Clapping Song,” providing round, fluid riffs that strutted like a Second Line parade and rattled speakers with their heaviness — listen to the way he weaves his own syncopated path through the tiniest of spaces in “Pungee,” from the band’s near-perfect second album Look-A Py Py. Porter’s work with the Meters became a crucial building block for hip-hop, with scores of artists including A Tribe Called Quest, Cypress Hill, N.W.A, and Public Enemy sampling the group’s tracks, but he also shows up on numerous popular recordings by other artists such as Labelle, Dr. John, Robert Palmer, Lee Dorsey, and Ernie K-Doe thanks to being one of producer Allen Toussaint’s first-call studio musicians. Porter credited his unique style to a diverse musical background. “You see, because I had studied classical guitar I knew the bass formula, although the songs I was playing in lessons were country & western songs,” he said recently. “But I was learning how to play bass lines and chords at the same time. So, you know it was a natural thing that flowed from guitar when the time came.”
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Bill Black — Elvis Presley’s early bassist and part of the Blue Moon Boys, the singer’s famed trio with guitarist Scotty Moore — was never known as one of the flashiest instrumentalists of his era, but his innovative slap-bass technique was a cornerstone of Presley’s revolutionary rock & roll. “Bill was one of the worst bass players in the world,” Sun Records owner Sam Phillips once said, “but, man, could he slap that thing!” Black’s propulsive sound on the upright gave Presley’s earliest sides like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “That’s All Right” the thrilling drive of a full rhythm section despite the complete absence of drums. Paul McCartney was so obsessed with Black’s playing on “Heartbreak Hotel,” in particular, that his wife Linda McCartney tracked down Black’s original double bass from the session and gave it to him as a gift in the Seventies. Moore recalled Black’s role in Presley recording the country favorite “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which became Presley’s first B side. “Bill jumped up and grabbed his bass and started slapping it, singing ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’ in a high falsetto voice,” Moore said. “It was Bill doing what Bill did best. The song was recorded as a ballad, but Bill sang it uptempo, his bass lines thumping at a feverish pace. Elvis loved it.”
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During their heyday as indie- and alt-rock pioneers, nothing about Sonic Youth was standard issue, from their arty videos to their preferred layers of weirdly tuned guitar scuzz — and even Kim Gordon’s bass parts. Gordon had never played the instrument before when she co-founded the band in the early Eighties, and by her own admission, her skills never reached virtuoso level. But her primitive style couldn’t have been a better fit for a band that valued the unconventional above all else, down to the broken and reconstructed guitars they played. “My bass playing always worked really well because it was minimal,” she says. “There were some songs where Thurston [Moore] would have a melody for the song so he’d want me to play root notes. I felt my job was not to become a good bass player.” Gordon’s signature sound — a guttural groove that sounds like an oncoming subway train — is heard throughout the band’s discography, from early, dark rumbles like “Brave Men Run (In My Family)” to tracks from their Nineties commercial highlight Dirty (“Youth Against Fascism,” “Sugar Kane”) and later, to more languid statements like “Jams Run Free.”
When John Entwistle died suddenly in 2002, the Who could have called up just about any bassist on Earth to replace him. They went with Pino Palladino. By that point, the Welsh musician had played with everyone from Jeff Beck and Elton John to John Mayer, Don Henley, and B.B. King. But his true wheelhouse was R&B and much of his greatest work appears on albums like D’Angelo’s 2000 masterpiece, Voodoo, and Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun from the same year. On both albums, Palladino laid down smooth, syncopated grooves much like James Jamerson, one of his heroes, did on Motown records back in the Sixties. His role in the Who give him the biggest platform of his career, and he went on to tour with Nine Inch Nails and Simon and Garfunkel. “When the call came to play with the Who I was working with Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, and I had to change my whole style,” he said. “The manager said, ‘John [Entwistle] is dead. Can you do a gig at the Hollywood Bowl in three days’ time?’ You don’t turn down something like that. It was only afterwards that I thought about the consequences. Pete Townshend’s direction was, ‘Play whatever you want, just as long as you play loud!’”
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At the center of the emotional tempest that is Fleetwood Mac, sturdy, empathetic John McVie has mixed old-school rock solidity and California smooth, grounding the band’s sound for five peerlessly even-handed decades. McVie got his start with John Mayall and Bluesbreakers in the mid-Sixties, and he transferred that bedrock drive to Fleetwood Mac (a band co-named for him), forming an unshakeable bond with fellow band namesake Mick Fleetwood in their jam-heavy Peter Green days that carried over into the high-flying Buckingham-Nicks era. Hits like “Go Your Own Way” and “Rhiannon” have a subtle toughness that stood out among the band’s laid-back L.A. peers — “You’re a monster, John,” Fleetwood exclaimed when listening to a playback of McVie’s “Go Your Own Way” lines in the Classic Albums doc on Rumours — and it’s impossible to think of “The Chain” without getting that iconic McVie bass break stuck in your head. “I always try to get in with the kick drum,” McVie once said. “Mick [Fleetwood] knows where I’m going, and I know where he’s going, so the song locks — hopefully, anyway.”
You could throw a rock in the Bay Area in the late Eighties and hit a thrash-funk bass player, but Les Claypool immediately stood out among the legion of aggressive slap-poppers. The lanky Primus captain treated the bass more like a lead than a rhythm instrument, driving songs with everything from hyperactive left-hand fretboard tapping (that Morse code-like intro to “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver”) to lightning-quick strumming (“Pudding Time”). “One of the big things I decided to do when I was starting out was to play with three fingers,” he once said. “A lot of guys play with two fingers, so I figured if I played with three, I could be faster.” And even though the man has a truly thunderous thumb, his playing draws as much inspiration from Captain Beefheart as it does Bootsy Collins, with an eclectic sound that complements his self-proclaimed “pirate ditties” about alpha-male felines, mythic fisherman, and murderous hillbillies. He’s incorporated everything from metal riffs — dig those muted triplets in “The Toys Go Winding Down” — to Middle Eastern ragas in his playing; his side projects in jam-band supergroups like Oysterhead and Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains has honed some serious improvisational chops; and his current partnership with Sean Lennon allows him to take some prog-psychedelic detours into the Phil Zone. More than anything else, Claypool has liberated the bass from simply holding down the bottom. “I really got off on watching how he approached the instrument,” says Rush’s Geddy Lee, who toured with Claypool in the Nineties. “He used to say to me, ‘You’re a big influence on me,’ but … he’s got his own style. He has a sense of rhythm that I [find] very appealing.”
If Louis Johnson had done nothing other than play the relentless, shuffling bass line that shapes and drives Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” he would still probably merit inclusion on this list. But as one of Quincy Jones’ go-to session bassists, Johnson played on slew of late-Seventies, early-Eighties hits, helping create some of the most sophisticated, propulsive pop in history. He was a master of James Jamerson’s melodic innovation — listen to the hook of Jackson’s “Off the Wall,” when Johnson plays a gliding line that’s as dashing and precise as Jackson’s zippy vocal. But Johnson also understood the value of Larry Graham’s window-rattling “thumpin’ and pluckin’” technique. There he is again on Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near),” this time playing low-slung, hardheaded parts — how many notes does he squeeze into the riff around the 10-second mark? — that would inspire a generation of hip-hop producers. “I sat with him and taught him how to deal with it from the best of my knowledge of what I had heard at the time,” Johnson’s brother and bandmate George, nicknamed “Lightnin’ Licks” to Louis’ “Thunder Thumbs,” once said of introducing his sibling to bass. “It was like being a star quarterback and passing the ball. Louis was so into it. He picked up the ball and ran with it for a touchdown every time.”
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Richard Davis’ Sixties résumé reads like a survey of some of that decade’s most challenging and enduring musical statements, from progressive-jazz landmarks like Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch! and Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure to Van Morrison’s free-folk masterpiece Astral Weeks. But that’s just a fraction of his overall output: During the past 60-plus years, he’s also elevated the bands, sessions, and performances of giants like Sarah Vaughan, Paul Simon, and Igor Stravinsky. Davis is at his best in intimate settings, where his profoundly empathic playing can shine, whether he’s playing stirring arco lines in a duet with Dolphy on Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” providing a warm rhythmic bed for Bruce Springsteen’s tale of a small-time criminal in “Meeting Across the River,” or conjuring impossibly poignant phrases to complement Morrison’s poetry on tracks like “Beside You.” “[F]or me, it was Richard all the way,” Astral Weeks producer Lewis Merenstein said, reflecting on the record 40 years later. “Richard was the soul of the album.”
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Motörhead’s most iconic song, “Ace of Spades,” opens with Lemmy Kilmister playing a tap-dancing lead bass line before falling into a melody that sounds like his Rickenbacker is headed straight to hell as he sings about feeling “born to lose.” Both in his poetry and his bass playing, Kilmister’s aesthetic was all about reckless abandon. Prior to Motörhead, he was a rhythm guitar player who switched to bass to play with space rockers Hawkwind. “[Bass] is just like playing the guitar without the top two strings,” Kilmister once said. “I just made chords out of what strings I had left. It’s unorthodox, but it works for us.” After his predilection for uppers got him ousted from that band, he developed his own gritty style. “Lemmy was an influence on me in the way he uses distortion — that was different, new, and exciting,” Metallica’s late bassist Cliff Burton once said. Kilmister’s approach perfectly matched his sandpapery voice and underdog wit, and it made him unique — a distinction he was proud of. “I think I play like nobody else does,” he once said. “I always wanted to be John Entwistle, but since that place was taken, I became a lesser version.”
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Sting has received so much attention for his songwriting skills and singing chops over the years that his technique as a bassist sometimes gets overlooked. The former Police frontman learned to simultaneously sing and play by listening to records at 78 rpm, so he could hear the bass parts more clearly. “I had been a guitar player working in clubs, and then someone lent me a homemade bass, and I fell in love with it — the dimensions, the aesthetic — and I realized I could play bass and sing,” he told Bass Player. “I learned how to play Paul McCartney’s parts on Beatles songs and sing them at the same time.” With the Police, he contributed throbbing, melodic lines that cemented the band’s iconic blend of New Wave and reggae. You can hear his bass prominently on “Every Breath You Take” and “Roxanne,” where he supports Andy Summers’ guitar riffs without overpowering them. He’s continued to expand his creative horizons, as on 44/876, his 2018 album with Shaggy, where his tasteful, dubby performances anchor the songs’ relaxed grooves. “There was a golden ray of sunshine coming down from the heavens, through the roof of the building, through the ceiling and landing on this bass player,” Police drummer Stewart Copeland said of the first time he saw Sting onstage, in 1976. “And as a drummer in a band in those days, I didn’t even notice his singing.”
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“Look, have whatever in your collection at home, but everybody needs a little Friday night,” Chic’s Bernard Edwards said in 1979. Edwards built upon his devout study of jazz and classical to become disco’s most influential bassist, turning any minute into Friday night with his bandmate and longtime friend Nile Rodgers and soundtracking thousands of dance floors in the late Seventies and beyond. Had he recorded “Good Times” alone — one of the most sampled bass lines in history and the inspiration for hip-hop’s first mainstream hit “Rapper’s Delight” — he would’ve made this list. But as co-songwriter, producer, and bassist on Chic tracks like “Le Freak,” “I Want Your Love,” and “Everybody Dance,” alongside hits by Sister Sledge (“We Are Family”), Diana Ross (“I’m Coming Out”), and Madonna (“Like a Virgin,” “Material Girl”), Edwards turned instantly head-nodding riffs into dance and pop classics. When most bassists receded in the background, the effortlessly and perpetually stylish Edwards came to the front. He died in 1996 at age 43. But as long as there’s a wedding, party, or any other reason to celebrate literally anything, his catalog will remain immortal.
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As a primary member of Nashville’s famous A-Team, Bob Moore’s upright-bass work can be heard on hits by everyone from George Jones to Bob Dylan. Alongside fellow session legends like Charlie McCoy, Buddy Harman, Ray Edenton, and Hargus “Pig” Robbins, Moore’s sophisticated stylings helped transform Nashville into one of the nation’s musical power centers when artists like Patsy Cline, Chet Atkins, and Brenda Lee began to infuse country with piano-driven pop and jazz in the Fifties and Sixties. “I used to sit right beside Pig and I watched his left hand,” said Moore, “and I could tell every time he was going to move, and I’d move exactly right with him.” The opening bass strut in Roger Miller’s “King of the Road”? That’s Moore, who estimated he’s played on roughly 17,000 sessions throughout his career. Moore’s approach would help forever transform the role of the instrument in country session work. “In those days, a bass player was a comedian in the band,” Moore once said about starting out in 1940s Nashville. “I was something new; I was a player.”
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The Talking Heads’ 1977 breakthrough single “Psycho Killer” sets an ominous mood before frontman David Byrne even sings a word. That’s because it opens with Tina Weymouth playing one of the most haunting bass parts in rock history. She’s unaccompanied for the first eight seconds, setting the stage for a tale of madness and fear that launched one of the great bands in history. And it’s a grave injustice that Byrne has always gotten the lion’s share of the credit for their accomplishments. Weymouth was a critical part of Talking Heads’ songwriting team — even if she didn’t always get credited — and she brought an effortless cool to everything they did. “Had there been no Tina Weymouth in Talking Heads,” said the band’s drummer and Weymouth’s husband of the past 40 years, Chris Frantz, “we would be just another band.”
Aston “Family Man” Barrett
As half of the rhythm section for Bob Marley’s Wailers, Aston Barrett and his younger brother Carlton played a primary role in introducing the sound of reggae’s one-drop rhythm to international audiences. But the influence of the self-proclaimed “Architect of Reggae” extended far beyond that genre into pop, R&B, and funk: His strutting bass line on the 1969 instrumental track “The Liquidator,” by the Harry J. All Stars, would end up serving as a direct template for the Staples Singers’ smash “I’ll Take You There” three years later. “The drum, it is the heartbeat, and the bass, it is the backbone,” Barrett once said. “If the bass is not right, the music is gonna have a bad back, so it would be crippled.” Barrett was deeply attuned to the storytelling of his Wailers bandleader, paying close attention to Marley’s songwriting before he came up with his own bass lines. “It’s like I am singing baritone,” he once said of his bass work. “I create a melodic line each time.”
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Some of the funkiest records of the Sixties and Seventies — the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Etta James’ “Tell Mama,” Aretha Franklin’s “Oh No Not My Baby,” R.B. Greaves’ “Take a Letter, Maria” — had one thing in common: bass player David Hood. First working at Fame Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, before becoming part of the town’s legendary rhythm section at their own Muscle Shoals Sound in 1969, Hood was nicknamed “Little David” for his size; you can hear Mavis Staples call him that on “I’ll Take You There” during his supple solo. But his deep, pulsating bass lines made him part of “a rhythm section to die for,” Staples said. Working with his fellow Muscle Shoals players, like keyboardist Barry Beckett and drummer Roger Hawkins, Hood’s bass was equally at home in pop (Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome,” Rod Stewart’s “The First Cut Is the Deepest”), blues (Boz Scaggs’ “Loan Me a Dime”), and rock-R&B mergers (Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll”). His other legacy: his son Patterson, the Drive-By Truckers’ singer and songwriter. Hood remains modest about his accomplishments. Referring to another Staple Singers’ classic, “Respect Yourself,” he says, “That’s got a little bass solo in it too. It’s just a few bars in the beginning and the middle, but they’re just melodic hooks. We were just trying to make pop music.”
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Israel Cachao López
Though he made his primary innovation in the 1930s, Israel Cachao López has exerted an influence you can hear throughout pop music to this day. Working with his brother, pianist and cellist Orestes López, he hot-wired stately Havana ballroom music to create mambo, an Afro-Cuban fusion that would influence salsa, Cuban jazz, R&B, rock & roll, and by extension the entire constellation of Latin-influenced modern pop. “What’s Cuban in origin is also African,” he said years later. “The Africans had as much influence as the conquistadors on what is Cuban. Naturally, this being in the blood, many things have come into being always with an African influence.” His playing — a sumptuous rumble of crosscutting lines, probing yet elegant, gliding alongside the other instruments with relaxed precision — created a perfect backdrop for the rich, freewheeling improvisation that would become central to Cuban music thanks to another Cachao innovation of the 1950s, the descarga, a jazz-influenced jam session. Cachao moved to the U.S. in the Sixties, but didn’t find his widest recognition here until the 1990s and the release of the essential two-volume series Master Sessions.
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When Metallica formed, all James Hetfield, Dave Mustaine, and Lars Ulrich wanted to do was rage on finger-breaking thrash metal — until they met Cliff Burton. The bassist had been playing with a rival metal group, and when they saw him play a jaw-dropping bass solo, they wanted him in Metallica so badly that they relocated from Los Angeles to his native Bay Area at his request. Once in the band, Burton introduced the guys to R.E.M., the Misfits, and Bach, opening them up to a new musicality, as he added orchestral flourishes and bass virtuosity to some of their hardest-hitting songs. His bass solo, “(Anesthesia) — Pulling Teeth,” on their 1983 debut, Kill ‘Em All, is an aggressive showcase of classical-music improvisation and wah-wah lyricism, while his delicate intro to “Damage Inc.” and the middle of “Orion” showed just how beautiful thrash could be. His concepts continued to resonate with the band after his death in a bus accident in 1986. “No disrespect to anybody else, but he was at a different level,” Ulrich once said of Burton. “When it came time to put [‘Anesthesia’] on a record, instead of it just being a bass solo, we turned it into more of a composition. It adds some different dynamics to it, almost like different acts — like, Act One, Act Two and Act Three.” That sensibility was so spot on that when Metallica collaborated with the San Francisco Symphony in 2019, the orchestra’s principal bass player wanted to perform “Anesthesia” in tribute to Burton.
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Onstage with Rush, Geddy Lee was always a master multitasker, playing keyboards and foot-controlled synths while nailing daredevil vocal parts. But his bass playing, tough and sinewy yet beautifully nimble and accented with just the right amount of daredevil flash, is what’s made him a legend to fans of forward-thinking rock, and one of the key links between Sixties pioneers like Jack Bruce and John Entwistle and Nineties innovators like Les Claypool and Rage Against the Machine’s Tim Commerford. Lee’s playing added grit, flair, and surprising funkiness to every era of the band, from high-prog Seventies landmarks like A Farewell to Kings to New Wave–informed Eighties gems like Grace Under Pressure and streamlined, hard-hitting Nineties efforts like Counterparts. And his imaginative parts — the off-kilter strut that leads off “Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage”; the wiry 7/4 bridge riff in “Tom Sawyer”; the lean dance-pop vamp of “Scars” — often acted as hooks in and of themselves. “He was the one that when I was a 14-year-old fellow I thought, ‘Boy, I’d sure like to make those sounds,’” Claypool once said of Lee. “I’m still trying to do that.”
“There must be hundreds of better bass players than me,” Bill Wyman told Rolling Stone in 1974. “I mean I could never play like Jack Bruce. If I was ambitious in that direction I’d practice, [but] I don’t.” But while he undersells his talent, his fellow Rolling Stones disagree. “Bill Wyman’s an incredible bass player,” Keith Richards once said. “I’m still always amazed by Bill’s tastefulness in his bass playing.… He’s a very sensitive musician.” Wyman earned Richards’ praise by playing smart harmonies under the guitarist’s iconic “Satisfaction” riff (playing a melody that goes down while the guitar goes up), a gentle rumble underneath “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and rhythms that wiggle underneath the boogie-woogie of “Rocks Off.” “I’m not a busy bass player,” Wyman once said. “I’m not a Stanley Clarke or anyone like that. To me, they should be playing guitar, not bass.… You need some balls in the bottom.… You leave the space for other people, you don’t fill it in with the bass. Leave lots of room and let the track breathe from underneath.”
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The Red Hot Chili Peppers have gone through many drummers and guitarists since their formation in 1983. But Flea has been their sole bassist, a player whose signature sound — an earthy, wildly charismatic hybrid of punk, funk, and psychedelia — forms the backbone of the band. Born Michael Balzary, Flea was heavily influenced by his jazz-musician stepdad growing up. “My goal was to become a jazz trumpet player, but then I got into my early teens and I had to rebel against my parents,” he said in 2006. “All I wanted to do was be a punk rocker and play the bass.” Outside of the Peppers, he’s played on the Mars Volta’s 2003 debut, De-Loused in the Comatorium, and in spinoff group Antemasque. In 2009, he formed Atoms for Peace with Thom Yorke, showing his versatility on songs like “Before Your Very Eyes…” and the schizophrenic “Reverse Running.” But it’s his playing with the Peppers that’s made him so beloved, from his Bootsy Collins–inspired slapping work (“Higher Ground,” “Sir Psycho Sexy”) to his poignant melodic moments (“Soul to Squeeze,” “By the Way”). “The Red Hot Chili Peppers are Flea,” Anthony Kiedis told Rolling Stonein 1994. “He’s such an essential portion of this pie that it’s impossible to think that the band would exist without him.”
Shortly after joining Black Sabbath, Geezer Butler switched from rhythm guitar to bass and divined his own freewheeling style. Since he’d never played the sort of four-on-the-floor bass that defined Sixties rock, he came to the instrument with a guitarist’s sensibility, adding harmonies and ornate filigrees to guitarist Tony Iommi’s parts. The secret to Black Sabbath’s impact is how Butler and Iommi stacked their instruments for a big, walloping sound. On “War Pigs,” Butler played a bluesy lead underneath Iommi’s drawn-out riffs, and by the middle of the song when Iommi solos, Butler plays his own jazzy, Jack Bruce–inspired fingerpicked solo whenever the guitarist holds a note. There’s also a sense of liberation in the way he plays, as on 1981’s “Slipping Away,” when he traded playful solos with Iommi, and on his own swampy, wah-wah–inflected solo “Bassically,” which leads off “N.I.B.” — a guitar trick he adopted long before other bassists. But despite his obvious skill, Butler has always downplayed his ability. “Because I was a rhythm guitarist, I’d fill in gaps left by the lead guitarist,” he once said. “I continued that with bass: being the rhythm player. I never rated myself as a bass player; I just played what I thought was necessary for each song.”
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The legend of the Band centers on their down-home appeal, but revisit their classic records and it’s impossible to miss just how funky they were. Rick Danko’s bass work — spare, stylish, and always situated deep in the pocket — was crucial to the inimitable lope of tracks like “Up on Cripple Creek” and “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).” Danko grew up in rural Ontario listening to the Grand Ole Opry on a battery-powered radio and watching his dad play at barn dances. He joined future Band-mates Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm in Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks in 1961, picking up crucial rhythm-section tips from the group’s then-pianist Stan Szelest. Within a few years, the group was backing Bob Dylan on his first plugged-in tour. Once the Band got underway, Danko established himself as the group’s trusty secret weapon, a position he’d hold during both their initial run and their prolific reunion era. Throughout his tenure, he complemented his signature warbling vocals with crafty four-string lines that always fit hand-in-glove with Helm’s swampy grooves. “I feel about bass playing as I do about background singing,” he told Bass Player in 1994. “It should be a hair behind. It’s nice to leave the top of the beat for the vocal and spread the other parts around the beat. That gives the music a sort of Ferris-wheel effect and carries it along.”
Maurice White, an accomplished singer-songwriter-drummer-producer, brought his brother Verdine out to L.A. to join a young Earth, Wind, and Fire in 1970. Verdine had studied under Louis Satterfield, whom he described as “the James Jamerson of Chicago,” and scrutinized jazz players like Ron Carter and Richard Davis. He brought it all to Earth, Wind, and Fire’s elegant, breathtakingly complex, million-selling albums. The group’s major singles tended to be speedy dance cuts, but there’s more room to appreciate White’s playing on the ballads: the darting, ascending rumble that opens “Can’t Hide Love”; the nubby, attacking runs in “Love’s Holiday”; the nimble, succinct riffs underpinning “After the Love Has Gone.” White left an impression on the uptempo numbers, too: Listen to him slash through “Beijo (Interlude),” making notes shiver and whine. White tends to be modest in interviews, throwing much of the credit for his playing style to others. “What I have to do on record is make sure that I’m complementing the singer,” he once explained. “If I don’t hear the singer, I’m gonna play it, but it won’t have any imagination.”
Many musicians came and went from Yes over the decades, but the only constant (at least until his death in 2015) was bassist Chris Squire. The prog-rock giants could survive without titans like keyboardist Rick Wakeman and guitarist Steve Howe, but Squire’s work was the bedrock of their sound. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, and Paul McCartney, Squire had a thick, melodic tone that powered everything from Seventies prog classics like “Close to the Edge” and “Awaken” to Eighties pop hits like “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” “Chris took the art of making a bass guitar into a lead instrument to another stratosphere,” Wakeman wrote at the time of his former bandmate’s death, “and coupled with his showmanship and concern for every single note he played, made him something special.… We have now lost who, for me, are the two greatest bass players classic rock has ever known. John Entwistle and now Chris.”
Robbie Shakespeare and his rhythm and production partner drummer Sly Dunbar have implanted their immediately recognizable imprint on decades of reggae. “It was the whole body of the bass, the sound and the way it flowed against the drummer,” Dunbar said of first hearing Shakespeare’s playing in the early Seventies. “At a certain part of a tune he’d play like three different lines, change the line on the bridge and the verses after that, and get four different lines.” The two went on to record with every major artist of reggae’s golden era, lending fluidly melodic yet implacably solid underpinning to classics like Culture’s Two Sevens Clash and Peter Tosh’s Equal Rights; they excelled in the rubbery negative space of dub, found a unique way to create an organic feel in a digital context as dancehall emerged in the Eighties, and brightened the grooves on rock and pop albums by Grace Jones, Talking Heads, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and others. No other musical entity in the post-Marley era has been so omnipresent in shaping the sound of Jamaica and bringing it to the world.
The first thing you hear in the opening seconds of “Lonely Woman” — Ornette Coleman’s 1959 out-jazz masterwork that captivated a young Lou Reed along with an entire generation of open-minded listeners — is Charlie Haden strumming a yearning, pulsing bass melody over Billy Higgins’ double-time ride cymbal. His intro makes the tune feel ancient and sturdily grounded, like it’s growing up out of the earth. That was Haden’s great gift as a bassist, to give even the most contemporary of styles — from Coleman’s joyously unfettered excursions to the outsider folk of Beck — a feeling of the eternal. Haden grew up in Iowa, yodeling country songs on his family’s radio show. Seeing Charlie Parker play sparked a love of jazz, and after moving to L.A. for college in the late Fifties, he met Coleman, the saxophonist who would spearhead the genre’s next radical breakthrough. Haden was an integral part of Ornette’s core concept, adding muscle and lift to live and studio bands for decades to come (including at a 1968 gig where they backed Yoko Ono) and carrying the Coleman torch in satellite projects like Old and New Dreams. Elsewhere, he could be found just about anywhere forward-thinking, openhearted jazz was being made, whether with Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, or Alice Coltrane, in his own politically driven Liberation Music Orchestra, or in a warm, empathic trio with Ginger Baker and Bill Frisell. He also fit in seamlessly working alongside Ringo Starr, K.D. Lang, or his son and triplet daughters. “Charlie Haden plays for the existence of the listener,” Coleman once wrote. “This reason alone makes him a musical guru.”
Donald “Duck” Dunn
Memphis native Donald Dunn — whose father gave him his lifelong nickname “Duck” while the two watched Disney cartoons together — wasn’t an original member of the influential Stax house band Booker T. and the M.G.’s. But when he took over bass duties from Lewie Steinberg in 1964, the group hit its stride. Dunn’s tenure with the band coincided with their creation of foundational Southern soul records by Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Sam and Dave. “When it got more aggressive and syncopated … my style was more appropriate,” Dunn would later say. He anchored a dextrous, versatile rhythm section alongside drummer Al Jackson, mastering urbane pop balladry, country-soul shuffles, and uptempo gospel-infused soul all the same. Listen to his quietly descending bass line on the M.G.’s’ instrumental rendering of Sam and Dave’s “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby,” or the loping strut that opens Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.” Dunn, who Bootsy Collins once called a “brick in our musical foundation,” would go on to play with a who’s who of rock and pop legends — Eric Clapton, Stevie Nicks, Bill Withers, Neil Young — but it was his influential work with Booker T., Steve Cropper, and Al Jackson that redefined popular music. As Peter Frampton once said, Dunn “wrote the book on R&B bass playing.”
John Paul Jones
Although Led Zeppelin seemed to come out of nowhere, fully formed, in the late Sixties, both guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones had years of session playing behind them. Drawing inspiration from Motown records and jazz bassists like Charles Mingus, Jones played on recordings by Donovan, Jeff Beck, and Dusty Springfield, among others, and he arranged the strings for the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow.” So when the time came for him to play the slow-stepping lead lines on “Dazed and Confused” and “What Is and What Should Never Be” or the charging rhythms of “Immigrant Song” and “The Song Remains the Same” — in harmony with Page — it was a cinch. His sense of musicality would guide him well past his time in Led Zeppelin, too. “John silently challenges everyone,” Dave Grohl said around the time he was playing with Jones in Them Crooked Vultures. “His presence makes you play the best you can possibly play, because you don’t want to let him down. And if you can keep up, you’re doing OK.”
A whole generation of bassists — from Dave Holland with Miles Davis to Miroslav Vitous and Jaco Pastorius with Weather Report and Rick Laird with the Mahavishnu Orchestra — helped to wed the sophistication of Sixties postbop with the power of arena-scale rock. But it was Stanley Clarke who truly defined the role of the fusion bass god. Clarke started on double bass and wanted to pursue a life in classical music; meeting Chick Corea on a gig set him on a different path. The two formed Return to Forever, one of the Seventies’ premier plugged-in jazz groups, and a band in which Clarke could both hold down the low end and have his say as a star soloist. Early solo LPs — and future bass-repertoire staples — like School Days found him moving further into funk, and showcasing his astonishing technique while always minding the groove. More recently, he’s moved into film and TV scoring, turned up on Beck’s understated Grammy winner Morning Phase, and inspired new-school luminaries like Thundercat (who recently said, “I thank God that there was a Stanley Clarke as a frame of reference to what is possible with the bass”). “Before I came along a lot of bass players stood in the back,” Clarke once said. “They were very quiet kind of guys who didn’t appear to write music. But many of those bass players were serious musicians. All that I did was just take the step and create my own band.”
Although Willie Dixon is best remembered as one of history’s most influential bluesmen, whose songs were sung by Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, that’s just a portion of his legacy. He played bass on early rock recordings by Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and tunes he wrote like “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “I Ain’t Superstitious” have been covered by everyone from Led Zeppelin to Megadeth. Dixon’s first bass was a “tin-can bass,” and eventually he was able to save up $200 or so to buy an upright. Around 1939, he was “boxin’, workin’, and playin’, trying’ to learn how to play the bass,” by his own account, learning from locals Baby Doo Caston and Hog Mason, until he developed his own undulating, genre-defining style. “After two or three weeks, why, heck, I could play just about as good as I can now,” he said in 1980. When Berry first played him the song that would become “Maybellene,” Dixon thought it was too country & western, so “I felt that some kind of bluesy idea or feeling that wasn’t in there would make it a better song,” giving the tune a bit of rock & roll attitude. “Willie Dixon is the principal [influence on me]” the Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman once said. “I always idolized Willie Dixon, particularly, because he was on [records] with Chuck Berry and Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, and many others at Chess.”
In the same way that the Grateful Dead reconfigured how a rock band should sound — looser and jammier, incorporating equal parts jazz and country — Phil Lesh made us hear the bass in a new way. The Dead’s founding and longtime bassist grew up on experimental and classical music and played trumpet and violin in high school. He only took up his signature instrument when he was asked to join the Warlocks, the first version of the Dead. As a result, Lesh ignored standard walking-bass clichés: “I didn’t think that would be suitable for the music I would make with Jerry, just to do something somebody else had done,” he said in 2014. His idea — “play bass and lead at the same time,” his notes darting in and around the melody — became as recognizable a part of the Dead’s sound as Garcia’s guitar. His unconventional sound can be heard in studio recordings like “Truckin’,” “Shakedown Street,” and “Cumberland Blues,” the live version of “Scarlet Begonias” from the legendary Cornell 1977 show, and many live versions of “Eyes of the World” (start with 1975’s One From the Vault).
“On the bass, that’s my man, Ron Carter,” Q-Tip says proudly on the outro to A Tribe Called Quest’s super-funky Low End Theory track “Verses From the Abstract.” A milestone for the intersection of jazz and hip-hop, the track was just another day at the office for the great Ron Carter, who’s been turning up on history-making sessions for 60 years and counting. With more than 2,200 credits to his name as of fall 2015, he earned a Guinness World Record a year later for the most recorded bassist in jazz history. Beyond the raw numbers, the range of Carter’s CV is astounding, from anchoring the Sixties Miles Davis quintet that reshaped jazz on a molecular level to bringing an unshakable drive to classic Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin sides, providing a plush rhythmic bed for bossa nova pioneer Antônio Carlos Jobim, and finding the swing in Bach. Whether in a low-key duo or buoyant big band, Carter always adds a touch of pure class. “I think Mr. Carter is one of the consummate listening musicians ever,” said collaborator and lifelong fan Pat Metheny in 2016. “He has played in literally thousands of unique settings and is always able to find something that brings out the best in his associates, while always remaining true to his own very strong sense of identity.”
It’s hard to think of Paul McCartney as being underrated in any category. But for all the praise he’s earned as a singer, songwriter, and live performer, it’s quite possible he hasn’t gotten enough for his low-key low-end verve. He first took up the bass as a matter of necessity, after Stu Sutcliffe quit the Beatles in Hamburg in 1961. “There’s a theory that I maliciously worked Stu out of the group in order to get the prize chair of bass,” McCartney told biographer Barry Miles. “Forget it! Nobody wants to play bass, or nobody did in those days.” But he made the instrument his own, particularly as the Beatles’ studio adventures took off in the second half of the Sixties and he switched out his Hofner for a Rickenbacker. McCartney’s bass could be a cool, steady support, as on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Dear Prudence,” or a colorful lead character in its own right — see “Paperback Writer,” “Rain,” and “A Day in the Life,” all songs where his playing conveys the yearning for a freer or more exciting life behind everyday lyrics. His playful, melodic style in that era owed much to Motown’s James Jamerson, whom he’s often credited as his biggest influence on the instrument; after 1970, McCartney kept up with the times, grooving regally into the disco era with “Silly Love Songs” and “Goodnight Tonight.” And while his interest in the four-string has waned and waxed over the years, he’s never stopped inspiring generations of kids to see the expressive potential of a great bass line.
“My name is John Francis Pastorius III, and I’m the greatest bass player in the world.” That was Jaco Pastorius’ opening line to Joe Zawinul when he met the Weather Report keyboardist backstage at a 1974 Miami show. Zawinul scoffed at the time, but he wasn’t laughing a few years later, once Pastorius had joined the group and helped turn them into bona fide fusion superstars. Jaco’s 1976 self-titled debut, where he played high-speed bebop with ease and dazzled with chiming harmonics, set a new standard for electric-bass virtuosity; joining Weather Report the same year, he thrilled audiences with his signature fretless sound and cocky flair, and forever banished the notion that bass was a background instrument. As flashy a player as he was, he was also a stellar collaborator: From the mid-Seventies through the Eighties — preceding his tragic death at age 35 — Pastorius’ revolutionary four-string approach was a perfect match for everyone from Pat Metheny to Jimmy Cliff, and especially Joni Mitchell’s increasingly adventurous songwriting on albums like Hejira. “[I]t was as if I dreamed him, because I didn’t have to give him any instruction,” Mitchell once said of Jaco. “I could just kind of cut him loose and stand back and celebrate his choices.”
As a member of Sly and the Family Stone, Larry Graham helped popularize the slap-bass technique with hits like “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and “Dance to the Music.” He developed the unmissable, percussive approach — Graham calls it “thumpin’ and pluckin’” — while playing in a trio with his mother in San Francisco. When the drummer quit, “I would thump the strings with my thumb to make up for the bass drum, and pluck the strings with my fingers to make up for the backbeat snare drum,” Graham remembered. These lines erupted in Sly and the Family Stone songs, inverting the traditional roles of instruments in popular music and making an indelible impression on future icons like Prince, a friend and frequent collaborator of Graham’s who once called Graham “my teacher.” “If you listen to records from the Fifties, you’ll find that all the melodic information is mixed very loud … and the rhythmic information is mixed rather quietly,” Brian Eno explained in 1983. “From the time of Sly and the Family Stone’s Fresh album, there’s a flip over, where the rhythm instruments, particularly the bass drum and bass, suddenly become the important instruments in the mix.” Graham had a simple explanation for it all: Playing with that much force ensures that “the dancers just won’t hide.”
Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker got much of the attention in Cream, but Jack Bruce gave the group the thrust to make them a true power trio. When Clapton would play his soaring blues licks and Baker explored jazzy new strata behind his drum kit, Bruce, also the group’s lead vocalist, kept the band together with heavy bass lines that always seemed to be moving. “Jack Bruce definitely opened my eyes as to what a bass player could do live,” Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler once said. “I went to see Cream mainly because of Clapton … and I was mesmerized at Jack Bruce’s playing. I didn’t know a bass player could do those things, filling in where the rhythm guitar would normally be.” Bruce played jittery, tumbling lines under the trio’s group vocals on “I Feel Free,” smart harmonies on “Sunshine of Your Love,” and basically his own riff under Clapton’s on “Strange Brew.” “He was a small guy, but his playing was monstrous,” Mountain guitarist Leslie West, who played with Bruce later, once said. “He made his bass bark, and everything he did was so melodic.”
Cutting her teeth in Fifties jazz clubs and breaking out as a studio guitarist for hitmakers like Sam Cooke, Kaye went on to become the most recorded bassist of all time — with more than 10,000 tracks under her belt. From the sunny swing of the Beach Boys’ 1965 track “Help Me, Rhonda” to Richie Valens’ now-classic 1958 version of “La Bamba” to Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s romantic 1967 rendition of “Somethin’ Stupid,” Kaye’s fingerprints are all over the history of modern pop. And that’s not even including her myriad movie and TV show themes — she gave the title songs for everything from Batman to Mission Impossible their uniquely groovy backbone. “I was a guitar player, and I thought, ‘God, that’s kind of a simple bass line,’” she told For Bass Players Only of the intuition that helped guide her playing. “I thought the bass could be moving around more and the music would sound better.” Her star collaborators evidently agreed. “He would keep my bass sound way up in the mixes,” she said of Brian Wilson in 2011. “On a song like ‘California Girls,’ at times you can hardly hear anything else. He just liked my sound and the way I moved around the fretboard.”
Bootsy Collins — or “Bootzilla,” “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” or “The World’s Only Rhinestone Rock Star Doll, Baba,” depending on the song — redefined soul and funk bass playing in the Seventies and, by proxy, rap and pop in the Eighties and Nineties. Collins joined James Brown’s backing group, the J.B.’s, in 1970 and immediately latched on to Soul Brother No. 1’s concept of “The One,” hitting the first beat of a musical measure as hard as possible and filling the rest of it with funkiness. Later, he stretched out that concept into a trippy wonderland when he joined George Clinton’s cabal, playing mushy, wah-wah bass in Parliament and Funkadelic before becoming a solo star, fronting his own Rubber Band, wearing star-shaped sunglasses, playing a star-shaped bass, and singing cartoonish love songs with comic-book enthusiasm. You can hear his influence in practically every bass player to come since, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea to the records Dr. Dre liberally sampled to create the G-Funk sound. “Bootsy came along and all he added … was the emphasis on the one,” George Clinton once said. “You could add that to ‘The ABC’s,’ and it would be funk in two seconds. And from then on, everything we did was funky for real, no matter how pop we tried to be.”
The Who’s John Entwistle had a lot of nicknames, including the Ox, due to his imposing build and endless appetites, and the Quiet One, because of his stoic demeanor. But the most apt was one Thunderfingers, a name bestowed upon him because every time he played a note on the bass it sounded like a vicious storm coming over the horizon. It was a style he developed to be heard while playing on the same stage as flamboyant showboats Keith Moon and Pete Townshend, but he brought a remarkable fluidity and grace to his role that was unlike anything anyone had ever heard before. Simply put, he treated the bass like a lead instrument and made it stand out as much as any guitar. And his chunky solo on “My Generation” inspired countless teenagers to pick up the bass, though emulating his playing was a near-impossible task. “Entwistle was arguably the greatest rock bassist of them all,” said Rush’s Geddy Lee, “daring to take the role and sound of the bass guitar and push it out of the murky depths while strutting those amazing chops.”
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Charles Mingus was so much more than a bass player — composer, conceptualist, classically trained cellist, social critic — that it’s sometimes easy to forget how much of a force he was on his instrument. But at the heart of his lush, kaleidoscopic pieces was a relentless rhythmic drive that flowed from his fingers through the strings and directly into his bands, making it sound as though the soloists were jumping on a giant trampoline. Listen to him chugging away on classic compositions like “II B.S.” and “Better Get Hit in Your Soul,” aligning with drummer and musical soulmate Dannie Richmond, and you’ll get a sense of the strength and grace of his playing, the way he could make a walking line sound both hulking and nimble. Mingus’ career spanned multiple eras of jazz, and his command on the instrument made stylistic divisions seem irrelevant: That’s why he sounds equally at home swinging with Lionel Hampton’s big band in the late Forties (on his own “Mingus Fingers”), jamming with fellow bebop royalty in the Fifties (on the famed Jazz at Massey Hall album, which featured bass parts overdubbed in the studio by the famously exacting Mingus), and carrying on a lively, percussive conversation with his musical idol Duke Ellington in the Sixties (on the immortal Money Jungle). Though he was known mainly for his contribution to jazz, he was never bound by it, as shown by his collaboration with Joni Mitchell and his influence on Sixties rock greats like Jack Bruce and Charlie Watts. Throughout his life, Mingus constantly spoke out against those would tried to limit or underestimate his artistry. Commenting on the unfairness of jazz critics’ polls, he once said, “I don’t want none of them damn polls. I know what kind of bass player I am.”
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James Jamerson anchored the Motown rhythm section, expanding the possibilities for bass players with hit after hit after hit, all while remaining mostly anonymous, because session players were rarely credited on Sixties Motown recordings. “James Jamerson became my hero,” Paul McCartney once said, “although I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently.” When Jamerson started his career, the bass was largely seen as a utilitarian support instrument; most players stuck to “stagnant two beat, root-fifth patterns and post–’Under the Boardwalk’ clichéd bass lines,” according to Standing in the Shadows of Motown: The Life and Music of Legendary Bassist James Jamerson. Jamerson helped revolutionize the field, jolting his parts with extra syncopation, additional chords that added melodic depth and complexity, and tonal choices that evoked gospel harmony. His list of contributions to iconic records is impossible to sum up quickly, but his key Motown recordings include the Temptations’ “My Girl,” which surely has one of the most recognizable, instantly gratifying bass parts in all of pop; Gladys Knight’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” where he plays a suave, bubbly counter to the jittery piano; and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which finds Jamerson at his hyper-melodic best. “James went a step beyond what bassists normally do,” explained Bob Babbitt, who also played bass on several What’s Going On tracks. “At first he took chances and let himself go, and then it just became natural for him, and in the process he changed the course of bass playing.”
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