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10 Favourite Bass Players

With its dual functions of rhythm and melody, the electric bass guitar is a staple in most genres of popular music. Its role varies between different acts – sometimes the bass is buried deep in the mix, the glue holding everything together, like Gary Tallent in the E-Street Band. Other times, the bassist is the main attraction, an extroverted player providing solos and melodic leads.

Here are ten bass players who make me sit up and take notice. Presenting, in alphabetical order:


Bootsy Collins

Bootsy Collins started his career as a teenager in James Brown’s band, playing classic funk jams like ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine’. Moving to Michigan, Collins joined forces with George Clinton in Parliament and Funkadelic. He developed a signature look, playing a customised star bass, and using a Mu-Tron III envelope filter which gave his bass a distinctive funk tone.

Larry Graham

Larry Graham served as bassist for Sly and the Family Stone before branching out with his own band, Graham Central Station. He’s credited for inventing bass slapping, which he refers to as “thumpin’ and pluckin’ ”. He’s also the uncle of Canadian rapper Drake.

James Jamerson

Jamerson was a member of the Funk brothers, the session musicians who played on Motown’s 1960s hits, and he anchored 30 Billboard #1 singles. Coming from a jazz background, he helped to expand the vocabulary of the bass guitar, which previously filled a simple role in pop music. According to Wikipedia; “many of Jamerson’s bass-lines relied heavily on chromatic runs, syncopation, ghost notes and inversions, with frequent use of open strings.” One of his most famous tracks was Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ – Jamerson was intoxicated at the time, and recorded while lying on his back.

Carol Kaye

Carol Kaye was a bass player in the Wrecking Crew, a pool of LA session musicians who played on 1960s Los Angeles hits. The Wrecking Crew formed as musicians for Phil Spector’s ground-breaking Wall of Sound, and later played on records by The Beach Boys, The Monkees, and Ike and Tina Turner. As well as serving as a trail blazer for women in a male dominated field, Kaye is notable for her bass lines of the fantastic mid-1960s Beach Boys albums. She also commented that, working 15 hour days in the 1960s, she was “making more money than the President”.

Geddy Lee

I’m not a huge fan of Rush, as I don’t always enjoy Neil Peart’s lyrics or Geddy Lee’s vocals, but Lee’s a monstrous bass player. Lee modelled himself on Cream’s Jack Bruce, another immensely talented front-man for a power trio, and carried a heavy burden for the group, particularly live where he handled keyboards and bass pedals in addition to his duties as lead vocalist and bass player.

Graham Maby

Joe Jackson is a sophisticated, ambitious songwriter, and it’s a tough gig being his bass player. The original Joe Jackson Band was designed with Graham Maby’s bass as the lead instrument, and he excelled – I love his octave lines on ‘Steppin’ Out’. Maby’s also popped up as a sideman for other acts I enjoy, like Freedy Johnston and Marshall Crenshaw, and his bass work is always memorable but never domineering. Intriguingly, his Wikipedia page lists one of his professions as “proofreader”.

Paul McCartney

The Beatles started with three guitarists, and after Stuart Sutcliffe left the group, Paul McCartney was assigned to bass. He started simple, but as the group’s material became more complex, McCartney’s playing blossomed – James Jamerson’s work at Motown was an influence on McCartney’s expanding bass vocabulary. His melodic, creative lines on Beatles’ songs like ‘Something’ are pieces of beauty.

Jaco Pastorius

Weather Report’s Jaco Pastorius was the leading exponent of the fretless bass He popularised the instrument after modifying a Fender Precision bass, removing the frets and replacing them with wood strips. Pastorius started by learning upright bass, but his instrument cracked in the humidity of Florida. Like his personality, his playing was extroverted, using harmonics and lines inspired by Cuban music and R&B. He also anchored Joni Mitchell’s late 1970s albums, like Hejira, with his fluid, expansive lines.

Chris Squire

Yes enjoyed a talented pool of musicians, especially the most lauded lineup which recorded Fragile and Close To The Edge in the early 1970s. But Chris Squire was the lynch-pin, his extroverted bass lines often providing the focal instrumental point. Squire played a 1964 Rickenbacker, and split the low and high frequencies into different amps, allowing him to distort the high frequencies and providing a lead tone that cut through the band’s sound.

Bruce Thomas

Thomas was Elvis Costello’s bass player in the early years of the Attractions – the relationship with Costello soured after Thomas wrote a thinly veiled memoir, The Big Wheel, where his boss was referred to as “the singer”. But during his tenure in the Attractions, Thomas was a phenomenal player. He was able to handle Costello’s complex songs and constant genre changes, shining on genres as diverse as the new wave of This Year’s Model and the soul of Get Happy!!!

It’s noticeable that all these bass players emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Did I leave out any of your favourites? Any suggestions for more recent bass heroes?

54 thoughts on “10 Favourite Bass Players Leave a comment

  1. Entwistle is the obvious guy missing here but it’s great you recognize Bruce Thomas for the great player he clearly is. Just started playing bass myself. Andy Fraser from Free is great also carl Radle (?) who played In derek and the dominoes – check out the live album. Going into the 80s Peter hook from new order/ joy division and jah wobble were really influential at the time and mark king from level 42. The 80s was largely synths and slap bass so best forgotten really. I,ll leave it someone younger to mention flea haha

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  2. Just off the top of my head – Jack Bruce, John Entwhistle, Sting, Flea, Stanley Clarke, John Paul Jones, Berry Oakley, Chris Squire, Jack Casady, Duck Dunn, John Deacon, Charlie Haden, Will Lee, Charles Mingus.

    Liked by 3 people

        • I looked at a few lists while I was compiling mine, and Bruce Thomas never made it. I think a bunch of excellent bass players emerged in the British punk/new wave movement – someone else has already mentioned Peter Hook, Colin Moulding was on my shortlist, I like Paul Simonon a lot, but their bands don’t have the same mainstream appeal as classic rock so they don’t make lists as often.

          Liked by 1 person

        • All those guys I mentioned are not some random list but like you, guys I really dig listening to. I saw Stanley Clarke a while back. The Thomas guys (no relation) in the Attractions were a potent force. Listen to “Lipstick Vogue,” sometime, a song you probably know as I recall you featured EC before.

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  3. Great list…Chris Squire and Jaco Pastorius are two I admire a lot. One guy that I’ve listened to in the past few years is Les Claypool with Primus.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m kind of a Who-fan. One strike against Entwistle is that The Who’s songs are generally quite simple in terms of chord structure – much easier job than playing for someone like Elvis Costello or Paul McCartney.

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        • Having simple songs and then stamping their musical personalities all over them was a good recipe for them. Would have all fallen apart if they were doing prog epics….

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        • Most stuff in the 60s was harmonically simple…but not so much with the who. Listen to Tommy again…the chorus of 1921 is all over the map…and sparks? a bit of proto-prog for ya!

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        • I think those are the exceptions rather than the norm though – a lot of three chord rockers in their repertoire. And I’d argue that there were some pretty sophisticated songwriters operating in the 1960s – Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Webb, and Rod Argent are all pretty advanced I think.

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        • For me, Pete Townshend was up there with the very best, dare I say ‘sophisticated’ writers of that time… but I have a feeling our tastes may differ on that. I’ll look forward to your Favourite songwriters post….I have to put together my lists. Thoroughly enjoyable stuff!

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        • It’s good to disagree civilly – shows what two New Zealanders can do….

          I haven’t started drafting a songwriters post yet – will be a while away. I’m only doing one of these lists a month.

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  4. A very good list. Hard to argue with it, but I’d probably try slit John Paul Jones in there…. his work on with Them Crooked Vultures highlighted just how good he is and it led to me relistening to Led Zeppelin.

    But I guess it’d be more recent players that would make my list… John Curley, Steven Avery, and, obviously, Les Claypool took that fretless bass thing and ran with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • John Paul Jones would have been a good fit for my multi-talented list from last month too – and he still might feature on a keyboard player list sometime. Clever man.

      I didn’t recognise the names so I had to Google them – I didn’t know any names of Afghan Whigs beyond Dulli, and I think you meant Eric Avery from Jane’s Addiction?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Curley is incredible. Proper good player. And how could I forget Duff McKagen!?! And Robert DeLeo!

        And yeah, Eric Avery is who I am referring to. Had to read my comment back to see what o wrote instead… you can tell I’d been discussing a certain Netflix show before I read your post, huh? Jeez.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Fantastic list. I’m especially pleased to see Graham Maby included. He has flown under the radar for 40 years but there’s no doubt that he’s one of the all-time greats. I love the fact that behind-the-scenes players like Jamerson and Kaye have gotten recognition for their contributions to so many great records over the last decade or two. Our record collections would be much poorer without them. A few bassists who have already been mentioned in the comments that I would also argue for inclusion on your list: John Entwistle (I think you’re undervaluing just how amazing he was), John Paul Jones (multi-talented, yes, but truly a monster bassist) and John Deacon (the forgotten man in the Queen). You also mentioned Jack Bruce in your Geddy Lee write-up, and he could easily be here.

    As a drummer for nearly 45 years I gravitate toward bassists who are part of great rhythm sections & play for the song as opposed to showing off (although I do like flashiness too), so here are some of my favorites:
    Tony Butler – Along with Mark Brzezicki, aka Rhythm For Hire and half of Big Country, they were arguably the greatest rhythm section to come out of the ’80s
    Tony Levin – His work with Peter Gabriel, King Crimson, John Lennon & billions of sessions makes him one of the all-time greats
    Verdine White – Earth, Wind & Fire wouldn’t have been nearly as bouncy & funky without him, and no one has ever looked happier playing the bass
    Peter Cetera – His bass work on the early Chicago albums is amazing, but overshadowed by his incredible voice
    Doug Stegmeyer – An integral part of the classic Billy Joel band, sadly no longer with us
    Dee Murray – An integral part of the classic Elton John band, sadly no longer with us
    Noel Redding – Why does no one ever talk about the other two guys in the Jimi Hendrix Experience? I guess their guitarist got most of the attention, eh?
    Bill Wyman – The anchor for the Stones on all of their classic albums & tours.
    Aston “Family Man” Barrett – I think every reggae bassist not named Robbie Shakespeare has been copying him since 1970
    Jerry Scheff – He played with two Elvises (is that the plural of Elvis?). Saw him with Sam Phillips (the female singer, not the Sun Records founder) and he remains one of the three or four best bassists I’ve ever seen live.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Looks like I should have done a 20 list, huh? I didn’t want to focus on classic rock too much, but Jack Bruce probably would have been next cab off the rank.

      I did have Maurice White on last month’s list – https://albumreviews.blog/2019/02/05/ten-favourite-multi-talented-musicians/ – but Verdine would have been a good choice for this one. Doesn’t get a lot of recognition (and EWF overall are often a bit overlooked despite getting good reviews and strong sales).
      I like most of those guys – Dee Murray’s bass-lines often stand out, and Tony Levin should have at least been in my shortlist. Probably the best known Chapman Stick exponent too.

      Thanks for writing in!

      Liked by 1 person

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