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 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 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.
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 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”.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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?