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Best Bassists: 20 Icons Whose Rock-Solid Foundations Built Music
List & Guides

Best Bassists: 20 Icons Whose Rock-Solid Foundations Built Music

Traditionally (but not always) sturdy and steady, the best bassists of all time have provided solid foundations for every type of music.

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Rock’n’roll clichés tell us that singers always get the attention, lead guitarists are flamboyant and drummers are eccentric, while bassists… well, they’re often overlooked and undervalued, even within their own bands. “It wasn’t the number-one job,” Paul McCartney once lamented. “Nobody wanted to play bass, they wanted to be up front!” Nonetheless, music would be in a sad state without its four-string fraternity, of whom the 20 best bassists remain icons to be revered.

Listen to our Rock Classics playlist here, and check out our best bassists of all time, below.

20: Dee Dee Ramone

Underpinning the best Ramones songs, Dee Dee Ramone was self-taught and probably qualifies as the least technically proficient name among this list of the best bass players of all time, yet his playing still had a major influence on an entire generation of musicians. Ramones’ basslines were far from complex, but they were as aggressive and hard hitting as they needed to be in order to follow Johnny Ramone’s buzzsaw guitar riffs. In devising this approach, Dee Dee Ramone helped define the playing style of fast picking associated with punk, setting the standard for all punk-rock bass players in the process.

Must hear: Rockaway Beach

19: Robbie Shakespeare

In 2020, the Jamaica Observer referred to Robbie Shakespeare’s playing as “akin to the Holy Grail in terms of reggae bass”, and the legendary musician has certainly laid down some of the most seismic rhythms known to reggae and dub, with help from his long-term musical foil, drummer Sly Dunbar.

Initially tutored by Bob Marley bassist Aston Barrett, Shakespeare came to prominence playing countless sessions for producer Bunny Lee, which yielded hits for Johnny Clarke, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh during the early 70s.

It was while doing the club rounds along the Red Hills Road strip that he met Dunbar, and the duo recorded their first session together with John Holt for producer Bunny Lee in the mid-70s. They later became the driving force for Tosh’s Word, Sound And Power band. Then, after relaunching the Taxi label in the late 70s, the duo produced a flow of hits for Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, The Tamlins, Black Uhuru, Jimmy Riley, Junior Delgado, Sugar Minott and Beenie Man.

Cementing Dunbar’s place among the best bassists in history, Sly & Robbie’s distinctive sound has also crossed over into mainstream pop and anchored recordings by artists as diverse as Grace Jones, Bob Dylan, No Doubt, Mick Hucknall and Simply Red.

Must hear: Pull Up To The Bumper (Grace Jones)

18: Gail Ann Dorsey

One of most sought-after aces of bass, Philadelphia-born Gail Ann Dorsey initially set her sights on a solo career, releasing her 1989 debut album, The Corporate World, through Warner, and a follow-up, Rude Blue, via Island.

By the mid-90s, however, Dorsey began to focus more on session work and collaborating with other artists, including Gang Of Four and Tears For Fears. In 1995, she joined David Bowie’s band and went on to provide stunning vocals and basslines for him in the studio and on stage – including standout turns replicating both the bassline and Freddie Mercury’s vocals in Bowie’s Queen co-write, Under Pressure. Outside of her work with Bowie, she has also recorded and toured with artists such as Indigo Girls, Dar Williams, Joan Osborne, Suzanne Vega, Lenny Kravitz and Boy George.

As a bassist, one of Dorsey’s greatest attributes is her way with melody, and her ability to string together elegant yet propulsive basslines ensures she’s always in demand. Ambitious but also a great team player, Gail Ann Dorsey has long since earned her place among the world’s best bassists.

Must hear: Under Pressure (live with David Bowie)

17: Steve Harris

In 2015, Steve Harris topped Metal Hammer readers’ Best Bassists poll, and the accolade was more than deserved, for Iron Maiden’s chief songwriter has been his band’s driving force ever since their early days playing the pubs and clubs of London’s East End.

Suggesting that Harris provides the group with the “precise and propulsive backbone to their sound”, Metal Hammer wrote of the man responsible for many of the best Iron Maiden songs, “The image of Steve Harris, foot on monitor and Fender Precision aimed, machine-gun style, at the first few rows of baying acolytes is simply the visual essence of Iron Maiden. And furthermore, how the fuck do his fingers move that fast? Steve’s playing style is so unique that, surprisingly, it has never been credibly emulated by anyone. Perhaps metal musicians just instinctively know that you don’t mess with the master.” Exactly.

Must hear: The Number Of The Beast

16: Geddy Lee

Those who feel bass players are the reserved ones standing quietly at the back really ought to watch Rush’s Geddy Lee on stage. Not only does he possess an acrobatic singing voice (a counter tenor with falsetto), but the legendary prog-rocker can also play bass and keyboards simultaneously, controlling his synthesiser via foot pedals.

Taken together, this flat-out makes Lee one of the best bassists in rock. Widely regarded for his use of high treble and very hard playing of the strings, he also utilises the bass as a lead instrument, often contrapuntal to his bandmate Alex Lifeson’s guitar. In the 70s and early 80s, Lee mostly used a Rickenbacker 4001 bass, though during the band’s mid-80s “synth era”, he changed to Steinberger and, later, Wal basses, with the latter having more of a “jazzy” tone. From 1993’s Counterparts album onward, Lee began using the Fender Jazz Bass almost exclusively, coming full circle and returning to his trademark high-treble sound.

Must hear: The Spirit Of Radio

15: Geezer Butler

Like Lemmy before him, Black Sabbath’s Terence “Geezer” Butler originally played guitar, but switched to bass out of expediency – Tony Iommi didn’t want a second guitarist in the band (originally known as Earth) that would morph into Black Sabbath in 1969.

The decision more than worked in the group’s favour, however, as Butler mostly followed Iommi’s playing, creating his own style by doubling down on Iommi’s monolithically heavy riffs and making them sound even more powerful. While this approach didn’t sit well with some critics at the time, the duo’s initial lack of technical ability allowed them to pioneer a uniquely dark and portentous sound which would soon be dubbed “heavy metal”.

Must hear: Snowblind

14: Flea

Flea (born Michael Peter Balzary), one of the founders of the genre-straddling Los Angeles outfit Red Hot Chili Peppers, is well known as one of the finest proponents of the energetic “slap bass” style, popular primarily with funk players. However, he’s a truly dextrous musician, whose pigeonhole-dodging style also includes elements of punk, psychedelia and straight-ahead hard rock.

Regularly ranked among the world’s best bassists, Flea has also collaborated with artists as diverse as The Mars Volta, Johnny Cash, Tom Waits, Alanis Morissette and Young MC. Unlike many bassists, who stick to just one or two brands of guitar, the Chilis’ mainstay has used an array of models, including Music Man, Modulus, Fender Jazz and Precisions, among others. His Custom Shop Fender Jazz Bass has been manufactured for retail as the Flea Signature Active Jazz Bass.

Must hear: Soul To Squeeze

12: Larry Graham

Considered the inventor of the slap bass technique, Texas-born Larry Graham effectively pioneered a whole new way of the playing the instrument, making that form a staple among funk, soul and R&B bands. Graham was a key part of the legendary Sly And The Family Stone, coming up with stunning basslines on staples such as Dance To The Music, Everyday People and Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin), and he’s since fronted his long-running Graham Central Station project and collaborated with stellar names such as Prince and Betty Davis, formerly wife of jazz legend, Miles Davis.

Singlehandedly laying the blueprint for the best 70s basslines, Graham’s slapping style was later incorporated by such artists as Bootsy Collins (P-Funk), Bernard Edwards (Chic), Mark King (Level 42) and Stanley Clarke, though he personally refers to his technique as “thumpin’ and pluckin’”.

“I always took the fact that they were imitating my playing style as a compliment,” Graham told Bass Player in 2007. “Most bass players come up and compliment me and thank me. I’m still overjoyed to this day because now it’s a part of how you play.

“A lot of people that love my thumpin’ and pluckin’ style don’t know where it originated. Their favourite bass player listened to me, but they only know that bass player in that band. I’m not seeking credit, but it makes me feel good when bassists like Verdine White, Stanley Clarke, Flea, Bootsy Collins or Victor Wooten talk about me being an influence on their bass playing. It means the most to know that I was able to contribute something to the world of music that is ongoing and will probably be around forever.”

Must hear: Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)

12: James Jamerson

South Carolina-born session bassist extraordinaire James Jamerson played on most of Motown’s classic hits during the 60s and early 70s. He initially went uncredited (Motown didn’t list their session musicians in their records’ sleevenotes until 1971), but he’s now rightly revered for his contributions to evergreen hits such as The Supremes’ You Can’t Hurry Love, Martha And The Vandellas’ Dancing In The Street and The Temptations’ My Girl.

One of the best bassists of his era, Jamerson started out in jazz has been credited for expanding the role of bass playing in the evolution of popular music. During the 50s and 60s, R&B, rock’n’roll and country bassists largely played root notes, fifths and simple, repetitive patterns. By contrast, many of Jamerson’s basslines relied heavily on chromatic runs, syncopation, ghost notes and inversions, with frequent use of open strings. His nimble bass playing was considered an integral part of the “Motown sound”, and while he died in 1983, his influence is still being felt today.

Must hear: You Can’t Hurry Love (The Supremes)

11: Bootsy Collins

Famous for his custom-made, star-shaped basses, the larger-than-life, Ohio-born William Earl “Bootsy” Collins first rose to prominence with James Brown in the early 70s, and later became an essential element in George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic collective – credentials that have long assured his place among funk and rock music’s best bassists.

Collins’ gravity-defying basslines and humorous vocals established him as one of the leading names in funk. He later formed his own P-Funk side project, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, and he’s gone on to collaborate with other musicians from a variety of genres, including dance music (Deee-Lite’s early-90s smash, Groove Is In The Heart), big beat (Fatboy Slim’s Weapon Of Choice) and even alternative metal (Praxis’ Transmutation (Mutatis Mutandis)), among others. Collins also co-founded Funk University (aka “Funk U”), an online-only bass-guitar school in which he also serves as curator and lead professor, but in 2019 he announced on social media that he would be retiring from live performances for health reasons.

Must hear: Ahh… The Name Bootsy, Baby

10: Carol Kaye

Originally hailing from Washington State, Carol Kaye started out playing guitar on LA’s jazz and big-band circuit. A seasoned session musician by 1960, she took her career to the next level when she swapped her guitar for a bass and quickly made a name for herself as one of the most in-demand session players of the decade that followed, playing on hit records by legendary artists such as The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Simon And Garfunkel and The Monkees.

During the peak of Kaye’s years of session work, she became part of a stable of elite LA-based musicians (also including drummer Hal Blaine, guitarist Glen Campbell and keyboardist Leon Russell) which went by a variety of informal names, but has since become known as “The Wrecking Crew”. Kaye’s versatility led her to playing on film soundtracks in the late 60s, particularly for Quincy Jones and Lalo Schifrin, and while she became less active from the late 70s onwards, she had more than established herself as one of the best bassists of all time.

Must hear: These Boots Are Made For Walkin’ (Nancy Sinatra)

9: Jean-Jacques Burnel

One of punk’s most iconic figures, The Stranglers’ Jean-Jacques Burnel is renowned for his distinctive bass guitar sound and melodic playing style, both of which were essential parts of his band’s DNA from the get-go. Burnel’s input was crucial to many of The Stranglers’ classic early singles, such as Peaches, No More Heroes and Five Minutes, though he arguably reached his artistic peak on the group’s brilliant, dystopian third album, Black And White, where – as Louder Than War later suggested – his basslines were “heavy, dark and belligerent – a bit like the young JJ”.

In the early days, Burnel created his edgy, aggressive sound using a Fender Precision Bass with Rotosound round-wound strings played with a plectrum very close to the bridge, through Hiwatt all-valve amplification. However, the defining factor was the use of a Marshall 4” x 12” speaker cabinet in which the speaker cones were ripped, creating a distorted sound – you can hear this in full effect on In The Shadows from Black And White.

Later on in his career, Burnel used a Yamaha BB2000, a headless Steinberger L2 and a Kinkade acoustic bass. His Shuker JJ Burnel signature basses are custom-built in England by Jon Shuker, with amplification by Ashdown Engineering, who have honoured Burnel with his own JJ500 signature amps.

Must hear: In The Shadows

8: Andy Rourke

One of the best bassists to emerge from Britain’s indie-rock scene, Andy Rourke’s chemistry with bandmate and best friend Johnny Marr was the nexus that defined The Smiths’ music, with guitarist Marr always granting Rourke full autonomy over his bass parts and referring to him as “one of the most unique bass players of all time”.

Far more than simply an “indie” bassist, however, Rourke began honing his bass and guitar skills at the age of 11, and his love of funk music quickly set him apart from his contemporaries. His melodic style and dextrous riffs played a crucial role in the creation of many of the best Smiths songs (among them This Charming Man, Barbarism Begins At Home and Rusholme Ruffians), and, in his post-Smiths career, Rourke has also made decisive contributions to records by artists as diverse as Pretendersand Sinéad O’Connor.

Must hear: Barbarism Begins At Home.

7: Bernard Edwards

Born in North Carolina, Bernard Edwards grew up in Brooklyn, New York City, where he met guitarist Nile Rodgers in the early 70s. The two formed the Big Apple Band (active from 1972 to 1976) and then united with drummer Tony Thompson to eventually form Chic together with singer Norma Jean Wright.

Edwards’ funky yet disciplined bass playing was an essential part of Chic’s sophisticated amalgam of soul, funk and pop, and evergreen hits such as Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah), Everybody Dance, Le Freak, I Want Your Love and Good Times helped define the sound of the late 70s. By this time, Edwards had proved he was one of the world’s best bassists, but his stellar career also included songwriting credits for artists such as Diana Ross and Johnny Mathis, alongside his low-end contributions to recordings by David Bowie, Madonna, Robert Palmer, Rod Stewart and many more.

Must hear: Everybody Dance

6: Tina Weymouth

Along with her pioneering punk contemporaries such as Gaye Advert and The Slits, Talking Heads[http://www.thisisdig.com/artist/talking-heads]’ Tina Weymouth showed that women weren’t just pretty faces to front a band – they made essential contributions to their group’s musical backdrops. Indeed, while Weymouth had no formal training before joining Talking Heads, she soon developed a bold, edgy and highly individual style of bass playing which proved ideal in the context of her band’s brittle, nervy post-punk sound.

In her early-80s side project, Tom Tom Club, Weymouth’s style also reflected the sound of New York City’s hip-hop scene, and she became expert at writing simple yet undeniably catchy bass grooves which often remained unchanged throughout long sections of a song. Her contributions were integral to the best Talking Heads songs (among them Once In A Lifetime) and Tom Tom Club’s Genius Of Love – influential early-80s pop hits which not only reflected the club culture of the day but also envisioned the trance-inducing sounds that would dominate dancefloors in the late 80s and early 90s.

Must hear: Once In A Lifetime

5: Jah Wobble

Jah Wobble (born John Wardle) was given his immortal stage name by his mate Sid Vicious during a drunken night out in London. However, his new moniker turned out to be extremely apt, for Wardle was a big fan of the classic, Jah-loving roots reggae of the 70s, and his love of both the era’s Jamaican sounds and what is now widely termed “world music” meant he was the ideal candidate to play bass for Public Image Ltd, the post-Sex Pistols project fronted by another close friend, John Lydon.

Unlike the doomed Vicious, Wobble was a naturally gifted bassist. His heavy, yet extremely nimble playing leant towards reggae and dub, and his subterranean basslines were a key element of PiL’s highly influential early albums First Issue and Metal Box. Wobble quit PiL in 1980, but he went on to enjoy a colourful solo career making music that continues to break new ground to this day, while his collaborations with artists such as Holger Czukay, Primal Scream, Massive Attack and Brian Eno further ensure his place among the best bassists of all time.

Must hear: Public Image (PiL)

4: John Entwistle

The Who’s John Entwistle was trained on the piano and French horn before finding his true volition as one of the world’s very best bassists. Unlike his highly animated bandmates, Entwistle was known for his quiet, solid presence onstage, but there was nothing shy or retiring about his playing, which he often approached as if his bass were a lead instrument, creating a powerful, booming sound that could overshadow Pete Townshend’s guitar playing and which led him to being nicknamed “Thunderfingers” by his colleagues.

“I thought John Entwistle was best bass player on the face of the earth, no contest,” Lemmy said in an interview with Classic Rock. “He was so in command of his instrument. You never saw him flicker. Never a bum note that I ever heard. And he was so fast, both hands going like hell. The bass solo in My Generation – you still tie yourself in knots trying to do it now. You can work it out, but it was another thing thinking it up. And that was back in 1964!”

Must hear: My Generation

3: Paul McCartney

Much attention is given to Paul McCartney’s songwriting partnership with John Lennon, but his inventive bass playing was also an integral part of The Beatles’ evolution from world-beating pop band to musical pioneers. On the group’s early records, he mostly wrote rhythmic parts to anchor a groove and lock in with Ringo Starr’s drums, but as the band matured circa their Rubber Soul album, McCartney (perhaps influenced by his own hero, James Jamerson) stepped forward to claim his place as one of the world’s best bassists, focusing on using his instrument to create melody even as he held down the rhythm. Instead of backing up the rhythm guitar or just playing the root note of every chord, he worked up unique, melodic and articulate basslines – as is apparent on mid-60s classics such as Nowhere Man, Taxman and Paperback Writer.

McCartney could still deliver heavy, pounding riffs as required (see his work on “White Album” tracks such as Helter Skelter and Yer Blues) but, for the most part, he was able to expand his range and palette significantly, devising amazingly subtle and sinewy basslines for classic later Beatles songs such as Come Together and Something.

Must hear: Come Together

2: Peter Hook

Joy Division and New Order’s Peter Hook is renowned for using the bass as a lead instrument, playing melodies on the high strings with a signature heavy chorus effect. Initially, he developed his unique style out of necessity, riffing on the high end of his bass because the equipment he used during Joy Division’s early days was so poor he could barely hear himself over Bernard Sumner’s guitar. However, this unlikely approach led to some of the best Peter Hook basslines, such as the ones powering classic songs including She’s Lost Control, Digital and Love Will Tear Us Apart.

After Ian Curtis’ death brought Joy Division to an end, Hook co-founded New Order with Sumner and drummer Stephen Morris, and his melodic style developed even further as the band began to rely far more on electronics. Hook took to playing melodies over basslines generated by keyboards and synthesisers, contributing significantly to New Order’s unique sound, which – from the time of their second album, Power, Corruption & Lies, onwards – seamlessly married dark, angular guitar rock with heavenly synth-based pop.

Must hear: She’s Lost Control (Joy Division)

1: John Paul Jones

To say John Paul Jones is a behemoth of a bassist is something of an understatement. Even his 60s apprenticeship (playing jazz-rock fusion with London collective The Jett Blacks, along with the legendary guitarist John McLaughlin; appearing on hundreds of sessions for the likes of Cat Stevens, Jeff Beck, Donovan and Rod Stewart; arranging the strings on The Rolling Stones’ She’s A Rainbow) beats most people’s entire careers. However, once he locked in with drummer John Bonham as part of Led Zeppelin, Jones formed one of the greatest rhythm sections known to music.

Bonham’s sheer monolithic power often cops the plaudits, but Jones’ contributions to getting the group’s rhythmic juggernaut rolling shouldn’t be underestimated. As his storming basslines on The Song Remains The Same, The Lemon Song and Good Times Bad Times prove, he could rock with the best of them, yet he also shone on complex workouts such as Achilles Last Stand and the tempo-defying Black Dog.

Elsewhere, a shared love of soul music with his partner-in-rhythm (“Bonzo and I were both huge Motown and Stax fans, James Brown fans – one of the reasons why I’ve always said that Zeppelin was one of the few bands to ‘swing’,” he told Global Bass Online) meant that Led Zeppelin could perfect the soul and funk grooves underpinning the likes of Trampled Underfoot and Royal Orleans. Indeed, there was very little Jones and Bonham couldn’t achieve in tandem, but when you add all this to Jones’ stellar post-Led Zeppelin career, working with everyone from Lenny Kravitz to Foo Fighters and Them Crooked Vultures, it feels like there’s only one candidate truly worthy of topping our list of the best bassists in music history.

Must hear: Black Dog

Now you know the best bassists of all time, find out our pick of the world’s best guitarists.

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