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Best Female Bassists: 20 Rhythm Queens Of Rock And Pop Music
List & Guides

Best Female Bassists: 20 Rhythm Queens Of Rock And Pop Music

Refusing to conform, the best female bassists of all time have pioneered new ways of thinking about their instrument and their gender.

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“I still don’t know what it was about the bass,” the rapper and bassist Divinity Roxx said in 2021. “It was the first string instrument I picked up and I was just mesmerised by it. I still am. The depth of the tones, the way it feels in my hands. It captivates me and that’s hard to do cuz I’m usually all over the place in my mind. The bass focuses me.” These ideas of focus, anchoring, grounding and a sense of a stake to hold on to in a swirling melee occur again and again when the best female bassists talk about their chosen instrument.

Female bass players are frequently found in bands with otherwise all-male line-ups (unlike female guitarists and female drummers, who are more often part of all- or majority-women bands), and many will speak of a “part of the gang” feeling when asked about their gender in interviews. “I’ve never done gender,” Suzi Quatro said in 2022. “I never called myself a female musician. I just thought of myself as a musician. That’s why I could look at Elvis and say, ‘I’m gonna do that.’”

“Bass means so many things to so many people,” Rhonda Smith reflected in 2021. “It can be structure, it can be math, it can be a saviour for a lot of us that keeps us out of trouble and keeps us in places where we can be creative.” Ever since the instrument was invented in the 1930s, bass guitarists have brought spine, joy, strut and inventiveness to multiple genres. Enjoy their world with this list of the best female bassists of all time.

Listen to our Rock Classics playlist here, and check out our best female bassists, below.

20: Naomi Yang (1964- present)

“I picked up the bass without knowing how to play it, and took a few lessons where the teacher was showing me how to play the bass ‘properly’, but that just seemed totally boring,” Naomi Yang, bassist of Galaxie 500 and Damon And Naomi, said in 2010. “I had all these melodies going around my head and I just decided to play bass that way.” Yang’s work on the bass is crucial to her bands. As pioneers of dreampop and slowcore – two genres that tend towards the ethereal and abstract – Galaxie 500 in particular benefited from Yang’s work. Her bass, grounding the melancholic, uncertain sound, was so important that her bandmate, drummer Damon Krukowski, purposefully kept Yang’s instrument overwhelmingly loud in his monitor whenever they played live.

Must hear: Tugboat

19: Michele Temple (1959- present)

Pioneering a fusion of prog, punk and dub, Pere Ubu were naturally reliant on the tautness and weight of the bass guitar. Michele Temple, who joined the band in the 90s, was first heard on the 1995 album Ray Gun Suitcase. In addition to her work with Pere Ubu, she was part of the hip-hop production team The Jettsonz, and in her day job as teacher at the Brooklyn Conservatory she numbered Alicia Keys among her pupils.

Must hear: Vacuum In My Head

18: Enid Williams (1960- present)

Along with her schoolfriends Kim McAuliffe and Tina Gayle, Enid Williams formed the band Painted Lady in 1975 – the genesis of Girlschool, one of the UK’s most influential hard rock bands. “The thing is we were never ‘musician’ musicians, we were always performers… we were always band members, so we were entertainers, songwriters, musicians, all rolled into one,” Williams said of the early days in Girlschool. “It was always, ‘Yeah, let’s give that a go…’” Williams’ fresh, punk-influenced take on rock bass-playing more than earns her a spot among the best female bassists. She remained with Girlschool during their early years, leaving in 1982; since then, she has left and rejoined the world’s longest-running female rock band many more times.

Must hear: Please Don’t Touch

17: Juliana Hatfield (1967- present)

Starting out in 1987, Juliana Hatfield is an indie-rock icon whose chops on guitar and, particularly, bass guitar, are often overlooked. As well as her own work, solo and in Blake Babies, Hatfield was bassist for The Lemonheads on their 1992 breakthrough album, It’s A Shame About Ray. “Making music has always been really helpful emotionally, to work through difficult and confusing situations and emotions,” Hatfield said in 2021. “We [women and girls] get confused because when we get angry, we don’t know what to do with that anger because we’re not encouraged to express it or even feel it.”

Must hear: Temptation Eyes (Blake Babies)

16: Sara Lee (1955- present)

Sara Lee had a tough act to follow. She joined Gang Of Four in 1982, replacing Dave Allen, and sensibly did not try to imitate his jagged style. Instead, for Gang Of Four’s final two albums, 1982’s Songs Of The Free and the following year’s Hard, she was part of the band’s more melodic vision: her basslines are squarely influenced by funk and disco. This change in the band’s direction was not successful at the time, but subsequent years have led to a re-evaluation; Lee’s work is rightly seen as part of the early-80s melting pot where punk met club culture (and both genres benefitted). After the breakup of Gang Of Four, Lee played with The B-52’s, even living it up in their Love Shack video!

Must hear: It Don’t Matter (Gang Of Four)

15: Sean Yseult (1966- present)

The deep bass heart of White Zombie for 11 years, Sean Yseult’s sound is the heaviest of the heavy among the best female bassists. White Zombie, though ultimately becoming commercially successful, arose from the same New York City art-noise DIY culture that spawned Sonic Youth and Swans – and this element of their sound never completely left them. “We found a studio in the phone book based on the name – The Batcave,” Yseult recalled in 2019, reminiscing about White Zombie’s first single, Gods On Voodoo Moon. “We recorded the 7” in two hours, which cost us $30. I shot the photos on a timer in our apartment with infra-red film, then printed them one by one on a colour Xerox machine when the boss was away.”

Must hear: Gentleman Junkie

14: Rhonda Smith (1966- present)

“I’ve got to say, the years that I spent with Prince were absolutely incredible,” Canadian bassist Rhonda Smith said in 2021. She met Prince via Sheila E, first played on the Emancipation album as part of The New Power Generation, and continued to work with him until 2010. It was at that point Smith met Jeff Beck and became his go-to touring bassist. Having kept time with two of the best guitarists in history, Smith is a shoo-in among the best female bassists. She also releases solo material – particularly of note is her 2000 album, Intellipop. “Ladies, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something or you can’t play an instrument,” Smith has said. “Do it because you want it and because it’s amazing, and if you find that you have an innate love for it, it’s like a love affair. It will become the romance of the century and it will last decades.”

Must hear: Face Down (Prince)

13: Gaye Advert (1956- present)

“I’d started playing bass in my room to pass the time,” Gaye Advert said in 2019. “Playing bass in isolation is a bit limiting, but it was my favourite instrument so I just wanted to start learning it.” Living in Bideford, a coastal town in Devon, Advert met TV Smith, from neighbouring Okehampton, and The Adverts were born. One of the few women in punk’s first wave to be a musician in an otherwise male band, Advert’s experience in the music industry was short and hard. “I think I was a bit disillusioned and worn out,” she said, speaking of the end of the band in 1979. “I did get picked on quite a lot by the press, and that really bugged me as well.” Her career may have been brief but her impact was phenomenal. One of the best female bassists of the punk era, her input ensured that The Adverts’ singles were sharp, harsh, controversial and vividly important for the burgeoning new wave scene.

Must hear: Gary Gilmore’s Eyes

12: Meshell Ndegeocello (1968- present)

Meshell Ndegeocello’s discerning ear takes in jazz, soul, hip-hop and funk. She was an architect of neo-soul with her 1993 debut album, Plantation Lullabies (one of the first releases on Madonna’s Maverick label), and she was the first queer woman to appear on the cover of Bass Player magazine. A pioneering LGBTQ+ musician, Ndegeocello has changed her name, and the way it is spelled, purposefully over the years to represent her change from her past. She really is one of the most innovative and underrated 90s artists – and her nuanced, contrary, ambiguous lyrics are all anchored by her vivid basslines. “I’m really clear about my position as a bass player,” Ndegeocello said in 2019. “I try to make it feel good, and I try to find a bassline that fits the instrumentation and also fits the mechanics of the groove.”

Must hear: If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)

11: Gina Birch (1955- present)

Gina Birch’s first solo album, released in 2023, is called I Play My Bass Loud. “I just want to open my big bay window upstairs and blast it out some more,” she said at the time of the album’s release. “I will always play it, and always play my bass loud.” Birch began her loud bass odyssey with The Raincoats, a seminal post-punk band whose work could veer from the skewed pop of No One’s Little Girl to the wild outer plains of the 1981 album Odyshape. Birch has also performed as part of dance duo Dorothy and indie-pop band The Hangovers. “People think that because I’m much older now, I’m a different person from the punk I used to be,” she said recently. “But that’s not the case at all. I still carry that same spirit with me.”

Must hear: Shouting Out Loud (The Raincoats)

10: Esperanza Spalding (1984- present)

The bassist Esperanza Spalding consciously deliberates about the elusive magical space between music creator and listener. “I think, in general, music is a place that the mystical and literal meet, because we still don’t understand what the hell is happening,” she said in 2021. “We can’t claim to know exactly what we’re doing or what exactly the effect is going to be.” Her relationship with her chosen instrument, the bass (she plays both upright bass and bass guitar), is similarly understood by Spalding as alchemy. “The bass had its own arc and it unfolded a path for me that I just kept following,” she said in 2008. “The bass and I just resonate.” Spalding’s world began in jazz but has since expanded way beyond it; one of the best female bassists of her generation she uses improvisation, music therapy and pure joy to create genre-less works of sparkling brilliance.

Must hear: Funk The Fear

9: Kendra Smith (1960- present)

The Paisley Underground was a brief moment in the early 80s when young Californian musicians took on the attitudes and sounds of the 60s psychedelic counterculture and combined it with the attitude – and budget – of DIY punk. Kendra Smith, bassist of The Dream Syndicate, was one of its creators. “The Dream Syndicate was the ultimate band experience,” Smith has said. “The music had darkness and humour, live performances were primitive and wild, and we played freely with improvisation and drone.” Following The Dream Syndicate, Smith’s other influential work includes stints with Opal (who would become Mazzy Star) and the one-off 1984 project Rainy Day. Smith is now a near-mystical presence in music, living off-grid for the most part, and rarely giving interviews. Yet the children of her bass are everywhere; Galaxie 500’s Naomi Yang is just one among the many Smith has influenced.

Must hear: When You Smile (The Dream Syndicate)

8: Divinity Roxx (1976- present)

Divinity Roxx, bassist and rapper, fell in love with her instrument when she was at college, at the University Of California, Berkley. When she moved back home to Atlanta she “was part of this wild underground crew of rappers and dancers called ‘The Weirdos’”, she has recalled. “Thinking back about those times gives me chills because it was an exciting time in Atlanta, and we were out in the streets all the time working on music, going to rehearsals, dancing, being young and having fun.” Hip-hop continues to strongly influence her music and, while she made her name as bassist for Beyoncé, it’s her solo work (which she has termed “alternative soul”) that provides stunning innovations in the interactions between rap flow and basslines.

Must hear: Can It B So Hard

7: Kim Deal (1961- present)

Gigantic, from Pixies’ debut album, Surfer Rosa, has Deal repeating one bassline throughout the song. This technique means the bass effectively acts as the melody line, creating a sense of forward propulsion. “When I got into music, I never thought anything I did would sell – ever,” Deal said in 2008, speaking about her early years in Dayton, Ohio. “Nobody had the slightest interest in [anything I did], and I never expected them to. I came to understand that I simply do not have it in me ever to do anything that will be of any interest to these people. And I feel really good about that.” This badass streak makes Deal a very loved musician, and through her work in Pixies, The Breeders, The Amps and as a solo artist, she remains the coolest of the cool. Special mention must also go to Josephine Wiggs, bassist in The Breeders while Deal played guitar, and the musician behind Cannonball’s signature bassline.

Must hear: Gigantic (Pixies)

6: Debbie Googe (1962- present)

When My Bloody Valentine played live, they would consciously and relentlessly deprive their audiences of their senses. The band would elongate their most well-known track, You Made Me Realise, for up to 40 minutes, shattering the audience’s consciousness of time, making them feast on the noise until they felt nauseous. Even the band’s monitors were turned outwards. One of the best female bassists the UK has produced, Googe ensures that her hypnotic live playing with My Bloody Valentine is unlike anything else in rock; she uses it both as torture and salve, and completely upends the expectations of the bass as a focal point in chaos. She left the band in 1996, forming Snowpony, and has subsequently played with Primal Scream, Thurston Moore and Brix Smith.

Must hear: You Made Me Realise

5: Suzi Quatro (1950- present)

Beginning with the teenage garage band The Pleasure Seekers (whose 1965 song What A Way To Die is a hedonistic paean to drunken bliss), Suzi Quatro is an undisputed legend on the bass. Unlike many of the best female bassists, Quatro didn’t go from guitar to bass – instead she started on it, and had a confidence with it that shines through on classics such as Can The Can, 48 Crash and Devil Gate Drive. Her galloping, low-slung bass perfectly captures the stomp of glam rock. Image-wise, she was also an absolute pioneer, reflecting her wider dislike of gendered boxes: “We were raised with that attitude that we can do what we want to. That’s the way I grew up. So, I never really thought about myself as a girl musician. Obviously, I knew I was, but I didn’t deal with it that way.” And as she put it in 2022, “I had no niche to fit into, so I created my own, and the rest is history.”

Must hear: 48 Crash

4: Gail Ann Dorsey (1962- present)

One of the best session players working today, Gail Ann Dorsey is best known for her stint with David Bowie’s band, lasting from 1995 through to Bowie’s death in 2016. She was a guitarist to start with and first played bass at 14, but did not think of herself as a “bass player” for many years. Initially, her willingness to play the bass was economic – because, when she started to work as a musician, she found there was a surfeit of guitarists and a dearth of bassists. “Everyone was looking for a bass player because everyone played guitar in the mid-70s,” she said in 2021. “There was always some guitarist with a huge ego, probably like myself at the time.” Dorsey learned quickly and has rarely been out of work since. “I think artists call me to work with them because I’m dependable,” she has said. “I’m not going to make waves or mess with the material unless you tell me, or want me to. And I’m happy to do that, too, to explore.” She has also released three solo albums, on which her bass sits alongside her acoustic and electric guitars. Her work with Bowie sometimes included live and recorded vocals, where the affinity between the two artists is clear.

Must hear: Planet Of Dreams (with David Bowie)

3: Kim Gordon (1953- present)

“Playing bass was never my desire,” Kim Gordon said in 2019. “It was a byproduct of wanting to make something exciting.” With Sonic Youth, Gordon definitely got her wish: especially in the band’s first decade together, the intensity and innovation of her playing made them a great presence in American rock. Coming up via the art-project band Introjection, Gordon founded Sonic Youth with Thurston Moore in 1981. In those early years, Gordon’s bass was the only guitar in regular tuning, as Moore and Lee Ranaldo cycled between different dilapidated guitars in strange, otherworldly tunings. One of the best female bassists to emerge from New York’s experimental No Wave scene, Gordon was the eye of the Sonic Youth storm, an elusive heart within an overwhelming band. “I’m a consumer, but I’m also a sociologist,” she said in 2019. “That has always influenced the kind of art I make.”

Must hear: Shadow Of A Doubt

2: Tina Weymouth (1950- present)

Tina Weymouth learned the bass from necessity. Chris Frantz and David Byrne were unable to find a bassist for their band; Weymouth, their driver and Frantz’s girlfriend, quickly picked up the instrument while listening to Suzi Quatro records. In this self-taught way, Weymouth created the signature bass sound of New York art-punk. Minimal, funk-influenced, floor-scraping in its depth, Weymouth’s bass on records by Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club – her and Frantz’s side project away from Talking Heads – has been much-copied (and much-sampled); particularly on Tom Tom Club’s music, Weymouth has described using the bass as a compositional tool where “the guitar was almost a percussion instrument”. She has also acted as producer, most notably with Chris Frantz on Happy Mondays’ notorious Yes Please! album in 1992. “To this day, Tina never ever plays the predictable thing,” Frantz said in 2022. “She invents every part anew – this was one reason Talking Heads sounded so unique.”

Must hear: Genius Of Love (Tom Tom Club)

1: Carol Kaye (1935- present)

One of the most recorded bassists in history, Carol Kaye has played on over 10,000 tracks as a session musician, and is responsible for many of the best basslines in rock and pop history. She has appeared on classic recordings by The Supremes, Nancy Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, The Beach Boys and Simon And Garfunkel, and has been part of hundreds of movie soundtracks, estimating at one point that she was making more money than the US President. She is also a tutor to others and has written books and created instructional records on bass technique – though she tops this list of the best female bassists, she is simply one of the most skilled musicians, on any instrument, of all time. Virtually every music fan will know her sound, even if they don’t know her name, which very much suits her (“Fame is phony. It’s like a prison,” she said in 2020). “I saw the creativeness that could be done on bass,” Kaye said in 2005. “Nobody up to that time was playing what I was hearing on the bass.”

Must hear: River Deep – Mountain High (Ike And Tina Turner)

Looking for more? Find out the best female drummers of all time.

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