A Bassist’s importance in a band is on occasions overlooked by music enthusiasts in favour of lead guitarists and drummers. I don’t know, I guess it’s in our DNA to appreciate a good guitar solo over the lower tones of a bass guitar. But anyone who knows anything about music will tell you, that the most important structure to a song, is always the rhythmic and harmonic foundations provided by the bass. Sometimes the bass is really obvious that its deep pulsating or throbbing sound truly makes a song. At other times the bass can be so subtle that it is almost lost teasing us with an array of atmospheric sounds.
That said, I am not here to give you a music lesson. I would just like to share with you my appreciation of some of the best bass players out there. A list of foremost bassists of all time put together by me would be long and extensive. Among them you would find some truly great luminaries of rock n roll, blues and funk with the likes of Bernard Edwards, Bootsy Collins, James Jamerson, Geddy Lee and Carol Kaye. But this list here below and as much as I would love to flex is not that list. Instead it is a compromise of an array of bassist who helped shape my appreciation for music and my listening habits.
Here is my unranked top ten list of favourite bassist of all time.
Standing arguably head and shoulders above most in the bass business is the legendary John Entwistle from The Who. He almost singlehandedly brought the bass to the forefront of rock & roll songs from the mid sixties. My Generation in particular comes to mind as one of the great bass solo songs of all time. Some of my favourite Entwistle bass lines vary depending what mood I am in. But I will always have a soft spot for Boris The Spider, Sparks, The Real Me and Baba O’Riley.
Michael Peter Balzary aka Flea.
My obsession with the Red Hot Chili Peppers began in earnest in 1991, but the one thing that stood out the most to me about the Red Hot Chili Peppers was Flea’s innovative electronic bass and funk hooks. If I am to be honest Flea made me a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan for life. There is no shortage of songs in which Flea stamps his authority in the band and if there is ever a defining moment to pinpoint from his incredible career, it’s surely his bass playing on the lead single Give It Away from the album Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991). With its whopping slide motif you’ll never forget it once you’ve heard it.
Often regarded as a key figure in the development of the riot grrrl movement of the 90s, Kim Gordon inspired feminist punk rockers to pick up the guitar, even though she often denied her role as a musician. She once said that the bass was “a byproduct of wanting to make something exciting.” While not the most technical, Kim Gordon’s striking style as a bassist in punk-rock band Sonic Youth has never been in doubt. Songs like Death Valley ‘69, Silver Rocket, Dirty Boots, Kool Thing, Sugar Kane and Youth Against Fascism instantly remind me of her uncanny ability in anchoring a song.
Say what you like about Duran Duran. I’m sure many of you are cringing at the thought of me naming Duran Duran’s John Taylor as one of my favourite bass players. The English musician for over forty years has anchored many of Duran Duran best electronic and rock-pop anthems. Taylor, himself, lists Chic’s Bernard Edwards, Paul McCartney, James Jameson and George Murray as all influences. While often underrated as a bassist when compared to the greats there is no denying Duran Duran’s pop sensibilities contain some really cool performances from Taylor. When asked recently by Guitar World, where his bass fit into how a Duran Duran song is written, he said, “I ask myself where the bass is going and what its presence is going to be. I think about what the style is going to be, and what the sound is going to be…” Many consider Taylor’s baseline on the title track of Duran Duran’s Rio to be one of his finest moments. (Something about it feels like an inspired jazz fusion.) Taylor standouts also include Save A Prayer and Notorious.
During the so-called apprenticeship years of The Beatles, Paul McCartney cut his teeth playing bass guitar. He reluctantly picked up the bass, when no one else in the group wanted it, after their original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe left The Beatles in 1961. Yet almost overnight McCartney would make this instrument truly his own. Many critics would argue that John Entwistle was one of the first (if not the first) to truly popularize the bass guitar’s importance from simply just being a link between the drums and lead guitars. I would argue that honour should go to McCartney, who I believed changed popular music with the bass lines he wrote.
Melissa Auf Der Maur.
I love everything about Melissa Auf der Maur as a solo artist, even more than her days towing the line as a bassist for Courtney Love’s band Hole or Billy Corgan’s Smashing Pumpkins. Sure her bass lines rumble and roll especially on Celebrity Skin (1998), but it is as an artist standing out front on her own where her moody distorted bass shines the most. Aur der Maur once said, “I’m a bass player who wrote my entire first record on a guitar”. Though she admits she rushed getting it out. For her second album Out Of Our Minds (2010) she decide to honour “the bass side of me more”. Even though it had mixed reviews upon release, I believe she definitely proved her extraordinary worth as a bass player. Out Of Our Minds is one of my favourite albums from the 2010s. It’s an album in which Aur Der Maur uses the bass as a semi-lead instrument. She knows exactly when to show off, or add atmospheric ambience to her songs.
In a career (with Pearl Jam) that expands over some thirty years now, Jeff Ament has created some of the most beloved basslines. The best thing about Ament’s unique style is his diversity. At any one moment, he can drive a song like Why Go or Jeremy with his bass loud and aggressive and the next, he’ll almost disappears in songs like All Those Yesterdays with an atmospheric bass sound. In order to achieve what he does, he uses a variety of guitars, which includes the fretless bass, upright bass and twelve string bass.
Tina Weymouth’s edgy style is often the talking point of many of Taking Heads best songs. Their first big hit Psycho Killer is undeniably driven by Weymouth’s sinister bass riff. While she is often overshadowed by frontman David Byrne’s eccentric lyrics and stage presence, there is no doubt in my mind Weymouth’s bass lines helped elevated Taking Heads into a class of its own. Talking Heads would not be Talking Heads without her, especially on albums like Remain in Light (1980) and Speaking In Tongues (1983). The latter contains arguably some of her best baselines with songs like Girlfriend Is Better, Slippery People, Swamp, Moon Rocks and arguably my favourite track on the album This Must Be The Place. Outside of Talking Heads, Weymouth’s participation in Tom Tom Club showcased further just how dynamic she was playing the bass to fit any style.
John Paul Jones.
In the mid to late 60s, John Paul Jones was an in demand session musician who churned out dozens of arrangements every month. By 1968, he had enough and began to look for something else to do. When his wife suggested that he should reply to a Jimmy Page ad looking for musicians for a new band, he didn’t hesitate. (Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, Jon Bonham and John Paul Jones would go onto become the legendary Led Zeppelin.) As a seasoned musician, it was a no brainer that Jones with his talents behind instruments like the mandolin, synthesiser and recorder would heavily contribute to the success of Zed Zeppelin. For instance, would the intro for Stairway To Heaven be as magically without Jone’s recorders? But if we are to examine and appreciate one aspect of his musicianship, it is his unwavering contribution on bass guitar. There are far too many moments to mention here without getting carried away. But if I have to name six times Jones proved his worth on bass, check out The Lemon Song, Ramble On, Achilles Last Stand, The Song Remains The Same, The Wanton Song and Black Dog.
In the early 2010s, a friend of mine just kept going on and on about a talented jazz-infused bassist/vocalist by the name of Esperanza Spalding. So I gave her record Radio Music Society a spin. To this day that album still stands as one of my favourite albums of the 2010s. Words alone cannot describe what a musically genius Spalding has become in a little over a decade. If she was an antidote to our troubled times, it’s a safe bet that her music would have the power to heal. While we all celebrate the likes of Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift, it’s easy to overlook an artist like Spalding who makes singing and playing the upright and electric bass seem effortless. With eight albums under her belt, Spalding is no longer simply just a jazz icon. Her music and playing transcends genres depending on her mood. It’s ok that she may not be a household name but those who appreciate her elegant grace and sheer musical talent will have their mind blown.