The 100 Greatest Bass Players of All Time

February 24, 2017

What is it about lists? People love making them, reading them, and listening to them. Lists bring order to chaos. They help us remember things. They’re easy to scan. They promise instant knowledge. And they give us an opportunity to disagree.

Bass Player has done very few list-style issues. We shy away from big lists because they’re timeconsuming, and we don’t really think of the folks we cover in a “Top 100” kind of way. But when our group’s general manager, Bill Amstutz, suggested an issue celebrating 100 great bass players, we thought, why not? It’d be a great way to revisit players and albums we haven’t heard in a while. So we got down to business by choosing criteria: What is each candidate’s degree of lasting influence? What is their impact on the role of the bass? Does the average music fan know any of their bass lines? How innovative was the player’s technique, sound, and gear? And, in the context of their era, how impressive was their technical prowess? We limited candidates to non-classical players with careers after 1900 (sorry, Domenico Dragonetti). We also skipped keyboardists with awesome left hands, which meant no Stevie Wonder, Greg Phillinganes, Bernie Worrell, or Herbie Hancock. Last, we omitted part-time bassists such as Prince, Sly Stone, Ronnie Wood, and Shuggie Otis, who occasionally threw down killer bass parts. With those parameters in place, we got down to making our picks, bringing in BP folks present and past: current staffers Chris Jisi, E.E. Bradman, Jonathan Herrera, Karl Coryat, and Jon D’Auria; former editors Jim Roberts, Richard Johnston, Bill Leigh, and Brian Fox; and longtime writers Ed Friedland, John Goldsby, Freddy Villano, and Rick Suchow.

As in many situations, personal taste trumped Vulcan logic. Here at Bass Player, we’re quite a diverse lot, so a big part of the fun was engaging in passionate conversations about why a player should or shouldn’t be included, and deciding how high or low players should be ranked. No single contributor would have arrived at this exact list, but we can (almost) all agree on the Top 10.

In the end, though, how much do these rankings matter? Not much. Consider this gem from Joy Division/New Order bassist Peter Hook, when writer Thomas Wictor asked him how he felt about being considered influential: “How are you supposed to feel about something like that? You’re an ‘innovative bassist who’s influenced hundreds of bass players,’ but when you’ve got a flat tire on your car or you’re trying to stop your baby from crying, that isn’t any use whatsoever, is it? It makes me embarrassed, mostly.” 

1 James Jamerson

The most important and influential bass guitarist in the 66-year history of the Fender Precision he played, South Carolina-born, Detroit-raised James Jamerson wrote the bible on bass line construction and development, feel, syncopation, tone, touch, and phrasing, while raising the artistry of improvised bass playing in popular music to zenith levels. As Funk Brother #1 in Motown’s “Snake Pit,” Jamerson customized his approach to fit the style of each artist he cut with, including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross & the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, the Four Tops, the Temptations, and the Jackson 5—resulting in such masterworks as “Bernadette,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “I’m Wondering,” and “What’s Going On.” That he tops our list adds to the irony of his dying in relative obscurity in 1983, at age 47, considering all of the accolades since then that have shined a light on his genius. It also speaks to a collective bass player understanding that the instrument’s function is still about support. Or as Stanley Clarke said in his March ’15 BP cover story, “Creating a great bass line is much harder to do than soloing. The true genius bassists are not the ones who play a million notes—it’s the ones whose bass lines are loved worldwide and remembered through history.”

2 Jaco Pastorius

After a year in which the music community suffered the loss of so many heroes, it’s sobering to realize just how drastically Jaco Pastorius changed our world in the short time he was here. In seven years, between 1975 and 1982, Jaco’s staggering contributions to discs by Pat Metheny, Joni Mitchell, and Weather Report radically upended our expectations of electric bass, and he further cemented his legend on records by Herbie Hancock, Albert Mangelsdorff, Michel Colombier, Al Di Meola, and others. In his own work, the charismatic Philadelphia native fused seemingly disparate elements—big bands, Motown, the Caribbean/Latin flavors of his South Florida upbringing, the influences of jazz heroes like Charles Mingus and Paul Chambers, the funk of James Brown’s bassists, Western classical, the innovations of contemporaries like Jerry Jemmott, and Paul McCartney’s melodicism—into a hip, soulful, signature cocktail with more than a twist of rock & roll attitude. Three decades after Jaco’s death at the hands of a South Florida bouncer, he’s still the gold standard for expressiveness and intonation on fretless bass, Jazz Bass back-pickup tone, and 16th-note stamina, but few can match his effortless blend of abundant technique and earthy groove.

3 Paul McCartney

While Jamerson and Jaco were changing the electric bass in their own way, Paul McCartney was doing it with extreme visibility, front-and-center with the Beatles. Early on, his bass lines were highly effective but fairly conventional, such as the energetic “I Saw Her Standing There” and “All My Loving” (1963). By 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, McCartney was creating unique ear-catching statements—from the loping swingoffbeats of “With a Little Help From My Friends” to the loopy, sliding lick on the choruses of “Lovely Rita.” Later Beatles bass masterpieces include the bouncy, sliding subhook on “Dear Prudence” (1968) and “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” (’69), which goes from stately in the first verse to funky and syncopated in the second. And, of course, there’s “Come Together,” one of those songs where every lister knows that the bass is doing something special. A few of Macca’s most memorable machinations came after the Beatles, with Wings. Who could forget the ultra-catchy subhook under “Silly Love Songs” (1976)? It’s good enough not only to anchor the verses, but also choruses that would otherwise be about as melodically and lyrically powerful as boiled lint. Perhaps most important, McCartney inspired an entire generation to play: The Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan appearance—opening with “All My Loving”—launched the careers of more rockers than any other moment in pop-culture history.

4 Larry Graham

The story goes that as a teenager gigging with his mother, Larry Graham played organ pedals and guitar alongside a drummer. When the organ broke, he switched to bass until the organ could be fixed—and then the drummer left the band. “That’s when I started thumping with my thumb,” he said, years later. “It was the only way I could get that rhythmic sound.” That rhythmic sound changed the world, inspiring millions of would-be (and wannabe) bass heroes. Nearly half a century after Graham and his Jazz Bass invigorated Sly & the Family Stone standards like “Family Affair,” “Everyday People,” and “Thank You (Falletinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”—followed by stone-cold Graham Central Station classics like “Release Yourself,” “Can You Handle It,” and “Hair”—ageless, dapper Graham is still the baddest thumb-slinger around. As Victor Wooten says, “He is to funk bass what the Bible is to religion.”

5 Stanley Clarke

The first superstar of playing the bass, Philadelphia-born Clarke revolutionized and liberated the low end for a boundless wave of followers—including his SMV bandmates Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten—in myriad ways. This includes the artistic and economic feasibility of becoming a doubling, bandleading, composing, touring, and recording bass solo artist. More specifically, the Coltrane-inspired Clarke took the acoustic bass to new technical and musical heights, and with Trane and Hendrix in his ears, innovated by reaching upward on the bass guitar via tenor and piccolo versions. From Return To Forever, his seminal solo sides, and his funky pairings with George Duke, to the Rite Of Strings, his composing and conducting film scores, and producing, Clarke remains the Lord of the Low Frequencies.

 6 Ron Carter

Ron Carter has anchored the jazz scene since the late ’50s. With early influences including Oscar Pettiford and Paul Chambers, in 1961 he made his first recording with avant-garde legend Eric Dolphy. Carter is best known for his work with the Miles Davis Quintet, which he joined in 1963. The quintet recorded many landmark albums, including Seven Steps to Heaven, Miles Smiles, and Live at the Plugged Nickel. Along with Tony Williams (drums) and Herbie Hancock (piano), Carter explored and established innovative rhythm section techniques that set the stage for all modern jazz to follow. He recorded albums with Herbie Hancock (Maiden Voyage), McCoy Tyner (The Real McCoy), Sam Rivers (Fuschia Swing Song), and Freddie Hubbard (Red Clay). Playing double bass and often featuring himself on piccolo bass, Carter has led his own groups since the ’70s. His recordings as bandleader include Piccolo, When Skies Are Grey, and My Personal Songbook. Carter penned several bass method books, and taught at City College of New York, where he remains Professor Emeritus.

7 John Entwistle

Rock’s original lead bassist was also a highly influential cornerstone of the instrument, despite his unique style, having impacted Geddy Lee, Chris Squire, Billy Sheehan, and countless others. Among Entwistle’s trailblazing musical and sonic efforts as a founding member of the Who include the use of treble frequencies, the development of round-wound strings with Rotosound, technical innovations such as “typewriter” tapping and strumming, and bi-amping, splitting his signal between overdriven high end and clean low end. Maintaining he was not a “proper” bass player, the West London native started on piano, trumpet, and French horn before the attraction to rock & roll led him to bass. Inspired by the twangy guitars of Duane Eddy, Eddie Cochran, and the Ventures, and the featured role he had on horn, Entwistle formed a fresh approach best captured on Who songs like “My Generation” (with its landmark bass solo breaks), “Sparks,” “The Real Me,” and “Dreaming from the Waist.”

8 Anthony Jackson

New York City-born Anthony Jackson is one of the most important bassists in history, with an uncompromising approach to his art. Starting with the diverse influences of James Jamerson, Jack Casady, and French composer Olivier Messiaen— and a vision of the electric bass as a member of the guitar family, with the tone of a piano’s bass strings—Jackson invented the 6-string contrabass guitar in the early ’70s, launching the wave of extended-range basses. By then he had already made his mark musically with his pioneering use of a pick and flanger pedal on the O’Jays’ 1973 smash, “For the Love of Money.” Further years of perfecting his craft as a first-call session ace resulted in landmark sides with Billy Paul, Chaka Khan, Chick Corea, Steely Dan, Al Di Meola, Paul Simon, Quincy Jones, Eyewitness, Michel Camilo, Mike Stern, Wayne Krantz, Hiromi, and many more. Buried in that vinyl are such Jackson staples as his thumb-and-palm-mute technique, his use of a volume pedal (inspired by the early French electronic keyboard Ondes Martenot), and spontaneous reharmonization while improvising bass lines behind soloists—a skill at which he is without equal. Indeed, among bassists, one of the most reverential words spoken is “Anthony.”

9 Ray Brown

Impeccable technique, gorgeous sound, and driving swing define Ray Brown’s contribution to jazz. Brown (1926–2002) was present from the inception of bebop in the ’40s, playing alongside Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell, and was a founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The traveling show Jazz at the Philharmonic brought him in contact with Oscar Peterson in the early ’50s, and he played in the Oscar Peterson Trio from ’51–’66. The Ray Brown Bass Method, first published in 1963, influenced a generation of jazz players. In the ’70s, he worked with his group the L.A. Four, and from the mid ’80s onward with the Ray Brown Trio. More than any other bassist, Brown outlined his unmistakable style with flawless time and intonation, combined with an affinity for blues and bebop, setting a high standard for straightahead jazz playing. He maintained a rigorous performing, recording, and touring schedule throughout his career, and appears on hundreds of albums. He cited Jimmie Blanton, Walter Page, Israel Crosby, and Oscar Pettiford as early influences.

10 Marcus Miller

Unlike Jaco’s spectacular rise (and fall), Brooklynborn Marcus Miller rose gradually through the ranks rise to become a universally copied, game-changing bassist. Weaned on the New York City club scene, Miller broke in as a Gotham session ace—an invaluable training ground. From there he became a Grammy-winning composer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist for the likes of Miles Davis, Luther Vandross, and David Sanborn, finally focusing on becoming a solo artist in the ’90s. By then, the bass-hero ingredients were in place: pocket-expanding phrasing for grooves, solos, and his trademark “singing” lead bass melodies; a new technical and sonic level of slapping that remains the standard for feel and tone; and deep, nuanced compositions in the tradition of Mingus, Stanley Clarke, and Jaco. All of which has led to the general consensus among thumpers that Miller is a modern musical genius who happens to play bass.

 11 Jack Bruce

When he was asked to play electric bass on a 1964 session, Jack Bruce immediately recognized the instrument’s potential. Classically trained at Scotland’s Royal Academy of Music, he had been playing upright in London jazz clubs—but also listening to James Jamerson and “striving to play melodies … while maintaining the bass’ function as an anchor.” He found the perfect vehicle for his vision of the instrument’s expanded role in Cream, where he could improvise freely within (and beyond) the chord progressions, creating lines that linked the blues-inflected guitar of Eric Clapton with the jazz-inspired drumming of Ginger Baker. His playing in the trio’s legendary live jams liberated the bass for generations of players who followed. After Cream, Jack continued to explore what he called “the blues element” in a long solo career and many collaborations— always pushing the limits, always seeking the profound self-expression that was his life’s goal.

12 Charles Mingus

The badass of jazz bass, Charles Mingus (1922–1979) worked with everyone from Duke Ellington to Langston Hughes. His in-your-face style was informed by bebop, Ellingtonian swing, and the blues of the church. Mingus’ early career focused on the swing and bebop scenes of the ’40s and ’50s. In 1956 he released his first noteworthy album, Pithecanthropus Erectus, which was followed by a string of groundbreaking recordings: The Clown, Mingus Ah Um, and Blues and Roots. In 1963, Mingus produced the large-ensemble album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and one of his best small-group efforts, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus. As a prolific composer, Mingus stood out with bass-friendly tunes like “Boogie Stop Shuffle,” “Haitian Fight Song,” and “Better Get It In Your Soul.” His style of playing was bold, exciting, and always grooving. Mingus had an uncanny knack for playing complicated harmonies, laced with blues. His willingness to explore all elements of bass playing—from free jazz to bop to down-home gospel blues—secures Mingus’ place in bass history.

13 Geddy Lee

Rarely do bassists achieve such universal acclaim. The 21 studio discs and 11 live albums bearing Geddy’s singular voice and signature bass tone have garnered seven Grammy nominations and an estimated 40 million sales since 1976. The most impressive numbers, however, are related to Geddy’s multi-tasking chops: His ability to trigger samples, play keys, step on bass pedals, and sing vocal parts in odd time signatures while nailing Rush’s complex yet catchy bass lines will always be mind-blowing. We’re sure his bass closet—packed with Rickenbackers, Jazz Basses, Wals, P-Basses, Steinbergers, Gibsons, Moog Taurus pedals, and even a fretless Ampeg AUSB-1—is pretty rad, too. And no stat could ever measure the depth and intensity of Rush’s worldwide fan family, which will most likely continue growing even though the trio has decided to stop touring.

14 Victor Wooten

The initial technical impact Nashville-based Wooten had on the bass guitar—via the first handful of albums by Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, and his stunning 1996 solo debut, A Show of Hands—was simply seismic. But that was just the first set for one of the most profound and influential post-Jaco/Stanley bass heroes. Wooten’s 1997 side “What Did He Say” revealed the considerable musical depth behind the double-thumbing and countless other techniques he innovated. What followed includes Victor’s unique and alternate way of looking at music: his popular Bass & Nature Camps; his book, The Music Lesson; his Bass Extremes-and- more partnership with fretless 6-string and false-harmonics phenom Steve Bailey; seven more solo albums; and musical growth via stints with SMV, the Word Of Mouth Big Band, Mike Stern, and Chick Corea. He remains a leading light and the instrument’s top ambassador.

15 Pino Palladino

After four decades, here’s what we know: Every time the Welsh session giant reinvents himself, a legion of bassists follow. Pino began by putting fretless on the pop-music map with a Jaco-like presence, via soaring Music Man-issued sub-hooks on hits by Paul Young, Don Henley, and many others. Moving to a flatwound-strung Fender Precision and a fingerstyle technique rife with thumb-plucks, he connected with D’Angelo and sat way back in the pocket, setting the standard for neo-soul and hip-hop bottom. With calls from the Who, John Mayer, Paul Simon, and Nine Inch Nails, he has since elevated rock and singer/songwriter bass, as well.

 
 16 Scott LaFaro

In his short career, Scott LaFaro (1936–1961) opened our ears and minds to the possibilities of jazz with no boundaries. His virtuosic chops and heartfelt delivery have influenced every modern jazz musician. LaFaro first attacked the jazz scene with a Ray-Brown-on-steroids walking and solo style, which he employed in the ’50s with Buddy Morrow, Victor Feldman, Ornette Coleman, and Pat Moran. LaFaro reinvented rhythm-section playing when he joined the Bill Evans Trio in 1960, which explored a conversational improvisation style that set a new standard for jazz rhythm sections. LaFaro’s unmatched solo flights inspire bassists to this day. In his brief tenure with Evans, LaFaro recorded several classic albums, including Portrait in Jazz, The 1960 Birdland Sessions, Explorations, Sunday at the Village Vanguard, and Waltz for Debby.

17 Chuck Rainey

Rainey credits the 16th-note pulse of New York City drummers as the ingredient that set him apart from his peers in other cities’ classic rhythm sections. That percussion perk led the Ohio native to forge one of the cornerstone R&B styles, making an indelible mark with King Curtis, Aretha Franklin (“Rock Steady”), and many others. His early-’70s move to Los Angeles at the behest of Quincy Jones resulted in more seminal sides with Steely Dan (Kid Charlemange, Aja), Marvin Gaye, and the Jackson 5.

18 Bootsy Collins

Bootsy has made bass history at least three times: as a teenage sideman with James Brown on classics like “Super Bad” and “Soul Power” (1961–’71); as co-creator of immortal Parliament–Funkadelic classics such as “Mothership Connection” and “Up for the Down Stroke” (1972–’80); and as ringleader of Bootsy’s Rubber Band, whose songs like “Stretchin’ Out (In a Rubber Band)” catapulted Bootsy—plus his Space Bass, vocal stylings, and Hendrix-inspired effects—to Saturday-morning-cartoon superhero status.

19 Rocco Prestia

A living legend of the groove and one of the most inimitable bass stylists, Rocco has spent five decades defining fingerstyle funk via muted and ghosted 16th-notes as a member of Oakland’s iconic Tower Of Power. Credit drummer Dave Garibaldi for inspiring Prestia’s bass lines on such anthems as “What Is Hip?”, “Soul Vaccination,” “You’ve Got to Funkifize” “Oakland Stroke,” and “Credit.” But as ’90s TOP drummer Herman Matthews told BP, “Without Rocco, Tower is just another horn band.”

20 John Patitucci

Brooklyn-born Patitucci remains the preeminent doubler in bassdom. On the electric bass side, he (along with Anthony Jackson) firmly established the 6-string bass guitar, inspiring a generation of chopsters in all styles via his early solo sides and his role in Chick Corea’s Elektric Band. On upright, his 1996 return home from L.A. culminated in top playing and teaching stints and his fixture role in Wayne Shorter’s quartet. His underlying mission remains the acceptance and advancement of the bass guitar in a jazz context.

 21 John Paul Jones

Led Zeppelin’s “secret weapon,” JPJ’s love of odd times and sophisticated harmonies created a sound that could rock both your pelvis and your noggin. His twisted “Black Dog” riff (1971) was his attempt to trip up fans who would dance at the band’s concerts. His tasty subhook on “Ramble On” (1969) brings the song’s verses to a completely different place, and “The Lemon Song,” also from ’69, is a masterwork blues that every developing bassist should try to transcribe or learn—preferably, both.

22 Paul Chambers

His famous bass line on “So What” from Kind of Blue propels Paul Chambers (1935–1969) into the Top 25. In the ’50s, Chambers played with the first incarnation of the Miles Davis Quintet, later becoming John Coltrane’s first call and recording Giant Steps with the tenor titan. As a bandleader, Chambers recorded Whims of Chambers and Bass on Top. His ebullient walking, swinging eighth-note solos, and arco mastery puts Chambers on the top among hard boppers.

23 Jack Casady

A cornerstone rock bass innovator, Casady made his sweeping melodic mark helping to create the “San Francisco sound” with Jefferson Airplane and forming Hot Tuna with guitarist Jorma Kaukonen—recording with Hendrix in-between. A diligent and discerning advocate for the art and craft of bass playing, Casady drew from classical music, Jelly Roll Morton, Mingus, and Eddie Condon to master the finer points of creating musical bass lines, incorporating dynamics, and especially shaping tone.

24 Israel “Cachao” Lopez

The father of Latin bass and king of the tumbao, Cachao transformed the Cuban traditional dance, danzon, into mambo, and his seminal recordings of jam sessions called descargas changed popular Afro-Cuban music and paved the way for generations of artists to follow. As a classically trained bassist who made his symphonic debut at 13, Cachao developed a hard-swinging style rife with inventive figures that included hitting the body of the bass, all to create rhythmic counterpoint—the true mark of great Latin bass playing.

25 Carol Kaye

The first lady of bass is a pioneering legend both as a performer and educator. A bebop guitarist, Kaye picked up a Fender Precision at a 1963 Capitol session for an absent bassist. Possessing a deft touch and funky feel, she began a rapid rise as a member of L.A.’s Wrecking Crew, which recorded seminal sides with the Beach Boys (Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations”), Quincy Jones (“Hickey Burr”), Sonny & Cher (“The Beat Goes On”), Mel Tormé (“Games People Play”), and Joe Cocker (“Feeling

26 Chris Squire

When Squire first hit the FM airwaves with Yes, listeners weren’t even sure they were hearing bass. His zingy, aggressive riffs under songs such as “Roundabout” (1971), played on his Rickenbacker RM1999, made for a completely new sound—especially since he used both a pick and roundwounds. Squire’s machinelike precision, too, was a key part of the band’s vibe. “He was thinking outside the box,” says Yes guitarist Steve Howe. “It was like he jumped over the fence and saw it from the other side.”

27 Verdine White

How do you anchor a band like Earth, Wind & Fire? If you’re Verdine White, you do it with bass lines as powerful and memorable as the songs they support. White’s running-start pickups and pocket-widening post-one pops are key components to the EWF sound. The Chicago native credits such mentors as his brother Maurice, Charles Stepney, and especially Chess session bass ace (and later EWF trombonist) Louis Satterfield—but Verdine is the true shining star.

28 George Porter Jr.

The Meters legend’s style, built alongside Zigaboo Modeliste’s second-line syncopations, has inspired generations of funk fans to try mastering gems like “Cissy Strut,” “Funkify Your Life,” and “Africa.” Although he has retired his main Fender Telecaster and Precision axes, Porter and his Lakland Bob Glaub are still on fire with the Runnin’ Partners, the Funky Meters, and several other bands, soulfully epitomizing the New Orleans bass sound.

29 Billy Sheehan

The prolific rock-bass virtuoso honed his craft in the Buffalo bar trio Talas, where he recreated on his fingerboard many of the missing parts on cover songs. Talas opened for Van Halen in 1980, leading Sheehan to join David Lee Roth’s band and advance his groundbreaking techniques on a global stage. Ensuing group such as Mr. Big, Niacin, and Winery Dogs have enabled Sheehan to remain chart- and arena-relevant.

30 Flea

Flea’s aggressive, slap-heavy style with the Red Hot Chili Peppers lit up the mid-’80s L.A. scene, exemplified by their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” (1989). By ’91, Flea had emerged with a refined style, largely trading in his slapping for muscular melodic statements, such as the back-and-forth ostinato on the hit “Give It Away.” Through the ’90s and beyond, Flea has remained one of the most visible and admired representatives of rock bass.

 

31 Lee Sklar

Highlights from the bearded bass master’s incredible L.A. session reign from the late-’60s to still-going-strong: His melody-first, singer/songwriter-template bass lines with James Taylor. His remarkable first-take creativity and extreme versatility, heard on major road and record runs with Phil Collins, Toto, Lyle Lovett, Billy Cobham [Spectrum], and Carole King’s recent reunion with Taylor. And the “producer switch,” a dummy toggle on his bass that speaks for itself.

32 Will Lee

The quintessential Gotham bassist since 1971, Lee redefined support bass with a new level of stylistic versatility via his ability to shade the pocket in myriad ways and move seamlessly from finger-plucking to slapping, which he introduced to the studio scene. “Uncle Will” has played and recorded with everyone, invented late-night TV bass and the term “subhook,” sings his butt off, and is eternally hip.

33 Les Claypool

No ’90s alt-rocker reimagined the bass more than Claypool with Primus, and on a fretless 6-string, no less. On “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” (1991), Les slaps, taps, and tritones his Carl Thompson bass to produce a frenetic whack-fest with a strong, slightly swinging 16th-note groove. Claypool got players asking, What on earth is he doing? And how can I do it, too?

34 Oscar Pettiford

Just as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie created bebop language on their instruments, Oscar Pettiford (1922–1960) defined bebop on bass. He had a sleek walking style, precise in melodic choices and steady in tempo, with brilliant and complex solo lines. Pettiford penned several must-know bass standards, including “Tricotism,” “Bohemia After Dark,” and “Blues in the Closet.”

35 Aston “Family Man” Barrett

What would reggae be without Bob Marley, and what would Marley’s music be without Family Man’s infectious, rock-solid bass melodies, most often played on Jazz Basses with flats? “I’ve played before Bob, with Bob, and after Bob, and along the way, I created a whole new concept of bass playing,” he said in 2007. “That’s just my thing. That’s my destiny.”

36 Tony Levin

Whether he’s playing lines on a Chapman Stick, a tiny Guild Ashbory, or a 3-string bass, Levin’s innovations with King Crimson and Peter Gabriel have resulted in sounds never heard before. Perfect example: his strap-on wooden extensions called “funk fingers,” which evolved from drummer Jerry Marotta banging on Levin’s strings for Gabriel’s smash hit “Big Time” (1986). And, he’s played with a ton of other artists.

37 Jimmie Blanton

Without Blanton (1918–1942) there would be no Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford, Ron Carter, or Dave Holland. The granddaddy of modern jazz bassists, Blanton played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra from ’39–’41. His features with Ellington on big band tunes like “Jack the Bear,” “Ko-Ko,” and “Sepia Panorama” brought the bass to the forefront of jazz.

38 Louis Johnson

A songwriter, session wiz, and funk bass-hero, “Thunder Thumbs” was an intense master whose earthy, sophisticated grooves changed history, most famously with the Brothers Johnson and on Michael Jackson’s Thriller (still the best-selling album ever). His grooves, played on P-Basses, Gibsons, Alembics, Trekers, and Music Man basses, left an imprint on pop culture that will never die.

39 Nathan East

Cracking the L.A. session scene in 1980, East has enjoyed a storybook career, thanks to his melodic grooves and innate musicality. Key associations include Eric Clapton, Quincy Jones, Phil Collins, Kenny Loggins, Whitney Houston, David Foster, and Daft Punk. East’s 26 years in Fourplay developed his singing and writing chops, leading to his acclaimed 2014 solo debut.

40 Donald “Duck” Dunn

With a penchant for finding the perfect pocket, Duck was to Memphis soul what Jamerson was to Motown. As a member of Stax Records’ house band, Booker T. & the M.G.’s (inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992), Dunn influenced a generation of deep groovers with his tight, economical P-Bass lines, playing on eternal soul classics like “In the Midnight Hour,” “Soul Man,” and “Dock of the Bay.”

41 Charlie Haden

Charlie Haden (1937–2014) told his story with few notes. He rose to stardom in 1959 with the Ornette Coleman Quartet. In ’69, Haden founded the Liberation Music Orchestra and expanded his vision as a composer and bandleader. From 1986 on, he worked with Quartet West. Haden’s earthy, beautifully austere style was rooted in the folk music of his youth.

42 Abraham Laboriel

Among the second wave of L.A. session bassists, none was more original and innovative than Mexico City-born Laboriel, whose radical fingerstyle, slap, and two-handed techniques found their way into mainstream film and TV scores, and landmark recordings by Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Quincy Jones, Clint Black, Andráe Crouch, George Benson, Paul Simon, and Donald Fagen.

43 Joe Osborn

Bass was felt more than heard in pop when Osborn—with a 1960 Fender Jazz Bass and pick in hand—innovated a melodic, legato style filled with trademark slides and upper-register phrases as a member of L.A.’s Wrecking Crew. His canvases include #1 hits by Ricky Nelson, the Fifth Dimension, the Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, and the Carpenters (whom he discovered).

44 Paul Jackson

On Headhunters classics like “Chameleon” and “Actual Proof,” Jackson made famous the sound of rhythmically sophisticated, rubbery lines that incorporated harmonics, soulful double-stops, and string bends—essential additions to any hip bassist’s skill set. His dirty tone, courtesy of Fender Telecaster and maple-board Precision Basses, has stood the test of time.

45 Geezer Butler

Black Sabbath literally invented heavy metal in 1970, and Geezer Butler’s adventurous, unbound playing style remains the perfect foil to Tony Iommi’s monolithic guitar riffs. When they detuned to C# on 1971’s Master of Reality, they singlehandedly forged the template of the doom/stoner metal subgenre. Career highlights include Black Sabbath, Paranoid, and Heaven and Hell

 46 Berry Oakley

In his all-too-brief 24 years, the Allman Brothers legend set the template for Southern rock and jam-band bass with a pick and the “Tractor,” a ’62 Fender Jazz with an added Guild Starfire pickup. Oakley’s style was contrapuntal and probing, especially during solos, when he would engage Allman guitarists by gradually moving up the fingerboard. Listen to Live at Fillmore East (1971).

47 Eddie Gomez

Eddie Gomez joined the Bill Evans Trio in 1966 and took jazz bass technique to a new level, expanding on Scott LaFaro’s style. Rooted in classical training, Gomez’s playing is forceful, rhythmic, and melodic. After leaving the Evans trio in 1977, Gomez worked with Steps Ahead, Chick Corea, and his own trios.

48 Andrew Gouché

Gouché is so strongly linked to modern gospel bass that it’s shocking to think the genre didn’t exist before “Gooch” helped will it into existence in the early ’70s. This world-class sideman (Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince) and his MTD 6-string personifies the swagger and tone of current gospel—and by extension, the sound of modern pop and R&B.

49 Willie Weeks

Best known for arguably the greatest recorded bass “groove solo,” on “Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything)” from Donny Hathaway’s 1972 Live album, Weeks has parlayed brilliantly tasteful, subtle variations on your basic root–5–octave shape into an iconic career backing everyone from Eric Clapton and the Doobie Brothers, to Vince Gill and Mark Ronson.

50 Bakithi Kumalo

Three decades after the humble South African and his fretless Washburn 4-string first appeared on Paul Simon’s Graceland, Kumalo’s immediately recognizable tone and touch on classics like “The Boy in the Bubble” continues to shine as pitch-perfect examples of non-American bass magic.

 

51 Steve Harris

Iron Maiden’s signature gallop on singles like “Run to the Hills” and “The Trooper” catapulted the band to the forefront of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Founder Steve Harris’ propulsive playing and punk-meets-prog songwriting laid the framework for the ensuing power-metal subgenre. Killers, The Number of the Beast, and Piece of Mind are all essential listening.

 
 

52 Gary Willis

The 5-string ace pioneered propulsive, improvised fretless bass lines and bebop-infused solos, both as a member of Tribal Teach and as solo artist. Equally as influential, he promoted turning up your amp and using a lighter touch, developed a comprehensive right- and left-hand fingering approach, and helped to popularize the thumb-pluck/palm-mute.

53 Bernard Edwards

Edwards grounded chart-topping Chic hits like “Good Times” and “Le Freak” with tight, motive lines via his “chucking” technique, where he emulated holding a pick and struck the strings with both nail and finger. He and guitarist Nile Rodgers also supplied their signature grooves on hits for Mick Jagger, David Bowie, Diana Ross, Rod Stewart, Sister Sledge, and Madonna.

54 Jeff Berlin

The bridge between Stanley and Jaco and the second wave of fusion bassists, Berlin combined his classical violin training with a love of rock and jazz to fashion a fleet, melodic support-and-solo style that broke ground with Bill Bruford and led to a successful solo career. As founder of the Players School, his volatile views on music education are ongoing.

55 Cliff Burton

In only four years with Metallica, Cliff Burton recorded Kill ’Em All, Ride the Lightning, and Master of Puppets, and changed the world of metal bass forever. Known for his lightning-fast fingers, articulate soloing, and “lead bass” role, Burton achieved legend status before he died in a band bus crash in 1986.

56 Steve Swallow

Along with Jaco Pastorius, Swallow is perhaps the best-regarded composer and player to wield a bass guitar in jazz. His singular technique (he uses a copper pick on a 5-string with a high C), unerring melodicism, and implacable swing have made him a stalwart sideman with artists like Gary Burton, John Scofield, and Carla Bley, and a bandleader of lasting import.

57 Phil Lesh

More an improvising composer than mere bassist, Lesh elevated the Grateful Dead from hippie jam band to an artistic ensemble capable of reaching heights of interactive ecstasy. Balancing roots with bouncy, offbeat upper-register figures, he could spin long motivic statements sometimes lasting over a minute, often steering the band into daring new harmonic territory.

58 Edgar Meyer

While we feel that all these bassists are geniuses, Edgar Meyer was actually deemed one, by the MacArthur Foundation in 2002. One listen to his virtuosic arco and pizzicato compositions and it becomes evident why. His work with Yo-Yo Ma, Béla Fleck, Chris Thile, and James Taylor has solidified his place as one of the greatest upright bassists of all time.

59 Bob Babbitt

Establishing himself behind James Jamerson at Motown on hits like Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and Dennis Coffey’s “Scorpio” (boasting a 90-second bass solo), Babbitt forged his own R&B-rooted style. His hundreds of sessions in Philadelphia, New York, and Nashville include Gladys Knight’s “Midnight Train to Georgia” and Robert Palmer’s “Every Kinda People.”

60 Meshell Ndegeocello

The songwriter/bandleader—best known for her go-go-influenced grooves and back-pickup sound on a Jazz Bass or signature Reverend— is reliably strong and undeniably stanky, whether on her own or with luminaries like Herbie Hancock and Chaka Khan. “I’m like Prince and Sting,” she says. “If they had a baby, that’s my style.”

61 Jerry Jemmott

Summoned South from New York to fix Aretha Franklin’s “Think” with his street-smart syncopation—forged as a member of King Curtis’ band— Jemmott went on to cut classic recordings with Wilson Pickett, Duane Allman, Otis Rush, and the Rascals. His stuttering bass lines (check out B.B. King’s Live and Well) laid the template for Rocco, Jaco, and other 16th-note masters.

62 Matt Garrison

Garrison, the son of Coltrane bassist Jimmy Garrison, expanded the bass guitar’s harmonic and sonic capabilities by stringing his 5-string with a high C and adding a MIDI pickup. The resulting blend of played and programmed content on his landmark first two albums, as well as stints with Joe Zawinul, John McLaughlin, and Herbie Hancock, have influenced a wave of followers.

63 Lemmy Kilmister

The Rickenbacker bass, the black hat, the bottle of Jack Daniels, the mole, the legend. Few bassists have been the iconic face of rock in the way that Lemmy was. His playing with his speed-metal outfit Motör-head taught future generations of bass players that attitude is just as important as talent.

64 Oteil Burbridge

Earning instant bass-hero status via his chordal 6-string mastery and heartfelt scat-and-play solos with Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit in 1990, Burbridge took an unexpected turn joining the Allman Brothers Band in ’97, supplying fat-pocketed 4-string improvisations. Oteil combined both styles on his solo albums and with the Tedeschi Trucks Band and Dead & Company.

65 Richard Bona

Bona is the complete package: a preternaturally talented entertainer and multi-instrumentalist blessed with a mellifluous voice and show-stopping bass technique. The supremely confident solo artist, high-profile sideman, and New York club owner is a master at connecting with audiences of every stripe. Is there a gig this Fodera man can’t do?

66 Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen

NHØP (1946–2005) took Ray Brown’s style and technique to dizzying heights. He got his start at age 15 in the house band of Jazzhus Montmartre in Copenhagen, later working with American jazzers Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster, and Oscar Peterson. His incredible technique featured three-finger plucking, a four-finger left-hand system, and a saxophone-like melodic approach.

67 Doug Wimbish

The envelope-pushing slap-’n’-tap and effects master parlayed the freedom he was given as house bassist at rap-dawning Sugar Hill Records into the cutting-edge ambient band Tack-head. That led to sessions with Mick Jagger and the Stones, Madonna, Jeff Beck, Annie Lennox, Mos Def, Carly Simon, and Seal. Since 1992, Wimbish has held the bass chair in Living Colour.

68 Dave Holland

Holland appeared on legendary Miles Davis albums of the ’60s like Filles de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way, and Bitches Brew. In 1972, he recorded Conference of the Birds, his first project as a leader. Since then, Holland has maintained a full touring schedule as bandleader and sideman, influencing all modern jazz bassists with his precise technique and experimental musicality.

69 Robbie Shakespeare

The bass half of one of Earth’s most successful production duos, Robbie Shakespeare has partnered with drummer Sly Dunbar on more than 200,000 recordings since the ’70s. And not just with reggae artists: His Fender, Höfner, Steinberger, and Paul Reed Smith basses, always with flats, have done wonders for folks like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, and Sinead O’Connor, too.

70 Jimmy Johnson

Descended from a Minnesota family of great bassists, Johnson was the first to use a 5-string (with a low B) on the Los Angeles session scene, popularizing the instrument with both his fellow studio aces and bassists at large. Followers also flocked to his forward-leaning fusion forays with Allan Holdsworth and Flim & the BB’s, and his longtime role with James Taylor.

71 Christian McBride

Sporting Ray Brown-like skills and savvy as a teen, the Philly-born McBride has gone on to become a jazz ambassador both as a bandleader and as the upright bassist for everyone from Pat Metheny to Sting. On the electric side, his James Browninformed, groove-refining bass guitar playing has helped bridge the two instruments while inspiring countless bassists to double.

72 Victor Bailey

A natural talent blessed with Jaco’s bravura, the Philly-born phenom was the perfect Pastorius replacement in Weather Report, issuing his own dramatic Jazz Bass tones. Bailey’s elastic grooves redefined the pocket, his bebop lines and phrasing raised the bar on blowing, and his radical techniques (like double-thumbing and tapping) across four solo sides remains under-heralded.

73 Michael Manring

Manring has become one of the bass guitar’s greatest experimenters and innovators. First making his mark as a Windham Hill Records fretless specialist, Manring developed the Hyper-bass (with builder Joe Zon) and other instruments featuring lever-activated hardware that allows for instantaneous alternate tunings. He is also known for playing multiple basses at once.

74 Dee Murray

With Elton John’s wildly successful ’70s band, Murray’s smartly syncopated R&B approach first pushed the boundaries of the piano/bass/drums rock-trio format on the early album 11-17-70. Over the next decade, Dee’s upfront sound and upper-register fills helped bring dozens of Elton’s tracks to life on classic albums like Honky Chateau and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.

75 Sting

With the Police, Sting brought reggae influences—featuring one-drops and unexpected rests—into rock, starting with 1978’s “Roxanne” and “Can’t Stand Losing You.” “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” (1982) is a pop-bass masterpiece of space and development. If you’re still skeptical of his bass brilliance, check out the weird “Masoko Tanga” (’78).

 
 

76 Esperanza Spalding

Sure, she’s a stylish young artist who sings beautifully in three languages while casually handling acoustic (and her fretless Propert and Fender electrics) like a virtuoso. After last year’s multi-hued Emily’s D+Evolution explosion, however, this gifted 32-year-old is laying the foundation for a lifelong career that will continue to defy expectations.

77 Peter Hook

Listen to classics like “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and “Ceremony” and marvel at how catchy and clear the bass lines are. It’s no surprise, then, that Hooky’s distinctive pick work with Joy Division and New Order, most famously on Yamaha BB1200S 4-strings and Shergold Marathon 6-strings, has had such a huge impact on post-punk and new-wave bass.

78 Mark King

Try this: Make a list of badasses with crazy chops. Circle the ones who write hits that incorporate those chops. Now highlight the ones who sing completely independent vocal lines and front a band while flaunting said chops on the hits. If your short list doesn’t include Level 42’s Mark King and his JayDee, Alembic, and Status basses, you’re doing it wrong.

79 Justin Chancellor

After joining Tool in 1995, Justin Chancellor redefined heavy playing with his Wal Bass-driven tone, complex riffs, and ability to make difficult odd time signatures sound easy. A true juggernaut in both ability and creativity, Chancellor’s playing on Ænima, Lateralus, and 10,000 Days dominate in a powerful band where drums and vocals were previously king.

80 Tim Bogert

His bands Vanilla Fudge, Cactus, and Beck, Bogert & Appice inspired Yes, Deep Purple, and Led Zeppelin. Using that as a springboard, Tim Bogert took a fearless approach to his high-powered support and solo styles. The raucous results influenced countless bassists, including Jeff Berlin and Billy Sheehan.

 
 

81 Stuart Hamm

Blending his classical music upbringing, Berklee training, and appreciation for Eddie Van Halen, Stu Hamm found an original style that’s largely responsible for bringing tapping into the bass lexicon. He also released a string of acclaimed solo albums, popularized short-scale basses, and compiled serious sideman credits with Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, and Frank Gambale.

82 David Hood

The man who put the muscle into the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (nicknamed the Swampers), this Alabama native mastered the art of delivering more with fewer notes. In the ’60s and ’70s, Hood’s Southern-flavored R&B lines were sought out by legendary artists from Aretha Franklin to Paul Simon to the Rolling Stones, but his singular contribution to the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” may well be his most famous line.

83 Jonas Hellborg

A Swedish virtuoso with a rapacious and broad appetite for music, Hellborg first came to prominence with guitarist John McLaughlin’s trio. Iconic records with guitarist Shawn Lane, Bill Laswell, and numerous Indian master musicians make his recorded output rewarding and eclectic, each showcasing his exceptional facility, deep musicality, and principled sonic aesthetic.

84 John Deacon

As part of one of the most iconic stadium rock bands ever, John Deacon also wrote some of the most memorable bass lines of all time. The catchy grooves of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Under Pressure” are instantly recognizable. Deacon also was a master of ballads, such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “We Are the Champions.”

85 Bill Black

A rock & roll cornerstone figure, Black innovated rockabilly slap bass just as he and guitarist Scotty Moore joined up with Elvis Presley in 1954, playing on hits like “Heartbreak Hotel” and “Hound Dog,” and becoming one of the first (following Monk Montgomery and preceding Dave Myers) to record with a Fender Precision, on Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” in 1957.

86 Red Mitchell

For Red Mitchell (1927–1992), jazz was a search for personal identity. In the ’50s, he worked with Hampton Hawes and Ornette Coleman. Mitchell’s contrapuntal bass lines and melodic solos set him apart from other beboppers. Mitchell was a mentor to Charlie Haden and Scott LaFaro. In 1966, he began tuning his bass in 5ths (CGDA), and found his personal sound.

87 Michael Rhodes

Since Nashville went electric on the heels of Bob Moore, Junior Huskey, and Henry Strzelecki, no bass guitarist has been in more ears and had more of an impact. In addition to tracking for country’s A-list, Rhodes’ crafty, precise style has graced records by Brian Wilson, Buddy Guy, Sheryl Crow, and India.Arie.

88 Bobby Rodriguez

New York City gave Cachao-innovated Afro-Cuban music a new flavor, led by artists like Machito and Tito Puente, with Rodriguez as the mighty core. Classically trained and later moving to Baby Bass and bass guitar, Rodriguez invented key rhythms and grooves still played today, while establishing a lineage that moves through Sal Cuevas (who brought funk slapping to the idiom) and current masters Andy Gonzalez and Ruben Rodriguez.

89 Mike Watt

In the world of punk and alternative music, there are few greater stewards of the bass than Mike Watt. His time with the Minutemen, Firehose, Dos, and the Stooges led to an expansive solo career that inspired many popular grunge and rock bands of the ’90s. A true architect of gritty tone, Watt has inspired generations of punks to come.

90 Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner

Who’s the wild-lookin’ singer with a sombrero playing impossible chords and Stanley Clarke-style runs on a 6-string Ibanez archtop bass, you ask? That’s Thundercat, who has parlayed sessions with everyone from Suicidal Tendencies and Bilal to Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, and Erykah Badu into an enviable career that allows him to be whoever he wants to be—a true rarity.

 

91 Hadrien Feraud

Inspired by Jaco, Dominique Di Piazza, and Matt Garrison, the Paris-born 5-stringer has fronted a movement of explosive young fuzers like Janek Gwizdala, Felix Pastorius, MonoNeon, and Henrik Linder. Combining a new level of technical mastery with a ’70s-and-’80s-informed imagination, Hadrien has pushed the bass forward both as a sideman with John McLaughlin, Chick Corea, and the Zawinul Legacy Band, and as a solo artist.

92 Bobby Vega

His precise thumb, fingerstyle chops, fluid harmonics, soulful chords, and beat-up ’61 Jazz have gotten him onstage and in the studio with everyone from Sly Stone and Etta James to Tower Of Power and Mickey Hart, but it’s Bobby’s jaw-dropping plectrum prowess that has made it ever so uncool to not rock funky 16ths with a pick in 2017.

93 Bill Laswell

Laswell, a prolific producer with an unmatched, pan-global resumé stretching from Whitney Houston to Zakir Hussain, arrived at his signature, dub-influenced fretless P-Bass tone after thousands of sessions since the ’70s. The longtime New Yorker has built a career on feel, not theory. “I aspire to learn less and less about music as I go on,” he said in 2003.

94 Willie Dixon

The father of blues bass and one of its greatest composers, Dixon started at Chicago’s Chess Records in the ’40s as a bassist/producer/writer, helping to launch the careers of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Buddy Guy, and playing on Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” A key architect of blues bass lines, he was also a devasting slapper (check out Memphis Slim’s “Joggie Boogie”).

95 Mick Karn

A singular voice of unparalleled originality, the self-taught Karn brought an alien otherness to the art-rock band Japan and other projects, not only on fretless bass but also low-end woodwinds. Perhaps nothing captures his joyous strangeness better than the cult-favorite collaboration Dali’s Car (1984)—with songs like the title track, you might swear that Karn learned to play on another planet.

 
 
96 Bob Moore

The pioneering Nashville acoustic bassist played on 17,000-plus sessions beginning in the ’50s— including seminal sides like as Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and Brook Benton’s “Rainey Night In Georgia.” Moore innovated subtle syncopations and melodic moves that forever changed the face of country bass, while his use of G and D gut strings with A and E steel strings for a more uniform sound more was widely copied.

97 Ron Baker

Baker and drummer Earl Young were the heartbeat of Philadelphia International Records at famed Sigma Sound Studios, working with such producers and artists as Gamble & Huff, Thom Bell, the O’Jays, the Spinners, and the Stylistics. Known for deadening the flatwounds on his Fender Precision with masking tape, Baker issued creative, melodic, deep-pocketed lines on hits like “Bad Luck” and “The Love I Lost.”

98 Leroy “Slam” Stewart

Leroy “Slam” Stewart (1914–1987) boasted a career as a solid rhythm section bassist, a popular singing talent, a movie personality, and an innovator of jazz bowing on the double bass. When playing solos, Stewart sang an octave above his arco lines. With his ethereal solo sound and deeply swinging rhythm, Stewart played an important role in the stylistic transition from swing to bebop.

99 Walter Page

As a member of the Count Basie Band, Walter Page (1900–1957) refined 4/4 walking bass. The “All-American Rhythm Section” with Basie on piano, Freddie Green on rhythm guitar, drummer Jo Jones, and Page was the first well-known rhythm section. We honor Page as a master of swing bass playing who continues to lay down quarter-notes in our collective memory.

100 Percy Jones

Inspired by Charles Mingus—and separate from early '70s jazz-rock fusion contemporaries such as Jaco and Alphonso Johnson— Percy Jones discovered the freedom of a fretless fingerboard, developing a highly original voice on his fretless Fender Precision. Percy’s propulsive, percussive style reached global ears via Brand X, and he has continued to innovate on numerous collaborative and solo projects.

Keep up-to-date on the latest news
Get our Free Newsletter Here!

COMMENTS

comments powered by Disqus

Search Gear

Reader Poll

What's your take on keyboard bass?


See results without voting »