Ladies and gentlemen, we here at Guitars Exchange are going into a predicament which is likely difficult to sort. Why? Because we have decided to launch on the web our list of top 10 bass players in history. This list, like all lists, relates to a very special time frame, which correspond to the present, the time when this piece is written; it’s good to mention this because if we had to make a new list tomorrow it would probably include new names and others would fall from grace. Lists are never final or definitive but we do hope to serve you as a guide, and as an excuse to have some fun with the music from our chosen ten.
As you can see, we have focussed on the world of pop culture, meaning we have based our choices on pop and rock, so names like Charles Mingus or Carles Benavent will not be included on this list.
And we have not dared to put it in any order, and you’ll see in many cases we highlight one but add a couple of names that deserve to be on the list as much as the chosen ones.
In short, all the best aren’t here, but the ones that are, are.
The almighty God of the 4-string kingdom. Virtually no bassist in the world of any genre or style doesn’t have him on a pedestal. His completely innovative technique and his capacity to play with exquisite taste anything from the martians of Weather Report to the supposedly more accessible songs, and maybe at the same time even more martian songs, together with artists like Joni Mitchell make him a fixture in our lineup.
His bass: Fender Jazz Bass. various models from the 60s, ‘62 being his most famous one.
John Entwistle is probably the first ‘bass hero’ in history and not just because he played in one of the biggest bands on Earth but because the band had a leader who played the guitar jumping into the air like an olympian, an amazing singer who was handsome an, fit, and handled the mic like nobody else, and a guy who had the most charisma ever to sit behind the drums...well even so, at times this guy could eclipse those 3 animals without moving an inch on stage. He did it with a purely refined technique, well above that of the time, and from an incredible musicality that made The Who an authentic steamroller onstage and, as the Rolling Stones would assert on their Rock and Roll Circus, the band to beat on the stage. A high percentage of their power is because of this dude who in 1965 was already doing bass solos on songs that marked a whole generation, like My Generation.
His bass: Fender Jazz Bass, Fender Precision Bass or pointed models like the Buzzard Bass...
This little human being is guilty for making many teenagers born in the 70s/80s become interested in this instrument that seemed like a guitar but wasn’t, and that was being played by this guy playing who never stopped moving in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Turns out that this band, which nowadays seems to live on reproducing a formula found during the 90s, which brought them incredible world fame, were already playing Hard Funk in the 80s backed by the virtuoso members of the band, especially this guy who, just like the rest of the group, finally found himself when Rick Rubin convinced him that with the 4-string, most of the time less is more. From this concept we get the masterpiece Blood Sugar Sex Magik. where we can hear some Flea bass lines which are now part of pop music history.
His Bass: Fender Jazz Bass, Modulus Flea Bass, Musicman Stingray...
John Paul Jones
Ladies and gentlemen, please stand; we are going to talk about the guy who played bass along John Bonham and together they formed the most incredible rhythm section in the history of rock to this day. John Paul Jones has a lot in common with John Entwistle just as The Who had a lot in common with Led Zeppelin, and nobody has to be jealous of anybody. JPJ is probably the musician who has the most ability to add good ideas to a song that rock has ever seen. He is a true genius of arrangements and that musical talent of an artist and composer made the 4-string to each verse or chorus on Zeppelin’s discography a delight to the ears of lovers of bass lines. This fellow is not a soloist, he is an artist making songs bigger from his bass guitar.
His Bass: a 1962 Fender Jazz Bass, mostly while with Zeppelin. Manson E-Bass. Gibson EB-2...
Not much to add to this name (Paul) and surname (McCartney). The rest is cheap literature. It just so happens that he, one of the guys with more talent and creativity on planet Earth from the beginning of the human race, ended up playing the bass in his band (we don’t recall their name right now) The result was getting this monster of composition to make the lines for his own songs, and those of the other lad in glasses (don’t recall his name either) by beating the strings on his bass like a violin. Life changed forever, music changed forever, and the role of the bassman in a song and in a rock band changed forever with him.
His Bass: Hofner 500/1. Rickenbacker 4001. Fender Jazz Bass.
In the midst of the global explosion of the electric guitar and rock phenomenon, this guy stood out as an authentic rock star leading a band called Cream in which he let one Eric Clapton play from time to time. Jokes aside, that band, with just 3 members, sounded like an authentic philharmonic orchestra thanks of course to Clapton and Ginger Baker, but mainly because of the amazing interpretations by Bruce playing and singing at the same time. It’s incredible what this guy did with total independence between what he sang and what he played. Some of our other favourite bassmen like Sting and mainly Phil Lynott, like Bruce, sang and played in their work, could deserve a place on this list, but we think that Jack Bruce is a step above them.
His Bass: Gibson EB-3, mostly while with Cream. Fender Bass VI, Warwick fretless...
We have to add the man who invented the bass technique most used in the history of black music. In fact we don’t know which came first, the style itself, or the slap technique of Larry Graham. This guy ate up the stage alongside Sly at the end of the 60s with the most powerful soul ever created and he took black music, and therefore music in general, to a new, deeper state, one more racial, more rhythmic... more funk. As Victor Wooten said, “Larry Graham is to funk what the bible is to religion”. We imagine that Bootsy Collins, who is off this list because Graham came first, wouldn’t disagree with these words. Graham invented a way of playing and has been copied to death to today. Something the same happened to Mr. Aston Barrett, whose reggae bass with the Wailers marked a way of playing this style forever. We mention this gigantic bassman as an excuse for not including him on the list of 10.
His Bass: Fender Jazz Bass. Warwick Larry Graham Signature...
It’s quite complicated getting people to agree when talking about a band like Metallica; without going further, the members of the group absolutely hate each other, but remarkably, there is one thing in which everyone, the general public, fans and the band agree on: Cliff Burton was an authentic genius when it came to both playing and composing, and it was he who brought Metallica to the necessary technical level that made Thrash Metal conquer the 80s. His solos at massive concerts, when the band was taking their first steps, is what remains to be remembered before his tragic death.
On this list of bassists friends of the loud and the decibels, we have left out people like Steve Harris, authentic sprinter of Iron Maiden, but especially the great Lemmy Kilmister of Motorhead, who although he wasn’t a virtuoso, knew what a band his needed, and knew how to provide it.
His Bass: Rickenbacker 4001. Aria Pro II
Our only woman on the list allows us to talk about a very special bassist prototype: the studio bassist. This kind of bassist may seem to many people cold performers who do the work then get a cheque in exchange. While it may be true in many other occasions, we find artists who, thanks to their playing talent and quality of their work, have marked the history of music. Carol Kaye was part of the legendary Wrecking Crew, and together with those session players she formed part of the recordings to more #1s and to songs that have moved us than many others on this list (except that lad from Liverpool whose name still escapes me). Songs such as Wouldn’t It Be Nice, River Deep Mountain High, and These Boots Are Made for Walking make up part of her more than 10,000 recordings with the biggest names of the 60s and 70s.
Inside this club we have wanted to highlight this heroine, we cannot but mention other great bassists, equally as good or better, like James Jamerson from Motown (those Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and The Supremes hits, bear his name) and to Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn in Stax (Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett…)
Her Bass: Fender Precision Bass from the 60s
If earlier we talked about session bassists like a different species, to finish up we must make mention of the ‘mercenary’ or ‘on tour’ bassist. Of course, they all record hundreds of songs in the studio but this species usually has the best stages in the world as a natural habitat and that is where we can enjoy them together with the biggest artists of the day. Among all the current ‘wild animals’ that are out there, for instance our beloved Tal Wilkenfeld, we wish to highlight one name over the rest due to the obsession many of the new bassmen of the 21st century have with him. And it isn’t surprising since his work in the field of rock and all its variants with The Who, John Mayer, Jeff Beck, David Gilmour, Paul Simon and Ed Sheeran, to name a few of his clients, make him the real #1 on his instrument. We don’t just mean the quality of his bass lines and his exquisite technique, but also his imagination and taste that form an essential part of his signature on songs by these legends.
His Bass: Fender Precision Bass, Musicman Stingray Fretless, Moon JJ-4 300B