The bassist is never given enough credit. Everyone always talks about the lead singer and the lead guitarist, but few people ever care about the person playing the bass. This is unfortunate considering how important the bass is in any band. The bass plays a duel role in music. It acts as a rhythm instrument, like drums, however it also helps with the chord structure of the band. Because of this, every single member of the band has to play special attention to what the bassist is doing, otherwise everything falls apart.
In the past few years, many different media outlets have released lists of the greatest guitarists or greatest bands of all time, however very few prominent magazines or websites have ever released a list of the greatest bassists. This can be attributed to the media’s focus on the lead singer or guitarist. Since it seems that very few people care about the bassist, it makes perfect sense that the media would not waste their time with such a list.
This is completely unfair. Every member of a band is important. Every single member adds a very special attribute that helps create the band’s music. Without that specific member, the band would not sound the same.
This list is comprised of some of the most influential and most talented bassists in modern music. In order to make the list, the player must have not only been a great musician, but must also have added something extremely different to their band. Because of these players, their bands were able to create something different than anything that other bands had done. Some of these players have also made very important contributions to the way the instrument was played and used in their respective styles of music.
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15 Mike Gordon
Phish’s Mike Gordon is everything a bassist should be. He allows the band to delve into new and different styles of music that they normally would not be able to venture into or even think of experimenting with. Styles covered by Gordon that would otherwise not be in Phish’s famed live show include Bluegrass, Calypso, and even traditional Jewish music.
Gordon became a member of the band while attending the University of Vermont. Originally an electrical engineering major, he switched to art after meeting Trey Anastasio, Jon Fishman, and Jeff Holdsworth. Mike Gordon is known for his ability to multitask as not only a rhythm player, but also as a lead player during the band’s live performances. Aside from being a great bassist, he is also a highly accomplished banjo player.
14 Geezer Butler
Geezer Butler is the bassist and primary lyricist of the band that is often credited as the founders of Heavy Metal, Black Sabbath. Butler grew up playing guitar, but switched to bass after starting the band with Tony Iommi, who refused to play with two guitarists. Butler, like many bassists in the early 1970s, did not simply follow the simplistic style of playing that was typical for rock bassists in the 1960s. He was constantly switching things up and taking on more of a lead role in the band’s music. Butler is also credited as one of the first bassists to make heavy use of wah pedals and other effects. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 along with the rest of the original members of Black Sabbath.
13 Steve Harris
Steve Harris has become synonymous with speed. As the founding member of Great Britain’s Heavy Metal giants, Iron Maiden, he was able to show the world that the bass can be played just as fast as any guitar. He does this by “galloping” his notes. This is typically done by hitting an eighth note and following up with two 16th notes. This is very pronounced in the song “The Trooper” along with many other Maiden tunes. Harris recently released a "how to" book on playing bass. In it he discusses tips on how to increase one’s speed. One of Harris's techniques is chalking his hands before playing.
12 Berry Oakley
Berry Oakley is the bassist and one of the founding members of the original Southern Rock band, The Allman Brothers Band. He is known for using low melodic bass riffs behind the blistering guitar solos of Daune Allman and Dickey Betts. The best examples of Oakley’s style can be heard on the band’s breakthrough live album At The Fillmore East in such songs as “Mountain Jam” and “Whipping Post.” Oakley died on November 11th, 1972 in a motorcycle crash. This happened after he had fallen into a deep depression over the death of his friend and the band’s guitarist, Duane Allman. Oakley was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the original lineup of The Allman Brothers Band in 1995.
11 Jack Bruce
The late Jack Bruce seemingly played with every A-list rock star in the book. That is probably because he himself was considered one of the who’s who of Rock and Roll. He is most famous for his time as the bassist and lead singer of Cream. Bruce established Cream with Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker, two top notch musicians he had played with in the past. Aside from Cream, Bruce also played with such greats as John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, Manfred Mann, Ringo Starr, John McLaughin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Robin Trower, and Rory Gallagher. Bruce was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Cream in 1993. He sadly passed away October 24th, 2014 of liver disease.
10 Aston “Family Man” Barrett
Aston “Family Man” Barrett is the bassist and band leader of Bob Marley’s backing band, The Wailers. He is the pioneer of Reggae bass. The bass guitar may be the most important instrument in this style of music as it is used to drive both the rhythm section and create the chord structure, while still sounding like a lead instrument. In 2012, Barrett received the Lifetime Achievement award from Bass Player magazine.
9 John Entwistle
John Entwistle was the pioneering bassist for The Who. He is noted as one of the first bassists in Rock and Roll to use lead lines in his playing. In the early 1960s, the bass in rock and roll was solely a rhythm section instrument. It followed the chord structure of the songs and kept the beat along with the drummer. However, once psychedelic rock rose to prominence in the mid to late 1960s, the role of the bassist changed and became more open to allow the player to take on more of a lead role in the music.
John Entwistle was one of the first players to do this. He is also remembered as one of the best. His talent was captured better during The Who’s live shows than it was on their albums. He was known to crank up the treble on his amplifier as much as possible, while using as little bass frequencies as he could get away with. Entwistle developed a new way to play the instrument known as “typewriter style.” Typewriter style is a way to position one’s right hand so they are able to cover all four strings with a different finger. This allows for the player to be able to play faster and add more notes in a shorter amount of time. It also allows the player to tap on the strings easier to create an almost percussive sound.
8 Bootsy Collins
When it comes to funk bass, no one is more accomplished than Bootsy Collins. Collins made his big break as a member of James Brown's backing band. Then, in the 1970s, he became one of the figureheads of funk music as a member of Parliament/Funkadelic. Throughout his career with these two bands Collins was featured in some of the most important funk songs of all time. He remained busy even after P-Funk ended and has performed and recorded with such artists as Snoop Dogg, Buckethead, Victor Wooten, Fatboy Slim, and even Hank Williams Jr. In 2010, he started his own online school for advance bassists called “Funk U.” Boosty Collins was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with the other fifteen longtime members of Parliament/Funkadelic.
7 Geddy Lee
Geddy Lee is the bassist and lead singer of the Canadian rock band Rush. Lee learned to play bass by listening and playing along with many of the famous British rock bassists like John Entwistle, John Paul Jones, and Jack Bruce. In the late 1970s, he added synthesizers into Rush’s music. This addition launched the band to new heights. He was able to do and play bass at the same time by operating the synthesizers with his feet. Lee is known for his extensive use of effects pedals that allow him to create a huge variety of different sounds with his instrument, as well as varying his time signatures to create highly complex songs and patterns. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 as a member of Rush.
6 John Paul Jones
John Paul Jones is the highly talented multi-instrumentalist famous as a member of Led Zeppelin. He is primarily the band’s bassist, however he also contributes on different instruments such as keyboards and mandolin. He is credited as a major influence of nearly every rock bassist to come after him. In 2010, Jones was awarded the Golden Badge by The British Academy of Songwriters, Composers, and Authors. The Golden Badge is given to those who have made massive contributions to Great Britain’s music industry. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 as a member of Led Zeppelin.
5 Phil Lesh
Phil Lesh was the bassist for psychedelic rock pioneers, The Grateful Dead. Originally, Lesh was a classically trained violinist and trumpet player. While studying music composition at the University of California Berkley under the famed Italian composer Luciano Berio, he met Jerry Garcia who invited him to play bass with him. Despite never having played bass, Lesh accepted and quickly mastered the instrument. Since he had only played lead instruments, Lesh learned how to play bass using lead lines and classical music theory. Along with Garcia, Bob Weir, Bill Kreutzmann, and Rob “Pigpen” McKernan, he started The Warlocks which later became known as The Grateful Dead. Lesh’s playing was as important to the band’s legendary live shows as Garcia’s guitar solos. He based his playing style on Bach’s Counterpoint Theory which is often overly simplified as a pitch against a pitch. His use of this theory opened the bassist up to playing a lead role in a rock band. Lesh and The Grateful Dead were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994.
Flea is the stage name used by The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ bassist Michael Balzary, a nickname that was given to him in high school. Balzary was often picked on and called “Mike B. The Flea.” He was originally a jazz trumpet player, but began playing bass after meeting Chili Peppers’ lead singer Anthony Keidis. Flea quickly started sucking in new styles of music to expand what he could do on his new instrument. He started combining jazz, funk, and punk rock to create his signature sound which helped launch the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the top of the music charts. He co-founded the Silverlake Conservatory of Music in 2012, which is a music school for underprivileged children. Flea was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2013.
3 Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus is probably the least known member of this list; however he may very well be the most important. Mingus was a highly influential jazz bassist. He composed in a number of different jazz sub-genres such as Hard Bop, Gospel, Free-Form Jazz, as well as different types of classical music. For everything he composed, the main focus was on improvisation. Mingus wanted to constantly change everything up when his band performed. He also pioneered the Jazz Double Bass or Jazz Contrabass. This is the use of the lowest upright bass in jazz music. Previously this instrument was only used in classical music. This is important because the Jazz Contrabass is the instrument mostly associated with bass guitar in modern music. It was what was played in the early days of Rock and Roll before the electric bass guitar was adopted. In 1993, the Library of Congress obtained a collection of Mingus’s original handwritten manuscripts. The Library stated that it was “the most important acquisition of a manuscript collection relating to jazz in the Library’s history.”
2 Victor Wooten
Victor Wooten is a five-time Grammy Award winning artist and member of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. He was the first person to be awarded Bass Player magazine’s “Bass Player of the Year” award more than once. In 2000, he started a music camp which later became Victor Wooten’s Center for Music and Nature. It is located a few miles outside of Nashville, Tennessee. Wooten is often credited with being one of the best modern jazz bassists in the world.
1 Les Claypool
Les Claypool is the bassist and lead singer of Primus. Primus began in the late 1980s and they quickly became considered one of the strangest bands to ever achieve mainstream success. Part of this strangeness comes from their ability to combine so many different styles of music within a single song. Claypool has become a well-known solo artist and even started a band with Phish’s Trey Anastasio, Oysterhead. His style features an extensive use of tapping, whammy bar, and Flamenco-like strumming. Many bassists attempt to copy his playing style, but very few can because of his virtuoso-like technique and ability to play so many different genres of music, sometimes simultaneously.
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