How do you pick the best bass players? Do you select those that are the most famous or sell the most records or most requested session player or most flamboyant player?
I do not play bass but I have some knowledge of the instrument and the function of the bass in music. There are many ways to play a bass and five players may use a different technique in playing the same song. The bass is part of the rhythm section of a band, it keeps time and it accentuates notes of chords being played. Skilled players do a lot more than that.
There are lots of musical genres, each with their best players. For the subject of this blog, I am mainly focusing on popular music, but you’ll see that a couple of my choices have their foundation in other genres, which made them very dynamic players when working with more mainstream pop/rock performers.
For best bass players, itt would be easy to select the top guys and gal who were associated with The Wrecking Crew, the musicians that played on most of the chart hits of the 1960s and 1970s. Carol Kaye, Joe Osborn, Ray Pohlman, Chuck Rainey, Max Bennett and Larry Knechtel are it. Almost everything you heard on the radio they played on. Google these folks to see the hits and performers they worked with; they were phenomenal. Their credits range from Frank Sinatra to Sonny & Cher to the Beach Boys to Simon & Garfunkel to Barbra Streisand to Steely Dan, and hundreds more.
However, the bass players I’m going to highlight were mostly a part of very exceptional bands, or had successful solo careers, each developing an original style unlike their peers. These guys had one thing in common, they played bass almost like a lead instrument and elevated the music beyond its primary use. My list is not an exhaustive list, but I have to be selective. Fill in your own choices.
Paul McCartney. Having started on guitar and picking up piano, McCartney understood musical structure inside and out. He was a very organic bass player, not showy, but able to provide both a rhythm and melodic structure that compliments the song’s melody. He also could power tougher, more upbeat rock songs. From softer songs like “Michelle” or “Silly Love Songs,” his bass provides a riff that pleasantly gave you the rhythm as well as a subtle groove. “Back in the USSR” or “Letting Go” were pure bass attacks, McCartney very definitely rocked.
Jack Bruce. In a power trio, the bass must play several roles. Cream was not only aggressive, but was soulful. You think of the blues as a guitar-based genre during that era, but Bruce understood taking the undercarriage of the blues and transforming into a style that kids could riff to. “SWLABR” and “Sunshine of Your Love” are two examples of Bruce’s magic with Cream. Bruce was sometimes criticized for playing too many notes on the bass and that his parts were incredibly complicated for rock and roll.
John Entwistle. Keith Moon was a basher of a drummer so a lot of the rhythm section work fell to Entwistle to keep time but also work around Pete Townshend’s unique guitar playing. Entwistle’s bass was thick and tough as a rhythm instrument, but he also could play melodic fills like a lead guitar, because he was so talented and daring. Some of the best Who riffs are actually bass riffs that compliment Townshend’s virtuosity on the guitar. Entwistle played loud and hard, he also used a variety of effects on his bass. For a hard rock bass player, who makes any song better, Entwistle is my choice.
Chris Squire. The best of the progressive-rock bass players. Squire took the bass to a new level or mastery. The early 1970s songs of Yes feature the bass in essence, a lead instrument. Whereas other bass players emphasized a heavy, low powerful sound, Squire almost sounded like a lead guitar, and on a few songs, the bass played lead notes. The most Yes defining instrument was the bass.
Jon Camp. Maybe the least known bass player on this list. Camp played with the art-rock (or classical-rock or progressive-rock) band Renaissance. The band mixed folk, classical and rock together unlike any similar band of the era. Rarely, did Renaissance write any “pop songs” with a traditional structure, many of their songs were longer form and emphasized linked instrumental musical sections. Camp’s bass playing was important since the guitar was more a rhythm instrument in the group’s sound. Camp’s bass often played very melodic lines, underneath and sometimes on top of the song.
Mike Rutherford. The bass player of Genesis until guitarist Steve Hackett left, then he took over both. A much better bass player than guitarist, Rutherford was spectacular on Genesis’ prog hits. He and Tony Banks wrote most of those incredible songs that took you on a roller coaster of styles and intricate key changes. The bottom-end of Genesis is somewhat overlooked but you’ll find the pulse of their music there.
Maurice Gibb. Listen to The Bee Gees of the 1970s, those grooves and riffs were played by this Gibb brother. Maurice Gibb never got the credit he deserved. He only sang harmony and wasn’t the showcase Gibb like Robin and Barry, but he was the most musically talented on guitar, keyboards and bass. The backbone of those songs came from Maurice. He has a funky, R&B appreciation, but reinforced the melody of those chart topping hits.
Jaco Pastorius. I will venture into jazz and jazz-fusion for this awesome bass player. If you heard of the group Weather Report, you are familiar with Jaco Pastorius and his bass. His style of playing is familiar to Chris Squire in how he used every conceivable sound and harmonic from the instrument and mixed funk and rock stylings into jazz. His work with Joni Mitchell shows how his style and Mitchell’s unique guitar tunings were like hand and glove.
Louis Johnson. If you think of the R&B or funk genres, you will find Johnson mentioned as one of the elite bass players. He was part of the successful Brothers Johnson group (“I’ll Be Good to You”, “Strawberry Letter #23”) but achieved even greater success contributing to the recordings of others. Some of his many recordings were for Michael Jackson (Off the Wall, Thriller), George Benson (Give Me the Night), Herb Alpert (“Rise”) and Michael McDonald (“I Keep Forgettin'”). Johnson perfected a finger-slapping style that produced a distinctive sound that was used extensively and copied. If you wanted a soulful and funky, Louis Johnson was your bass player.
So, who have I left out? Some names you might wonder about are Geddy Lee, Lemmy, Sting, Stanley Clarke, Lee Sklar, Klaus Voorman, Donald “Duck” Dunn, James Jamerson, John Paul Jones, Bootsy Collins, John Deacon, Tony Levin, etc. These are all very good musicians and they are on a number of “best bass player” lists.
Who is on your list?