The heart, the spirit, the dense, full-bodied soul of any band – that’s the bass for you.
Often overlooked for the verve of the guitar or the audacity of percussions, the bass is, nonetheless, the glue that holds the disparate melodies, daring tempos, and experimental chords of any decent band together.
It is always worth remembering that the bass and the guitar are siblings – not twins.
Sure, they’re dead ringers for one another, but they fulfill distinct functions.
In the most thoughtfully-constructed arrangements, their attributes are tweaked to complement the other and to produce a wash of sound that immerses, overwhelms, and enchants.
If the potency and depth of the bass knocks you over the head now and again, well that’s groovy.
But it is not merely an instrument that plumbs the depths of the tonal register, it is also a medium that can render profound emotions in unexpected, delightful ways.
And what would a bass be without a bass player?
A whole lot of nothing.
Today we will examine the 35 best bassists of all time, and give you the push you need to break out of your musical rut.
Behold the best of the bass.
1. Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers
Incorrigible, inimitable, and insolent to the very essence of his being, Flea is a renegade without fail, a fireball with a DIY punk ethos.
Cheeky, flippant, and delightfully offbeat, Flea has had one of the most wide-ranging impacts in modern music history, and in addition to helping found Red Hot Chili Peppers, he has played with alt-legends like Jane’s Addiction and Nirvana.
Flea was a renegade when it came to centering funk and slap bass in early nineties rock and he blended punk, psychedelic, and hard rock into his kaleidoscopic medley of references.
Flea is a street icon and has appeared in early punk films like Suburbia.
Oh, and he is also the co-founder of Silverlake Conservatory of Music, a non-profit for underprivileged children.
See also: Best Red Hot Chili Peppers Songs
2. Geddy Lee of Rush
The eccentric, offbeat godfather of progressive rock, Geddy Lee looks the part, acts the part, and plays the part with surreal, visionary aplomb.
As the lead vocalist, keyboardist, and bassist of Rush, Lee’s degree of technical proficiency and his versatile, bullet-proof technique have elevated him to strange, alluring heights.
He hits the strings like there’s no tomorrow and he infuses the bass with grit, texture, and a whimsical sense of disembodied magic.
His prodigal fluidity and unmediated vision can be surmised from just about every Rush anthem, from “Limelight” to “Tom Sawyer” to “Closer to the Heart” to “Before and After” and beyond.
3. John Entwistle of The Who
The Who were born out of the swinging rock n’ roll tempest of the mid-sixties but they quickly took ownership of an audacious, untamed, insatiable sound.
Entwhistle was part of that evolution, from the mod cradle to the swaggering coming-of-age.
Nicknamed “Thunderfingers” due to his gracefully exhilarating compositions, Entwhistle relied on his technical prowess to gain acclaim.
He was never satisfied accepting the bass as a background instrument and he brought it to the fore with pluck, verve, and unyielding charisma.
Rush’s own iconic bassist Geddy Lee once said “Entwistle was arguably the greatest rock bassist of them all.”
4. John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin
As Led Zeppelin’s wildly visionary bassist-keyboardist, Jones brought a wide-ranging package of thematic references and inspirations to his work, but he never deviated into plagiarism or copy-catting.
Inspired by the soft, elusive bass of the prog and folk rock movements, and informed by the rich, warm atmospherics rendered by Motown’s bass bests, Jones was a true musician’s musician.
His rhythms can be assertive, relentless, and melodically droning such as on “Immigrant Song” but so too can they be laconic and fuzzy such as on “Dazed and Confused.”
Jones was something of an academic; an intensely focused student of sonic tapestries, and his intensity allowed him to create heady, throbbing poetry.
See also: Best Led Zeppelin Songs
5. Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead
Probably one of the only bassists in musical history who gets by on a first-name-only basis, Lemmy is all chauvinistic swagger, impolite posturing, and vigorous, unbridled bite.
Bass under Lemmy’s command is not content to be an ambient, acquiescent addition to the supporting cast, oh no.
Lemmy is a rebel with a cause, a reckless, confrontational, mischievous musician who smashes out zinging, distorted bass lines and unorthodox chords.
From the electric “Ace of Spades” to the gritty and sensual “The Chase Is Better Than The Catch,” his thrashing space rock bass and gravelly, weather-beaten vocals brought Motörhead to uncompromising heights.
6. James Jamerson
If you love Motown, you love Jamerson, the oft-uncredited bass star who brought the swinging, rhythmic heart of Detroit to the wider world.
He elevated the bass from a supporting character in a musical arrangement to the heart and soul of the composition itself, adding satisfying, hearty syncopations and gospel-inspired melodies for serious harmonic potency.
The Temptations hit “My Girl” and Gladys Knight’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” both offer a glimpse into Jamerson’s refined, warm, fully inhabited bass approach.
Paul McCartney once said “James Jamerson became my hero” and indeed, many of the conventions he popularized can be heard in The Beatles’ early-sixties output.
7. Jaco Pastorius of Weather Report
Temperamental, doomed, viciously talented – what else do you want on the menu when it comes to your seventies bass players?
He once said “My name is John Francis Pastorius III, and I’m the greatest bass player in the world” and that free-wheeling cocksure approach bled into his outlandish bass style.
His self-titled 1976 album married an exhilarating range of musical sensibilities and conventions, with cheery bebop to scathing electric-bass notes to fretless audacity.
His turn with the Weather Report enabled him to double down on his musical adventurism and brought his rebellious creativity to a wider audience.
Folk icon Joni Mitchell once said, “I could just kind of cut him loose and stand back and celebrate his choices.”
8. Carol Kaye
Unbeknownst to even the most ardent acolytes of the fifties and sixties pop and blues scenes, Kaye was one of the most prolific bassists in history and was indeed the most recorded, featuring in 10,000 tracks during her shimmering career.
Indeed, Kaye was the instrumental backbone of the early rock and pop sound, and you can hear her wide-eyed beats on Beach Boys tracks, and her delightful rhythmics on the enduring, upbeat classic “La Bamba.”
She was a wizard on the fretboard and her influence looms like a luminous, unconfined giant over sixty years worth of pop culture.
A visionary and a true independent spirit, Kaye is undoubtedly one of the top bassists of all time.
9. Stanley Clarke of Return to Forever
The godfather of fusion, Clarke single-handedly fostered a brilliant, intoxicating union between plush sixties jazz and sultry R&B.
He infused this marriage with a bold seventies ethos and a radically fresh funk turn.
Along with jazz great Chick Corea, he formed Return to Forever, one of the grooviest, most stylistically expansive jazz acts of the seventies.
A Clarke melody never veers too far away from an optimistic, refreshing grooviness.
His repertoire demonstrates a happy refusal to adhere to the strict conventions of bass as a backup instrument.
10. Paul McCartney of The Beatles
Valorized as one of the most important vocalists and songwriters in rock history, McCartney is a figure who looms a cut above the rest.
His turn as a bassist is often eclipsed by his own success at his other endeavors, but he had a fluidity and a quiet, collected composure that carried many a Beatles hit to a satisfactory, heartening apex.
His style could be adventurous and playful but was never outlandish or attention-seeking, and much of the Beatles’ flawless arrangements owe their consistency, in part, to McCartney’s intuitive approach to the bass.
From “A Day in the Life” to “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, to all their jaunty, delightful early sixties fare, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a misstep on McCartney’s part.
11. Donald Dunn of Booker T. and The M.G.’s
Versatile, rhythmic, and a deft hand at everything he turned his cheerful eye on, Dunn brought a Memphis warmth and spirit to all that he did.
Foundational to the success of groovy sixties legends Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Dunn became a fixture in the southern R&B and gospel-infused soul movement of the sixties and seventies and did his part to fuse the disparate threads of country and soul.
His bass lines ascend and descend and flutter this way and that, belying his careening curiosity and stylistic optimism.
12. Cliff Burton of Metallica
Though Cliff’s life was tragically cut short in a bus accident at 24, his raw intensity and preternaturally Luciferian mastery of the bass far exceeded his young age.
He brought a lacerating vitality and growling rage to Metallica’s early masterpieces: Kill ‘Em All (1983), Ride the Lightning (1984), and Master of Puppets (1986).
Few bassists can shred and tear apart the instrument like Burton can, and he plays without an ounce of hesitation or reticence.
Instrument maker Aria has released the Pro II Cliff Burton Signature Bass in memory of his relentless, insatiable style and exuberant legacy.
13. Les Claypool of Primus
If you know bass you know Claypool, considered by most acolytes as one of the greats of the instrument.
As the founder, bassist, and singer of Primus, he is an absolute Tasmanian devil on the bass, blending strumming, funk-forward slapping, tapping, and generally eccentric behavior to delightfully confounding effect.
After auditioning for Metallica, James Hetfield said he wasn’t offered the gig because he was simply “too good” and should do his own thing.
And while Claypool never became a master of puppets, he was without a doubt a master at doing his own thing.
14. Victor Wooten
Ranking ten in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the best bass players in history, Wooten is something of a sleeper hit, a true musician who doesn’t need to court fame and media attention.
As bassist for both Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and SMV, he has pioneered a funk-forward, jazz fusion sound that has bold and uncommon hints of bluegrass and progressive rock.
His bass is low-key, unvarnished, and possessed of light and radiant optimism.
If you want to lounge with some killer groovy modern jazz in the background, Wooten is your man.
15. Bootsy Collins of Bootsy’s Rubber Band
The man, the myth, the legend, Collins’ reputation, star factor, and sparkling charisma precede him.
Bootsy was the preeminent blues, soul, and funk bassist of the seventies and his innovations laid the groundwork for the thrilling developments in disco, rap, and R&B that would follow in the ensuing decades.
With his star-shaped sunglasses and star-shaped guitar, he took cheeky delight in his own vivacious creations during his turn with his own group, the Rubber Band.
Ultimately, Bootsy was skill, commitment, and craftsmanship to the bone.
16. Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath
Black Sabbath’s prodigal son, Butler’s turn from rhythmic guitarist to bassist is reflected in his cartwheeling, melodically growling, and insatiable methodology.
Working flawlessly with guitarist Tony Iommi, Butler blended bluesy overtures with scathing, raw proto-metal riffs and thumping, convulsive melodies.
Ever a humble rock maven, he once said: “Because I was a rhythm guitarist, I’d fill in gaps left by the lead guitarist”, downplaying his own revolutionary vigor and technical dexterity.
Go give yourself a delightful headache with “War Pigs”, “Paranoid”, and “Slipping Away.”
17. Jack Bruce of Cream
The oft-neglected member of the Dream Cream trio, Bruce is usually in the proverbial shadows while Clapton and Baker get showered in praise and retrospective fawning.
But Bruce lent Cream much of its atmospheric, buttery, lingering cadence and gave their melodies a hypnotic cast that made em’ the best of the psychedelic bohemian bunch.
He could be jittery, elusive, and entrancing on the bass and indeed, he enabled it to make sounds (and magic) that had, until that point, been reserved for the rhythm guitar section.
If you want melodies with a bite, Bruce is where you’ll find ’em.
18. John Deacon of Queen
Sometimes the sheer dexterity and instrumental craftsmanship of Queen are lost in the fray, neglected for appraisals of the outlandish ambition of their compositions and for Freddie Mercury’s mesmeric theatricality.
In addition to providing the bedrock of Queen’s eccentric, groundbreaking style, he also wrote some of their most outlandish, enduring songs: “You’re My Best Friend,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” and “I Want to Break Free.”
Deacon quite literally renders the bass into a force of nature – a convulsive, explosive, tectonic wunderkind of revelatory, tumultuous proportions.
19. Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads
If you’ve ever hummed yourself silly to a turn-of-the-eighties Talking Heads tune, you are more familiar with British iconoclast Tina Weymouth than you think.
Sometimes effortlessly insouciant, sometimes ominous, sometimes eclectic, Weymouth helped position Talking Heads as a band apart, a rare, academically aloof new wave phenomenon.
Weymouth’s bass can be haunting and disconcerting but so too can it be playful and mischievous.
Her arthouse ethos sees her effortlessly blending funk and disco-tinged riffs with austere minimalism.
20. Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy
Thin Lizzy’s incorrigible Irishman, Lynott was an audacious, charismatic firestarter of a bassist who infused his output with Celtic cultural relics and working-class sensibilities.
His brazen plectrum-based style and his preference for eighth notes and triplets helped him establish the bass as a key player, foregrounding it on top of the beat and letting it soar.
His unstudied, endearingly laidback aesthetic and his imaginative songwriting rounded out his repertoire and allowed him to have authority over every stage of a song’s lifecycle.
21. Chris Squire of Yes
If you know prog-rock powerhouse Yes then you know the melodic, full-throated bass of Chris Squire.
“Close to the Edge,” “Sweetness,” and “Owner of a Lonely Heart” owe their strident, resonant sound to Squire’s showmanship and sustained, elaborate bass lines.
He became one of the most influential British prog rock bassists with his unrelentingly aggressive chords and the subtle harmonics rendered by his tightly-held pick.
He never committed to one methodology, frequently experimenting with hammer-ons, pull-offs, and the ever-tricky tremolo picking.
22. John McVie of Fleetwood Mac
The groovy, amicable British soul of Fleetwood Mac, McVie might very well have provided bass riffs for the most popular, enduring classic rock songs in history.
Groovy rock trivia for ya: His surname, McVie, combined with that of Mick Fleetwood, was the inspiration for the band’s name.
His expansive spirit, resplendent riffs, and sparkling personality have graced our collective lives for over fifty years, and he remains one of the most prolific, consistent musicians in history.
23. Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone
The eminent godfather of the slap-bass technique, Graham brought a refreshing, vital jolt of energy to an instrument that was, at the time, woefully misunderstood.
He plucked, he jolted, he flirted – all with the effect of expanding the provenance of the bass, and indeed, allowing it to almost compete with percussion for sheer sonic impact.
During his turn with Sly and the Family Stone, he pioneered an open-hearted, sagacious zaniness that few have tried to mimic.
Go listen to the exuberant, laidback optimism of “Dance to the Music” to hear him at his dazzling, unbridled best.
24. Charles Mingus
Best known for his enduring impact on mid-century jazz, Mingus was a multi-instrumentalist with pizazz, personality, and performative chops.
Capable of rousing the crowds into a rollicking kind of camaraderie, he was just as deft at conjuring up elegant, academic arrangements of uncommon serenity.
His sounds are a veritable tapestry, a Jackson Pollock-worthy medley of chugging beats, restless chords, and serene, entrancing melodic trajectories.
Mingus’ legacy spanned decades, from the big band orchestral arrangements of the forties to the shimmering, pop-driven sixties to delightful turns with the likes of Joni Mitchell during the seventies.
25. Ron Carter
If you want capital P prolific may we introduce you to Ron Carter, the inspirational nexus of jazz, hip-hop, and bass.
With a body of work that spans sixty years, Carter is credited with over 2,200 tracks and has won a Guinness record for being the most recorded bassist in jazz history, which is no small feat given the saturation of talent alive and kicking in the genre.
A bass in Carter’s hands is consistent, lush, dream-worthy, and sophisticated without the requisite bells and whistles.
He maintained a quiet personal vision and an amicable collaborative approach that made him a breeze to work with and endeared him to generations of musicians.
26. Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead
Along with Jerry Garcia, Lesh was one of the founders of The Grateful Dead and is the source of the radically transformative, sculptural, diffuse soundscape that makes a jam-heavy Dead song such a psychic journey.
He was a peerless innovator of the electric bass and undermined the conventional timekeeping role that bass was conventionally relegated to in early rock.
With his improvisational, stream-of-consciousness ethos, Lesh was elemental to the San Francisco sound that has come to define the structural philosophy of the bohemian post-1965 prog movement.
His passion for the avant-garde and the unflappably strange came to define the metaphysical, curiosity-ridden vision that made the Dead, well, the Dead.
See also: Best Grateful Dead Songs
27. Willie Dixon
With his upright bass, lush voice, and songwriting dynamism, Willie was absolutely foundational to much of blues and jazz history and is revered for establishing the Chicago blues sound along with his peer Muddy Waters.
Pivotal to the heyday of Chess Records from 1950 to 1965 some of his most memorable tracks grace dinner parties and cocktail hours to this day: “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Little Red Rooster,” “My Babe,” and “You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover” to name but a few.
He also bridged the gap between blues, jazz, and rock n’ roll, working with such luminaries as Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf, and Bo Diddley.
28. Charlie Haden of The Ornette Coleman Quartet
Haden was a double bass player who left a profound, indelible mark on the history of jazz with his harmonic, individualistic, and improvisational chops.
He was an original member of the Ornette Coleman Quartet in the fifties, bringing a sophisticated, intriguingly complex flavor of jazz to the fore.
Often noted for the serendipitous, unconventional approach he took to melody-making, he established the reputation of bass players as individual, autonomous agents, and not merely supporting acts.
29. Rick Danko of The Band
Founding member of iconic Canadian folk act The Band, Danko possessed a true, serene bohemian spirit and a studious, unwavering commitment to the science of sound.
His contributions elevated the shimmering, poignant output of The Band’s work, and added a layer of serene, elusive pathos to their pared-down ballads.
A blues-forward, Americana philosophy infused his sound, and his plaintive, mournful vocals linger like ghosts in songs like “Long Black Veil,” ”When You Awake,” and “Unfaithful Servant.”
30. David Hood
Hood helped put Muscle Shoals, Alabama on the musical, country rock map when he co-founded Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, where icons like Cher and Willie Nelson spun some of their most spirited tracks.
The hood is one of those rare birds who had charisma by the bucketful but felt best elevating, supporting, and contributing to the works of others.
In other words, he had a healthy sense of confidence and pride in his work but he never felt the need to shout from the rooftops about his uncommon gift.
He has provided bass for artists as wide-ranging as Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, Bob Seger, Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and Paul Simon, blending country conventions with warm, enticing R&B soundscapes.
31. Bob Moore of the Bob Moore Orchestra
Revered as one of the architects of the Nashville sound, Moore was a loyal, jam-obsessed member of the Nashville A-Team during the fifties and sixties.
He was wildly prolific and has played double bass on 17,000 recorded sessions with mid-century mavericks like Elvis, Roy Orbison, and Patsy Cline.
Moore added a richly textured, buttery resonance to some of our culture’s most-loved tracks.
He never deviated from his Tennessee roots and was named the number one country bassist of all time by Life Magazine for his contribution to decades of radio classics.
Go listen to the Roger Miller hit “King of the Road” or his own Bob Moore Orchestra album Mexico.
32. Richard Davis
If you’ve ever spent a dignified, elevating, elegant evening listening to jazz great Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch then you and Richard Davis are on better terms than you realize.
For his contributions to Van Morrison’s shimmering Astral Weeks, Rolling Stone magazine critic Greil Marcus actually said: “Richard Davis provided the greatest bass ever heard on a rock album.”
He was so dedicated to the technical, meticulous, intricate details of his craft that he actually became a university professor teaching jazz history and bass.
And at 93, he is quite literally a living legend.
33. Sting of The Police
Most are when they see Sting for what he really is – not just a sensual vocal seducer, but an accomplished, and, indeed, visionary instrumentalist with an uncompromising musical philosophy.
The dimensions of the instrument are sculptural and enchantingly contoured in Sting’s elegant, studious hands.
The throbbing, haunting new-wave sounds of The Police incorporate romantic arthouse sensibilities and unexpected reggae riffs.
“Roxanne,” “Walking on the Moon,” and “Wrapped Around Your Finger” showcase his quietly authoritative, atmospheric skill.
34. Louis Johnson
You’d be forgiven for not knowing his name (I guess) but you would not be forgiven for being unfamiliar with his contributions to the best-selling album of all time, Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
Johnson was a raw, unvarnished talent whose generous philosophy saw him establishing a reputation for being a premier jam session musician throughout the seventies.
One of the originators of the slapping technique, Leo Fender made a bass just for him, the Music Man StingRay bass guitar, and frenzied fans nicknamed him “Thunder-thumbs.”
He blended disco, jazz, blues, and zinging rock chords for an invigorating, stage-stealing effect.
He is revered as one of the best bassists of all time, and a listen to any of his songs will have you nodding in agreement.
35. Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth
Sonic Youth’s peerless, formidable Kim Gordon brought an unpolished, unstudied DIY ethos to the bass, which she taught herself to play.
The chords she produced were nothing if not organic – an indie riot of noise, discordance, and post-punk refusal to abide by the conventions of form and content.
Her free-form, experimental bass might sound jarring to the trained ear, but therein lies its renegade magic and curious appeal.
Her ineffable, unflappable sense of self allowed her to turn her lack of training into one of her most enduring strengths.
Best Bassists of All Time – Final Thoughts
All hail the instrument at the heart of it all, the instrument that forms the bedrock upon which other instruments rely.
Let’s all take a moment to tune out the shimmer, the percussion, and the dynamic vocal range, and turn our attention to the resonant, ambient, mercurial authority of the bass.
Who is your all-time favorite bass player?
Go set up an altar and spread the word.
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