Greatest Bassists of All Time
These are the Greatest Bassists of All Time considering impact on music, includes virtuosos as Jaco Pastorius and others not so virtuoso but great musicians as Paul McCartney.
Top Bassists of the history and their importance
The world of music has been shaped and transformed by the contributions of countless musicians across various genres. While guitarists and vocalists often claim the spotlight, it’s essential to recognize the foundational role of bassists in creating the rhythmic and harmonic backbone of songs. As the legendary session musician Carol Kaye aptly put it, the bass is the foundation, working in tandem with the drummer to establish the beat and providing a framework for the rest of the musical elements.
A remarkable bass line possesses a unique quality; it feels like a mantra that could continue indefinitely, growing more profound with each listen. While guitarists, vocalists, and horn players may seize the flashiest moments in a composition, it is the bassist who contributes something elemental—a part that remains etched in the listener’s mind long after the music fades.
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The underrated role of the bass
However, it’s a lamentable reality that bassists are often overlooked and undervalued, even within their own bands. As Paul McCartney once reflected on his transition to bass in the Beatles, It wasn’t the number-one job; nobody wanted to play bass, they wanted to be up front. Nevertheless, the bass has its rich and proud tradition in popular music, encompassing a wide spectrum of styles and genres. From the upright virtuosity of Jimmy Blanton in Duke Ellington’s orchestra to the bebop innovations of Oscar Pettiford, and from the jazz brilliance of Charles Mingus and Ron Carter to the studio wizardry of Carol Kaye and James Jamerson, the bass has left an indelible mark on music.
In this exploration, we will pay tribute to the greatest bassists of all time, individuals who have not only mastered their instruments but have also pushed the boundaries of what a bassist can achieve. While this list is not an attempt to rank based on objective skill, it serves as an acknowledgment of those bassists who have had the most direct and visible impact on shaping the very foundation of popular music over the past half-century.
The Greatest Bass Players of All Time
- James Jamerson
- Charles Mingus
- John Entwistle
- Bootsy Collins
- Carol Kaye
- Les Claypool
- Jack Bruce
- Jaco Pastorius
- Larry Graham
- Verdine White
- Ron Carter
- Geddy Lee
- Phil Lesh
- Paul McCartney
- Willie Dixon
- John Paul Jones
- Stanley Clarke
- Charlie Haden
- Donald “Duck” Dunn
- Robbie Shakespeare
- Chris Squire
James Jamerson stands as an iconic figure in the world of bass playing. Anchoring the Motown rhythm section, he expanded the possibilities for bassists while remaining relatively anonymous, as session players were seldom credited on Motown recordings in the 1960s. James Jamerson became my hero, Paul McCartney remarked, although I didn’t actually know his name until quite recently.
In a time when the bass was often viewed as a utilitarian support instrument, Jamerson dared to push the boundaries. He injected his bass lines with syncopation, added intricate chords that introduced melodic depth and complexity, and made tonal choices that evoked the harmonies of gospel music. His contributions to iconic Motown records are too numerous to catalog comprehensively, but a few standout examples include The Temptations’ My Girl, which features one of the most recognizable and instantly gratifying bass parts in pop history. In Gladys Knight’s I Heard It Through the Grapevine, Jamerson’s bass playing provides a suave and bubbly counterpoint to the jittery piano.
Perhaps his crowning achievement was on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, where Jamerson’s bass line reached a level of hyper-melodic brilliance. Bob Babbitt, another notable bassist who contributed to some of the tracks on this album, remarked, James went a step beyond what bassists normally do. At first, he took chances and let himself go, and then it just became natural for him, and in the process, he changed the course of bass playing.
James Jamerson’s legacy is immeasurable, and his influence has resonated across generations of bassists. He transformed the role of the bass guitar, elevating it from a supporting instrument to a lead voice in the Motown sound.
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Charles Mingus, a multifaceted musician known for his prowess as a bassist, transcended traditional boundaries. He was not merely a bass player; he was a composer, conceptualist, classically trained cellist, and social critic. Sometimes, his versatility in other areas of music overshadows his remarkable contributions to the bass.
At the core of Mingus’s musical creations lay an unwavering rhythmic drive that flowed through his fingers, resonated through the strings, and propelled his bands forward. Listening to him play on compositions like II B.S. and Better Get Hit in Your Soul, alongside his musical soulmate, drummer Dannie Richmond, reveals the strength and grace of his bass playing. He had the unique ability to infuse his walking bass lines with both immense power and nimble agility.
Mingus’s career spanned multiple eras of jazz, and he refused to be confined by stylistic boundaries. Whether he was swinging with Lionel Hampton’s big band in the late 1940s, jamming with fellow bebop luminaries in the 1950s, or engaging in lively, percussive dialogues with his musical idol, Duke Ellington, in the 1960s, Mingus consistently pushed the envelope of what the bass could achieve.
His influence extended beyond jazz, as evidenced by his collaboration with Joni Mitchell and his impact on rock legends like Jack Bruce and Charlie Watts. Throughout his life, Mingus vehemently protested attempts to limit or underestimate his artistry, famously declaring, I don’t want none of them damn polls. I know what kind of bass player I am.
Charles Mingus’s legacy as a bassist and composer endures, and his innovative approach to the bass continues to inspire musicians from all walks of life.
John Entwistle, the bassist for The Who, earned the apt nickname Thunderfingers due to the extraordinary sound he coaxed from his bass guitar. Playing alongside flamboyant showmen like Keith Moon and Pete Townshend, Entwistle faced the challenge of being heard on the same stage. However, he rose to the occasion with remarkable fluidity and grace, creating a bass style that was truly one of a kind.
Entwistle approached the bass as if it were a lead instrument, making it stand out as prominently as any guitar in The Who’s sonic landscape. His chunky bass solo on My Generation served as a source of inspiration for countless aspiring bassists, although emulating his technique proved to be an almost insurmountable task.
Rush’s Geddy Lee aptly summed up Entwistle’s impact by stating, Entwistle was arguably the greatest rock bassist of them all, daring to take the role and sound of the bass guitar and push it out of the murky depths while strutting those amazing chops.
John Entwistle’s legacy as a rock bassist is undeniable, and his groundbreaking approach to the instrument has left an indelible mark on the world of music.
Bootsy Collins, known by various colorful aliases like Bootzilla, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and The World’s Only Rhinestone Rock Star Doll, Baba, redefined soul and funk bass playing in the 1970s, subsequently influencing the realms of rap and pop in the 1980s and 1990s.
Collins made his mark when he joined James Brown’s backing band, the J.B.’s, in 1970. He immediately embraced Brown’s concept of The One, hitting the first beat of each musical measure with maximum force and infusing the rest with infectious funkiness. Later, Collins expanded this concept into a surreal wonderland when he joined George Clinton’s musical collective. His wah-wah-infused, mushy bass lines added a distinctive dimension to Parliament and Funkadelic’s sound.
As a solo artist leading Bootsy’s Rubber Band, Collins donned star-shaped sunglasses, played a star-shaped bass, and delivered cartoonish love songs with boundless enthusiasm. His influence resonates in the playing of countless bassists, from Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers to the records sampled by Dr. Dre to create the G-Funk sound.
George Clinton summed it up best when he said, Bootsy came along and all he added … was the emphasis on the one. You could add that to ‘The ABC’s,’ and it would be funk in two seconds. And from then on, everything we did was funky for real, no matter how pop we tried to be.
Bootsy Collins’s legacy is one of funkadelic innovation, a testament to how a bassist can redefine genres and bring the groove to the forefront of music.
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Carol Kaye, a prolific bassist who initially honed her skills in the Fifties jazz clubs, emerged as a prominent studio guitarist, contributing to the hits of artists like Sam Cooke. Kaye holds the remarkable distinction of being the most recorded bassist of all time, with her name attached to over 10,000 tracks. Her influence spans a wide range of musical styles, from the sunny swing of the Beach Boys’ 1965 track Help Me, Rhonda to Richie Valens’ now-classic 1958 rendition of La Bamba to Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s romantic 1967 performance of Somethin’ Stupid.
But Kaye’s impact doesn’t stop there. She left an indelible mark on the world of movie and TV show themes, providing the groovy backbone for title songs of iconic shows like Batman and Mission Impossible. Her unique intuition guided her bass playing, allowing her to envision a more dynamic role for the instrument. As she once said, I was a guitar player, and I thought, ‘God, that’s kind of a simple bass line.’ I thought the bass could be moving around more and the music would sound better.
Her star collaborators, including Brian Wilson, recognized the magic of her sound and fretboard expertise, elevating her bass sound in their mixes. In songs like California Girls, her bass takes center stage, a testament to her unique sonic contributions.
Les Claypool is a bass virtuoso who emerged as a standout figure in the late Eighties Bay Area music scene, dominated by thrash-funk bassists. What sets Claypool apart is his innovative approach to the bass guitar, treating it not merely as a rhythm instrument but as a lead instrument that propels the music forward.
Claypool’s unique style incorporates a wide range of techniques, from hyperactive left-hand fretboard tapping to lightning-quick strumming. He adopted a three-finger plucking technique, differentiating himself from the two-finger norm to achieve greater speed and precision. His bass playing draws inspiration from diverse sources, blending influences from Captain Beefheart to Bootsy Collins. His eclectic sound complements his eccentric and storytelling lyrics, often delving into themes like alpha-male felines, mythic fishermen, and murderous hillbillies.
Claypool’s versatility knows no bounds. He seamlessly incorporates elements from metal riffs to Middle Eastern ragas into his bass lines. His involvement in jam-band supergroups like Oysterhead and Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains has honed his improvisational skills. His current collaboration with Sean Lennon allows for adventurous prog-psychedelic explorations.
Above all, Les Claypool has transformed the role of the bass guitar, elevating it from a mere anchor to a dynamic force driving the music. His innovative spirit has earned him admiration from fellow bassists like Rush’s Geddy Lee, who acknowledges Claypool’s unique rhythmic sensibility and distinct style.
Jack Bruce, often overshadowed by Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker in the legendary rock band Cream, played an indispensable role in making them a true power trio. While Clapton delivered soaring blues licks and Baker explored new jazz territories behind his drum kit, Bruce, also serving as the group’s lead vocalist, anchored the band with his robust bass lines.
What set Jack Bruce apart was his ability to make the bass an assertive and dynamic instrument. Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler once attested to Bruce’s influence, saying, Jack Bruce definitely opened my eyes as to what a bass player could do live. I went to see Cream mainly because of Clapton… and I was mesmerized at Jack Bruce’s playing. I didn’t know a bass player could do those things, filling in where the rhythm guitar would normally be.
Whether he was crafting jittery, tumbling lines under group vocals on I Feel Free, harmonizing brilliantly on Sunshine of Your Love, or adding his distinctive riff under Clapton’s guitar work on Strange Brew, Jack Bruce’s bass playing was nothing short of mesmerizing. Despite his stature, Bruce possessed a monstrous playing style, making his bass sing with melody and power.
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Jaco Pastorius, often dubbed “the world’s greatest bassist,” in 1974, he boldly declared his supremacy to Joe Zawinul, keyboardist for Weather Report, during a backstage encounter. While Zawinul may have initially scoffed at Jaco’s assertion, it didn’t take long for the world to witness his extraordinary talent. By the time he joined Weather Report, Pastorius had transformed them into bona fide fusion superstars.
Jaco’s 1976 self-titled debut album marked a pivotal moment in the history of the electric bass. On this record, he effortlessly played high-speed bebop and captivated listeners with his mesmerizing harmonics. He introduced a new standard for electric-bass virtuosity that still resonates today. Simultaneously, his signature fretless sound and confident style shattered the notion that the bass was merely a background instrument.
Despite his flashy and technically proficient playing, Jaco Pastorius was also a remarkable collaborator. Throughout the mid-Seventies to the Eighties, he brought his revolutionary four-string approach to a range of artists, from Pat Metheny to Jimmy Cliff. His most celebrated collaboration was with Joni Mitchell, where he adapted seamlessly to her increasingly adventurous songwriting on albums like “Hejira.” Mitchell herself marveled at his intuitive playing, saying, “[I]t was as if I dreamed him, because I didn’t have to give him any instruction. I could just kind of cut him loose and stand back and celebrate his choices.”
Larry Graham, a prominent member of Sly and the Family Stone, is renowned for popularizing the slap-bass technique. This distinctive approach to playing the bass is evident in hit songs like “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” and “Dance to the Music.” Graham’s journey to this iconic technique began during his time playing in a trio with his mother in San Francisco.
When the drummer in the trio decided to leave, Larry Graham found himself in a unique situation. To compensate for the absence of a bass drum, he began “thumping” the bass strings with his thumb. To replicate the backbeat snare drum, he “plucked” the strings with his fingers. This innovative approach to playing the bass led to the creation of the unmistakable “thumpin’ and pluckin'” style, which has since become a hallmark of Larry Graham’s playing.
This technique not only revolutionized the role of the bass in popular music but also had a profound impact on the mix of songs. Brian Eno noted the shift, stating that records from the Fifties prominently featured melodic information while relegating rhythmic elements to a quieter position. However, with the emergence of Sly and the Family Stone, including Larry Graham, as seen in the album “Fresh,” rhythm instruments, particularly the bass drum and bass, gained newfound prominence in the mix. Graham’s explanation was simple: playing with such force ensured that “the dancers just won’t hide.”
Larry Graham’s influence extended to future legends like Prince, a close friend and frequent collaborator, who once referred to Graham as “my teacher.”
Bass guitarist Verdine White became an integral part of the American multi-genre band Earth, Wind & Fire when his brother, Maurice White, invited him to join the group in 1970. Verdine’s bass skills were honed under the tutelage of Louis Satterfield, often described as “the James Jamerson of Chicago,” and he drew inspiration from jazz greats like Ron Carter and Richard Davis.
Verdine White’s contributions to Earth, Wind & Fire’s million-selling albums were nothing short of spectacular. While the group was known for its speedy dance cuts, Verdine’s playing truly shone on the ballads. His bass work on songs like the opening rumble of “Can’t Hide Love,” the attacking runs in “Love’s Holiday,” and the nimble riffs in “After the Love Has Gone” showcased his versatility and musicality.
Even on uptempo tracks, Verdine White left a lasting impression with his dynamic bass lines. Listen to his electrifying performance in “Beijo (Interlude),” where he made the notes shiver and whine, adding a unique dimension to the music. Despite his extraordinary skills, White remained modest in interviews, attributing much of his success to complementing the singer and ensuring that his bass playing enhanced the overall musical experience.
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Ron Carter has been a cornerstone of the intersection of jazz and hip-hop. Thus, Q-Tip has expressed “On the bass, that’s my man, Ron Carter.” With a career spanning over 60 years, Carter’s remarkable contributions have earned him a Guinness World Record for being the most recorded bassist in jazz history, with more than 2,200 credits to his name as of fall 2015.
Carter’s repertoire is as diverse as it is extensive. He was a pivotal part of the Sixties Miles Davis quintet, which played a fundamental role in reshaping the landscape of jazz. His ability to provide the perfect rhythmic foundation and musicality is evident in classic recordings alongside artists like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin. Moreover, he masterfully crafted the rhythmic bed for bossa nova pioneer Antônio Carlos Jobim and even breathed new life into the works of Bach.
Whether performing in a subdued duo or a lively big band, Ron Carter always brings a touch of pure class to the stage. Collaborators like Pat Metheny have spoken highly of Carter, describing him as “one of the consummate listening musicians ever.” His ability to adapt to countless unique musical settings while staying true to his distinct musical identity is a testament to his brilliance and versatility.
Geddy Lee, the master multitasker of the bass world, achieved legendary status as the frontman for Rush. Onstage, he skillfully managed bass duties alongside playing keyboards and foot-controlled synths. His daredevil vocal prowess further showcased his incredible talent. However, it’s his bass playing that truly solidified his place as an icon in the world of progressive rock.
Geddy Lee’s bass work is characterized by its toughness, sinewy sound, and impressive agility, embellished with just the right amount of daredevil flair. He is considered one of the essential links between the pioneering bassists of the Sixties, like Jack Bruce and John Entwistle, and the innovators of the Nineties, such as Les Claypool and Tim Commerford of Rage Against the Machine.
Throughout the various eras of Rush’s music, Geddy Lee’s bass added grit, flair, and an unexpected touch of funkiness. Whether on high-prog Seventies albums like “A Farewell to Kings”, New Wave-influenced Eighties gems like “Grace Under Pressure,” or streamlined, hard-hitting Nineties efforts like “Counterparts”, his imaginative bass lines acted as hooks in and of themselves. His remarkable contributions to Rush’s catalog have left a lasting impact on the world of forward-thinking rock music.
Some of Geddy Lee’s standout bass parts include the off-kilter strut that opens “Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage,” the wiry 7/4 bridge riff in “Tom Sawyer,” and the lean dance-pop vamp of “Scars.” These basslines not only provided the foundation for Rush’s music but also acted as distinctive and memorable musical motifs in their own right.
Les Claypool’s admiration for Geddy Lee
Les Claypool, bassist for the iconic band Primus, once expressed his admiration for Geddy Lee, stating, “He was the one that when I was a 14-year-old fellow I thought, ‘Boy, I’d sure like to make those sounds.’ I’m still trying to do that.” This sentiment highlights the enduring influence of Geddy Lee’s bass work, inspiring generations of aspiring bassists to explore the expressive potential of the instrument.
Flea, born Michael Balzary, is the irreplaceable bassist of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band that has seen a revolving door of drummers and guitarists since their inception in 1983. His bass guitar wizardry is the bedrock of the Chili Peppers’ distinctive sound, an intoxicating blend of punk, funk, and psychedelia.
Influenced by his jazz musician stepfather during his formative years, Flea initially aspired to be a jazz trumpet player. However, his rebellious teenage spirit led him down the path of punk rock, where he found his true calling as a bassist. His iconic style, characterized by Bootsy Collins-inspired slapping and poignant melodies, has left an indelible mark on the band’s repertoire.
Beyond the Chili Peppers, Flea’s musical journey has been diverse. He contributed his talents to the Mars Volta’s debut album, “De-Loused in the Comatorium,” and collaborated with Thom Yorke in the formation of Atoms for Peace, showcasing his remarkable versatility.
Anthony Kiedis, the Chili Peppers’ frontman, once declared, “The Red Hot Chili Peppers are Flea.” This statement encapsulates the truth that Flea’s presence and artistry are integral to the band’s existence. His earthy, wildly charismatic sound remains a cornerstone of the Chili Peppers’ enduring appeal, ensuring that his legacy as one of rock’s most iconic bassists endures.
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When it comes to reimagining the role of the bass guitar in rock music, Phil Lesh, the founding and longtime bassist of the Grateful Dead, stands out as a trailblazer. Lesh’s musical journey began with a background in experimental and classical music, as he played the trumpet and violin during his high school years. However, his life would take a different turn when he was asked to join the Warlocks, the earliest incarnation of the Grateful Dead.
Phil Lesh’s approach to the bass was anything but conventional. He chose to break away from the standard walking-bass clichés that were prevalent at the time. In his own words, “I didn’t think that would be suitable for the music I would make with Jerry; just to do something somebody else had done.” Lesh’s unique vision was to “play bass and lead at the same time,” a technique that involved his notes darting in and around the melodic structure.
This distinctive approach to the bass became a hallmark of the Grateful Dead’s sound, as recognizable as Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing. Lesh’s unconventional and inventive bass lines can be heard on studio recordings like “Truckin’,” “Shakedown Street,” and “Cumberland Blues.” However, it’s in the live performances of songs like “Scarlet Begonias” and “Eyes of the World” that Lesh’s bass work truly shines. Notably, the Cornell 1977 show is celebrated for capturing the essence of Lesh’s bass artistry.
Paul McCartney is often lauded for his exceptional talents as a singer, songwriter, and live performer. Yet, there is one aspect of his musical prowess that sometimes goes underappreciated—his remarkable skills as a bassist. McCartney’s journey with the bass guitar began as a matter of necessity during the early days of the Beatles.
In 1961, after Stu Sutcliffe left the band in Hamburg, McCartney found himself reluctantly taking up the bass guitar. He humorously recalled the situation, stating, “There’s a theory that I maliciously worked Stu out of the group in order to get the prize chair of bass. Forget it! Nobody wants to play bass, or nobody did in those days.” Despite its less glamorous reputation, McCartney made the bass his own, transitioning from his Hofner to a Rickenbacker as the Beatles’ studio adventures expanded during the late ’60s.
Evolution of Paul McCartney’s bass playing
McCartney’s bass playing exhibited remarkable versatility. It served as a steady and dependable foundation in songs like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Dear Prudence”. However, his bass was not merely relegated to a supporting role; it often took on the role of a colorful lead character in its own right. Tracks such as “Paperback Writer,” “Rain,” and “A Day in the Life” showcased McCartney’s ability to convey a sense of yearning, excitement, and adventure through his melodic bass lines.
Much of McCartney’s bass style in this era owed a debt to James Jamerson of Motown fame, whom he often cited as a significant influence on his bass playing. McCartney’s musical journey extended beyond the ’60s, and he seamlessly transitioned into the disco era with songs like “Silly Love Songs” and “Goodnight Tonight.” Throughout his career, even as his interest in the bass guitar may have fluctuated, McCartney continued to inspire generations of aspiring bassists, demonstrating the expressive potential of a great bass line.
Willie Dixon is celebrated as one of the most influential figures in the history of blues music. His contributions extend far beyond his own blues career, as his songs were famously performed by blues legends such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. However, Dixon’s role in shaping the landscape of rock music is a significant part of his enduring legacy.
Dixon was not only a prolific songwriter but also a bassist who played a pivotal role in early rock recordings. He lent his bass skills to the recordings of iconic artists like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Moreover, Dixon’s own compositions, including “I Can’t Quit You Baby” and “I Ain’t Superstitious,” have been covered by a diverse range of musicians, from Led Zeppelin to Megadeth. Dixon’s journey with the bass began with humble origins, using a “tin-can bass” before saving up to purchase an upright bass. His dedication to mastering the instrument was evident as he balanced his time between boxing, work, and music.
Dixon learned from local musicians Baby Doo Caston and Hog Mason, ultimately developing his unique and genre-defining bass style. When Chuck Berry initially played Dixon the song that would become “Maybellene”, Dixon felt it had too much of a country and western influence. He saw an opportunity to infuse it with a bluesy attitude, transforming it into a rock & roll classic.
Dixon’s influence extended beyond the music itself; his impact on musicians and bands, such as the Rolling Stones, was immeasurable. Bill Wyman, the Stones’ bassist, once declared, “Willie Dixon is the principal -influence on me-“. Dixon’s profound effect on the evolution of music, particularly in rock and blues, solidified his place as a legendary bassist and songwriter. His ability to blend bluesy elements into rock laid the foundation for countless iconic rock ‘n’ roll anthems.
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John Paul Jones
Although Led Zeppelin seemed to come out of nowhere, fully formed, in the late Sixties, both guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist-keyboardist John Paul Jones had years of session playing behind them. Drawing inspiration from Motown records and jazz bassists like Charles Mingus, Jones played on recordings by Donovan, Jeff Beck, and Dusty Springfield, among others, and he arranged the strings for the Rolling Stones’ “She’s a Rainbow”.
So when the time came for him to play the slow-stepping lead lines on “Dazed and Confused” and “What Is and What Should Never Be” or the charging rhythms of “Immigrant Song” and “The Song Remains the Same” — in harmony with Page — it was a cinch. His sense of musicality would guide him well past his time in Led Zeppelin, too. “John silently challenges everyone”, Dave Grohl said around the time he was playing with Jones in Them Crooked Vultures. “His presence makes you play the best you can possibly play, because you don’t want to let him down. And if you can keep up, you’re doing OK.”
Stanley Clarke is a bassist whose career embodies the fusion of rock and jazz, revolutionizing the role of the bass in these genres. Clarke initially began his musical journey as a double bass player with aspirations in classical music. It was his encounter with Chick Corea during a gig that steered him in a new direction.
Clarke and Corea went on to form Return to Forever, one of the prominent jazz groups of the 1970s. In this band, Clarke found a platform to both anchor the low end of the music and emerge as a star soloist. His early solo albums, including “School Days,” showcased his transition into funk and highlighted his astonishing technical proficiency while maintaining a strong sense of groove.
Stanley Clarke’s contributions extended beyond music as he ventured into the realms of film and TV scoring. His influence resonated with musicians from newer generations, with artists like Thundercat acknowledging the importance of Stanley Clarke as a reference point for what is achievable with the bass. Thundercat once stated, “I thank God that there was a Stanley Clarke as a frame of reference to what is possible with the bass.”
Clarke’s impact on the bass was not limited to his exceptional playing; he broke the mold by creating his own band and stepping into the spotlight as a bass virtuoso. As he once put it, “Before I came along, a lot of bass players stood in the back. They were very quiet kind of guys who didn’t appear to write music. But many of those bass players were serious musicians. All that I did was just take the step and create my own band.”
Charlie Haden’s impact on the world of jazz is immeasurable. His ability to infuse even the most contemporary of musical styles with a timeless quality is what set him apart. One can witness this in the iconic opening of “Lonely Woman,” a track from Ornette Coleman’s groundbreaking 1959 album. Haden’s bass melody, accompanied by Billy Higgins’ double-time ride cymbal, creates a sense of timelessness, grounding the music like roots in the earth.
Charlie Haden’s musical journey began in Iowa, where he grew up yodeling country songs on his family’s radio show. It was a performance by the legendary Charlie Parker that ignited his passion for jazz. Moving to Los Angeles for college in the late 1950s, Haden crossed paths with Ornette Coleman, the saxophonist who would lead jazz into its next radical frontier.
Haden became an integral part of Coleman’s vision, providing both strength and elevation to live and studio bands, including a memorable 1968 gig where they backed Yoko Ono. He also carried the Coleman torch in various satellite projects like Old and New Dreams, showcasing his versatility and ability to adapt to different musical contexts.
Charlie Haden’s influence
Charlie Haden’s influence extended to all corners of forward-thinking, open-hearted jazz. He collaborated with renowned artists such as Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, and Alice Coltrane. His politically driven project, the Liberation Music Orchestra, reflected his commitment to using music as a vehicle for change. Haden’s warm and empathic trio with Ginger Baker and Bill Frisell showcased his ability to connect with fellow musicians on a profound level.
His musical range was vast, and he seamlessly worked with artists from different genres, including Ringo Starr, K.D. Lang, and even his son and triplet daughters. Ornette Coleman aptly captured the essence of Charlie Haden’s music when he wrote, “Charlie Haden plays for the existence of the listener,” making him a true musical guru.
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Donald “Duck” Dunn
Memphis native Donald “Duck” Dunn earned his nickname while watching Disney cartoons with his father, a moniker that would stick with him throughout his life. Although not an original member of the influential Stax house band Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Dunn took over bass duties from Lewie Steinberg in 1964 and propelled the group to new heights.
His tenure with the band coincided with the creation of seminal Southern soul records by artists like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and Sam and Dave. Dunn’s bass playing was perfectly suited to the band’s evolving sound, characterized by increased aggressiveness and syncopation. He played a pivotal role in the band’s ability to master various styles, including urbane pop ballads, country-soul shuffles, and uptempo gospel-infused soul.
Listen to Dunn’s quietly descending bass line on the M.G.’s instrumental version of Sam and Dave’s “When Something Is Wrong With My Baby” or the infectious strut that opens Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay.” His contribution to the band was monumental, and as Bootsy Collins once acknowledged, he was a “brick in our musical foundation.”
Donald “Duck” Dunn’s remarkable work extended beyond Stax as he collaborated with an array of rock and pop legends, including Eric Clapton, Stevie Nicks, Bill Withers, and Neil Young. However, it was his influential work with Booker T., Steve Cropper, and Al Jackson that truly redefined popular music. As Peter Frampton aptly stated, “Dunn wrote the book on R&B bass playing.”
Robbie Shakespeare, in collaboration with his rhythmic partner Sly Dunbar, left an indelible mark on the world of reggae. Their immediately recognizable sound and unique style distinguished them in the early 1970s. Sly Dunbar, reflecting on their first encounter, mentioned that it was the fullness of Robbie Shakespeare’s bass playing that caught his attention.
The two musicians went on to collaborate with every major artist of reggae’s golden era, contributing their fluidly melodic yet unshakably solid foundation to classic albums like Culture’s “Two Sevens Clash” and Peter Tosh’s “Equal Rights.” Their mastery of the dub genre was evident in their ability to create a spacious and rhythmic soundscape, which became a hallmark of their music.
As reggae evolved into dancehall in the 1980s, Sly and Robbie adapted seamlessly to the digital context, preserving the organic feel of their music. Their versatility transcended the boundaries of reggae, and they played an essential role in rock and pop albums by artists such as Grace Jones, Talking Heads, Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and many others. Sly and Robbie’s influence on the global music scene was immeasurable, and they played a pivotal role in shaping the sound of Jamaica and sharing it with the world.
Over the decades, Yes underwent various lineup changes, but one constant remained: bassist Chris Squire. Squire was the bedrock of Yes’s sound, and his contributions to the world of prog-rock were monumental. Inspired by bassists like Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, and Paul McCartney, Squire developed a distinctive and melodic tone that became the driving force behind Yes’s music.
His bass work powered Yes through the intricate compositions of the 1970s, with classics like “Close to the Edge” and “Awaken.” In the 1980s, he played an essential role in Yes’s transition into pop with hits like “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” Rick Wakeman, Yes’s former keyboardist, described Squire’s bass playing as taking “the art of making a bass guitar into a lead instrument to another stratosphere.”
Other great bassists
In the pantheon of legendary bassists, the list extends far and wide, showcasing the remarkable diversity of talent within this essential musical role. Among these illustrious names, Rick Danko of The Band stands as a soulful and versatile figure, known for his melodic and emotive bass lines that helped define the Americana genre.
Geezer Butler, the powerhouse behind Black Sabbath’s iconic sound, brought a dark and thunderous dimension to heavy metal with his thunderous bass riffs. Bill Wyman’s impeccable groove contributed significantly to The Rolling Stones’ enduring legacy, and Cliff Burton’s virtuosity and innovative style revolutionized metal with Metallica.
Jazz virtuoso Richard Davis, the Latin maestro Israel Cachao López, and the deeply groovy Aston “Family Man” Barrett of Bob Marley’s Wailers, along with a host of other luminaries on this list, have each left an indelible mark on the world of music, demonstrating the boundless creativity that can be achieved through the bass guitar.
Final Thoughts about the Best Bassists of All Time
These bassists represent a diverse tapestry of talent and innovation in the world of bass playing. Their contributions have not only elevated the role of the bass guitar but have also left an enduring mark on the history of music. Each of these bassists, in their unique way, has expanded the possibilities of what can be achieved on the four strings, reshaping genres and inspiring generations of musicians. Their legacies continue to resonate, reminding us of the profound impact that bassists have had on the evolution of popular music.
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