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Four strings is really all you need to make a song swing – just ask a bass player. While bassists in general have always been underrated, today we are shining the spotlight on 10 of the best bass players of all-time. Check out our picks below.
Esperanza Spalding makes playing the upright bass look effortless. Her background is impressive: at five years old, she performed violin in the Chamber Music Society of Oregon, a feat that not many musicians can say they’ve reached. She started out self-taught, another feat in itself. She’s the first jazz artist to earn the Best New Artist title at the Grammys – again, another accomplishment that only Spalding herself can claim. One of the highlights of her career thus far is her performance alongside jazz great Herbie Hancock honoring fellow bassist Sting at The Kennedy Center Honors in 2014. Her rendition of fellow bass player Sting‘s “Fragile” is one for the books. Additionally, Spalding’s stellar NPR Tiny Desk performance has garnered over one million views to-date.
Aussie native Tal Wilkenfeld is a force to be reckoned with. Recruited by guitarist Jeff Beck to play bass on his live tours, Wilkenfeld has made a name for herself as both a touring musician and independent artist. Her playing style is chameleonic, with frequent tonal shifts from jazz to rock and everything in between at a song’s notice. She’s been holding it down for Jeff Beck’s live shows since 2007, while also releasing solo albums.
In her 2019 interview with Rolling Stone, Wilkenfeld reflected on her career, and what her experience has been playing alongside so many legendary musicians.
“What surprised me – just because rock & roll gets such a bad rap – is how unbelievably intelligent and forward thinking they are,” she said. “From Mick Jagger to Pete Townshend, Jackson Browne to Leonard Cohen, Jeff Beck. These guys are so smart and so inspiring to be around.”
Transformation, her first full length release, and Love Remains both bring Wilkenfeld’s songwriting skills to the forefront. Her punchy riffs paired with her jazz background make her playing sound stand out from the rest. Oh, and did we mention she’s a stellar vocalist too?
Flea brought slap bass to the main stage of the 1990s. The Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist is the driving force behind the funk elements of the hard rock-leaning quartet with his unique style of playing. Alternating between fast punk-style eighth note riffs and groovy slap bass, Flea gives the band’s hard rock sound a twist. RHCP’s well-known cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” centers around Flea’s slap bassline, originally played on synths by Wonder. Back in 2009, he released an instructional video series on his playing technique that has become a tried-and-true resource for many beginner bassists. Currently, he is gearing up for the annual Boston Calling Music Festival, which Red Hot Chili Peppers are set to headline.
Paul McCartney’s bass player duties as frontman of The Beatles often got overlooked due to his singing capabilities that made fans swoon worldwide. His straightforward picking style allows tunes like “Day Tripper” and “When I Saw Her Standing There” to groove to their fullest potential. His allegiance to the use of his Höfner bass made the model skyrocket in popularity, solidifying its place in the lineup of classic bass guitar models. It goes without saying that his style of both playing and songwriting shaped a generation of musicians (and bassists) to follow.
Les Claypool took bass theory and turned it upside down. His playing style lends to a host of techniques, including flamenco-esque strumming patterns, tapping, and string bending. (And let’s not forget the unconventional whammy bar he proudly sports on most of his basses.) He’s the only member of funk-rock group Primus that’s been a member of the band from the start, which might explain how bass-heavy their discography is. “Tommy The Cat” has become a staple song for those striving to reach slap bass greatness – if you can nail that riff, you’ve made it.
While her name may not ring a bell, her famous bass lines certainly will. Carol Kaye, resident bassist of the Wrecking Crew, has played bass for over 10,000 recordings in the span of her impressive 50 year career. She’s responsible for iconic riffs for number-one hits such as Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On,” “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys, and Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman.” Her session work portfolio is extensive, providing bass for notable artists such as Stevie Wonder, Simon and Garfunkel, Frank Sinatra, and The Monkees. The number of songs that rely solely on the guidance of Kaye’s catchy, smart basslines is innumerable. She was featured in the 2008 documentary The Wrecking Crew, where she candidly shared her experiences on what it was like being a woman session bassist in the male-dominant recording industry of the 1960s. Just like any bassist would simply put it, Kaye held it down, and still does to this day.
Bassist, Grammy Award winner, and music educator Victor Wooten wears more hats than we can count. In conjunction with his solo work, he’s been playing bass for Béla Fleck and the Flecktones since the band’s start in 1988 and more recently for metal group Nitro that formed in 2017. He’s the only musician to win the Bass Player of the Year Award from Bass Player Magazine more than once. (He’s copped the title three times, to be exact.) But it’s his passion for the craft and impressive playing technique that has earned him all these accolades. His style combines elements of funk, jazz, and R&B with a myriad of playing methods. His level of speed and agility shows just how comfortable of a player he is, gliding along the fretboard with ease.
To top it all off, he has dedicated much of his career to teaching other budding musicians. Wooten is a visiting scholar at Berklee College of Music, among other music education institutions. He also founded the Victor Wooten Center for Music and Nature, which offers various classes that combine music education with the outdoors to bring out each student’s natural talents and abilities.
Let’s face it: you can’t talk about the best bassists of all time without bringing up Geddy Lee (and rightfully so.) Writing and performing basslines as intricate as Rush’s is a feat within itself. Throw in singing and you might be part-bass God, which Geddy Lee may just be. As lead singer, bassist, and keyboardist/synth wizard of prog rock trio Rush, Geddy Lee took the bar for prog bassists and threw it into the stratosphere in 1970. Hits like “Tom Sawyer,” “YYZ,” and “The Spirit of Radio” are all propelled by Lee’s high-pitched vocal range and elaborate basslines. Aside from his bass playing chops, we’d also like to add that he is the only frontman who can pull off wearing his own band t-shirt while performing at his own concerts.
Aside from creating the ultra melodic, liquid-smooth Led Zeppelin basslines we’ve come to know and love, John Paul Jones is a prolific session musician at heart. Both on bass and behind the soundboard, he’s a jack-of-all-trades musician. Jones has played bass and arranged albums for a great deal of notable acts such as The Rolling Stones, Jeff Beck, and Donovan. With Led Zeppelin, his ability to make the low end sound so ridiculously smooth and sultry is pure musical sorcery. Just give the first minute of “Ramble On” a listen and you’ll know exactly what we mean. Since his Led Zeppelin heyday, he’s gone on to continue his active career as a session player, and has joined forces with other big names to form supergroups. The formation of Them Crooked Vultures led Jones, former Nirvana drummer and current Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl, and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme together to release a bass-driven hard rock album for the ages. While TCV’s music is a bit quirkier and darker than Zeppelin’s, JPJ’s signature playing style shines brightly on tracks like “New Fang” and “Elephant.”
Master of the fretless bass and Joni Mitchell’s musical partner-in-crime, Jaco Pastorius broke the mold. His sound and style merged every unconventional playing method in the book – low-end jazz chords, pitch harmonics, and his creative utilization of early looper pedals were just some of the elements that made up his impressive technique. His work with Weather Report and Pat Metheny led him to the ears of Joni Mitchell, who recruited him to contribute his talents on her albums such as Mingus and Hejira. A true master of his instrument, he was known to strut every stage with a fretless bass slung over his shoulder, an axe that many bassists shied away from at the time. For Jaco, the fretless bass was his weapon of choice. Gone too soon, he passed away at the young age of 35 from mental illness-related issues. We’ll always have his groovy basslines to remember his energetic spirit. Here’s to you, Jaco.