What do Sly and the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music," The Beatles' "Dear Prudence" and Black Sabbath's "Into the Void" have in common? Not much except this: All of them owe a significant chunk of their awesomeness to their bass lines.
Whether used for its harmonic, rhythmic or brute force capabilities, the bass is both popular music's sexiest instrument and its most under-appreciated. Some of the most influential and widely heard bassists remain virtually faceless to the general public, while others are better known for their vocal or songwriting accomplishments than for their mastery of the bottom end. A handful have become legends, whether through virtuosity, showmanship or both; some died tragically young, but delivered such brilliance in their brief careers that they redefined the four-string's possibilities.
These are L.A. Weekly's picks for the 20 greatest bassists of all time, in any genre.
20. Kim Deal
There's nothing showy about Kim Deal's bass playing. During her tenure with The Pixies, Deal's minimal style was frequently enveloped by the beautiful noise surrounding her. The bass lines peek through on songs like "Monkey Gone to Heaven," "Velouria" and "Here Comes Your Man," but they're always subtle and something that a casual listener might miss. Then there's "Gigantic." Deal has a writing credit and sings lead on the band's first proper single. While that makes the song different from much of the rest of The Pixies' output, it's a good indication of her role with the group. By the time guitars burst through the song, Deal's power as a bassist is clear. She's what kept The Pixies from merely sounding like a racket. — Liz Ohanesian
19. Fred Maddox
While slap bass was developed in Storyville cathouses a hundred years ago, it was Alabama-born, California-based renegade Fred Maddox who made it a rockabilly staple. Idolized by Elvis’ bass thumper Bill Black, Maddox was so successful that at one point in the late 1950s, Columbia Records had two separate contracts on him. But he never learned how to tune or even properly play the bass. Maddox’s raw, percussive style was all frantic staccato — no bass lines, no chords, not a single note of music — but Maddox beat it out so effectively (and physically goofed on it so entertainingly) that he was acknowledged as one of post-war country music’s greatest performers. Whether playing the Grand Ole Opry in 1949 or touring California honky-tonks with Gene Vincent and the Fendermen in the early '60s, Maddox was a show-stopping talent, one with a gleeful, proto-punk disregard for musical and social convention. — Jonny Whiteside
18. Les Claypool
He was too good for Metallica during an infamous audition in 1986. Then again, how could the starry dynamo of slap bass become the next Cliff Burton? Les Claypool, the lunatic fringe of bass, walked away from Metallica to become the best bass player of the ‘90s as Primus' frontman. His signature style (a percussive barrage of slap madness) gave him the decade’s most identifiable sound. His genius is simply too ridiculous for instructional DVDs. The finger-tapping bass line on Primus’ “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” can’t be taught; the rattling demolition on “My Name Is Mud” doesn’t come from practicing scales; “Tommy the Cat” takes funk and slimes it with ectoplasm. He’s the bass playing equivalent to Hunter S. Thompson and mid-‘70s Miles Davis: a free-flowing freak who took center stage and transformed the medium. — Art Tavana
17. Aston Barrett
The iconic reggae tunes of Bob Marley resonate with people around the globe, but they wouldn’t have been nearly as deep had it not been for the efforts of Aston “Family Man” Barrett. Conjuring subatomic grooves with light accents and melodic hooks, the celebrated Wailers bassist — who got his nickname for being the bandleader and chief arranger of Marley’s backing group, and who still leads a version of The Wailers to this day — penned the hummable bass lines for hits like “Stir It Up” and “Jammin’.” But he’s also mentored other bass greats and brought his soulful style to recordings by legends like Lee “Scratch” Perry and Augustus Pablo. So even though he’s been denied royalties for his contributions to Marley’s music, his contributions to reggae as a whole are undeniable. — Peter Holslin
16. Cliff Burton
Few guitarists in the pantheon could out-shred Metallica's dearly departed Cliff Burton — let alone any of the many bassists who would try. Earning his PhD from the Geezer Butler College of Metal Bass Leadership and Innovation, he brought wahs and distortion and all sorts of guitar tricks to his trade. But all that pedal-primed picking was no gimmick; it was a monster breaking out of the still-too-narrowly-defined bass guitar cage. Burton knew exactly how far a low tone man could go in his genre without turning it into farce. He had just three records to his credit before his tragic death at 24, and each one is an ear-melting masterpiece. — Paul T. Bradley
15. Larry Graham
Sly Stone's bass player almost deserves a spot on this list just for "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," a song with a bass line so funky it can make grandparents at a wedding reception shake their asses like horny teenagers. But his entire body of work, with the Family Stone and beyond, brims with equally masterful performances, from the
subtly insistent groove of "If You Want Me to Stay" nimble bounce of "Fun" to the fuzz-tone strut of "Dance to the Music." Widely credited with inventing the "slap and pop" technique that became the blueprint for all subsequent funk and funk-influenced sounds, Graham was both a true innovator and a man whose ability to rock a party with his instrument remains unequaled. — Andy Hermann
14. John Paul Jones
Though he was content to let his bandmates hog the spotlight during the band’s 1970s glory years, John Paul Jones helped make Led Zeppelin a sophisticated and powerful rock outfit with his string arrangements, multi-instrumentalist accompaniment, and classically trained flights of fancy on the band’s epic live versions of “No Quarter.” Still, the dude’s greatest contributions arguably center around his approach to the four-string. Witness the way he takes off on dexterous blues runs on “The Lemon Song,” or summons a beautifully intricate b-line to undergird “Ramble On.” And while some rock stars wither away after a while, Jones’ post-Zep run has been filled with surprises — his tricky turns with recent super-trio Them Crooked Vultures alone make clear that even after all these years, he can still shred with the younger bucks. — Peter Holslin
13. Jaco Pastorius
Jaco Pastorius was a flashy jazz bassist and composer with an astonishing range of electric-bass techniques, including the use of harmonics and thick chords as well as dense, complex runs on fretless bass. He was the rhythmic foundation of Weather Report in the late 1970s and early ’80s, and he helped guide Joni Mitchell further into jazzy mysticism on her 1976 album, Hejira. After leaving Weather Report, Pastorius continued his fertile solo career and also worked with everyone from jazz players like Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Mike Stern to such rockers as Ian Hunter. Tragically, the bassist’s longtime struggles with bipolar disorder and alcoholism eventually led to him living on the streets. Pastorius died at age 35 from injuries suffered in a fight with a bouncer in Florida, but his impressive legacy survives in numerous tributes by such peers as John McLaughlin, Marcus Miller and Metheny. — Falling James
Lemmy wasn't just in one of the most epic bands ever, he was in two. And yes, the word "epic" gets thrown around a lot these days, but we're comfortable using it to describe Hawkwind and Motörhead (don't you dare spell it without der umlaut). Nothing Hawkwind did was ever as good after he left (though we have a soft spot for Sonic Attack), and Motörhead's last album, Aftershock, sits comfortably alongside such classic efforts as Bomber and Another Perfect Day. The dude never fell off. Bassists don't get laid? Tell it to Lemmy, chief. What's your excuse? — Nicholas Pell
11. Donald “Duck” Dunn
A self-taught musician, Donald “Duck” Dunn played deceptively simple bass lines that nonetheless pulsed with a subtly grooving sense of rhythm. He was a longtime member of Booker T & the M.G.’s, but he was also a session bassist for Stax Records, which meant he recorded numerous hit records with Otis Redding, Carla Thomas and Sam & Dave. Later on, he also worked with Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Muddy Waters and Jerry Lee Lewis, and appeared in both Blues Brothers films with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. He died during a tour of Japan in 2012. On tracks like Booker T’s “Time Is Tight” and "Green Onions," and Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose,” Dunn sets everything up with basic but iconic bass lines, often doubled by guitarist Steve Cropper, that not only propel the beat but become hooks themselves. — Falling James
10. Geezer Butler
When describing Mr. Butler’s legacy and importance, one could merely put “Invented heavy metal bass-playing” and that would suffice. But you would miss out explaining the absolutely syrupy thick notes that Geeze can pull off, or how he took his former-guitarist finesse to a previously overlooked instrument in such a way that he changed a generation of fuzz-heads. Without him, metal deities Black Sabbath would have felt a little thinner, a little less ferocious, and significantly more human. For what it’s worth, his work on Master of Reality and Vol. 4 are prime examples of how a great bassist can be innovative, interesting and powerful all at once without overshadowing the rest of the band with excessive exuberance. — Paul T. Bradley
9. Paul McCartney
As The Beatles' resident genius of harmony and melodic counterpoint, Paul McCartney was ideally suited to his instrument, conjuring up crafty bass lines that added all sorts of nooks and crannies to otherwise straightforward pop tunes like "Drive My Car," "Birthday" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand." As a sustainer of hypnotic grooves, he remains weirdly underrated; take away his contributions to "Dear Prudence" and "Come Together" and much of their air of exotic mystery is lost. He would go on to craft more indelible bass lines with Wings and as a solo artist, but his crowning achievement remains the 14-minute medley that closes out Abbey Road. It's a master class in rock bass that any student of the four-string would do well to analyze. — Andy Hermann
8. James Jamerson
You’ve probably heard James Jamerson’s masterful bass playing hundreds of times, even if you don’t know recognize the name. As one of the Detroit session musicians known as The Funk Brothers, Jamerson laid down the bass tracks on virtually every Motown hit record in the 1960s and early 1970s. Instead of just playing the root notes and making the bass a background instrument, Jamerson had a fluid style that often echoed and deepened the hook melodies of the singers and other instruments. And, unlike many players who utilize flashy string-slapping techniques, Jamerson moved seamlessly up and down the bass’ neck like a cat padding around on soft paws. Despite his prowess, Jamerson was rarely credited on those classic Motown recordings, and he wasn’t fully appreciated by the public (as well as such acolytes as John Entwistle and Geddy Lee) until well after his untimely death in 1983. — Falling James
7. Peter Hook
There are hints of Peter Hook's future influence as a bassist back in the Joy Division days. "Transmission" is the obvious example. He owns that song with a raw throb that foreshadows the urgency in Ian Curtis' voice. In a way, it's a more important song for the band than "Love Will Tear Us Apart," the tune that set the template for the post-punk revivalists that came decades later. But Hook didn't truly come into his own until New Order. Indeed part of the reason New Order could produce as many dance jams as it has was because of Hook. A good beat can get your feet on the floor, but it is Hook's bass, a melodic guide rather than supporting groove, that will keep you there. — Liz Ohanesian
6. Mike Watt
The flannel shirt wearing co-founder of The Minutemen never allowed the limits ‘80s hardcore to stifle his creativity. For Mike Watt, “punk” didn’t mean downstroking with a pick. Just listen to The Minutemen’s masterpiece, Double Nickels on the Dime (1984), to hear him introduce experimental Mingus jazz, swamp rock, Motown, funk and even some beat poetry to SoCal hardcore. Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers spent a career trying to sound like Watt; Iggy hired him to play bass for the Stooges; and in the process, Watt gave punk bass the blueprint to emerge from muffled background noise. Watt wasn’t just punk rock’s most gifted bass player, he was also the scene’s Philosopher King, the guy who redefined punk as artistic freedom and iconoclasm, not just leather jackets and sped-up Chuck Berry riffs. — Art Tavana
5. Tina Weymouth
Talking Heads' bassist had never touched the instrument when her boyfriend (now husband), drummer Chris Frantz, first enlisted her to join the group in 1975. But her combination of naivete and natural talent led her to devise a wholly new way to approach rock & roll bass — a mix of funk syncopation, post-punk sparseness and her own melodic instincts, all of which rooted David Byrne's wildest flights of freaked-out alienation in earthy punk-funk rhythms and helped give Talking Heads their distinctive, jittery sense of groove. From the opening, strutting bass hook of "Psycho Killer" to busy Afrobeat jams of their final album, 1988's Naked, Weymouth was the band's heart, soul and pulse, with a style that's been imitated but seldom equaled by thousands of would-be "dance-rock" bassists in the decades since. — Andy Hermann
4. Charles Mingus
A virtuoso and tireless composer, Mingus could easily be top 20 in any number of instrumental categories, but he will be forever and inextricably linked to that bull fiddle. Before Whiplash made persnickety jazz men all the rage, Charles Mingus practically invented the role. The "Angry Man of Jazz" had his demons — a prickly nature with fellow musicians and mouth-punching irascibility with fans and friends — but he poured enough of that fervor into the bass to produce genius. It’s as if the massively-framed Mingus’ only worthy sparring partner was that big maplewood beast, and together they made each other more than the sum of their own parts. If you need a reminder, the weight his low notes put on “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” could vibe you right out of your shorts. — Paul T. Bradley
3. John Entwistle
Before John Entwistle invented his piston-like fingering technique, bass players were the rock & roll equivalent of Art Garfunkel: the uncool backup performer. Entwistle wasn't that. In fact, he was downright flashy, modulating the bass guitar into a booming machine fueled by shiny treble, thunderous crunch and speed that would lay the groundwork for heavy metal. His bass solo on 1965’s "My Generation" was the first time anyone with six strings feared four. “Thunderfingers” wasn't just his nickname; it was an anatomical glitch that made his bass sound like Hendrix meets Thelonious Monk. The mere notion of a bass guitarist turning up to 11 (at the request of his guitar player, Pete Townshend), happened because Entwistle gave the bass the Darwinian push it needed to evolve into rock’s greatest secret weapon. (Start the above video at around 1:45 to hear the mighty Ox in all his glory.) — Art Tavana
2. Bootsy Collins
If the bass has long been a background instrument — something you hear without necessarily noticing it’s there — Bootsy Collins flipped the script and made it a star. Literally, the man is a cosmic character of his own design, aiming for the Hendrix-ian stratosphere with gnarly, juicy, effects-drenched bass riffs while always rocking his trademark star sunglasses and “space bass.” Of course, Bootsy knows the fundamentals: He was trained in the art of bulletproof, no-frills groove by James Brown. But he also helped lay the groundwork for future funk sounds as a member of Parliament-Funkadelic, and today he’s still getting down, having collaborated with everybody from Snoop Dogg to Samuel Jackson on his latest album, 2011’s Tha Funk Capital of the World. All in all, it’s safe to say he’s made the oft-submerged world of bass a much more vibrant place. — Peter Holslin
1. Carol Kaye
She started out as a guitarist, but in a serendipitous studio moment, Carol Kaye was asked to fill in on bass and a session legend was born. Trained in jazz, Kaye's mastery of the instrument gave her the ability to move across genres fluidly, as she played on pop, soul, rock and film and TV music recordings. She brought the grooviness to Sonny and Cher's hit, "The Beat Goes On," and played on numerous Beach Boys tunes. She instilled the Mission Impossible theme with a dose of tension and added to the epic sounds of "River Deep, Mountain High."
See also: 8 Classic Songs Featuring Carol Kaye
A prolific bassist with the technical chops to quickly knock out hit after hit, Kaye's resume alone would catapult her to the top of this list. To call her a genius would be an understatement; she played on the songs that sparked many a music obsession and prompted multiple generations of musicians to pick up an instrument. As accomplished as she is, Kaye still shares her skills with others. She has released multiple tutorial books, CDs and DVDs. Plus, she offers private guitar and bass lessons over Skype. How cool is that? — Liz Ohanesian
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Note: Earlier versions of this story included a live video of Parliament-Funkadelic's "Flash Light," which Bootsy Collins did not play bass on, and also inaccurately credited Larry Graham with playing bass on "If You Want Me to Stay," which was recorded by Rustee Allen after Graham left the Family Stone in 1972. We regret the errors.