The 20 Best Bassists of All Time

C'mon, you knew the Cute One was gonna be on the list somewhere
C'mon, you knew the Cute One was gonna be on the list somewhere
Columbia Records (file photo)

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

12. Lemmy

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

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