The 10 Greatest Rock Bassists of All Time

Categories: Lists

me-billy.jpg
Me (right), God help me, and Billy Sheehan circa 1990.
Last week, Neph Basedow wrote her list of the 11 greatest female rock bass players and she took a little heat for it, including some from me. But, she also got a lot right. At the very least, she highlighted the most under-appreciated musician in rock music, the bassist.

I should know; I started playing the instrument almost 30 years ago. Like many others, I wanted to be really good, but it was tough when everyone thought you were playing the easiest instrument on the planet. As I've answered many times to people who ask if that is true, "It's probably the easiest to learn, but likely the most difficult to be great at." Bassists have limited resources and, especially in rock music, are relegated to holding down the spot between the drummer and the guitarist (unless you're in the Black Keys or the White Stripes).

But anyone who has played with a great bassist and then played with a shitty one knows just how important a distinction it is. So, I thought it might be a good idea to make my own list, but I'll stick with some of Neph's premises; namely, no session musicians (bye bye, Chuck Rainey and Will Lee), only people in bands inarguably playing rock music (see ya, Paul McCartney, James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins) and no one doing a lot of instrumental music (so long, Tony Levin and Victor Wooten). Oh, and I've had enough 11s lately, so I'm sticking with 10.

10. Billy Sheehan (Talas, David Lee Roth, Mr. Big)

Perhaps it's the haze of hairspray in the 80s that causes so many to overlook one of the great innovators of rock bass playing, but there is no denying that Sheehan was shredding with the best of the guitar players (still is) when that meant something in rock music.

9. Christopher Wolstenholme (Muse)

I hesitated to include anyone super recent who wasn't a speed metal guy, but the reality is that Wolstenholme belongs on this list. The guy not only has chops out the ying yang, he can hold down a groove and carve out a spot in a band as layered and tightly packed as you'll find in music.

8. Jack Bruce (Cream)

There are certain guys that precede nearly everyone and form the equivalent of the founding fathers of rock bass and Bruce is one of them. His beefy, blues-based riffs that held down one of the great trios in music history easily earn him a top 10 nod.

7. Les Claypool (Primus)

Normally, the weirdest guy in the building on bass, Claypool is often also the most talented. He transcended traditional rock bass at a time when most everyone played it safe. He went as far out on a limb as you can go and was good enough that everyone went with him.

6. (tie) Cliff Burton (Metallica) and Steve Harris (Iron Maiden)

I put these two giants of metal bass together because they were both innovators who, in many ways, were the true voices of their respective bands. Burton, in look and in sound, was terrifying and original in a way that Metallica could never reclaim after his death. Harris taught a legion of musicians that you could build a damn groovy backbeat underneath a wall of distorted guitars.


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63 comments
bass guitar picks
bass guitar picks

It is just right that bass guitar players are in the spotlight as they deserve to be recognized too. There are definitely a lot of bassists who are great at what they do but are just overshadowed by other guitar players. This post’s feature of the greatest rock bassists is a nice one!

Kevin
Kevin

Well, of course a list like this is never perfect... You forgot Lemmy! I can't think of a more purely "rock 'n roll" bass player, or person, than him! You also forgot Geezer Butler! And Dickie Peterson (RIP) deserves at least an honorable mention.

And speaking of John Entwistle, this is my favorite video of him:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...

joeortiz
joeortiz

Brian Gibson. Lighting Bolt.

SS
SS

I still don't get why you don't consider Paul McCartney to be a "rock" bass player. Every player on this list will tell you the he was a big influence on their playing. And, I would have included John Wetton and Chris Squire to this list. 

If you do a general bass player list, please consider Jeff Berlin. I've studied with Jeff, Gary Willis, and many others. I met Jaco, I've met Billy Sheehan (learned NV43345 and Portrait of Tracy when I was 13) jammed with Stanley Clarke and studied the work of many great bass players. But I'll tell you now, no one, not even Jaco or John Patitucci has the hands, the technique, or the overall musical ability of Jeff berlin. He's the "Einstein", or Michael Jordan of bass playing and I don't think there will be anyone ever quite as good as him ever. If he's not first on your list, fine, different strokes for different folks, but I can say without any bias that he is the greatest bass player ever.

Landru141
Landru141

This list is absurd without Paul McCartney ... can you sing and play "All My Lovin" at the same time? They are two seperate melody lines.  The guy is the master.

MASSMURDERMEDIA
MASSMURDERMEDIA

since you qualified this as rock bassist and not bass guitarist, i'm gonna suggest ray manzarek should get some props for playing keyboard bass alongside his regular keyboard duties...

ron burgandy
ron burgandy

I was going to be pissed if you brain farted and left out Entwistle (all one has to do is put on 'Can You See the Real Me' on the album Quadraphonia...case closed, game over, thanks for coming) and JP Jones (1st album listen to JPJ just rip thru the entire song 'Good Times, Bad Times'...just witchcraft on the bass)....

MadMac
MadMac

All quibbles aside, this was a very good list, Mr. Balke.

Dsmith702
Dsmith702

Whiskey...Tango...Foxtrot!!!No Jack Cassidy?And if you listen very closely, McCartney is a genius.

Darth
Darth

No Paul McCartney?

This list is hereby irrelevant!

Early Cuyler
Early Cuyler

David Wm. Sims- The Jesus Lizard

By the way, thanks for making me snort lemonade out of my nose when I saw your Music Store That Ate My Brain t-shirt, I had totally forgotten about those.

an old guy
an old guy

His band never got past a cult following, their last two albums were horrible, and maybe they were more prog than rock, but I've never seen a better bass player for my tastes than Ray Shulman of Gentle Giant. It probably had to do with his having a classical rather than jazz background like that of Jack Bruce, my second favorite.

MASSMURDERMEDIA
MASSMURDERMEDIA

the dude from cheap trick cheats, using 12 strings...

Merlyn12
Merlyn12

Awesome list!  I know these are (for the most part) completely subjective.  Did you consider John Myung of Dream Theater, Platypus, The Jelly Jam, Explorers Club, Gordian Knot, Nightmare Cinema, and Nicky Lemmons and the Migrane Brothers?  He is extremely skillful and can do things with a bass which some bassists don't even know is possible.  :)

Classic Rock Bob
Classic Rock Bob

Gotta say what about Tim Bogert of Vanilla Fudge/Cactus? Played bass like a lead instrument, and so underrated. 

MASSMURDERMEDIA
MASSMURDERMEDIA

sid vicious clearly had more chops and imagination than any bass player in the history of rock...  he just never applied them to an actual bass guitar...

wms
wms

No Bill Wyman, no Rolling Stones.

Joe
Joe

It's hard to make everyone happy on Top Ten Lists but Chris from Muse should not be in the top 50. Geezer Butler, McCartney & Squire for sure but what about Phil Lesh?

Uncle Bernie
Uncle Bernie

I was going through the list and kept saying "where the hell is John Entwhistle?" in my head (I'm a notoriously impatient man) and then I saw he was number 1 ;)  Top tens are really hard because subjectivity is almost impossible to toss aside and there are sooo many choices.   To throw in my own obscure addition (or omission), Prakash John did some amazing stuff with the lineups that toured with both Alice Cooper (first band he had after firing his original band) and Lou Reed (Rock 'n' Roll Animal).

Phil Butane
Phil Butane

Very good list Jeff!  The only thing that I would have done differently would have been to replace Steve Harris and Cliff Burton with Geezer Butler.  I think that Geezer was more of an innovator for his time and a greater overall influence in the history of rockdom.

april5k
april5k

GO TO WIKIPEDIA RIGHT NOW. TYPE IN "CAROL KAYE" I AM SICK OF YOU DOING YOUR JOBS FOR YOU.

Jeff
Jeff

Geezer is in my top 20 -- a couple others have mentioned him in the comments and I acknowledged him as such. Lemmy is a good call and would probably make my top 20 as well.

Jeff
Jeff

I consider McCartney one of the all-time greats, truly. But, there is a healthy debate that rages about whether or not the Beatles were a rock band. For every person who says they are, there is another who says no.

Honestly, I don't care about that debate at all. I was just trying to stick within a very narrowly defined set of parameters another writer put together. 

I wouldn't do a general list because, in all honesty, I have no idea how I would whittle that down in the slightest. I've listened to Jeff Berlin since I was a young player. I used to own his instructional video tape. He is a masterfully skilled musician.

Jeff
Jeff

Obviously.

Jeff
Jeff

Did you actually read the beginning of the post or any of the half dozen responses in the comments to the EXACT SAME QUESTION?

MadMac
MadMac

I obviously didn't listen closely enough. But then the Beatles make me want to kick puppies. I love puppies, kitties, and basses but Primus makes me want to set kitties, puppies, and basses on fire. Using Les Claypool's spindly little neck as kindling. But that's just me.

Jeff
Jeff

Casady is in my top 20. See previous comment (and others) for my response to McCartney.

Jeff
Jeff

From the THIRD PARAGRAPH (and several response to other commenters):

"I'll stick with some of Neph's premises; namely, no session musicians (bye bye, Chuck Rainey and Will Lee), only people in bands inarguably playing rock music (see ya, Paul McCartney, James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins) and no one doing a lot of instrumental music (so long, Tony Levin and Victor Wooten)."

Jeff
Jeff

I used to work there. :)

Jeff
Jeff

Another fave. Good one.

Jeff
Jeff

I definitely considered Myung. He is brilliant, but I felt like he veered a little too much into the Tony Levin category of fusion artists. LIke I said, I was REALLY trying to narrow this down to make it easier and make the selections as relevant as possible. Even then, getting it down to 10 was tough.

Jeff
Jeff

Another really good choice. He was on my short list. Bogert, Geezer, Squire, Wyman, Lesh, Casady and Woody were all in my 11-20.

Jeff
Jeff

See a couple of my responses above. In my top 20, just not my top 10.

Jeff
Jeff

I mentioned him earlier. He is also in my top 20. In fact, I almost put him in, so he is very close. VERY close.

Jeff
Jeff

Phil Lesh and Geezer also in my top 20. Squire was probably my 11. McCartney was not within my narrow criteria (third paragraph). 

Jeff
Jeff

Geezer is in my top 20. I hear where you are coming from.

Jeff
Jeff

Please read any of the previous mentions I made of her and the criteria for my list so I don't have to do your job for you. :)

Adam Castaneda
Adam Castaneda

No need to shout. Although Carol Kaye is incredible and widely influential, I don't know if I would consider her a "rock" bassist. If we expand the definition of rock we would have to  include Jaco Pastorius, Charles Mingus, James Jamerson etc. -- Adam (bassist for Los Skarnales, Ryan Scroggins & the Trenchtown Texans, The Suffers, Lower Life Form)

SS
SS

It's hard to classify bands into genres. But, The Beatles were closer to rock than anything else. I think the difficulty is that they transcended classification because of the amount of songwriting talent, George Martin, and the how far their vocabulary extended. Personally I'm not for classifications, but I don't see how, if you're going to classify The Beatles into a category, it can be anything other than rock. They're only generally played on rock radio, their music is found under rock categories, and despite classical theorist trying to analyze their music as if they're classical musicians, all that proves is that they had a good sense of style and form, not that they weren't rock musicians. Are The Who not rock because they tried a "rock opera"? The Beatles just expanded the rock vocabulary, that's all. They're a rock band - just a very smart rock band.

Anyway, Jeff, you did a good job with 10.

SS

Jeff
Jeff

Honestly, I'm not a big fan of Claypool either - just not my thing, musically - but the guy is a monster.

Darth
Darth

I maintain - "With a Little Help from My Friends"? "Something"? "Paperback Writer"?? McCartney taught the bass to sing and be melodic. I hear Sir Paul's bass part on AT LEAST those three more than anything else in the mixes of those songs. And The Beatles were a rock band. At least they thought of themselves in that way.

Merlyn12
Merlyn12

I can totally understand that.  Though he can play straight "rock", he usually has more of a fusion-ish style.  It's great enough that you were able to narrow everyone down to 10.  I'd probably just keep increasing the number until I gave up.  :)

MadMac
MadMac

Funny, my favor bass riff in any Stones song is "Sympathy for the Devil," and Keith laid that one down.

MadMac
MadMac

Wasn't gonna comment but this is the second McCartney gripe. Full disclosure, I'm not a Beatles fan, less a Lenon/McCartney fan. That said, it always seemed to me that Mr. McCartney aspired to piano, guitar, banjo, anything other than the bottom.

MadMac
MadMac

I'm a life-long Geddy Lee fan and Jaco Pastorius, (RIP) made jazz accessible for me. He, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Wayman Tisdale, (RIP) remind folks of what the bottom means. But no, not rock. 

Jeff
Jeff

Like I said "inarguably" and there is an argument to be made and has been made by many.

Look, I love McCartney. There was no single greater influence on me, musically, than the Beatles, so you're preaching to the choir. I actually did a list of my 10 favorite bass players on my own blog a couple months back and he was on it. But, I was trying to follow a set of rules already out there, so, as much as I love the guy, he didn't fit the standard for THIS list.

MadMac
MadMac

He didn't want to play bass. That's why it sounded melodic. Which kinda defeats the purpose of a rhythm insturment in a band with two guitars already.

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