30 amazing unsung bassists (in no particular order)
25th Feb 2013 | 12:10
So, in no particular order, what follows is a celebration of 30 of the most influential and talented individuals ever to strap on a bass guitar. The unsung heroes of the bottom end. First up, a man who was a key member of two of England's greatest ever rock 'n' roll bands...
The much missed Ronnie ‘Plonk’ Lane played some great bass in The Small Faces and the Faces. Check out songs like Tin Soldier by The Small Faces (the bass is almost as big as Plonk in the clip!) and the Faces cover of Macca’s Maybe I’m Amazed (see below).
By the way, the beautiful Tony Zemaitis bass that Ronnie played in the Faces is now owned by Bob Daisley (Ozzy, Rainbow, Uriah Heep etc). Bob also has a Harmony H22 bass, the same model that Ronnie used in the early days of The Small Faces. Read about both basses here. As a diminutive genius called Steve Marriott once said, "and now for your delight, the darling of Wapping Wharf launderette, Ronald 'Leafy' Lane!"
Band(s): The Small Faces, Faces
Gear: Harmony H22 bass, Zemaitis
Listen: The Faces - Maybe I'm Amazed
For this writer’s money Tommy Cogbill was the greatest bassist ever. Hey, it's just an opinion. Tommy made his bones laying down the bass on records like Aretha Franklin’s 1967 hit cover of Otis Redding’s soul classic Respect, the recording of which took place at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Tommy produced even greater work at American Sound Studio in Memphis. Among the sides he cut there were Dusty Springfield’s Son Of A Preacher Man, Memphis Soul Stew by King Curtis and two Elvis Presley classics: In The Ghetto and Kentucky Rain. Tommy died in 1982 but man, what a body of work he left behind.
Band: Session ace
Gear: 1959 Fender Precision Bass, Ampeg B-15
Listen: Elvis Presley - Kentucky Rain
Larry Graham is widely credited as the man who invented electric slap bass, although session ace Louis Johnson has also staked a claim. Graham, who was the bassist in Sly & The Family Stone and his own group Graham Central Station, described his slap technique as 'Thumpin' and Pluckin'.'
When you consider the sheer number of bassists that slap (deep breath: Bootsy Collins, Flea, Les Claypool, Marcus Miller... oh, the list is endless) Graham’s contribution to the bass guitar has been huge. Here’s a lesson on the art of thumpin’ and pluckin’ from the man himself and an awesome clip of Larry getting down with his bad self.
Band(s): Graham Central Station, Sly & The Family Stone
Gear: Fender Jazz Bass
Listen: Graham Central Station - Pow
Rick Danko first picked up the bass when he was playing rhythm guitar in rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkin’s band The Hawks. Ronnie fired his bassist then asked Rick to switch to bass. We’re compressing the timeline a bit but The Hawks would eventually evolve into The Band, backing Bob Dylan along the way.
The Band’s greatest moment was also their last: the concert movie The Last Waltz directed by Martin Scorsese. Shot at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on 26 November 1976, the movie finds Danko and the band in top form, joined by friends like Eric Clapton, Van Morrison and Muddy Waters. Check out Rick’s bass intro on Don’t Do It.
Band(s): The Hawks, The Band
Gear: Gibson Ripper, Fender Jazz Bass, Fender Bass VI, Ampeg AUB-1
Listen: The Band - Don’t Do It
Dee Dee Ramone
Douglas Glenn Colvin, better known as Dee Dee, was the bassist for the original and greatest punk band The Ramones. Along with Paul Simonon of The Clash, and Sex Pistol Sid Vicious, Dee Dee helped cement the white Fender Precision as the archetypal punk bass, even though he occasionally used sunburst and black examples.
Dee Dee was a troubled soul who would eventually succumb to his addictions in 2002 but he continues to inspire legions of kids to pick up the bass guitar. Speaking of which, if this clip of The Ramones blasting through Blitzkrieg Bop doesn’t make you want to form a band then go take up playing the spoons or sumthin’. As for the rest of you: Hey! Ho! Let’s go!
Band: The Ramones
Gear: Fender Musicmaster Bass, Fender Precision Bass (various)
Listen: The Ramones - Blitzkrieg Bop (live)
Donald 'Duck' Dunn
Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn’s big moment came in 1965 when he replaced Lewie Steinberg as bassist for Booker T & The MGs. The group, which also featured guitarist Steve Cropper, became the house band for Stax Records in Memphis.
Duck and the boys would go on to provide backing for some of the greatest blues and soul artists including Albert King, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Isaac Hayes and William Bell. He’s also well known as a member of The Blues Brothers Band; Duck starred in the 1980 Blues Brothers movie alongside his Stax compadre Steve Cropper. While Donald has played some killer lines during his career, one of our all-time faves is his playing on She Caught The Katy from the Blues Brothers soundtrack. Hit it!
Band(s): Booker T & The MGs, The Blues Brothers Band
Gear: Fender Precision Bass, Lakland 44-64 Custom
Listen: The Blues Brothers - She Caught The Katy
We have to say that Bernard Edwards was a surprising omission from your nominations for the 25 greatest bass players of all time.
Edwards played some of the greatest funk and disco bass lines ever recorded. We’re talkin‘ Chic classics like Le Freak, Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah), Everybody Dance and of course, Good Times. Bernard’s bassline on Good Times was hugely influential in the development of hip-hop. The Sugarhill Gang sampled him on their 1979 hit Rapper’s Delight, the first hip-hop record to break the Top 40 in the US. Check out that iconic bassline in its original badass setting below.
Gear: Music Man StingRay, BC Rich Eagle
Listen: Chic - Good Times (live)
John Deacon played some complex lines on Queen tracks like You’re My Best Friend and Don’t Stop Me Now. Listen closely and you’ll see what we mean. After an early encounter with a Rickenbacker 4001, John settled on the Fender Precision Bass as his main instrument: a ’62 sunburst and a ’67 model as a backup. He later stripped the lacquer off both basses leaving them with a natural finish.
John has retired from the music business - let’s hope he sorted out a decent pension. Let’s remind ourselves, if we really have to, what a fantastic bassist he is with some classic Queen. On the bass... John Deacon... he wrote this...
Gear: Fender Precision Bass
Listen: Queen - You’re My Best Friend
What... no Geezer Butler in the 25 greatest bass players of all time rankings? You’re having a laugh. As the bottom end of Black Sabbath, Geezer invented detuned, heavy as hell, metal bass. There may be faster, louder or even hairier metal players making bowels move involuntarily these days but Geezer kicked the bleedin’ door down in the first place.
Although he’s played a Fender Precision Bass and a Rickenbacker 4001 in the past, Geezer is currently using Lakland basses: two Joe Osborn Signature models and a Bob Glaub Signature. Next time you’re voting for the best bass player don’t forget your old pal Terence...
Band(s): Black Sabbath, GZR, Heaven & Hell
Gear: Fender Precision Bass, Rickenbacker 4001, Lakland basses
Listen: Black Sabbath - Black Sabbath (live in 1970)
Of all the bassists featured in this, er, feature, Mark Sandman of Morphine was perhaps the most unconventional and inventive. He's also sorely missed. Mark's unique approach to bass - he played slide on a two string homemade instrument - in turn gave Morphine their unique sound.
Sadly, Mark passed away in 1999. His passing didn’t result in the usual explosion of retrospective interest in an artist’s body of work. As it is, Morphine remain one of those bands that people turn each other onto. Let's hope we've done just that here. Incidentally, Waterstone Musical Instruments has produced a Mark Sandman Tribute Bass. We’ll take a blue one thanks.
Gear: Homemade two-string bass
More info: www.lukin.com/tos/
Listen: Morphine - Shame (live)
It’s great that James Jamerson has received the recognition that his immense talent deserves but he wasn’t the only great bassist at Motown. Bob Babbitt was a member of The Funk Brothers, the Motown studio band, from 1966 to 1972.
Initially brought in to cover for Jamerson, who had developed a drinking problem, Babbitt would lend his talent to stone cold classics such as Tears Of A Clown by Smokey Robinson And The Miracles, Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours and War by Edwin Starr. While many consider Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On as a classic Jamerson record it’s worth remembering that it was actually Bob who played on the tracks Mercy, Mercy Me, Right On, Wholly Holy and Inner City Blues.
Band(s): Motown session legend, The Funk Brothers
Gear: Fender Precision Bass
Find out more:www.bobbabbitt.com
Listen: The Temptations - Ball Of Confusion (That’s What The World Is Today)
Jerry Scheff has played with Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond and jazz guitar legends like Barney Kessel and Howard Roberts. While Jerry famously played bass on The Doors’ classic LA Woman, his biggest claim to fame is his role as bassist in Elvis Presley’s TCB (Taking Care Of Business) live backing band in the '70s.
The bassist still tours with the TCB band, minus Elvis for obvious reasons. You can find out more at the TCB fansite. Although he used Fender basses with The King, Jerry has his own Lakland signature model. This beautiful looking bass has a pair of Dano style ‘lipstick tube’ pickups coupled to a preamp. Go here to hear the Lakland do its thing.
Band(s): Session ace, TCB Band
Gear: Fender Precision, Lakland Jerry Scheff Signature Bass
Listen: Elvis Presley - Suspicious Minds (live)
Pete Quaife, who sadly passed away in June this year, was a founding member and bassist of The Kinks from 1963 to 1969. John Entwistle of The Who cited Pete as one of his favourite bassists of all time. It’s easy to see why.
Pete was the engine room of The Kinks; the same role that Entwistle filled for his group. Pete’s genius is all over The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, his personal favourite of the albums he made with the band. Tracks like Johnny Thunder and Picture Book showcase the man’s talent. While Pete effectively left the music business in 1970 his work with The Kinks marks him as one of the all-time greats.
Band: The Kinks
Gear: Rickenbacker 4001
Listen: The Kinks - Ev'rybody's Gonna Be Happy
There were some cracking pop bassists doing the rounds in the '80s... no, really. Maybe you’re too shy to admit you like Kajagoogoo but the monster chops of bassist Nick Beggs can't be denied. Then there’s John Taylor whose beautifully crafted lines on Duran Duran hits like Hungry Like The Wolf and Save A Prayer still sound the business.
A friend and disciple of late Chic bass genius Bernard Edwards, Taylor now owns his idol’s Music Man StingRay bass. Duran Duran are currently recording an album with Mark Ronson. Maybe you couldn't care less. Maybe you still have the lads pegged as some wet teeny bopper band. Well, here’s one of John's best bass lines, from back in the day, to set you straight...
Band(s): Duran Duran, Powerstation
Gear:Aria Pro II SB-1000
Listen: Duran Duran - Rio
It’s become the stuff of legend: Glen Matlock plays bass, and writes some great tunes, with the Sex Pistols and is then unceremoniously replaced by non-player Sid Vicious who then becomes a punk icon.
Matlock has rejoined the Pistols since for some lucrative touring but we’ll always wonder what would’ve have happened to the band if he’d stuck around a bit longer. Speaking of touring for filthy lucre, the jury’s still out on Glen playing in the ‘reformed’ Faces with Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall in Rod Stewart’s place. Say what?! How can it be the Faces without Ronnie Lane and Rod the Mod? That aside, Glen is a cracking bassist and here’s an old clip to prove it...
Band(s): Sex Pistols, The Rich Kids, Faces
Gear: Rickenbacker 4001, Fender Precision Bass
Listen: Sex Pistols - Anarchy In The UK (live)
The key to the infectious Creedence Clearwater Revival sound is simplicity. Influenced by the rockabilly records that rolled out of Sam Phillips's Sun Studios in Memphis in the '50s, CCR’s leader kept his arrangements on songs like Bad Moon Rising and Up Around The Bend stripped to the bone. That simplicity was reflected in bassist Stu Cook’s lines.
Cook provided the rhythmic backbone with a booming tone that made its presence felt without getting in the way of the guitar or vocal. CCR's Run Through The Jungle is a perfect example of the man's taste and restraint. Stu and original CCR drummer Doug Clifford currently tour and record under the name Creedence Clearwater Revisited. See what they did there?
Band: Creedence Clearwater Revival
Gear: Fender Precision Bass
Listen: Creedence Clearwater Revival - Someday Never Comes
If you’ve ever hopped on the good foot and done the bad thing to a James Brown record, you’ve likely grooved to the bass of Bernard Odum. The Godfather Of Soul’s bassist from 1956 to 1969, Bernard played on Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag, I Got You (I Feel Good) and many more stone cold classics.
In late 1969, Bernard and most of his bandmates walked out on JB in a dispute over wages. The following year the disaffected group released a righteous slab of funk called Doin’ Their Own Thing by Maceo And All The King’s Men; led by former James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker. The album features a cover of Sly Stone’s Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). It's funkier than a two-week old tuna sandwich.
Band(s): James Brown, Maceo And All The King’s Men
Gear: 1956 Fender Precision, Vox Delta IV bass, Vox Westminster amp
Listen: James Brown - Cold Sweat
Norman Watt-Roy, or Normsferatu to quote his uncharitable nickname, has played with the likes of Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson, a Bad Seed-less Nick Cave and members of Camden Town’s finest, Madness.
With respect to all those guys, Norman’s finest moments are the basslines he laid down on Ian Dury classics like Wake Up And Make Love With Me and Sweet Gene Vincent (both featured on the 1977 album New Boots And Panties!!). Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick might seem the all-too-obvious pick for Norman’s killer moment but it remains a blinding performance 32 years after its release on Stiff Records. Altogether now... ‘Two fat persons, click click click...’
Band: Ian Dury and The Blockheads
Gear: 1962 Fender Jazz Bass, customised Fender Precision Bass
Listen: Ian Dury And The Blockheads - Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick
Kudos if you didn’t think of Open All Hours when Ronnie Baker’s name came up. We're talking about session bassist Ronnie Baker here, a major contributor to the ‘Philly Sound’ of the '60s and '70s.
Using the classic soul setup of a Fender Precision Bass loaded with heavy gauge flatwound strings, Ronnie laid down some of the baddest soul and disco basslines of all time on treasures like Bad Luck by Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes and Jerry Butler’s 1968 album The Ice Man Cometh. Look up Jerry's Hey, Western Union Man. It’s a doozy. Oh, and in case you didn't know, Ronnie also cut the greatest disco bass line of them all...
Band: Philadelphia session ace
Gear: Pre-CBS Fender Precision Bass, Ampeg B-15
Listen: The Trammps - Disco Inferno
Also known as ‘Fingers’ or ‘The Groovemaster’, Jerry Jemmott has played bass for some of the greatest blues, soul and jazz artists of all time. Folk of the caliber of Freddie King, Nina Simone, Wilson Pickett, Herbie Hancock and George Benson, to name but a handful.
You can also hear Jerry adding his trademark groove to BB King’s legendary take on The Thrill Is Gone, featured on his 1969 album Completely Well. Incidentally, Jemmott co-wrote the album’s opening track, So Excited, with King. While his CV is clearly bulging with barely contained greatness, some of Jerry’s finest grooves are to be found on the recordings he made with The Queen Of Soul, Aretha Franklin. Prepare yourself for an epic performance...
Band: Session ace
Gear: ’65 and ’69 Fender Jazz Bass models, ESP Horizon 4
More info: www.jerryjemmott.com
Listen: Aretha Franklin - The Weight by Aretha Franklin (featuring Duane Allman on slide guitar)
Mary Huff is the bassist/vocalist of Southern Culture On The Skids, the greatest live band you haven’t experienced yet. While the band’s discography is fit to burst with choice examples of Huff’s bass chops, her brilliant slippin’ and slidin’ line on Cheap Motels (from 2000’s Liquored Up And Lacquered Down) is a great place to start.
In other news, 1995’s Dirt Track Date and 2004 release Mojo Box are this writer’s essential album picks for sizzling Mary moments. Recently released long player The Kudzu Ranch also contains its fair share of gems and is a cracking way to kick off a SCOTS obsession. We just bought it. It’s killer. So is this...
Band: Southern Culture On The Skids
Gear: Danelectro Longhorn, Fender Precision Bass (various)
Listen: Southern Culture On The Skids - King Of The Mountain (live)
The English 2 Tone ska scene of ’79 was bursting at the seams with great bassists: Charley Anderson of The Selecter, Mark Bedford of Madness and The Beat’s David Steele spring instantly to mind. At the top of the 2 Tone tree is Horace Panter (aka Sir Horace Gentleman) of The Specials.
From his skeletal dub-like lines on the band’s greatest single Ghost Town (1980) to the frenzied funk of Nite Klub (featured on the 1979 debut album Specials), Panter showcased a ska style that was hugely adaptable yet instantly recognisable. Horace is currently performing with the reformed Specials. A Gibson Thunderbird takes the place of the Fender basses he played back in the day.
Band: The Specials
Gear: Fender Precision Bass, Fender Telecaster Bass, Gibson Thunderbird
Listen: The Specials - Concrete Jungle
Tom Evans co-wrote the Badfinger classic Without You with the band’s vocalist/guitarist Pete Ham. While the song has been covered by Harry Nilsson and Mariah Carey, the original Badfinger version has a beautiful, fragile quality that those artists could never hope to get close to. Evan’s bassline on the song’s intro is a thing of beauty.
As a bassist, Tom had a melodic sensibility in common with Paul McCartney (Baby Blue and Day After Day provide further evidence). Badfinger had close ties with The Beatles having been signed to Apple Records; Macca wrote the 1969 Badfinger single Come And Get It. A veil of tragedy hangs around the legacy of Badfinger. You can read about that stuff elsewhere. We’d prefer to remember them as a great rock band with a beautifully melodic bassist.
Band: Badfinger/The Iveys
Gear: Fender Jazz Bass, Fender Precision Bass, Gibson EB-3
Listen: Badfinger - No Matter What
David Steele was the bassist in two of the best known bands of the '80s, The Beat (aka The English Beat) and Fine Young Cannibals. Steele was an adaptable player, always coming up with the perfect part to drive a song.
For evidence, compare his approach to the bass lines on The Beat classics Mirror In The Bathroom and Too Nice To Talk To and the 1985 debut Fine Young Cannibals single, Johnny Come Home. The Fine Young Cannibals have long since split and David hasn’t taken part in any of the reformed Beat lineups. His most recent project is Fried, a soul tinged duo with American singer Jonte Short. The bass playing is as strong as ever.
Band(s): The (English) Beat, Fine Young Cannibals
Gear: Fender Precision Bass, non-reverse Gibson Firebird, G&L L-2000
Listen: The Beat - Hands Off She’s Mine
Matt Freeman of Rancid is the John Entwistle of punk rock. The guy is a real one-off; in musicianship terms about as far away from the archetypal punk bassist as it’s possible to get.
Freeman can rip blistering runs from his bass - his live solos are the stuff of legend - or come up with a solid ska bass line just like he played on Up To No Good on the 2009 Rancid album, Let The Dominoes Fall. To hear Matt in truly blistering form try to find the Rancid cover of Sham 69’s If The Kids Are United. The bass intro is incredible. Just like the solo in Maxwell Murder in fact...
Band(s): Operation Ivy, Rancid, Devil’s Brigade
Gear: Fender Jazz Bass, Fender Precision Bass
Listen: Rancid - Maxwell Murder (live)
It warmed the cockles of many an old Jam fan’s heart to see Bruce Foxton and Paul Weller reconcile and then record together after almost 30 years.
With all the bad vibes seemingly consigned to history, Weller invited Foxton to play on a couple of tracks on his 2010 album Wake Up The Nation. The pick of the litter is the explosive Fast Car/Slow Traffic, a glimpse at what The Jam might have sounded like if they’d burst onto the scene in the noughties. It’s also a neat reminder of the fact that Bruce has lost none of the fire he brought to Jam classics like Going Underground and Eton Rifles. The less said about ‘From The Jam’ however, the better...
Band(s): The Jam, Stiff Little Fingers
Gear: Rickenbacker 4001, Fender Precision Bass
More info: www.brucefoxton.com
Listen: The Jam - Down In The Tube Station At Midnight
In addition to playing bass for the likes of Steely Dan, Joe Cocker, Donald Fagen and Aretha Franklin, session ace Chuck Rainey also recorded the bass lines for TV themes like The Rockford Files. Hawaii Five-0 and Charlie’s Angels.
Chuck’s list of credits reads like War & Peace... the extended edition. Among his many top sessions he played the bass on Louis Armstrong’s 1968 classic What A Wonderful World. He’s also been involved in recording sessions for countless TV and radio ads.
Like other session legends he recorded his early sides with a Fender Precision Bass, in Chuck’s case a ’57 model, fitted with flatwound strings. If you fancy a '50s-style P-Bass like Chuck's, check out our review of the Fender Road Worn Series. Badass.
Band: Session ace
Gear: 1957 Fender Precision Bass, Ampeg B-15
Listen: Steely Dan - Kid Charlemagne
Mark Bedford is the criminally underrated bassist with one of the greatest English bands of all time... Madness. To some, Madness will always be The Nutty Boys, banging out '80s classics like Baggy Trousers and House Of Fun, wearing sunglasses indoors etc.
The fact is the band released its greatest album only last year. Big words but the quality of the songwriting and performances on The Liberty Of Norton Folgate hold up to close scrutiny... and a fair bit of dancing. Bedder’s well-constructed lines on the album, and singles like NW5 and Dust Devil, are typically inventive and solid. Just like he played on Madness sides like My Girl, Our House and this early cracker...
Gear: Fender Precision Bass
Listen: Madness - Bed And Breakfast Man
Stray Cat Lee Rocker took inspiration from bull bass pioneers like Bill Haley & His Comets’ bassist Marshall Lytle and Elvis Presley sideman Bill Black and developed a nitro-fuelled style that inspired countless others to follow in his brothel creeper-clad footsteps.
Here’s a short lesson with the man himself. For more inspiration listen to classic Cat cuts like Rock This Town, Stray Cat Strut and Lee’s excellent solo record, Black Cat Bone. There are some amazing upright slappers on the rockabilly scene - John ‘Spaz’ Hatton of The Brian Setzer Orchestra springs to mind - but Lee Rocker is still the daddy-o...
Band: Stray Cats
Gear: Various uprights
Listen: Stray Cats - Mystery Train (live)
Another criminally underrated bassist. While singer Morrissey and guitarist Johnny Marr bagged the lion’s share of attention in The Smiths, let’s not forget the band had a brilliant rhythm section in the shape of drummer Mike Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke.
Andy provided some stunning basslines for perfect pop moments like Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now; even if you don’t care for Morrissey’s warbling you have to love that beautiful bass. Up until recently Rourke was a member of Freebass, a three bass player lineup (geddit?) that included Peter Hook of Joy Division and New Order and Mani from Primal Scream. The three bass thing is nothing new. Spinal Tap beat ‘em to it with ode to mudflaps Big Bottom.
Band: The Smiths
Gear: Fender Precision Bass
More info: www.myspace.com/andyrourke
Listen: The Smiths - Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now
Liked this? Read The 25 greatest bassists of all time
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