Top 10 BEST and WORST Bass Players In Rock & Roll
Let’s face it, Sir McCartney is the single-most influential bass player in rock & roll. Anytime you see someone playing a Hofner bass, dollars to doughnuts Paul is their favorite Beatle and their main inspiration in picking up the instrument. Such things aside, McCartney’s main contribution to the art of rock & roll bass playing was to prove just how melodic the bass could be within the confines of a four-piece rock band. In McCartney’s hands, the bass literally became another singer in the band. I posted an mp3 months ago featuring the isolated drum and bass parts on “A Day In The Life”…one need only listen to his work on that song to fully recognize McCartney’s always tasteful, understated genius.
John Entwistle (The Who)
There are those who see John Entwistle’s emotionless scowl, all fingers flying, and award him the crown of rock’s best bassist on that alone. Others find his work overly busy and self-indulgent, calling him one of the worst in rock. I’m here to tell those who may fall into the latter category that they are out of their panty-sniffing minds. For anyone who takes the time to listen to just about any Who song after 1967, the first thing they’ll notice is just how much space the bass is filling. This allows Pete Townshend’s power chords to sound all the more ominous, and his more esoteric work to not bring the momentum of the songs to a complete standstill. To me, the album title Meaty Beaty Big And Bouncy is the best description of Ox’s bass playing style. It may not necessarily be melodic, as McCartney’s parts tend to be, but for all the notes being played, there is not a single one that does not serve the song perfectly.
Sting (The Police)
The guy may be an insufferable ass, a pompous, self-absorbed egomaniac, and the owner of more castles than any other musician on the planet, but the dude can play a mean bass. What I’ve always been most amazed by is his ability to craft highly melodic bass lines in very odd, very non-rock & roll time signatures, and then effortlessly sing over the top of them. It’s like rubbing your stomach and tapping your head at the same time, only a whole lot fucking harder.
What’s also impressive is the fact that a guy who was essentially a jazz snob could be bothered to join the punk movement (at Stewart Copeland’s urging) and then start turning out all sorts of innovative, angular reggae-tinged bass lines that weren’t merely a cop of what had come before. In other words, for a guy who could have very well said “I am above such nonsense”, he got down and dirty and became the chief architect of a sound that is as one-of-a-kind now as it was then.
John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin)
Many place JPJ and Ox in the same category…bass players in two of England’s biggest rock bands of the late 60′s/early 70′s. For most Zep fans, Page, Plant and Bonzo get all the love, but JPJ’s contribution to the band remains highly underappreciated. For starters, any bass player who can not only come up with deceptively complex and counter-melodic bass lines, but also match Bonzo accent-for-accent is a genius. Add to that Jones’ strength as arranger within the band and you have a guy who deserves to be on this list.
Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers)
You may love the Chili Peppers, or you may loathe them to the point of listening to talk radio so that you won’t have to toss your car radio out the window should one of their songs be played. I personally fall into the latter category, but that doesn’t stop me from admitting to the world that Flea is a mutha of a bass player. Oh, how I wish he’d been old enough to be in Rick James’ band, or Funkadelic because this guy is, without a doubt, one of the funkiest white guys on the planet.
John Taylor (Duran Duran)
I’ve heard one of the guys mentioned above refer to John Taylor as one of his favorite bass players, so you know right there that a guy who most certainly knows what he’s talking about as far as bassists go must know a great bassist when he hears one. Additionally, I’ve listened to A&R guys and producers go on and on about how great Taylor’s bass parts were. Why they felt the need to convince me, I don’t know, as I was a huge fan of his work before any of the teenage girls at my high school even knew he existed. Taylor’s work is tight, funky, and melodic, but what sets it apart is its elegance. He has the heart of a 60′s R&B bassist, but also a knack for detail, which makes his bass playing very exact and to the point. It was this precision that made a band of admittedly so-so musicians sound much tighter and funkier than they actually were. The rest, as they say, is history.
John Deacon (Queen)
Let’s face it, whoever came up with the bass line for “Another One Bites The Dust” should be on the list for that and that alone. So should the guy who came up with the bass lick from “Under Pressure”. Thankfully, they’re the work of the same guy. Deacon also wrote a fair share of the band’s better material, including “You’re My Best Friend”, “I Want To Break Free”, and the aformentioned “Another One Bites The Dust”. A little known fact is that he also played a ton of rhythm guitar on albums such as “Hot Space”, one of the group’s more underrated efforts, truth be told. For a guy who never bought into the star trip, wanting only to slip into the background and allow the spotlight to shine upon Freddie Mercury, he sure did make his presence known in musical ways and that, my friends, is why he’s on this list. As bassists go, this is the one any band would’ve been lucky to have.
Peter Hook (Joy Division/New Order)
Sometimes not knowing the unwritten rules of an instrument can lead to wonderful mistakes. In the case of Joy Division/New Order bassist Peter Hook, teaching himself the instrument and then playing it like a lead instrument to be heard above the rest of the racket being made by his fellow band mates led him to come up with the distinctive sound for which he is best known. I can hear a Peter Hook bass line a mile away and have always found them to be the most interesting musical parts of most New Order songs. They stick out like beautiful sore thumbs, driving the beat, laying the groove, and, many times, providing the key melody in the song. In that sense, he’s the closest to a latter-day Paul McCartney, if you will.
Mike Mills (R.E.M.)
Mills has always been R.E.M.’s secret weapon, the component that shaped them from a foursome of rock & roll hobbyists into one of the most popular bands in the world. While his bass playing would never be described as flashy, or innovative, it has always perfectly served the song and the drummer. Lesser bassists would have simply locked in with the kick drum and plodded along, but Mills did the exact opposite and, in doing so, helped the band create a sound that is distinctly their own.
Cliff Burton (Metallica)
There is a reason that longtime Metallica fans still mourn the death of Cliff Burton: the guy was a monster heavy metal bass player. He and he alone turned a run-of-the-mill metal band into a fierce, snarling juggernaut that would take Europe and then America by storm one home-taped bootleg cassette at a time. That he never got to partake in the band’s conquering of the States is one of the sadder stories in rock & roll. Still, one listen to any of the band’s early work – Kill ‘Em All, for example – reveals Burton’s thundering yet melodic bass parts, even despite the truly pedestrian production. In his bass playing was a sense of commitment that was audible from the first note. While the rest of the band was putting on an angry face, scowling with a look of forced fury, Burton smiled as he played one nasty steam shovel of a groove after another. Not only did he achieve his dream of playing bass in Metallica, he died in the fucking line of duty. All of the above gets him on the list.
And now, THE TEN WORST (In no particular order, although Sid Vicious is #1):
Sid Vicious (Sex Pistols)
Seriously, man, the damn thing wasn’t even plugged in.
Robert DeLeo (Stone Temple Pilots)
I’ve never heard a bass part by this guy that wasn’t absolutely rudimentary and lazy. Everything about the guy’s approach to the bass seems to say, “Hmm, let’s see…what’s the fewest notes I can possibly play and still get paid.” Having said this, Robert is actually one of rock’s cool guys. Plus, anyone whose paycheck is reliant upon Scott Weiland actually showing up and not being a total junked-out, track-marked mess has my deepest sympathies.
Geddy Lee (Rush)
As mentioned earlier, you either love Flea’s playing or hate it. Sometimes the line between love and hate is mighty thin and you find yourself loving something one day and hating it the next. Geddy Lee’s bass playing falls into this category. While I will admit that he has had moments where his work was pretty listenable (most notably on Moving Pictures and the underrated Grace Under Pressure), most of the time, his approach to the art of playing bass is indulgent, anti-melodic, and complex for the sake of being complex. Plus, the guy’s voice grates on me like cat claws on a chalkboard.
Maya Ford (the Donnas)
“Who the fuck is Maya Ford”, you ask? My point exactly. If she was any good at what she did, you’d know her by name…like Tiger Woods (you know, the guy who’s one of the best in the world at fucking strippers, porn stars and Hooters waitresses, then getting clubbed by his wife). Okay, maybe that’s a bad example. Anyhoo, Maya is bassist in the band The Donnas. Still doesn’t ring a bell? Okay, she’s the chunky one that they always try to hide in the back of promo shots. Truth be told, the only thing entertaining about the band’s last few albums have been the lengths to which they’ve gone to hide her in their album cover and promotional photos…add to that the fact that, after eight albums and a decade of constant touring, her playing remains as clunky and uninspired as ever. But hey, she’s a rock star and I’m not so guess what, she still wins. Either way, she’s on the list.
Robert Trujillo (Metallica)
Everything about this guy screams suck. To go from Cliff Burton to Jason Newsted to…this guy…is a slap in the face to Metallica fans who remember how fucking great Burton was. Trujillo’s continued presence in the band is proof that Metallica no longer has a clue, or gives a fuck.
Pete Wentz (Fall Out Boy)
Pete Wetzhispants is one of rock’s biggest pussies and plays the bass like a total chick on her period. Seriously, I’ve yet to see a picture of him actually playing the bass…I dare you to wade through the umpteen pages of photos of him on Google doing everything EXCEPT play a fucking bass. Holy fuck, man, the first time I heard him play on an album, I though I was listening to Flight Of The Conchords trying to be intentionally bad and funny. Oh, it was bad alright but, like the latest Conchords record, it wasn’t funny at all. Here’s the thing…any great bass player would bang Ashlee Simpson in a pinch…say, if they were stranded at a Motel 6 in Des Moines and she was the only game in town, but they wouldn’t fucking marry the chick. Only a really shitty bass player would ever say “Yeah, I wanna spend the rest of my life with that.” I’d sooner try carrying on a conversation with a Korean-made Squier bass myself, but, hey, whadduh I know?
Adam Clayton (U2)
First off, let me just say that I love U2 and Adam Clayton. The guy has always been the only real rock & roll thing about U2, but, as far as bass players go, he’s Meg White minus the sweet rack. I mean, I’ve only rarely seen the guy use more than a single string on the bass and, while some of his bass lines are key to the songs…such as on “With Or Without You”, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”…they could be played by a five-year-old. Or could they? Maybe the guy is actually a motherfucking genius.
Mike Dirnt (Green Day)
Without mincing words, Dirnt’s bass playing is predictable, ham-fisted, and lame. Additionally, the guy is fucking goofy looking that it’s hard to take him, or that dumb-ass looking drummer, seriously. Here’s the REAL reason why he gets on this list though…
Back before the band made “American Idiot”, Dirnt almost succeeded in breaking up the band because he felt that Billie Joe Armstrong’s songwriting was becoming “too mainstream”. This was no doubt right after “Good Riddance” became the year’s prom song of choice, no doubt. Yep, ol’ Dirnt was so deeply troubled by the band losing touch with their punk roots that he finally just put his foot down and laid into Armstrong. To this I say, “WHAT FUCKING PUNK ROOTS?!” Seriously, “Dookie” was to punk what Uggs are to fashion footwear. The truth of the matter is that from the moment they inked with fucking WARNER BROTHERS, they were a POP BAND the same way Nirvana became one the minute they signed to Geffen. Hell, these days, Billie Joe and the boys wear more fucking eye-liner than the Go-Go’s and The Bangles ever did. Punk roots, my ass…that Dirnt would try to deep-six Armstrong’s band while, at the same time, cashing the checks and living in a nice fucking house he never could have afforded otherwise just smacks of total douchebaggery and that puts him on the list.
Colin Greenwood (Radiohead)
Let’s face it, if I’d have asked you to name the bass player in Radiohead, you wouldn’t have been able to do so, so don’t get your panties all in a twist when you find him on this list. For a band that gets tons of praise for their musical genius, this guy brings ZERO to the fucking party. He makes Robert DeLeo from Stone Temple Pilots look like Sting by comparison. Unimaginative, soulless, and uninspired…just three words that describe this guy’s bass skills. What Radiohead needs, besides a swift kick in the butt, is a guy like John Deacon, man…someone who doesn’t just find the same note the guitarist is playing and who knows how to come up with a meaty lick that can make a song into something special. This guy does none of the above, so he’s on the list.
Darren Robbins is a fellow graduate of the “Almost Famous” University, a gifted songwriter, raconteur and lovable curmudgeon. When you’re not reading him here, check out his terrifc blog… HE’S A WHORE