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The 10 Greatest Rock Bassists of All Time

Me (right), God help me, and Billy Sheehan circa 1990.
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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